Tag Archives: God

Wisdom You Only Find Away from Home

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians.”
Jeremiah 24:4 (NIV)

I can remember running away as a child only once. Despite a memory that recalls some of the most arcane details of my early years, I can’t for the life of me remember what made me so angry that day. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old when I announced to my mother that I was running away. I remember that she didn’t seem particularly worried. I left without packing a bag or giving a single thought to where I was going, how I was going to get there, nor what I would do for the most basic of necessities. (Wendy will not be surprised by this.) I hadn’t gone as far as two blocks up Madison Avenue before the realities of my poor decision making caught up with me. I turned around and headed home.

I never attempted to physically run away from home again. I learned along my life journey, however, that terms of exile and running away can happen as much in the heart, mind, and spirit as they do in the body.

Today’s short chapter is a brief word picture God gave the ancient prophet Jeremiah. He writes from the rubble of Jerusalem he had long foreseen and prophesied. The best and brightest of his people had been taken captive back to Babylon. The royal family had either been killed or fled to Egypt to escape being killed. Jeremiah is given a vision of two sets of figs: one good and one rotten. The word picture was simple. The poor exiles in Babylon were good fruit that God would bless and prepare for an eventual redemptive return. The royals and politicians who propagated the mess were rotten figs who would continue to rot.

This morning I mulled over Jeremiah’s vision and the realities faced by the poor exiles facing the harsh new realities of life in Persia. I’ve come to accept along this journey that there are pieces of wisdom that are only found away from home. Abraham was led away from his home and family. Moses was sent down river in a basket and later ran to the land of Midian. Joseph was exiled in Egypt, and his father Jacob redeemed his son only when famine drove him and his family to their own exile. David the anointed boy-king would spend years of exile in the desert wasteland before finally ascending to the throne. The prodigal son only learned how good he had it back home when he found himself covered with pig slop in a distant country. The prodigal’s elder brother, meanwhile, had no idea how lost he was at home.

As a father I came to expect that my children would someday run away in one way or another whether that was a childish block-and-a-half trek up the street or a secret exile of the young adult soul. Looking back I can see that each of them did so in their own way, though they may not be completely finished. Exile and running away can be cyclical or repetitive occurrences along one’s life journey. I realized early in my experience as a father that I would be foolish to shelter, hinder, or deny them the wisdom they will only find along those stretches of their respective journeys.

This morning I’m smiling at the memory of a young boy, in full-blown childish tantrum, announcing he was running away and storming out of the house. My mother didn’t stop me. She didn’t run after me. She didn’t try to convince me of the error of my ways or my foolish lack of preparation. She wished me well and watched me walk up Madison Avenue. A short time later she silently said nothing as I returned home having gained nothing but a simple piece of wisdom that has served me well the rest of my life.

Thanks, mom.

featured photo courtesy of wespeck via flickr

Reckoning

“Your own conduct and actions
    have brought this on you.
This is your punishment.
    How bitter it is!
    How it pierces to the heart!”
Jeremiah 4:18 (NIV)

Reckoning is word we don’t use very often any more. It is the the process of settling accounts. It is the day that the bill comes due. Metaphorically used, a “day of reckoning” may not have anything to do with money. It’s when our actions come to their natural conclusion.

On a national level, I’ve been hearing economic prophets crying in the wilderness about a “day of reckoning” for as long as I can remember. We spend more than we take in. The U.S. national debt was at 20 trillion dollars and growing when I looked at it this morning. Every bill our congress passes has a host of pork barrel riders and appropriations (often called “earmarks”) for spending money on pet local projects our lawmakers have promised to the people who’ve lined their pockets back home. The President has no line-item veto so if he wants credit for the main bill he has to quietly put up with all of the quiet little pork barrel projects no one talks about. Wink wink. Nudge nudge. Say no more. This is not a political issue, by the way. This is a systemic issue. Everyone does it on both sides of the aisle. Making hard choices won’t get you re-elected, so we continue our game of cost-shifting. How long can it go on? [cue: the economic doomsday prophets]

On a personal level, I make daily choices that impact my health, my relationships, and my physical, social, and economic well-being. Eventually, there will be a day of reckoning when my seemingly insignificant choices will come to their natural conclusions.

It is very human to cry “Why me?” when the shit hits the fan. Yet along life’s journey I’ve discovered that the answer to that question isn’t usually as elusive as I’d like to pretend. If I turn around and look at the choices I’ve made and the steps I’ve taken across my journey, I can usually see the path of seemingly small, insignificant choices that have led me to this place. I have no one to blame but myself. But, blame-shifting is as common to the human condition as cost-shifting. I’ve observed along my journey that God often gets the blame when we humans adroitly employ our penchant for blame-shifting.

In today’s chapter, Jeremiah is poetically prophesying doomsday scenarios for his nation. Anticipating the eventual blame-shifting the people will employ on the day of reckoning, he reminds them that on that day it will have been their own choices that will have brought them to that place.

This morning I’m thinking about my own life, my own choices, and my own circumstances. Another word we don’t use very often is “repentance.” The original meaning is a word picture of turning around and moving in the opposite direction. Each day represents an opportunity for me to turn away from foolish choices and to start making wise ones. Every day affords the opportunity to change my day of reckoning from a doomsday scenario to that of blessing.

I hear the whisper of my mother’s voice…or is it Holy Spirit?

Make good choices today.”

Have a good day, my friends.

Hats, Fasting, and a Couple of Important Questions

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”
Zechariah 7: 5 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I was kicking off a series of messages on Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth. And so, I’ve been mired in studying the letter and the situation in Corinth around 55 A.D.  One of the themes that bubbles to the surface over and over again are instructions that Paul gave which are rooted in contemporary Corinthian culture. Other instructions are universal to human culture in all times.

I find myself asking, “What instructions were for the Corinthian believers at that time (that don’t fit our current realities)? What instructions may speak to me in 2018 (that the Corinthians couldn’t fathom almost 2000 years ago)? What instruction are ours (they apply to anyone, at any time, in any culture)?”

For example, one set of instructions is about covering your head. In first century Corinth there were layers of meaning in the cultural and religious aspects of whether you covered your head and when. Some of it came from Jewish law and tradition (which the Greek believers probably thought silly) and some of it was the practical differentiation of woman broadcasting in publicly that she was not one of Aphrodite’s temple priestess-prostitutes.

The truth of the matter is that until a generation or so ago, the tradition of women covering their heads in church and men removing their caps/hats was still a big thing culturally. The local Costume Shop has hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous women’s hats with cute little veils that locals have donated over the years (see featured photo). There was a time just a few decades ago when a woman would not go to church without a hat on. Today, in our culture, if a woman does so it’s simply a fashionable novelty.

Likewise, my dad and I have a good-natured, on-going feud when we’re gathered for family meals and it’s time to pray and eat. My dad gives me grief if I have a cap on. I have never been able to discern a good reason for having to remove my hat when the family is  informally ordering a pizza and watching the game. I joke with my dad that it’s actually more sanitary if I keep my cap on. He always wins the argument on his authority and my respect, but I’ve still never heard a good reason.

The bottom-line question is: “Why (or why not) are we doing this?”

That was the exact question God had for the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and company inquired of the Lord whether they should continue to observe traditional months of fasting. God replied, “Why are you fasting?” God then goes on to point out that what Zac and the boys are not doing are things like being just, showing compassion to people who are different, looking out for the needs of orphans, widows, and the oppressed. The implied question God is asking as I read between the lines is this: “Why would I care if you self-righteously starve yourself in some public display of your religiosity when you’re missing the heart of what I desire from you — to love others as you love yourself?”

Good question, and a good question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and have wrapped ourselves in religious traditions of all kinds over the years.

“What does God care about? What, therefore, should I really care about? What in my religious practices, rituals, and cultural rules do I make a higher priority than the things God truly cares about?

Stages of the Journey

“Here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt by divisions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. At the Lord’s command Moses recorded the stages in their journey. This is their journey by stages….”
Numbers 33:1-2 (NIV)

Yesterday our daughter Taylor was featured in a blog post by Ivory House photography. It was an artistic and poignant photo essay of our very pregnant daughter, and a tribute to all of the incredible qualities that emanate from her empowerment as a woman. Last night I read the essay and took time to appreciate how Whitney captured the beauty of Taylor and her pregnancy. I was struck at the new stage of life into which Taylor is ushering us as she gives birth to this little man we are so anxious to meet.

I woke up in the wee hours this morning. My heart was stirring. My brain wouldn’t shut down. I got up and started journaling. What came out was a stream of thoughts, fears, and hopes as I sense Wendy and me on the precipice of a new stage of our life journey. Unexpectedly becoming grandparents at the end of this year is a significant piece of it, but just one piece. This has been a year in which certain callings and responsibilities have been relinquished. There are new things coming for us at work that were unforeseen a year ago. We feel God pressing us forward in other areas of life. Again, things we didn’t see coming a short time ago.

This New Years Eve will be our 12th Anniversary. Twelve years. In my unending journey through God’s Message I’ve come to learn that twelve is a significant number. It’s a number of completion.

One stage coming to completion.
Another stage about to begin.

Old things pass away. New things come.”

Some days I’m amazed at God’s synchronicity. Finishing up my journaling, I opened up today’s chapter and what do I read?

Journey, stages, and God’s command to Moses record the stages.

Every life journey has its stages. In my experience, some stages are harder than others. Some stages feel like an endless trek through Death Valley, while others are an oasis. Some stages are an uphill grind, while others are a coast. Some are obstacle courses, and some stages are mountain top experiences so full of goodness and life that I don’t want to let them go or move on from them.

Moving from one stage to another may be a relief, or a sudden terrifying drop off the cliff, or an anxious unknowing. No matter the shift, I always find the transition comes with questions, trepidation, fear, and anxiety. Even transitioning from a difficult stage to an easier stage is still a step of faith. I rarely know what a new stage truly is until I’m well into it.

Moses and the Israelite tribes had stages of their journey from slavery in Egypt to Promised Land: Victories. Trials. Blessing. Conflict. Miracles. Struggle. And, God wanted them to record it.

Pay attention,” God says. “Record. Remember so you can look back and see in context….”

Where have we been?
Where are we right now?
Where are we going?

This morning I’m thinking back to the stages I’ve been through. Through all the ups and downs I can see God’s provision, God’s faithfulness, God’s goodness, God’s presence and leading. That’s helpful as I turn my gaze ahead and contemplate the next step.

I stand at the precipice  of a new stage of life like the Israelites standing at the River Jordan. What will this new stage be?

Only one way to find out.

“Leap, and the net will appear.”

Mysterious Ways

But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God.
Numbers 22:18 (NIV)

Wendy and I went to see The Color Purple in Des Moines a few weeks ago. It is one of our favorite musicals. The story of a young African American woman on a journey of discovering just how beautiful and strong she is has been a source of fascination and conversation for us since we first saw it years ago.

The musical begins with a raucous gospel song in which we are told that the Lord works in Mysterious Ways. What proceeds is a story of a young woman who finds herself on an unconventional path out of unspeakable circumstances to discover what a beautiful and beloved child of God she truly is. The Color Purple is not a neat and tidy morality play residing inside the safety of religion’s comfortable box. True to the message of its opening song, the musical reminds us that God, the Creator of this universe, often works outside the boxes we create to put Him in for our our comfort.

Mysterious Ways flitted through my head this morning as I descended the stairs to pour my first cup of coffee after reading this morning’s chapter. Numbers 22 is one of the strangest, most mysterious chapters in the entirety of the Great Story. It is the story of Balaam, an ancient seer. Balaam is not a Hebrew. He is not Jew. He is a non-Jew living Mesopotamia. The Moabites, fearful of this massive wandering nation of Hebrews heading their way, reach out to Balaam to divine some help from the Almighty.

We quickly learn that Balaam takes a night to seek the LORD’s guidance. Balaam says he will report what the LORD tell him. When he reports to the Moabites that the LORD won’t let him curse the Hebrews, they offer him a huge wad of cash. Balaam reports that no matter how much cash he’s offered he can’t go against what the LORD has told him to do.

Time-out. Back the truck up.

This Great Story we’re journeying through is about God working through the Hebrews. They are “God’s people.” So who is this bit player named Balaam who suddenly appears from the wings for this important cameo moment? Where did he come from? How on earth did he forge a relationship with God, which it is clear he has, outside the box of the Great Story?

And we aren’t even to the strangest part of the story yet; The part where Balaam’s donkey speaks to him.

The further I get in my journey the more appreciation I have for the fact that God is, and does, “exceeding, abundantly above all that I could ask or think.” Whenever I think I’ve got God figured out inside the neat and tidy box of my religious doctrine I, like Job, am confronted on the cosmic witness stand as God stands me up and asks,

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
    or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”

No, sir.

This morning I am both fascinated and humbled by the sudden appearance of the perplexing character of Balaam and his miraculously anthropomorphic ass. I am reminded that God is not, and can not, be confined. Balaam, much like The Color Purple, reminds me that the Good Lord works in mysterious ways.

Leadership and Rabble Cravings

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!
Numbers 11:4 (NIV)

Throughout my life journey I’ve had the privilege of serving in numerous leadership positions from small groups to decent sized organizations. Leading others can be both a joy and a curse and it is almost always a challenge. When you step into the spotlight of leadership you immediately become an easy target.

This morning as I started reading the chapter I immediately laughed to myself. We just read at the end of yesterday’s chapter that the Hebrew tribes had finally embarked on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land.  We’re only four verses into journey and people are complaining. Not only are there complaints, but I found it humorous that the author describes the complainers as “rabble” driven by their “cravings.”

Complaints are part of the territory for any leader. Sometimes the complaints are well-founded and point to critical needs that need to be contemplated and addressed by leadership. There are also complaints that arise from disgruntled members whose focus is less about the vision, mission, or good of the whole and more about their individual felt needs and self-centric perceptions. When you’re busy trying to lead a major group effort, these grumblers can be maddeningly frustrating to manage. They drove Moses to such madness that he asked God to kill him rather than have to deal with them. Even God’s reply sounds like an exasperated parent dealing with whining children:

“Tell the people, Consecrate yourselves. Get ready for tomorrow when you’re going to eat meat. You’ve been whining to God, ‘We want meat; give us meat. We had a better life in Egypt.’ God has heard your whining and he’s going to give you meat. You’re going to eat meat. And it’s not just for a day that you’ll eat meat, and not two days, or five or ten or twenty, but for a whole month. You’re going to eat meat until it’s coming out your nostrils. You’re going to be so sick of meat that you’ll throw up at the mere mention of it.”

I’m reminded of whiners and complainers I’ve had the opportunity to manage over the years. I confess that the word “rabble” seems an apt moniker in some cases. In every case, however, I have to recognize that they were/are not evil individuals or bad people. I think today’s chapter is a great object lesson in the fact that whiners and complainers are often individuals discomforted by their own felt needs. These poorly managed inner cravings get expressed as tantrum-like complaints and childish demands that steal leaders’ time, energy, and attention away from more important matters.

This morning I’m encouraged by the truth that Moses, and it appears even God Himself, can reach a point of exasperation. I’m reminded that more than once Jesus expressed exasperation (i.e. “How long shall I put up with you?” Lk 9:41). When I as a leader experience craving-driven whines I am in good company.

I’m also reminded this morning that listening to and addressing complaints is part of every leader’s job description. It comes with the territory and being a good leader means managing complaints, including the craving-driven whines of self-centered rabble. Jesus said if you want to be a good leader you have to be a good servant, even to those can be frustrating and distracting.

God, grant me wisdom, patience and grace in the positions of leadership to which I have been called. Help me to serve well, love well, and lead well – even in my periods of utter exasperation.

featured photo courtesy of Tamara via Flickr

Left-Brain Development in a Right-Brain Dude

When Moses entered the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law. In this way the Lord spoke to him.
Numbers 7:89 (NIV)

Confession time this morning. I am an organized wannabe. My whole life I have had a desire for my life to be organized, measured, well-structured and disciplined. In that effort I’ve dabbled in Day-timer, Day-keeper, Seven Habits, Scan Cards, pocket calendars, Palm Pilots, Outlook, and you-name-the-organizational-big-name-fad-gadget-system-of-the-moment-here.

My right brain always betrays me. Just ask my wife, Wendy, who is a certified, card-carrying rock star of the organized world, and also sports an amazingly developed, creative right brain.

Now, in my defense, I will tell you that I’ve progressed a long way in my life journey. I’m more organized and disciplined than, perhaps, ever. My organizational discipline has grown and developed over time and it has developed in parallel with my spiritual journey. Get this: I’ve come to realize that God holds the tension between right and left brain. The Creator is the ultimate fullness of both creativity and order. God is both limitless possibility and infinite detail. The further I get in my spiritual journey of unity with the Creator, the more balanced I find my life becoming in this regard.

Let’s be honest. Today’s chapter is a slog. It’s the longest chapter in the five books known as the Torah (a.k.a. Pentateuch, Books of Moses, Law of Moses). The chapter is incredibly ordered, detailed and repetitive as it describes the pageantry of the dedication of the traveling temple tent (called the Tabernacle) that the Hebrews carried with them on their march out of Egypt and to the promised land. In orderly fashion the leader of each of the twelve Hebrew tribes brings their offering to the Tabernacle. Each tribal leader brought the same gift, listed in the same order in detail. They brought the gifts in the same order given for the organization of their marching and their encampment around the Tabernacle. Today’s chapter is a left-brain’s dream on steroids (as the right brain reaches for a bottle of five-hour energy).

I’m reminded this morning of Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in Corinth where he writes:

Let all things be done decently and in order.

The kicker comes at the end of today’s chapter (if you make it that far) when it reports that after the orderly pageant God’s presence and voice became manifest to Moses when he would enter the inner sanctuary of the tent before the ark of the covenant [cue: Indiana Jones Theme]. In other words, God’s power, presence, and voice came at the end of well-ordered offering and dedication.

This morning I’m reminded of the description of the Temple of Solomon (designed to replicate the basic structure of the Tabernacle tent) the we read back in 2 Kings just a few weeks ago [here’s the post]. No order. The scroll with the law of Moses had been lost for years. The Temple of God had become an unruly farmer’s market style carnival of religious idols, complete with temple prostitution. No order. No discipline. No presence.

Despite the groaning from my creative, go-with-the-flow right brain, I’ve come to acknowledge along life’s journey that detail and organization are a critical, spiritual component. There is a certain peace, power and presence of Spirit that accompanies life and worship when things are managed in a detailed, disciplined, orderly way. And so, I press on in the development of my left-brain.

Now, does anyone know where I put my phone?