Tag Archives: Grief

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:5 (NIV)

When I was a young man I spent five years in pastoral ministry. Three of those years were spent in a very small town here in Iowa. During those years I officiated a lot of funerals. Not only were these funerals for members of my congregation, but the local Funeral Home Director also called me when there was a family who had no particular faith tradition or church home. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time with grieving families.

During these funerals, I began to observe families in all of their glorious dysfunctions. I noticed, in particular, that these sad occasions brought prodigal children home, and that in many cases the children had not been home for many years. This taught me a life lesson: “At some point, one has to return home.” (By the way, this became the inspiration for my play, Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

For the past few months on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been going through books related to what’s known as the “exilic” period when the Hebrews were taken captive and lived in exile under the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Mede, and Persian empires. Today I begin walking through the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) that tell the story of the exiles return to Jerusalem and their work to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple and the protective walls of the city.

For the exiled Hebrews, their return had been something they’d longed for. Right at the beginning of today’s chapter, it’s mentioned that they’d been clinging to the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). The time for return finally arrives. At some point, one has to return home.

Reading today’s chapter, it’s easy to assume that Cyrus felt some special affection toward the exiled Hebrews and their religion. However, the decree and subsequent provision of temple articles stolen by Nebuchadnezzar represented a shift in Empirical policy. Earlier empires had ruled with an iron hand, destroying native temples and demanding that captured peoples adopt the culture of the conquerors. Cyrus, however, realized that allowing captured peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their native temples and shrines was good policy. He did the same for other peoples, as well. The move created goodwill with the people of his empire. In the case of Judah, the move also provided him with allies and a friendly outpost between himself and the yet unconquered kingdom of Egypt.

This morning I find myself thinking about returning home. It can look so different for different individuals. It might be a joyous reunion for some. For others, it’s a necessary immersion back into messy family dysfunction. There are those for whom the return home is a long-awaited return from exile. In many cases, it’s an important and necessary step in addressing past wrongs, emotional injuries, and spiritual blocks so that one can progress in his or her life journey. In many cases, I’ve observed that one can’t move forward until he or she makes the trek and faces the past. I, myself, discovered it a necessary stretch of my own journey.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a quiet prayer for those who have yet to return, those who have returned, and those who find themselves amidst the struggle of returning home.

Refining and Revelation

At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.
Daniel 10:2-3 (NIV)

This past Sunday I had the privilege of giving the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One of the things our team of teachers has been grappling with of late is a continued season in which we are experiencing an unusually high number of deaths. From young to old, from expected to unexpected, and from natural to painfully tragic, we have had almost two hundred families touched by death in two years. It has been a long season marked by grief that seems to continue. We are going through the very human experience of trying to process and find understanding within it.

The last half of the book of Daniel is a record of dreams and visions that he had. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of the strange images inside. It all seems as confusing as an acid trip for even learned readers. I find that most people bail on it quickly and move on.

I have learned along the way, however, that some of the great lessons I’ve discovered in my perpetual journey through God’s Message are not in the details but in the macro perspective when I step back and get a handle on what’s happening on the landscape of the chapter. Today is a great example.

Daniel’s strange visions are not unique to him during this period of history. Ezra and Ezekiel were other Hebrews in the same exile experience having eerily similar visions and visitations of a fantastical nature. They were all experiencing a particularly painful time of being captives far from home. They were all in mourning for their people, their home, their culture, and their faith in uncertain times and circumstances. They had spent a lifetime in exile and were eager for a sign or promise that their people would return home from captivity, that their Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and that restoration God promised through the prophets would actually happen (think 90-year-old Cubs fans prior to 2016). In today’s chapter, Daniel had been fasting, praying, and mourning for three weeks before the vision in today’s chapter was given to him.

My takeaway from this is that these dreams and visions were given to a specific group of mourning Hebrew exiles after a long period of suffering and in the midst of a time of intense personal struggle against doubt, despair, and grief.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking back to particularly stressful and painful stretches of my own journey. It was in these dark valleys of the journey that very specific and important spiritual lessons and personal revelations came to light. Is there a connection? I believe that there is.

In my message on Sunday, I quoted from Peter’s letters to the suffering believers scattered around the known world. He compares the trials they are experiencing to the way fire refines gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). I have come to believe through experience that it is in the midst of suffering and trial that the non-essential trivialities with which we daily concern ourselves are burned away. When our hearts are broken and our spirits laid bare with suffering we are particularly open to what God described to the prophet Jeremiah (33:3) as “great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

[Note: Speaking of messages, I realized in writing the post this morning that it’s been a while since I updated my Messages page, which I subsequently did for anyone interested.]

Seasonal Companions

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)
Colossians 4:10 (NIV)

“There are friends who are friends for a season, and there are friends who are friends for life.” Thus said a  wise woman to me while I was a Freshman in college. It was the first time I remember really thinking about the purpose and tenure of friendship in life’s journey.

Everyone knows that Jesus had twelve disciples, but Luke records that there was a wider circle of seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out (Luke 10:1). Among the twelve it was only Peter, James, and John that Jesus called out to join Him when He was transfigured, when He raised Jairus’ daughter, and when He was in His deepest despair in Gethsemane. Like most of us, Jesus had concentric circles of relationship from the intimacy of His inner circle of three to the wider and less intimate relationships He had with the twelve, the seventy-two, and an even larger group of 500 followers to whom He appeared after His resurrection.

Along my life journey, I’ve had a number of friends, mentors, and protégés who became part of my “inner circle” during a particular stretch. Looking back, I observe a certain ebb and flow of pattern and purpose in relationships. As the wise woman stated, some paths converge for a season and then organically lead in opposite directions. Conflict, sadly, severed some relationships. In a few cases, I’ve realized it’s best to leave be what was. In others, reconciliation brought differing degrees of restoration. There is longing to experience reconciliation in yet others when the season is right. Then there are a few in which time ran out, and only memories both bitter and sweet will remain with me for the rest of my earthly journey.

Most readers of Paul’s letters skip through the personal greetings with which he typically tagged his correspondence at the beginning and/or end. This morning, it was one of these oft-ignored greetings at the end of the chapter that jumped off the page at me. Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, sends his greetings to the believers at Colossae. There is a back story there.

Mark, otherwise known as John Mark, had been a boy who was part of Jesus’ wider circle of followers. Mark’s mother was a prominent woman who also followed Jesus and likely supported His ministry financially. When Peter escaped from prison it was to the house of Mark’s mother that Peter fled. It was Mark’s cousin, Barnabas, who brought the enemy turned believer, Saul (aka Paul) into the fold of Jesus’ followers. Barnabas and Mark were part of Paul’s inner circle on his first missionary journey.

Then, it all fell apart.

In the middle of the journey, Mark left Paul and Barnabas and went back home. Paul felt abandoned and betrayed. Years later when it came time to make a return journey, Barnabas wanted to take Mark along. Paul, still angry that Mark wimped out and abandoned them, would have none of it. There was a big fight. There was a bitter separation. Paul went one way with Silas. Barnabas went the other way with Mark. The season of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark was over.

As Paul writes his letter to the Colossians it has been many years since the conflict with Barnabas and Mark. Paul is in prison and is nearing the end of his life. Mark is with him. We don’t know how the reconciliation happened or what brought them back together again, but Mark is there sending warm greetings through Paul. It’s nice to know that sometimes in this life we get over our conflicts. We let go of the past and embrace the present. Seasons of friendship can come back around.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back and thinking of all the companions I’ve had along my journey. I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for each one brought to my life and journey, despite where the ebb and flow of relationship may have led. And, in a few cases, I’m praying for the season when the journey might lead divergent paths back together, like Paul and Mark.

Who Will Sing for Me?

All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a custom in Israel; they are recorded in the Laments.
2 Chronicles 35:24-25 (NRSVCE)

We don’t talk much about lament anymore which is a reality that I, well, lament. Lament is a great word that can either be used as a noun or a verb. When used in its verb form, it means to grieve and feel sorrow or loss. When used in its noun form, it points to a particular expression of grief. In history a lament was typically a song or a poetic lyric used during periods of grief. It’s the ancient ancestor of the blues.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler adds a curious detail to the death of Josiah that he has used with no other King in all the biographical accounts he’s provided in the previous 34 chapters. He explains that the prophet Jeremiah (an all-star prophet) had uttered a lament for Josiah and that the choirs of Judah had sung laments for Josiah even to the Chronicler’s day. Generations later, they felt Josiah’s loss and continued to sing the blues.

This morning in the quiet the Chroniclers detail brought to mind an old-timey bluegrass ballad called Who Will Sing for Me? It’s got me thinking and meditating on the idea that how we live our daily lives in the present will affect how others will feel our loss when this earthly journey is over. How interesting that Josiah was lamented, but the Chronicler didn’t say that of Asa, or Manasseh, or Hezekiah. Josiah was lamented for generations.

As I begin this week I’m enter into the task list asking myself how I’m living this journey and what kind of difference I’m making. It has me mulling over a simple question in the back of my head: Who Will Sing for Me?

Lester? Earl? Take it away…

Have a great week, my friend. Live well.

 

The Epitaph Being Written Today

“He passed away, to no one’s regret….”
2 Chronicles 21:20 (NIV)

Earlier in my life journey I spent a few years in pastoral ministry. I served in a rural community with many aging citizens. I found myself performing an unexpected number of funerals which led to my befriending the local funeral director. As a result, I found myself doing even more funerals as my friend would often call me when the deceased or the deceased’s family had no connection with a local pastor or church.

I encountered an amazingly diverse number of experiences in those few years. I observed beautifully warm family gatherings honoring individuals who left a legacy of love. I observed fractured families who refused to be in the same room with their family members. Factions would take turns paying their last respects to the deceased. I officiated services for individuals who, at the end of their lives, were completely alone and virtually no one came to pay their respects. And, I presided over funerals for individuals who appeared to be universally despised, those in attendance at the funeral sharing with me that they were there to say “Good riddance.”

After several chapters in which the Chronicler shares a rather expansive story of King Jehoshaphat, today’s chapter succinctly describes the brief reign of Jehoshaphat’s son, Jehoram. It was eight years of division and chaos rooted in Jehoshaphat’s ill-fated decision to make a marriage alliance with the evil King Ahab of Israel which set off a chain-reaction of tragedy.

Jehoram married a daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. By the Chronicler’s account, Jehoram was sucked into the dysfunctional family and religious system of his in-laws. This couldn’t have made him popular with his brothers who had been given some regional authority by their father (which made them potential rivals to Jehoram). Jehoram kills off all of his brothers to solidify his hold on the throne. Neighboring enemies, observing the internal political chaos, choose to attack Judah and take advantage of this moment of weakness. It works. Jehoram’s reign ends after eight short, bloody years marked by internal strife, fraternal murder, and failure in almost every respect.

The Chronicler’s epitaph: “He passed away to no one’s regret.”

What a sobering reality to mull over in my hotel room this morning. What kind of epitaph have I been writing over my life journey? What adjectives have attached themselves to my legacy? Love? Anger? Kindness? Pride? Faithfulness? Selfishness? Generosity? Greed? Failure? Redemption?

In the quiet I’m thinking about the opportunity I have this day and every day, in every relationship, in every interaction to make a positive difference. Even a life journey littered with tragic failure can chart a new waypoint each day. It’s never too late. That’s what the word “repentance” literally means: to turn and move in the opposite direction. In my experience, positive life change rarely happens in a moment. Rather, it begins with one willful decision to make a change of direction.

I’m thinking about some of those individuals from years ago with whom I only became acquainted as a body in a casket. What would have been different had I known them, had a chance to interact with them before their journeys end? I don’t know.

But it’s not too late for the people with whom I will interact today.

Seed in the Chaff

“I will scatter you like chaff
    driven by the desert wind.
This is your lot,
    the portion I have decreed for you,”
Jeremiah 13:24-25a (NIV)

The community where Wendy and I live, and our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, is experiencing a season of acute grief. This past week a young man, the youngest son of our senior pastor and his wife, passed away unexpectedly. He should have been experiencing the prime of his life. It is unnerving when tragedy strikes like this. There are so many unanswerable questions.

In Sunday morning’s message the teacher gave us a word picture of a man who initiated a controlled burn of his lawn. The teacher watched as the fire spread across the grass turning the lawn into a field of scorched and blackened death. Confused, the teacher stopped and spoke to the man. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You’re killing your lawn.

Oh no,” said the man. “The seed’s already in the ground. Come back in a few months and you will see how lush and green it is with new life.”

I couldn’t help but think of that parable as I read Jeremiah’s prophetic poem this morning. He foresaw that God’s people would experience unspeakable tragedy. They would be conquered. Their city and their Temple would be destroyed. They would be “scattered like chaff driven by the desert wind.” This was their lot in life.

Why me? Why him? Why us? Why now?

So many unanswerable questions.

Then in the quiet this morning I pictured and watched the chaff driven and scattered by the wind. What Jeremiah did not see in his vision is that there is seed mixed in with the chaff. Jeremiah does not see Daniel raised to a position of unbelievable authority and honor within the Babylonian palace. Jeremiah does not see Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego standing with God in the flames of the fiery furnace without getting one hair of their head singed. Jeremiah does not see the repentance of Nebuchadnezzar, doesn’t read the handwriting on Beltshazzar’s wall, does not hear the beautiful lyrics of the psalmists’ lament from exile, and does not see the incredible ministry and visions the prophet Ezekiel will have in that land. Jeremiah does not see the return of the remnant under Nehemiah or the miraculous work of his people rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city. The prophet’s does not foresee Jesus entering the walls of rebuilt Jerusalem, God’s Son sacrificed for sin once for all, and then resurrected to new and eternal Life.

We all experience tragedy along our our life journeys; We all will have times when we are shaken to the core of our souls. In such times our eyes become intensely focused on our lot in life and we ask unanswerable questions. In the moment, Jeremiah just sees himself, his people, and their lot in life; Their lot in life that cannot be changed any more than a leopard can change his spots. He stands and looks out and all he can see is dry chaff scattered on the scorching desert wind.

Look more closely.

There’s seed in that chaff.

The Sower is not finished with the Story.

 

The End of the Line

In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria.
2 Kings 17:6 (NIV)

In this life, some things end. That’s the simple truth of the matter. Along this life journey I’ve come to the realization that we human beings like to feel a sense of the eternal amidst the temporal. We like things to remain fairly stable. We are lulled into a state of accepting that what has been always will be…

  • I will always live here…
  • I will always have this job…
  • We will always be together…
  • We will always be friends…
  • My parents will always stay together…
  • My children will outlive me…

And then suddenly, things end. Relationships end, jobs go away, homes are destroyed, people move away, churches split, companies are acquired, and so on, and so on, and so on.

World rocked. Equilibrium off. Heart breaking. Mind spinning.

Life changing.

In today’s chapter, we get to the end of the line for the northern Kingdom of Israel. For 190 years they had existed through a roller coaster succession of monarchs. Hoshea would be the final king. The Assyrian empire lays siege to Israel’s capital city, Samaria. It is destroyed, plundered, and the Israelites taken back to Assyria as slaves. Using the ancient playbook of conquest, the Assyrians move a melting pot of other immigrants peoples into the neighborhood to ensure that the Israelites left behind don’t unite in rebellion against the Empire. It is the end of the Kingdom of Israel.

As I read and mull over this morning’s chapter, I’m reminded of our chapter-a-day journeys through the prophets who warned that this was coming. For those who had ears to hear, the warning signs were there. Amidst the chaos, grief and questions that arise when things end, we can often look back with 20-20 hindsight and see that the signs were all there. In our desire for the eternal amidst the temporal we simply choose to ignore them.

I’m also mulling over the lessons that I’ve learned both in my journey through God’s Message and my journey through life. Things must end for us to experience new beginnings. In order for there to be resurrection, something must die. God even wove this truth into His artistic expression of creation. The seasons teach us that the new life and recurring promises of spring don’t happen with out the long death of winter. In summer Iowa has such lush green landscape with deep blue skies that it almost creates a new color all its own. But eventually we reach the end of the line. Lush green corn turns to ugly brown stalks, and the blue skies give way to the dull gray snow clouds of winter. And then it happens again, and again, and again. Old things pass away, then new things come.

For the people of Israel, this chapter of life is ended. But the story isn’t over. The prophets predicted this, as well. A new chapter has begun. Perhaps unexpected. Perhaps unwanted. Perhaps scary and unnerving. Yet that’s why we love great stories. They take us to unexpected places and new experiences we hadn’t dreamed or imagined. But we don’t get there without journeying through the end of the previous chapter(s).