Tag Archives: Growth

Exile and Return

Exile and Return (CaD Gen 35) Wayfarer

Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.”
Genesis 35:1 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve discovered along my spiritual journey is that the return is often as important as the destination. In some cases, they turn out to be one and the same.

In today’s chapter, God calls Jacob to return to Bethel which is the place where God first revealed Himself to Jacob. Jacob has been on a journey of exile for over twenty years, and now he has returned to his home and family. At Bethel, God renews the promises made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. God makes Jacob’s name change to Israel official.

The timing of this is important. Isaac is about to die. Having the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, God is leading Jacob through a rite of passage. He’s returned from exile to lead the family, and head the family business. Things are about to change in a big way.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back. My spiritual journey has led me on paths of exile and return. I found it to be the path of both wisdom and maturity. In exile, I face trials and struggles that grow me up as I learn essential lessons in faith, patience, perseverance, joy, and hope. The return is the place where those lessons bear fruit. The landscape looks different upon my return. Time may have changed things, but most importantly I have changed. I see old things with new eyes. In exile, I have been refined, honed, broken down, and rebuilt for a purpose. The return is where that purpose eventually comes into focus.

I also found myself meditating on God’s name change for this patriarch-to-be. In exile, Jacob (meaning the deceiver) is transformed into Israel (he wrestled with God). When Jacob left Bethel, everything he had and came from his (and his mother’s) own deceptive cunning and initiative. In exile, he struggled with his Uncle, himself, and with God. He discovers in exile that his blessings come from God and not his, and his family’s, penchant for deception. Jacob left Bethel and went into exile. It was Israel who returned to Bethel ready for the next stage of the journey.

I have found that there are certain spiritual truths that do not change. Among those truths is the necessity of both exile and return.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

On Being a “Member”

On Being a "Member" (CaD 2 Pet 1) Wayfarer

For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 1:8 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I have served a number of local churches in either a volunteer or paid part-time basis. As a young man, I spent a total of five years in full-time pastoral ministry and served two different churches in very different denominations. These two full-time stints were very different experiences, but there was one thing the two experiences had in common. In the middle of my tenure at each of these churches, I was called to account by well-intentioned, legalistic busybodies for having not become a “member” of the said church.

I will never forget receiving a phone call asking me to be at an emergency meeting of the elders; the raw emotions of disappointment, anxiety, and suspicion expressed with regard to my reasons for not being a “member.” I will also not forget the abject silliness of jumping through all the institutional, bureaucratic hoops to appease the religious busybodies, including apologizing in a congregational meeting for my “oversight” and requesting that my “membership” be approved by the people who hired me to be their pastor.

It was no different than Jesus getting called to account for healing someone on the Sabbath day of rest. Being a member of a church does not make one a follower of Jesus, and being a follower of Jesus has nothing to do with adherence to religious, institutional bureaucracy. Confusion of the two is one of the legitimate realities that lie at the root of the world’s criticism and condemnation of Christianity. There are a host of other reasons, both legitimate and illegitimate, that lie with it.

In the opening of Peter’s second letter to first century followers of Jesus, he begins by identifying those who are legitimate followers of Jesus. You won’t find mention of a “membership certificate” or congregational approval anywhere in the description. Rather, Peter points to the evidence of ever-increasing spiritual maturity:

Faith that leads to goodness in words and deeds toward all.
Goodness that motivates a desire to know more about the things of God.
Knowledge that contributes to personal self-control in temptation.
Self-control that contributes to perseverance in tough stretches of the journey.
Perseverance that produces deeper levels of godliness in the daily mundane.
Godliness that shows up in sincere affection for others more than self.
Affection that results in acts of sacrificial love for others.

Peter goes on to explain that the goal is life that is effective and productive. This is exactly what Jesus told Peter and the team on the night before He was crucified: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The goal is a life of connection to Jesus, being a “member” of the divine dance in the larger work He is accomplishing in the Great Story. Being a “member” of Christ effectively produces fruit in my life, and that fruit includes the very character traits Peter listed.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about this penchant I’ve witnessed in many for taking institutional church membership so seriously. I’ve just never considered the bureaucracy worthwhile. I’ve always believed that my “membership” is proven, not by taking a class, signing my name, receiving a certificate, and saying “I do” to list of rote questions, but rather by the evidence of my being spiritually effective and productive within my local gathering of Jesus’ followers and my community, just as Peter describes. If I have the former without the latter, then “my faith” is not faith at all. It’s just a membership that carries as much spiritual benefit as my membership in the rewards club of my local grocery store.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Peeling the Onion

Peeling the Onion (CaD James 3) Wayfarer

But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.
James 3: 14 (NIV)

I have discovered along my spiritual journey that spiritual growth is a lot like peeling an onion. Every time I work to peel off a layer of pride and selfishness in my life, there’s always a deeper layer waiting underneath. Motives, thoughts, behaviors, and/or actions that I never even perceived or considered before. As the prophet, Jeremiah, stated, there is no end to our sinful human natures.

In my pursuit of spiritual progress, I’ve learned that self-awareness is an essential ingredient. I am consciously and consistently attempting to monitor my feelings, thoughts, desires, and appetites. As I do so, I begin to see patterns emerge, which typically lead me to important discoveries about myself.

Wendy is an audiobook and podcast junkie. Whenever she’s doing something by herself, her ear bud is in and she’s listening to something. We typically have conversations about things we’ve been reading, listening to, and thinking about. I began to notice an intense negative reaction in my spirit whenever Wendy would speak about certain authors and podcasters. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard style reaction. As I became aware of these feelings, it begged the question:

What is that about?

Time to start peeling back another layer of the onion.

I contemplated my intense negative feelings and I made two important connections. First, this person Wendy mentioned she was listening to was currently an “It” person in popular culture. It wasn’t just Wendy mentioning the name. It was a name I was hearing mentioned from multiple people in my circles of influence. Second, this was a person I’d never even heard of until recently and suddenly this person had what seemed a proportionately huge mindshare of people around me.

So, what? Why did this seem to irritate me so much? Next, I began to contemplate what I know about myself.

I’m an Enneagram Type Four, which means that my core motivation is to find purpose and/or significance.

Could it be that my reaction was nothing more than envy that this person has successfully achieved a level of significant influence that I never have and never will?

Is it possible that my self-awareness has observed a very human reaction rooted in jealousy?

Am I witnessing selfish-ambition at work in me, desiring the purpose and significance another person has found at the expense of contentment in the purpose and significance to which I am called?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Mea culpa.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

In today’s chapter, James urges Jesus’ followers not to “harbor” bitter envy and selfish ambition. (Note: the Greek word translated “harbor” is echo. There’s more to unpack there.) This is where self-awareness leads to growth. Ever since making this discovery about myself, I’ve begun to not just feel these emotions when they occur, but to actually process them. First, I confess to the emotion and it’s root cause in me. Second, I remind myself of the path and purpose to which I’ve been called and led in my own journey. Finally, I typically say a silent prayer of blessing and gratitude for this person and the good purposes God has for them, and then express gratitude for the person I am, and purposes God has for me. I then confirm my desire and commitment to fulfill those purposes, no matter what they may be, for God’s glory.

This process has helped me to stop harboring envy and selfish ambition, and to send them sailing off into the sea of forgetfulness.

Another layer peeled.

On to the next.

Pressing on.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Sow What?

Sow What? (CaD Mk 4) Wayfarer

Again [Jesus] said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
Mark 4:30-32 (NIV)

It is spring in Iowa, arguably the best place to grow things in the world. Growing up, the stated used the tag line: “A place to grow.” I always found this a great tag line full of metaphorical layers. I’m sad it got buried under slogans like “You make me smile!” and “We do amazing things with corn.”

Spring brings my perennial desire to plant something and make it grow. I have to confess that when it comes to being a child of Iowa I’m a bit of a prodigal. Growing things has never come naturally to me. I’ve done okay with my rosebushes, but I think it’s because they do well on their own despite me. Last spring we planted some herbs on the patio. I even got to use them to make fresh seasoning a few times before they died.

It’s a beautiful thing about the cycles of life, isn’t it? It is perennial. Hope springs eternal with Easter. Every spring the Cubs have a chance to win the World Series and I have a chance to successfully grow something. It doesn’t matter that the odds are 1:108. There’s still a chance, and each spring the hope is intoxicating.

Last year, Wendy and I bought actual herb plants. Undeterred by their premature death, I decided that this year we’re going to grow them from seeds. If I’m going to commit serial herbicide, I might as well make it more difficult. So, we got three grow-kits with pots, dirt, and seeds.

What struck me as I planted the seeds was how minuscule they were. Seriously, I felt like I was sprinkling dust particles in the dirt! I followed the instructions for watering and a week or so later Wendy and I went to the lake for a long weekend. When we got back, there were actual plants growing in two of the three pots. What did I do wrong with the third plant? I’m telling you: I can kill a plant before it even sprouts! When I contacted the grow-kit company I was told that sometimes you can get “bad seed.” I’m not sure what that means, but it felt like a pardon from the Governor. I sanded out a couple of notches off the handle of my garden trowel.

I thought about my little herb garden as I read today’s chapter. Jesus uses planting seeds as a word picture of God’s Kingdom. The seed can be as small as a speck of dust, but it can sprout and grow into something huge. Which is why earlier in the chapter Jesus told another story about a person who was sowing seed as they journeyed along. The seed was sown everywhere, which got me mulling this over.

Jesus told His followers that the seed is the Word. In the Great Story I learned that Jesus is the living Word and also incarnate Love. So, one way I sow the Word along my life journey is by sowing love that is joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, faithful, good, and self-controlled. In doing this, I’m scattering that hopeful possibility of spring that the seed might happen to fall upon a soul that it good soil for that seed to germinate and grow into something exponentially huge in relation to that little seed sown in a gentle word, a gesture of forgiveness, a random act of kindness, or a timely hug.

Of course, the Great Story also talks about bad seed that can equally be sown. The seeds of hatred, anger, malice, chaos, violence, rage, jealousy, envy, selfishness, dissension, and division. Bad seeds don’t grow much of anything.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again looking within and without. What am I sowing in my thoughts, words, actions, reactions, posts, tweets, replies, and comments? I look outward at the things I see in the media, on social media, and the people I “follow.” What is being sown? Good seed? Bad seed?

I don’t want to be judgmental, but I do want to be wise.

I can’t control others, but I can control myself.

I am embarking on yet another day. Day number 20,088 of my earthly journey.

It’s spring in Iowa. A place to grow.

What am I going to sow today?

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Source, not Compensation

Source, not Compensation (CaD Mk 1) Wayfarer

And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:11 (NIV)

Looking back on my life journey, it’s obvious to me that my early thirties were an important stretch of road. My late teens and early twenties were a period of being cocksure of myself. Entering marriage, fatherhood, and adulthood in my early twenties was, for me, a heavy dose of reality. The side-effects of that reality dosage led to a period of intense personal chaos which eventually led to intense introspection, and this eventually led to a more healthy sense of what psychologists would call my individuation. In the parlance of our times, as the Dude would say, I grew up. I became my own person.

As I trekked through that time of life, I began to inspect my family of origin with a critical eye. As with any human system, there were shortcomings which I had to honestly acknowledge, address, and forgive. But I also discovered strengths which had to be equally acknowledged, addressed, and appreciated.

It was during this time of life that I began to witness a common soul wound that effected a number of my male friends. They had never experienced a father’s love. Never had their ears heard the words “I love you” uttered by their dad. Never had they received a word of affirmation, encouragement, or paternal pride. “The old man” had simply been a stoic source of silence, or constant criticism, or unattainable expectations. The result was a seemingly adult male who was, in reality, the walking wounded endlessly striving to earn a blessing that was hopelessly beyond price.

It was this observation that gave me a much needed contrast in my own process of individuation. Every day of my childhood ended with a hug and kiss from my parents and an “I love you.” My father, as well as my mother, was present, loving, affectionate, proud, and trusting. So much so, in fact, that I was blind to it. I took it for granted. I had no idea how priceless of a gift it was.

With today’s chapter, my chapter-a-day journey embarks on Mark’s biography of Jesus. It is the shortest of the four Jesus Stories contained in the Great Story. It is believed to be the earliest to have been written. Mark, also known as John Mark, was a colleague and assistant to both Peter and Paul. Mark’s mother was one of the circle of women who followed and supported Jesus’ ministry. The early believers met in her home. It is believed that Mark’s biography is his compilation of the stories Peter told as they traveled and taught others in the first century.

It is also believed that a curious side note of Mark’s biography of Jesus was, well, autobiographical. It’s found in his description of Jesus’ arrest:

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

This somewhat comical detail stands out, in part, because Mark’s biography of Jesus is short on details compared to Matthew, John, and Luke. It is a condensed compilation of stories, especially in the early chapters. A dramatization of today’s chapter would contain eight different scenes. That’s a lot of material to chew on in one quiet time.

What resonated most with me this morning was the scene of Jesus’ baptism in which all members of the Trinity are present. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mark the beginning of Jesus earthly ministry and the Father’s voice from heaven declares His love and pleasure with His Son, Jesus. What always stands out to me is that Jesus hasn’t done anything yet.

He hasn’t successfully faced temptation.
He hasn’t hasn’t preached his first sermon.
He has no disciples.
He hasn’t healed anyone.

Jesus has been ritually dunked by His cousin, John. That’s it.

“That’s m’boy,” says the Father. “Man, I love Him. Couldn’t be more proud. It’s such pleasure to be this kid’s Dad!”

Years ago I made this same point during a message I was giving among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One listener accosted me after the service to take issue with this.

“He was thirty years old,” this person exclaimed. “He’d done stuff!”

This individuals insistence quickly made clear to just how wounded their soul was. They could not fathom parental love, pride, or pleasure that had not been demanded, earned, and merited. I have observed along my life journey that much of religious Christianity suffers from this wound. Churches talk about grace (literally, unmerited favor) while demanding that members faithfully earn the system’s social acceptability by carefully being obedient to the silent rules of dress, speech, relationships, and public behavior. In a meritocracy, love, pride and pleasure are a carrot dangled as motivation. They are to be dearly earned through strict obedience.

Not Jesus’ family system. Love, pride and pleasure are the source of the motivation. The divine love and relational intimacy of the mysterious One-is-Three and Three-is-One is what fueled Jesus’ ministry, His mission, His service, and His sacrifice.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful to my father and mother for modeling love. It has mades it easier for me to understand this essential truth about Jesus’ message: Love is the source not the compensation. It is there. It’s right there. All I have to do is believe, receive, and make room. “We love because He first loved us.”

Perhaps the single-most important lesson of my life journey, thus far, was the realization that God’s eternal love, complete forgiveness, and total acceptance was not the result of my “doing stuff” or not “doing stuff.” It is a gift to be simply received. The realization of just how priceless that gift is has been the greatest motivation of my life and has led me to “do stuff” for forty years, like writing this post.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Exilic Reflections

Exilic Reflections (CaD Ps 107) Wayfarer

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.

Psalm 107:6 (NIV)

As I’ve been mulling over the spiritual milestones I’ve shared about recently, I have been looking back at my life journey of 20,000+ days and my spiritual journey of 40 years. There have been some amazing moments, some stretches of prosperity on multiple levels, and then there have been some seasons of soul-stretching adversity. As I recount the peaks and valleys and where they’ve brought me, it occurs to me that the latter has been more critical in my spiritual growth. And, very often the former follows. The valleys of life prune me spiritually, and when I eventually reach the high places they are particularly fruitful.

“Exile” is one of the grand themes of the Great Story. Some scholars have gone so far as to say that it is the primary theme that occurs over and over again, beginning with Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden and their intimate relationship with the Creator. The Hebrews living in bondage and exile in Egypt, then later being exiled and scattered by the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. The crux of the Great Story is Jesus leaving heaven to be exiled here as one of us to make a way for us to escape our own earthly exile and be at home in eternity. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Exile is a theme in the stories of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus, John, and Paul.

All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and I typically find the theme of exile in every major human epic.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 107, kicks off the fifth and final “Book” of Hebrew Song lyrics we know as the Psalms. Psalm 107 is another liturgical song, most likely written to be sung during one of the Hebrew religious festivals. Most scholars agree that it was penned during the period of time when the Hebrews returned from Babylonian exile, rebuilt Jerusalem and God’s temple there. Having come through years of captivity and exile, they have ascended Mount Zion to worship, reflect on their experiences, and give thanks.

The song lyrics introduce different exilic experiences: wandering in the desert, living in darkness, struggling through captivity and forced labor, bitter consequences of foolish choices, sickness and disease, and being lost and rudderless on the stormy seas. In each of the stanzas the description of exilic struggle leads to the phrase: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” This is followed by God’s salvation, deliverance, redemption, and restoration. Each stanza ends calling the listener to gratitude and praise.

In the quiet this morning, I’m seeing the pattern. Out of darkness into the light. Up from the valley to the mountaintop. Return from exilic adversity to the blessing of finding myself safe at home. This is the Great Story. It’s life’s story. It’s my story, too.

As I meditate on the lyrics of Psalm 107 and look back on my journey, I’m reminded that there is purpose in the painful stretches. Perseverance has always paid off. I have always been able to cry out to the Lord in my troubles. There have always been better stretches ahead.

Note: A new message has been posted to my Messages Page.

Child-Like Feelings, Child-Like Faith

Child-like Feelings, Child-like Faith (CaD Ps 74) Wayfarer

Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries,
    the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually.

Psalm 74:23 (NIV)

Our grandson, Milo, turns three in a few weeks. And, while we haven’t physically seen him in almost a year, our video chats across the pond along with photos and snippets reveal a normal little boy complete with fits and tantrums. When Ya-Ya Wendy and Papa Tom mentioned we couldn’t wait to have him visit us, he ran and got his shoes on because he thought the transatlantic flight to Papa and Yaya’s house was boarding immediately. The photos of his meltdown pout upon hearing that there was no immediate flight to Papa and Yaya’s house are priceless.

I’ve come to realize along my life journey that there are aspects of childhood that we as human beings retain. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Jesus told us that child-like faith is a spiritual necessity in following Him. I have observed, however, that child-likeness takes many forms. Just as we are called to have child-like faith, we can also have child-like frustrations.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 74, is an ancient Hebrew blues lyric written after the city of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. Amidst the rubble, the ruins, and the reality that scores of his friends and family were marched off into captivity and exile in Babylon, Asaph expresses his grief and confusion in a song.

Asaph is in full meltdown blues mode. God has forgotten His people. God has abandoned them. There are no prophets to give voice to God’s message. God has given no time frame for how long the Hebrews are going to be in their exilic time out. Foreign gods have defeated, dishonored, and defamed the Almighty, and God is ignoring the whole affair.

Except, none of it is true.

There was a prophet left and his name was Jeremiah. God had spoken through Jeremiah to tell the Hebrew people they would be taken into Babylonian captivity for seventy years. God also spoke through Jeremiah to explain that there was eternal purpose in their circumstantial pain. Through Jeremiah, God told His people to settle into captivity, to pray for their enemies and captors. He told them to pray for Babylon to prosper. Another prophet, Daniel, was one of the exiles, as was Ezekiel. Through Daniel, it became clear that God was actively working to reveal Himself to the Babylonian king and people.

In the larger context of the Great Story, Asaph’s blues read like a child’s tantrum. But isn’t that exactly what I do when I lament my own circumstances without any understanding of what God may be doing on a larger scale? If I lack the faith to believe, or the sight to see, that God has not abandoned me and God is fully engaged in my circumstances, then I’ll be full meltdown blues mode myself. Just as I confess I have been on many occasions.

My mind wanders back to my grandson, and I am reminded of the photo of Milo seriously lamenting that he can’t go to Papa and Yaya’s house. The picture was texted to us accompanied by his mother’s confession that she and daddy have to actively keep themselves from laughing at times. For Milo, feeling all the feels is honestly where he is at in the moment. For mom and dad, who see and understand the moment in the much larger context of life, the job is to help the little man feel all the feels, get through the rough moments, and keep pressing on in the journey.

How often do I allow my circumstances to send me into a child-like tantrum in my thoughts, emotions, and spirit? How do I recognize it in the moment, and transition those child-like feelings of fear, anxiety, and despair into the child-like faith Jesus requires of me?

The fact that Asaph’s song made it into the anthology of Hebrew song lyrics tells me that, like a good parent, God understands that sometimes we have to feel our feels. And, like a good parent, God keeps beckoning me, leading me forward in this spiritual journey to deeper levels of understanding, greater levels of spiritual maturity, that ironically result in the simple purity of child-like faith.

Patterns

Patterns (CaD Ps 28) Wayfarer

Hear the voice of my supplication,
    as I cry to you for help

Psalm 28:2 (NRSVCE)

Back in the days before iPods, iPhones, and digital streaming, the only way one got music in a car was the radio. Since I spent a lot of time in rental cars for my job, I got used to spending the first part of any journey scanning “the dial” for the available stations and programming the stations I wanted to keep into the car’s radio.

One of the things I noticed as a young man scanning the airwaves was that it generally took me less than a second to identify the kind of music any station typically played as I quickly made my way across the dial:

“Classical, Classical, Classic Rock, Country, Country, Pop, Country, Pop, Christian, Rock…”

There is a certain sound, pattern, cadence, and frequency to different types and styles of music.

As I read the psalm this morning, the thing that struck me was how similar it is to the previous few psalms. That’s because it is. David had patterns that he repeatedly used as he penned his songs. We do the same thing. Symphonies typically follow a pattern of four movements. Your basic popular song is typically structured verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.

Those who compiled the anthology of song lyrics we call Psalms put the section we are reading through together with similarly structured songs. It is a simple, repeated pattern: They all start with a praise and plea for God to listen followed by a complaint and/or petition, and end with a proclamation of faith and assurance that God has or will hear and answer.

In the quiet this morning, this got me thinking about patterns. Almost everything in life falls into certain patterns. Almost everything in life has patterns. Good patterns can provide a sense of health, security, and surety to life. Bad patterns of thought and behavior result in destructive and unhealthy consequences in my life and relationships. That’s rather obvious. What’s not so obvious is that some patterns that were good and necessary for a time can actually become unhealthy for me without me really recognizing or realizing it.

Along my life journey, I’ve come to observe that spiritual progress always involves the breaking of old patterns and establishing new ones. A faith journey always requires that I leave behind something that is tangibly known and comfortable in order to pursue something that is not clearly evident and is only hoped for.

“You have heard it said,” Jesus would say to his followers before adding, “but I say…” In other words, there was an established pattern that Jesus was calling His followers to change. He called for old, established patterns to pass away so that new patterns could emerge. The word repentance is rooted in the word picture of changing direction. Whenever Jesus told someone “Follow me” it was always a call to leave things behind to pursue things to which He was leading.

What started out as good, even healthy, patterns can lead to stagnation. Stagnation leads to settling. Settling leads to spiritual atrophy. Spiritual atrophy leads to decay. Decay leads to death. That’s what Jesus was getting at when he told the religious people of His day:

“You’re hopeless… Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

-Jesus, Matt 23:27-28 (MSG)

In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on my own patterns of thought, behavior, relationship, and spirit. The truth is that almost every pain-point I experience on life’s journey can be traced back to unhealthy patterns. Growth, progress, and maturity necessitate the breaking of unhealthy patterns and the establishment of healthier ones, even those patterns that were once good for me but have actually become unhealthy.

David’s song this morning felt familiar to the point of me being kind of bored with it after reading psalms with the same pattern every morning this week. C’est la vie. It happens. Having journeyed through the Psalms many times, I am mindful that when we get to Psalm 40 David writes that he is singing “a new song.” God called David “a man after my own heart.” Even he could get stuck in certain patterns that he had to break in order to move on where God wanted to lead him.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

“Worth Repeating”

"Worth Repeating" (CaD Ex 37) Wayfarer

Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.
Exodus 37:1 (NRSVCE)

On Saturday, Wendy and I were driving to our friends’ house for a dinner party. We passed by a church that had a large LED sign out front that had a simple Bible reference in giant letters: “Isaiah 41:10.”

Immediately upon seeing the sign and without thinking, I said out loud, “Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you. Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”

Isaiah 41:10 is a verse that I memorized when I was in high school. It became a favorite one for me to quote whenever I was anxious, afraid, or stressed. Sometimes, I had it written on a piece of paper in my pocket. Whenever I reached into my pocket for something and felt the paper, I would say the verse in my head or whisper it to myself. I used it as an affirmation, a reminder, and an antidote to negative blurts that sometimes run rampant in my brain.

Let’s be honest: Today’s chapter of Exodus is boring. Not only is nothing more than a description of the design of the furnishings for God’s ancient tent temple, but it’s almost an exact repeat recitation of verses from about ten chapters back except with the verb tenses changed from future tense (“make a…”) to past tense (“made the…”).

In my perpetual journey through the Great Story I’ve come to learn that sometimes spiritual lessons are not within the text, but outside of it. It’s not what is being communicated that holds value for me as much as how it’s being communicated.

Ancient cultures like the Hebrews often used repetition to help fix something in the reader’s (or hearer’s) brain. Our brains learn from repetition, and by giving the same description twice it both told the audience that it was important and made it more likely that it would be remembered.

In the quiet this morning I couldn’t help but think about that verse from Isaiah. I can’t remember the last time I’d quoted it, but all it took was seeing the reference and it came pouring out of me. As I pondered that this morning I realized that it wasn’t something that I simply memorized to pass a test or check it off a to-do list like your notes for a history exam. It wasn’t like memorizing lines for a role on stage in which I memorized it for a period of time for a specific reason only to dismiss it when I no longer needed it. I memorized the verse, but then with repetition tied to countless moments of anxiety, stress, or fear it got ingested into my soul. It became a part of me.

I had a mentor once tell me, “the Word isn’t for reading, it’s for eating.” Just as food is digested to feed the body with critical, life-giving nutrients, so verses like Isaiah 41:10 become nourishment for soul that devours it. And that process of spiritual digestion begins with same principle used in today’s chapter: simple repetition.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Breaking a Stiff-Neck

Breaking a Stiff-Neck (CaD Ex 33) Wayfarer

For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.’”
Exodus 33:5 (NRSVCE)

One of the ironies of this period of COVID-19 pandemic is that everyone has been stuck inside with nothing to do, but because the quarantine includes actors, crews, studios, and production companies there’s been nothing new to watch on television! So, Wendy and I have been extra excited to have new episodes of Yellowstone airing the past three weeks.

If you haven’t watched Yellowstone, it’s about the patriarch of the largest ranch in the United States that also happens to be some of the most valuable and sought after land in the world. Kevin Costner plays the widowed, wealthy, and powerfully connected rancher John Dutton who struggles to control his dysfunctional family and protect his ranch from a host of enemies who want to take him down and get their hands on his land. Wendy and I have both observed that it’s a lot like a modern-day Godfather, but rather than Italian mobsters in New York it’s cowboys in Montana.

One of the subtle, recurring themes in the show is that of wild horses that need to be broken. In the first season, we’re introduced to Jimmy, a drug-addicted, two-strike loser going nowhere. As a favor to Jimmy’s grandfather, Dutton takes Jimmy on as a ranch-hand. In an iconic moment, Jimmy is tied and duct-taped onto a wild horse that no one else could break. All-day long Jimmy is bucked, spun, and tossed on the back of the horse. By the end of the day, the horse is finally broken, and so is Jimmy.

Today’s chapter is a sequel to yesterday’s story of the Hebrew people abandoning Moses, and the God of Moses, by making an idol for themselves and reverting to their old ways. In response, God calls the people “stiff-necked” (other English translations and paraphrases use words like “stubborn’ or “willful”). One commentator I read stated that the imagery of the original Hebrew word was an ox, bull, or another animal that was unbroken and wouldn’t yield to being yoked. I couldn’t help but think of poor Jimmy duct-taped to that horse.

One of the things I’ve observed in certain human beings is an unbroken spirit. I recall Wendy sitting with a toddler who was determined to climb up our bookcase at the lake which, of course, would have been a dangerous thing to do. The little one had revealed a habit of willfully proceeding whenever an adult said “No.” Wendy sat there and repeatedly pulled the child’s hand and foot off of the bookcase over, and over, and over again as she gently and firmly repeated: “No.” I remember Wendy explaining to the child that she would sit there all day and repeat the process until the child understood. The child cried, wailed, and threw a tantrum in frustration as Wendy calmly continued to deny the toddler’s willful, stiff-necked desire.

Of course, adults can be simply grown-ups who are stuck in childish patterns of thought and behavior. One of the most fascinating things about the story of the early Jesus movement is the transformation in the strong-willed, stiff-necked followers such as Peter, Paul, and John. With each one there was a process involved in the spiritual transformation that included moments of their strong-wills being broken and their spirits humbled as they learned what Jesus meant when He said things like “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” and “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”

In the quiet this morning I am looking back on my nearly 40 years as a follower of Jesus. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. Life has tossed me around a time or two. Some stretches of the journey felt like I was spinning in place. But I’ve come to realize that the spiritual journey is just me being poor Jimmy on that horse. I’ve found God to be a lot like Wendy at that bookcase repeatedly and gently telling a childish, stiff-necked Tommy “No.” The breaking of my will is a prerequisite for discovering God’s.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.