Tag Archives: History

How Little I Can Possibly Fathom

They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal….”
Jeremiah 19:5 (NIV)

Let’s be real. There’s a smorgasbord of negativity out there. Media and a 24/7/365 news cycle continually bombards us with sensational cries of things for us to fear or be anxious about. The right cries for us to fear the left. The left cries for us to fear the right. Beyond politics there is a steady stream of anxiety stirring doom we’re told to perpetually fear from nuclear war, global warming, gun violence, terror attacks, product safety, GMOs, cancer, Zika virus, flu, vaccinations, poverty, earthquakes, floods, oil spills, pollution, asteroid hits, and etc, and etc, and etc.

A month or two ago Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by a Harvard professor. He attempted to provide some much needed perspective on our current life and times.

A few excerpts:

Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.

The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people. Within the lifetimes of most readers, the rate of extreme poverty could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in the past, has vanished from all but the most remote and war-ravaged regions, and undernourishment is in steady decline.
A century ago, the richest countries devoted 1% of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of their poor today are fed, clothed and sheltered and have luxuries like smartphones and air conditioning that used to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor. Poverty among racial minorities has fallen, and poverty among the elderly has plunged.
During most of the history of nations and empires, war was the natural state of affairs, and peace a mere interlude between wars. Today war between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is about a quarter of what it was in the mid-1980s, a sixth of what it was in the early 1970s, and a 16th of what it was in the early 1950s.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. There is still no lack of very real and hard work to be done to make this world a better, more peaceful, and just place. What I increasingly have come to understand, however, is that it has become harder and harder for a person like me, living in the first-world of the 21st century, to understand how absolutely brutal life was in the days of the ancient prophets like Jeremiah. Reading through the writing of the ancient prophets can feel like a long slog. It’s whole lot of doom and gloom from a time and place that is very, very different than my reality.

I struggle with the harsh images and the violence in Jeremiah’s messages. But I also have to remember that I have no clue how harsh and violent daily life was in the middle east in 500 B.C.

Amidst today’s chapter, Jeremiah hints at what was happening, even within the walls of Solomon’s Temple, in his day. The God of Abraham, Moses, and David had been almost completely forgotten. Solomon’s Temple had become an open, free-market for the worship of local gods. In the case of Baal, people would sacrifice their own children and burn them alive as a form of worship. Just let the image of that sink in for a moment.

There’s a reason that God was angry. He commanded his people to love their children, to raise them up well. God commanded his people to teach their children and grandchildren His word, and to teach them to keep His commands about being honest, pure, just, content, and faithful. Now God’s people are worshiping local fertility gods with religious prostitution and drunken sex orgies. They are burning their own children alive as a sacrifice to Baal. And, when God raises up a prophet like Jeremiah to speak out against what is happening they tell him to shut-up and threaten to kill him.

This morning in the quiet I’m mulling these things over in my head. I’m not foolish enough to believe that things are perfect in this day and age, but I also don’t want to be equally foolish by denying the fact that I live in a world that is far better off than when my parents and grandparents were my age. I live in a world in which daily life is infinitely better off than it was for humans who lived centuries and millennia before. I can’t really imagine a day in the life of Jeremiah.

These thoughts lead me to look at Jeremiah’s writing differently. Rather than trying to layer Jeremiah’s poetic prophecies with my 21st century first-world understanding I want to let go of my preconceived notions. I want to cut Jeremiah some slack and try to see his world from his perspective. As a parent I addressed my daughters differently when they were five than I do when they are twenty-five, so it seems reasonable for me to conclude that God addressed humanity differently in the days of the Jeremiah than He does today.

I feel myself increasingly led to embrace the reality of just how little I can possibly fathom. Yet that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility. My job on this spiritual journey is to keep asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of understanding what God has been saying to humanity throughout the Great Story.  Perhaps that sounds hard to do given how different my life is compared to Jeremiah, but I also happen to live in a time and place where I have almost all of the research and resources in the entire world literally at my fingertips.

And that’s a daily reality I daresay Jeremiah couldn’t possibly fathom.

Tom’s Miscellaneous Messages on Audio and YouTube

Rhetorical Question

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?
Jeremiah 8:21-22 (NIV)

Being an amateur student of family history, I have gained a certain appreciation for how Story plays out across generations. My great-grandfather took a large risk coming to America alone as a young man. There is little or no primary source material available to us, but I would have to believe that he was forced by circumstance simply to focus on making a life for himself. Carpentry was what he knew. His father having died when he was young, he went to work as a wooden dowel maker as a boy to help provide for his family. In the States he eventually opened his own hardware store.

I can only speculate what my great-grandfather hoped for his descendants. He was intent that my grandfather get a college education. My grandfather was the first in our family to do so. And so my father after him, becoming a CPA. And so my siblings and I after my father, having greater opportunities afforded us than my great-grandfather could have dreamed.

So it is with the Story. My grandparents’ generation suffered through two world wars and the Great Depression. I grew up hearing the stories of hard times, making ends meet, and sacrificing much to stave off the threat of tyranny of Germany and Japan. I have been afforded much because they suffered much.

Jeremiah is traditionally known as “the weeping prophet.” He mourned as he prophesied the destruction of his city and the suffering of his people, then he suffered through the unspeakable circumstances as his own prophetic predictions came to pass.

In today’s chapter, the weeping prophet mourns and grieves for his people as he predicts the dark times to come. He then asks a rhetorical question:

Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Eventually, Jeremiah’s own prophetic vision will see future generations and a “new” and “everlasting covenant” God will make through Jesus. Many generations after Christ, the hymn writers answered Jeremiah’s question with their own verse, which I remember singing as a child:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

The rhetorical question of a prophet suffering through his chapter of the Great Story is answered by the echo of verse two thousand years later by poets afforded the opportunity to experience the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s visions.

This morning I am thinking about my own generation. I’m thinking about the things we experience, the things we suffer, and the rhetorical questions we ask ourselves. I’m hearing a lot of big rhetorical questions being asked of late. As with previous generations who paved the road for my journey, I am living out my chapter of the Great Story and paving the way for Milo’s journey and the generations who will come after. I am mindful this morning of the responsibility, and even heart-ache, that comes accompanies each generation’s chapter of the Story.

In the quiet my heart is whispering a few rhetorical questions of my own, and wondering what the echo of future generations will be.

Letters, Numbers, Part and Whole

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
    against the man who is close to me!”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered,
    and I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
Zechariah 13:1, 7 (NIV)

I am currently leading a team of teachers among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers as we share messages from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth. [My kick-off message in the series on YouTube if you’re interested]

One of the first things that I did was to take the text of 1 Corinthians, strip it of all headings, footnotes, text notes, cross references, along with chapter and verse numbers. Then I put the text in a hand written font and handed it out to my team. “Here is Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth,” I told them. “Put yourself in the shoes of a member of the Corinthian believers and read it as if you just got it out of your mailbox.” The process has been transformational.

It’s amazing how the simple act of separating original, ancient texts into chapters and verses can alter our reading and understanding. I’m sure there are some readers who don’t even stop and consider that the Bible wasn’t originally written with all those numbers. They were added by scribes centuries later, and in doing so they sometimes detract from the writers’ original works.

Take today’s chapter for example. In yesterday’s chapter I mentioned Zechariah’s word from God  in which God speaks of the people looking upon Him, “the one they have pierced“, and mourn as mourning for the firstborn son. It’s a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus on the cross, pierced by the Roman soldier’s spear, as they sky darkens, the earth shakes, and His followers look on in disbelief. Then I got to the end of chapter 12 on this chapter-a-day journey and stopped reading.

Today I picked up with chapter 13 as if it’s a completely new section or thought and read the first verse:

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

This verse is a continuation of yesterday’s vision that foreshadows Jesus’ death, but in my one chapter a day habit it’s easy to think of this verse in my daily time capsule existence independent of yesterday’s chapter. But it was all one vision, one thought, one piece of writing. The death and piercing and mourning were all about God cleansing the people of sin and impurity. If I don’t connect the two chapters as one text I miss a crucial understanding of the whole thing in the same way that reading a hand-written letter as a bunch of independent verses and chapters loses its original intent as a personal letter from Paul to his friends in Greece.

Zac’s amazing prophetic roll continues today, describing the “shepherd” who is “struck” and the flock is scattered. Two-thirds are decimated and one-third survives but is “refined” by the process. Once again I find an uncanny description of the events of Jesus and  His followers in the first century. After Jesus’ death His followers scatter in fear for their lives, but instead of snuffing out the movement Jesus started it actually gains momentum. This momentum eventually sparks terrible persecution from the religious and Roman establishment. Jesus’ followers are hunted down, fed to lions in the Roman circus, stoned to death, impaled on pikes and burned alive to light Caesar’s garden. Many of them were wiped out just as Zechariah’s vision describes but it did not destroy the faith of those who survived. It refined their faith and made it stronger. Eventually, a few hundred years later, even Caesar becomes a believer.

This morning I find myself once again mulling over parts and whole. The first verse of today’s chapter doesn’t make sense apart from the previous chapter. Jesus’ death and the events of believers in the first century are made more meaningful and poignant when seen in light of Zechariah’s prophetic words penned 500 years earlier. In the same way people across the centuries have taken individual verses from the text of the Bible both to make inspirational Pinterest graphics and to justify all sorts of horrific acts of judgement, prejudice, violence, hatred, and persecution.

Some verses have incredible meaning in and of themselves, but I’ve come to understand that meaning should never be separated from the context of the author’s work and the Great Story that God is revealing across time, space, history and creation.

Connected to a Larger Story

Though I scatter them among the peoples,
    yet in distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive,
    and they will return.
Zechariah 10:9 (NIV)

I walked into Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv as I and my friends were heading back to the United States. After spending a week in Israel I had an even greater appreciation for the surreal experience there. Every international airport is a melting pot, but Ben Gurion seemed to take things to an entirely new level. Not only were there people from all over the world, but there was also the unrivaled diversity of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sub-cultures. My time in Israel was an amazing cultural experience of dining with and making new friends among both Jews and Arabs and from every religious persuasion. At Ben Gurion Airport all of diverse groups were represented and crammed together in one place at one time.

Looking around I saw Hasidic Jewish men in their tell-tale black clothing and hats as well as modern Jewish women with their own distinctive manner that radiates a certain larger-than-life personality. There were Jewish tourist groups from literally all over the world which was made evident by the cacophony of clothing and languages. There were Arabs in their turbans, Catholic priests and nuns in their robes, and even my fellow small-town American tourists with their own distinct drawls and a certain air of cluelessness.

And, of course there was tension. I found that there’s always tension in Israel. I felt surrounded at all times by the uncanny sense that something might just erupt at any given moment. In fact, as my friends and I stood in line at check-in a nearby baggage x-ray machine detected something amiss. Loud sirens suddenly blared at a deafening decibel level all around us. Bright lights flashed out in warning.

Paralyzed by the sensory shockwave, I turned to watch people of every religious, national, and political persuasion bolting for the doors out of fear that a terrorist’s bomb was about to explode. Thankfully, it was false alarm. Still standing in both panic and confusion, I was just as surprised at the speed with which things returned to normal, or what passes for normal in that place.

I mention my experience because, politics and religion aside, my time in Israel gave me a newfound respect for the amazing story of the Jewish people throughout history.  They have been scattered again, and again, and again, and again by wars, empires, politics, and persecution.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Zechariah speaks to the scattering of his people and prophesies their return from the remote reaches of the world. This was a contemporary issue for Zac because he was part of a remnant who had returned to rebuild a destroyed Jerusalem. In the previous hundred or so years the empires of Babylon, Assyria and Persia had scattered his people to those regions. He and his contemporaries were acting in faith that if they took the risk of rebuilding Jerusalem that his people would return.

I’ve mentioned before that prophetic writing is layered with meaning. It can address something in the moment and something in the distant future all at the same time. As I stood in Ben Gurion Airport it was like witnessing what Zechariah wrote back around 500 B.C. :

I will signal for them
    and gather them in.
Surely I will redeem them;
    they will be as numerous as before.
Though I scatter them among the peoples,
    yet in distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive,
    and they will return.
I will bring them back from Egypt
    and gather them from Assyria.
I will bring them to Gilead and Lebanon,
    and there will not be room enough for them.

This morning I’m reminded of the Great Story that God is telling in the life-cycle of human history. It’s part of why I love history so much because I believe that it’s all connected. I believe we are all connected by this same story and we are a part of it. I’m just in a different chapter than Zechariah, but knowing his story and reading his prophetic poem layers my own experiences with new and profound depths of meaning. Even the seemingly insignificant experience of standing in an airport suddenly connects my story to the Great Story that is so much larger than myself.

 featured photo via speaking of faith and Flickr

Puritans, Relationships and Moral By-Products

See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.

“‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”
Zechariah 3:9-10 (NIV)

The further I get in my life journey the more I’ve come to understand and appreciate just how much of American culture has been framed by our Puritan roots. For the most part, I don’t think this is a bad thing. From our Puritan forerunners we inherited a great number of basic virtues such as honesty, integrity, charity and a strong work ethic. These virtues have served us remarkably well as a society.

From our Puritan forerunners we also inherited a very strong sense of morality that comes packaged in black and white. The “Puritans” were so-called because they believed the Church of England was not reformed enough from Catholic doctrine and practices. They were willing to start a bloody civil war and behead a king to “purify” England of her perceived sins. When the purification didn’t go as planned, a good many fled to America to carve out life in the “new world.”

Growing up in an evangelical protestant tradition, I was taught that purity and a conservative set of moral behaviors were the pinnacle goals for me as a follower of Jesus. As I have progressed in my spiritual journey and in my study of God’s Message, I find God to be more concerned with relationship than anything else. If you get relationships right as a priority, with God and with others, then doing the right things becomes a natural consequence. Intent on maintaining a strong, healthy relationship I naturally choose to do things that will enhance relationships and cease to do things that will disturb shalom.

I see this in today’s chapter. Zechariah has a vision of the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, with Satan standing beside as prosecutor and accuser. God prophetically declares that He will send his “Branch” who will “remove the sin of this land in a single day.” He then describes what the outcome of this carte blanche grace and forgiveness will be: “you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree.”

Isn’t that fascinating?! God says nothing about morality, purity, righteousness, or remaining untainted by the world. The outcome of sin being washed away is right relationship with others: reaching out, being hospitable, sharing the shade, and loving one another.

This morning I’m thinking about my relationships with God and with others. As a follower of Jesus I want to truly follow His example. I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that when encountering those whom the orthodox establishment had branded and rejected as immoral, Jesus chose to join them for a meal and share some stories. Funny thing: When these “immoral” people (e.g. Matthew, Zaccheus, Mary Magdalene, and etc.) entered into relationship with Jesus, their lives were subsequently marked by radical life changes. These changes weren’t about adhering to some legalistic moral code Jesus maintained to judge who “made the cut.” The live changes were motivated by being in relationship with Jesus, and a desire for that relationship to grow; They chose, quite naturally, to eliminate behaviors that might hinder their relationship with Jesus.

With God, the goal was never morality. The goal has always been relationship. When you get relationship right, then making good life choices to maintain and grow those relationships is a by-product.

A Very Different Time and Place

The Lord said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.”

Remember Pearl Harbor” was a popular phrase in the years of World War II. It was a reminder to all Americans that the United States had been attacked by the Japanese without warning or provocation. To this day, most Americans need only see the number 9/11 to raise up similar feelings of sadness, grief, disbelief and anger. While trends on twitter may come and go in minutes, there are some events for which national memory is slow to forget.

For Moses and the Hebrew tribes, the phrase “Remember Peor” may have been a similar phrase. Just a number of chapters back we read the story of how the Israelites were camped near the Midianite town of Peor. The Midianite King tried to hire a well-known seer named Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam couldn’t do it because he knew God had blessed them. So, Balaam conjured a clandestine plan to subvert the Israelites. Midianite maidens were sent to seduce Israelite men and convince them to worship their Midianite gods. To the ancient Israelites, the seduction of their men into worshipping the Canaanite dieties was more heinous and personal than a surprise military or terror attack.

In today’s chapter, Moses is at the end of his tenure as leader. His last task as leader of the Israelites is to close the loop on the Peor incident. The Midianites are destroyed along with Balaam the seer.

Chapters like today’s are difficult for 21st century readers to comprehend. We cannot comprehend the kill-or-be-killed reality of daily life in the time of Moses. We cannot comprehend living in a time when most humans didn’t live past 15 years of age, and if you were fortunate enough to make it to 15 your life expectancy was still only somewhere between 25-35 years of age.

This morning I’m gratefully meditating on the amazing time and place of history in which I’m fortunate enough to make my life journey. I’m conscious of how totally clueless I am at understanding the realities of Moses’ time, place, and culture. I’m thinking about how Jesus changed the entire paradigm of conversation. In the early chapters of human history, Moses and Aaron were all about building a nation and system of worship that would survive the horrific realities of life on earth in those days. Jesus quite consciously spoke about a very different Kingdom and urged those who follow Him to usher that Kingdom to earth through our thoughts, words, and acts of loving-kindness, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

Of Vows, Legal Code, and Secret Handshakes

Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.
Numbers 30:1-2 (NIV)

When I was a kid growing up on the northwest side of Des Moines, we had a populous and active neighborhood. There were a lot of kids on our block and along the surrounding streets. We regularly hung out and played together. Freeze-tag, Statue-tag, Ding-Dong Ditch ’em, and any number of games might be in the cards on any given summer evening as a bunch of kids gathered to play until the street lights came on along Madison Avenue.

As kids, when you made a promise to one another there were always ways that we pledged ourselves to our word. Secret handshakes were a staple. When you pledged yourself with a secret handshake the deal was sealed. It was golden, and you were under obligation.

In the files I keep here in my home office I have any number of legal documents binding me to my promises, vows, oaths, and pledges. There’s a mortgage binding me to pay back the money I borrowed from the bank to build my house. There’s the agreement my partner and I made to buy our company from the founder. There’s a marriage certificate binding me in a legal marital obligation to Wendy. All of them are official, legal, and filed with the civic authorities lest I break my obligation and open myself up to the consequences.

Back in the day when Moses and the Hebrew  tribes were wandering around the wilderness, human societies were in the “neighborhood kid” stage of history’s life cycle. There were no well established and precedented legal systems. Writing things down, signing them, and storing a record of an agreement for were out of the question. Writing utensils and the ability to record and store the agreements were thousands of years away from being a reality. Moses and the tribes had basically been stuck making secret handshakes.

Today’s chapter is among the first ancient attempts in human history to create a system of rules by which it was determined if a persons vow was binding or not, and who had authority to overrule a person’s vow or oath. Of course, anyone who’s ever seen a library of legal codes or the tax code knows that over time we humans have a way of creating a dizzying complex system of laws, amendments, precedents, and loopholes.

The Jews were just as human. The fairly basic, straightforward text of today’s chapter became a burdensome cultural and religious system in which oaths and vows were taken seriously based on the specific wording you used. If you vowed “by heaven” it might be more binding than if you vowed “by earth” although not was binding if you swore “by my head” except in certain circumstances, in which case it would have to be determined by section C, paragraph 2, sub-paragraph Q…. You get where I’m going with this, right?

Which is why Jesus quoted today’s chapter and said,

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Say what you’ll do. Do what you say. Freedom in simplicity.

Today, I pledge myself to that simplicity.

Pinky swear.