Here in the heartland of America, in the great state of Iowa, we have been experiencing an early spring. It’s March Madness, which is usually a time when we receive the final blast of winter’s fury. The state high school girl’s basketball tournament is mythically synonymous with “blizzard.” But not this year.
The temperatures have been unseasonably warm. The tulips are already shooting up from the earth. We’ve already used the grill on the patio multiple times. The sounds of Cubs baseball is becoming daily ambient audio here at Vander Well Manor, even if it is just spring training.
There is something exciting about spring. The death of winter gives way to new life in spring. We celebrate the journey from grave to empty tomb. Shivering in the cold yields to basking in the sun’s warmth. Resurrection, hope, and joy are kindled in our souls, reminding us that old things pass away and new things are coming.
How apt, I thought, that in this morning’s chapter we find Zephaniah’s predictions of doom and gloom giving way to hope and salvation. And, amidst the hopeful promises God gives through the ancient prophet is the simple phrase “I will bring you home.” That phrase has so much meaning for me in so many layers:
As I care for aging parents and grieve the “home” that I once knew.
As I watch our girls spread their wings and scatter to their respective paths and realize the “home” that I have so recently known and loved has suddenly gone the way of winter in an early spring.
As I come home from three long days working with clients to find Wendy waiting at the door for me with a cold beer, hot meatloaf, and a warm kiss; realizing in that moment the home that I am so blessed to experience each day, right now.
As I wax poetic in my annual giddiness for baseball season and ponder anew the game in which the goal is to arrive safely home.
“I will bring you home,” God says through Zephaniah.
A Note to Readers I’m taking a blogging sabbatical and will be editing and re-publishing my chapter-a-day thoughts on David’s continued story in 2 Samuel while I’m taking a little time off to focus on a few other priorities. Thanks for reading. Today’s post was originally published in March 2016.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
The Source and the Purpose (CaD 1 Sam 30) –
David replied, “No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the Lord has given us. He has protected us and delivered into our hands the raiding party that came against us. Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.” 1 Samuel 30:23-24 (NIV)
This past Sunday afternoon, Wendy and I were blessed to help host over 100 people for a backyard cookout along with one of our backyard neighbors. We grilled up a bunch of burgers and dogs and people brought sides and desserts to share.
Last night our home was invaded by about twenty or so high school sophomores and their three adult leaders. A few weeks ago we were asked if the young people could meet at our house on Wednesday nights during this school year. There was never really any question. We’re glad to have them. Wendy and I stuck around for a bit to be introduced to the kids before we sequestered ourselves. Wendy and I have talked about making Wednesday night a date night with some friends who have also volunteered their house for the Wednesday night youth gatherings.
In today’s chapter, David and his men return to their sanctuary town in Philistine territory having been told to do so by King Achish in yesterday’s chapter. While they were off mustering for battle a raiding party of Amalekites swept through, plundered their town, and burned it to the ground. The Amalekites also took all of their wives and children as captives. The first thing David does is consult the priest, Abiathar, to inquire of God whether they should pursue the raiding party. David is given the green light.
While they are in hot pursuit, about 200 of David’s 600 men become weary and choose to stay behind. The remaining 400 overtake the Amalekites, defeat them and return with everyone’s women, children, and all the plunder the Amalekites had taken on their raids.
At this point, the 400 men who completed the defeat of the Amalekites argue with David that the 200 men who stayed behind should not receive any of the plunder since they didn’t participate in the battle. David’s response is swift and strong. The victory, David says, belongs to the Lord, not to their military prowess. The plunder, therefore, is a gift from God and it is to be shared by everyone. David calls his men to think about their Level Three circumstances with a Level Four perspective.
Along my spiritual journey, I have slowly come to embrace the spiritual reality that everything I have belongs to God. Everything in my “possession” will be abandoned and left behind when this journey is over. Jesus is the Alpha point from which all good things flow and all the good things that have flowed into my life. Jesus is the Omega point to which all good things, including all the good things in my life, will ultimately return. I’m not an owner. I’m a steward. The belief that anything I have is really mine is an illusion.
This is why there was never really any question that Wendy and I would allow our home to be invaded every Wednesday night by a bunch of teenagers. We are so blessed with our house. It’s exceeding, abundantly, beyond what we could have once imagined. The story of building it is a God story that leaves us with no doubt that we were supposed to build it, that we were supposed to use it generously, and with it, we were to practice hospitality. It was built to be used, lived in, and shared.
This morning, in the quiet, I’m thankful for all of the blessings I enjoy including my wonderful home office where I sit and type these words, but I’m also thankful for learning to have perspective about the source of the blessing and what we are to do with it.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)
One of the things that changed for many Jesus followers during the COVID pandemic was our “meeting together.” Our local gathering, like most others, moved to produce weekly worship online. I don’t think I’ll ever forget delivering messages to an empty auditorium and a camera.
Like everything in life, there were both opportunities and challenges with staying home and watching worship online. I confess that it was nice to enjoy a lazy morning sitting on the couch in my pajamas. Likewise, I know a lot of families who took advantage of online church to consciously make it a family event. “When life gives you lemons,” as they say.
Our community has been back in regular meeting mode for a long time, though we’re still broadcasting worship online each week. Data from the Institute for Family Studies revealed that the number of regular attenders is down in every demographic while the number of “never attend” is up by similar percentages. There are a number of factors to this decline. Some have legitimate health concerns and a reason to continue being cautious. There are other reasons, however, including those who simply found that they prefer watching, on their couch, in their pajamas.
I thought about this as I read the author of Hebrews encouragement to “not give up meeting together.” For the author, the decline in regular in-person participation was very different. He is writing to Hebrew believers who had gone back to the Jewish synagogue and the sacrificial system of Moses. It’s why he has written so much, and so passionately, about the old system becoming obsolete as Christ ushered in an entirely new spiritual reality. Some couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make the change. They walked away and went back. Old habits die hard.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself mulling over both the opportunities and challenges I’ve experienced in the return to a new “normal.” Since in-person meetings opened back up again, Wendy and I have chosen a couple of times to stay home together and watch online. It was a bit of a sabbath from the routine, and it was good for the soul. We also have loved being able to watch online when we travel or are at the lake, and it’s kept us more connected when we’re away.
At the same time, I have personally found that there’s no substitute for meeting together in person. This is also true in business, as the work world has embraced video meetings as a substitute for in-person meetings. What I’ve observed is that there is so much relationship, connection, and conversation that happens around the meetings themselves. Just this past Sunday I caught up with so many friends who are going through different struggles and circumstances in life. I get to hug them, hear how things are going, and learn how I can pray more specifically for them and their situation.
I thought this morning about every personal interaction and conversation I had with individuals before and after our last meeting together. I made a list in my head, pictured the individuals, and considered what we talked about. I then asked myself if those interactions were beneficial for me, for my life, and my relationships, and whether I would have been missing something had I stayed home and watched on the couch in my pajamas. For me, there’s no doubt about the answer. Those personal interactions are as vital and life-giving as anything that happened within the meeting itself.
Things change, and I’m sure that COVID has changed life in ways that we’ll be sorting out for decades to come. Reading about these changes in the media, I observe that the take is often the way the media enjoys simplifying things into binary choices: good or bad. When it comes to people not returning to in-person worship I find it a “yes, and.” There are both good things and bad things that have resulted in the change. C’est la vie.
As for me, I know that spurring fellow believers on and being spurred on by them, encouraging and being encouraged, and loving and being loved don’t happen in equal measure when I’m sitting on the couch watching in my pajamas.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
This month marks our sixth anniversary here at “Vander Well Manor,” the house Wendy and I built here in the most awesome little town in America. Wendy, working alongside our contractor, did a lot of the designing of our house and she did an amazing job.
One of the rooms that got special attention in the design of our home was the dining room. In fact, the original designs had the dining room that you usually see in homes today. It was a tight little space large enough to comfortably fit a standard table for six. We quickly decided that this just wouldn’t do. We ended up creating an entire addition to the house just for our dining room in which we placed a table that comfortably seats eight (but we’ve squeezed 10-12 people around it).
One of our good friends once commented, “You’re the only people I know who actually use your dining room on a regular basis.” Meals are an important piece of life to Wendy and me. It’s where we gather with family and friends. It’s where conversation flows like wine and where community is formed. Even when our girls were teenagers and lives were hectic, we attempted to have at least one evening meal per week in which we were sitting together at the table and engaged one another. Now, the nest is empty, but even Wendy and I frequent the dining room, just the two of us.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 128, is akin to yesterday’s. It’s hard not to understand why the editors who compiled this collection of ancient Hebrew song lyrics put the two side-by-side in the compilation. They are both celebrations of hearth, home, and family.
The words “your children will be like olive shoots around your table” leaped off the page when I read it. Olive shoots were a common metaphor to the ancient Hebrews. An olive shoot is young, green, full of life and possibility. Olive trees have amazingly long and productive lives. One olive tree in Portugal is estimated to be 3,350 years old. That means it was already over 1,000 years old when the writer of Psalm 128 penned the lyrics of today’s chapter. When I visited the olive “garden” outside of Jerusalem where tradition says Jesus went to pray the night of His arrest, I learned that there were trees in that garden today that were alive and present that fateful night.
Wendy and I were so blessed this past Christmas to have the kids and Milo home. As always, meals were an important part of the family agenda from cocktails through dessert. Christmas Day began with a brunch feast and continued in the afternoon with the most amazing charcuterie spread that Wendy and the girls worked together to create. I cherish the experience, and the Life present and celebrated around the table. As the Hebrews say as a toast, “L’chaim!” (“to life!”).
In the quiet this morning, I remember a former colleague who told me that their family ate the entire traditional Thanksgiving feast in ten minutes. She then swore that she wasn’t exaggerating. The family gathered, ate, and were done at the table in ten minutes. I’m not criticizing. That might just be how they roll, and that’s cool for them. As for me, and my house, we’re going to be at the table a little longer than that, enjoying good food, good drink, good conversations, and the good company of one another which happens far too seldom.
When I was a young man, I embarked on a fact-finding mission to better understand my families of origin. What I discovered was that underneath the veneer of stories that I’d been told (the good, polite, and acceptable ones) there was a whole lot of mess.
The Great Story is full of wisdom that reads like simple binary formulas. A+B=C.
Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.
The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short.
I like simple formulas, and I’ve observed that most other human beings do too. That’s why name-it-and-claim-it televangelists get people to send them millions (“Give and you will receive!“). It’s how we get suckered into all sorts of things (“Just five minutes a day with the Ab Monster and you’ll have a six-pack like this dude!“). I’ve also observed and experienced that it’s how many institutional churches approach life. “Do this and you’ll experience God’s blessings; Don’t do that or you’ll suffer God’s punishment.” It’s no wonder the world is rejecting the church and screaming “It doesn’t work!”
Along my spiritual journey, I’ve come to the realization that the spiritual path, the path of wisdom, and following Jesus is not a simple math equation as it may appear on the surface and/or how it’s often presented. It’s more like actuarial science based on general rules, complex principles, earthly probabilities, percentages, and exceptions. Simple formulas are fubar’d when imperfect human beings enter the equation with our emotions, pride, passions, appetites, desires, fears, and free will.
Train up a child in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it.
It seems so simple that I want to name it and claim it. It appears so simple that when I witness someone’s child making poor choices it must be that his parents missed an ingredient in the good Christian, Focus-on-the-Family formula, or her behavior must reveal the proof I need that mom and dad are blowing it in the parental department. The simple train-up-a-child formula sounded so easy when my daughters were babes who were completely dependent on my absolute provision and authority. Then an adult child strikes out on her own path, making her own choices, and finding her own way. It looks nothing like the paternal expectations I anticipated as part of that simple formula when my head and heart were intoxicated with absolute authority over her life. It’s easy for me to feel cheated by what appeared to be simple math.
In my own life journey and experiences with messy family, Lady Wisdom has taught me a few things:
The path Jesus prescribed for His followers was never about moral perfection, an easy-life, and earthly abundance; It’s about selflessness, sacrifice, and love-in-action.
The only things I really control are my own thoughts, words, actions, and choices. The notion I control anything else is an illusion.
My family members are on their own spiritual journeys, just like me. If I want them to have grace and understanding with my shit, I have to have grace with theirs. If I want them to have patience and understanding as I navigate this stretch of life in my 50s, which I’ve never experienced before, then I have to let them navigate their 20s and 30s, which they’ve never experienced, with that same patience and understanding.
If I believe God is faithful and can be trusted, and I believe He is, then I can entrust others to God while I choose to let go of my personal expectations of them.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 127, is a song that the liner notes ascribe to Solomon, the son of King David. It is another one of the songs that ancient Hebrew pilgrims sang on their trek to Jerusalem. It is both a celebration of family and a reminder that all of life’s blessings and securities are gifts from God, not the In the quiet this morning, I’m making a little mental inventory of the family stories embedded in the Great Story:
Lot was incestuous with his daughters.
Abraham slept with his concubine at his wife’s insistence and the consequences are still being felt today.
Jacob (and his mother) deceived his father and stole his brother’s birthright.
Joseph was beaten and sold into slavery by his own brothers.
David committed adultery and refused to deal with the incestuous rape his own son committed against his half-sister.
David’s son, Solomon, was the offspring of his scandalous, adulterous, conspiratorial marriage to Bathsheba and murder of her husband.
And its Solomon who the wrote the lyrics of today’s Psalm. For me, reading the lyrics of today’s chapter knowing the unvarnished truth of Solomon’s family story strips away the notion of simple spiritual formulas with it comes to family.
Family is messy. It just is.
There are many spiritual principles that influence the outcomes I generally experience on this life journey, both positively and negatively. But it’s not always a simple equation. I can build a home and family, but it still won’t cure the mess. Solomon knew that as well as anyone. He reminds me this morning that life’s blessings and securities are gifts, not rewards.
Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Exodus 19:5 (NRSVCE)
Our daughter, Madison, just closed on her first house this past week. We’re so excited for her and her husband, Garrett. What an exciting waypoint in their journey.
As we were discussing home ownership, the subject of paperwork and bureaucracy came up. I told Madison, “Just wait until you close!” There is nothing like sitting there with a stack of paper that requires your signature and initials everywhere for everything. Even if you’re trying to be careful and understand what you’re signing it all becomes a fog. By the end of it my brain was fogged over and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome had permanently settled in my left hand. The closing agent just kept thrusting papers in front of me and I kept signing.
All the paperwork, of course, is part of a complex contract between buyers, sellers, real estate agents, government, and financial agents. It is an agreement between parties.
In ancient times, this type of contract was known as a covenant. It was the ancient form of a binding contract between parties. It’s already come up in the Great Story. God made a covenant with Noah after the flood. God made covenants with Abraham. In today’s chapter, God makes a covenant with the Hebrew people. The concept of a “covenant” between God and people was unlike any other religion of that day. But the Hebrews would have understood the concept because covenants were common in personal, familial, business, and international relationships. Two parties agree to binding terms and obligations. While the “Sinai Covenant” in today’s chapter is like other ancient covenants, scholars point out that it is unique and has no direct parallel in antiquity.
The covenant in today’s chapter is quite simple. God agrees to make the Hebrew people His “treasured” people, a priestly kingdom, and a “holy” nation. In return, the Hebrew people agree to be obedient and keep their obligations as will be set out in the commandments and laws given through Moses.
In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over one of the commentaries I read about this text:
Typically, both parties to a contract, treaty or similar legal agreement could expect to benefit from their commitment. It is not at all clear that the Biblical text wants its readers to believe that Yahweh will receive some benefit from this relationship with the Israelites that he would not otherwise be able to obtain. The text speaks of great benefit awaiting the Israelites for their consistent obedience to their covenantal obligations. For Yahweh’s part, his actions do not appear to be based in self-interest but in a willingness to be gracious and to extend freely his blessing.
What is Yaweh getting out of the covenant? “His actions do not appear to be based in self-interest but in a willingness to be gracious and extend freely his blessing.”
I couldn’t help but think of these words from Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in Philippians:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
God is establishing and foreshadowing the core theme of the Great Story. What was lost in Eden? Relationship. How does the prophesied story end at the end of the book of Revelation? Restoration and relationship. In my podcast Time (Part 1) I talked about the Great Story being like a human life-cycle from birth-to-death-to-rebirth.
What is a parent’s relationship like with a toddler? The parent dictates the rules and asks the child to obey. Rules and obligations. Parents graciously extend protection and provision. They expect obedience. While the child can’t cognitively understand just how graciously his or her parents are being, they simply understand that when they obey things are okay and when they disobey they get in trouble.
At Sinai, I believe that God and humanity are in the toddler stage of relationship.
I’m looking at it, of course, from 2000 years past Jesus’ death and resurrection. We’re much further in the life-cycle of the relationship between God and humanity. There are a couple of things I’ve learned in my parenting journey now that our daughters are grown and have established their own adult lives and families.
First, the desire and willingness to be gracious and extend blessing never ends no matter how old your children are. Second, the desire for relationship with them does not end, but only gets stronger. When they come home, reach out, call, or write it is the best blessing ever.
The bottom-line. God desires relationship with me. The Father graciously sent His Son to suffer on my behalf. The Son willingly did so. The Father and Son sent their Spirit to abide in me. Everything is about inviting me into this relationship, this circle of love, this divine dance.
I just have to choose in.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. Nehemiah 11:1 (NIV)
In recent weeks the Bahamas were struck by Hurricane Dorian. The devastation was immense. Fresh in my mind are the images of the rubble as entire communities appear to have been completely leveled. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to get supplies to the island and how expensive and labor-intensive it will be to rebuild. I’m sure that there will be some survivors who will be evacuated and never return to their homes.
It’s easy for me to read the handful of chapters of Nehemiah and get the sense that the walls of Jerusalem were quickly rebuilt by the returned exiles, the gates were put in their place, and suddenly Jerusalem was settled. Mission accomplished! The people moved in and all was well. But, it didn’t work that way.
The Babylonian’s destruction of the city was devastating. It wasn’t just the walls and Solomon’s Temple that were leveled. The Babylonians destroyed and burned dwellings. Those who were left in the area seem to have largely resettled in nearby towns. The exiles who returned preferred not to live in the rubble of Jerusalem where redevelopment and rebuilding would be hard and costly. Most exiles would prefer to live easier in the countryside outside the city.
Governor Nehemiah and his fellow leaders implemented a forced repopulation of the city by forcing ten percent of the people to move into the city as decided by an ancient form of lottery. This type of forced repopulation was somewhat common in ancient times.
I was reminded as I read the chapter this morning that many of the Hebrews taken into exile never returned home. Jewish communities in Persia lived and thrived near ancient Babylon until modern times. Those who did return faced many difficulties and hardships. Rebuilding isn’t easy. Sometimes exile becomes permanent. Our concept of “home” shifts.
There’s a spiritual lesson in that for me. Among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, we are continuing to explore the broader theme of exile. I mentioned in a message I gave a few weeks ago that exile is universal in the Bible. Once Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden they became exiles. We all did. Paul and Peter both wrote that this world is not our home; we are citizens of heaven.
I’ve observed, however, that it is very easy for my mind and spirit to be repatriated in my earthly exile. I make this world my home. I put down roots. I store up possessions. I build a home (that could easily be blown apart by a tornado just as the Bahamas were devastated by Hurricane Dorian). I invest in my earthly future. Eventually, without even giving it much thought, I find myself treating my earthly exile as if it’s my eternal home. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at…
“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.
In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that God’s Message repeatedly speaks of our days being numbered. Just as Nehemiah cast lots that brought exiles back into the City of Jerusalem, my number will come up one day and my exile will be over. I will return to what John’s Revelation calls the New Jerusalem. In the meantime, I’m left figuring out how to tangibly do what Jesus instructed. I must learn how to invest less time, energy, and resources on my earthly exile, and transfer the investment into God’s eternal Kingdom.
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.
“For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” 2 Chronicles 30:9b (NRSVCE)
A few years ago I wrote a play and the entire play was created out of one simple truth: At some point, you have to return home. From there I reached out and plucked a leaf off the tree of tales about a young boy who ran away from his true love and stayed away for many years. When tragedy strikes just over a decade later he has no choice but to return home, and with it he must face the thing he’s been running from for so long.
The theme of “returning” is a big one across the Great Story. There are so many stories in which people find themselves off in some kind of wilderness. Sometimes they place themselves there and sometimes they are there against their will, but somehow they eventually return in some fashion whether they are led, they are invited, they are forced by circumstance, or they simply choose to do so.
In today’s chapter we pick up the story of King Hezekiah who is trying to help his nation heal after years in which they’ve willfully wandered from the God of their ancestors and many find themselves in the wilderness of captivity. In yesterday’s chapter, Hezekiah had the Levites clean out the temple and prepare it to be used as it had been intended for the worship God. In today’s chapter he sends out a proclamation throughout the land, even to neighboring countries where people were living in exile and captivity. The proclamation simply asked people to do one thing: return. Hezekiah wanted all of the Hebrew people to come to Jerusalem for the biggest annual festival on the Hebrew calendar. The Passover feast celebrated God delivering their nation from slavery in Egypt.
Along my journey I’ve seen the theme of return play out in the lives of many people in many different ways. I’ve observed that we often abandon faith in God early in life. Sometimes it’s a willful choice out of disagreement with the faith institution of our childhood. Sometimes it’s prompted by pain or a tragic victimization of some kind. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to go our own way. So we wander, and often our spirits are stuck back in childhood. Then later in our life journey I observe people returning, not necessarily to an institution, but to God whom they find altogether different than those childhood memories of pain, anger, doubt, and frustration. Not because God has changed, but they have changed and with it their understanding and perceptions.
In today’s chapter the people of Judah returned for the Passover. Just as Joseph returned to his family. Just as David returned after years as mercenary in exile. Just as the remnant returned from Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Just as the prodigal son returned in Jesus’ parable. Just as Peter returned after denying Jesus. Just as Jesus returned to the Father after His resurrection.
No matter how far we may wander, no matter where we may roam, I’ve found that God’s Spirit is always whispering to our spirits:
“Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant; do not be dismayed, Israel. I will surely save you out of a distant place.” Jeremiah 46:27 (NIV)
We just finished our Memorial Day weekend at the lake with friends and the kids wanted to watch Star Wars’ Rogue One. As I watched I thought about the underlying story of the hero, Jyn Erso. The movie starts with Jyn as a young girl being separated from her parents (particularly her father), which is infused with all sorts of psychological weight. We quickly meet the adult Jyn, and we find her in prison (in more ways than one) and adrift in life. Through the entire movie we accompany her on her journey to be reunited with her father and reconciled to the larger purpose their own journeys play in the larger story. The last words she hears before that final, fateful moment: “Your father would be proud of you.”
Exile and being “on the run” is a common theme in stories. The Star Wars universe uses it over and over again. In the original Episode 4 we meet Luke in exile with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine along with a mysterious old wizard, Ben Kenobi, also living in his own exile. They leave the planet with Han Solo who is on the run from Jabba the Hut and the bounty on this head. In The Force Awakens we meet Rey living in exile on Jakku where she meets Finn who is… wait for it…on the run from the evil Kylo Ren, who in his own self-appointed exile, having run away from home to join the dark side.
Why do stories, novels, movies, and plays use these same themes and devices over and over again? Because they touch something deep inside us. We identify with them in our own respective journeys. When I listen to people tell the story of their life journey and/or their spiritual journey I’ll commonly hear people speaking in terms of “running,” “getting away,” “thrown out,” “straying,” “rebelling,” “distancing,” or being “far from home.” We get it. We connect with it. It’s part of our common humanity.
With today’s chapter we’re entering the final section of the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s works. This final section is a series of prophetic messages Jeremiah made against the nations that made up the socio-political horizon of his day. The messages were seemingly arranged geographically from west to east, beginning with today’s prophetic word against Egypt.
After waxing apocalyptic against Egypt, Jeremiah speaks to his own people, promising them both exile (citing punishment for their idolatrous ways) and the eventual return and reconciliation of their descendants.
Exile and return. There’s that theme again.
This morning I’m sitting at the lake watching the morning fog roll through the trees across the cove. It’s the same view my parents enjoyed for so many years before me. It’s the same view our girls enjoyed growing up. It’s the view I get to introduce to our grandson in a few weeks. There something special about the places that become waypoints in the journey of multiple generations. Generations and their respective stories of being home and being on the run, of exile and return, of separation and reconciliation. The common themes that become a different kind of waypoint, connecting us to the larger story.