Tag Archives: Hope

The Pessimist

“Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’”
Zechariah 1:17 (NIV)

I have a young friend who appears to be, by nature, a pessimist. Wendy and I have observed as his bleak outlook on reality and his penchant for seeing everything in his young life through the lens of doom-and-gloom pessimism is driving his parents crazy. But here is the thing: I get it.

I have a very vivid memory of being about my young friend’s age and sitting at the counter of our kitchen as my mother worked over the stove making dinner. I don’t even remember the exact conversation or what I happened to be whining about. I do remember my mother rolling her eyes and saying with a hint of exasperation, “You’re such a pessimist!” It was the first time I remember hearing that word and I had to look it up.

That became one of my earliest experiences with introspection. I had been labeled by my mother. Why would my mom call me that? Was I really a pessimist? Did I really see the negative in everything around me? What if I don’t want to be that?

In recent months I’ve been blogging through the parts of God’s Message that center around the Babylonian exile of the Hebrew people of Jerusalem and Judah that began roughly around 598 B.C. and lasted about 70 years.

I’ve realized of late that I’ve always had false perceptions about the historic exile and return. I’ve had the false notion that a huge contingent of Hebrews were sitting in Babylon just itching to return to their homeland and restore the city of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon. The truth is that most of them taken Jeremiah’s advice in a letter he mailed to all the exiles that had been taken to Babylon:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Jeremiah 29:4-7

When the King of Persian finally gave the thumb’s up for the Hebrews to return, most of them had no interest in going. They were settled. Darius King of Persia was reigning over a peaceful empire at that moment. They were pessimistic about the prospects of going back.

In today’s opening chapter of Zechariah, the prophet appears on the scene. There is a zealous contingent of exiles who want to return to Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and restore the system of worship and sacrifice that God had prescribed through Moses. There is a large contingent of very content exiles who are pessimistic about the whole idea of returning to the rubble of Jerusalem.

I can just hear the pessimistic exiles: “It just seems like such a lot of work. There will be so much danger on the return journey from bandits. Then there will be danger back in Jerusalem from all of our ancient enemies who still live in the area. And, seriously?! The work required to rebuild city walls and a huge temple is just so daunting. And really? Is it all that important? We have good lives here. It’s peaceful. My pottery business is thriving and my daughter is engaged to a nice local boy. I want to be near my grandchildren.”

These are the people Zechariah is addressing with his prophetic word, and in this opening chapter, he attempts to provide some optimism and a call to faith in order to change their minds. God’s word through him is “this IS going to happen! There will once again be peace and prosperity in Judah and Jerusalem! Believe it!”

Some did. Many did not.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reflecting on my own life journey. I’m still given to pessimism, and Wendy will be happy to supply you with examples. I do, however, think that I’ve come a long, long way in my spiritual journey. And, what I’ve discovered is that optimism requires faith to see the hope, the potential, and the silver lining in things. The stronger my faith has become along my journey, the more I’ve been able to counteract my natural pessimism with optimistic hope.

I also find myself praying for my young friend. He’s got a long road ahead in his own life journey. I pray God strengthens his faith and teaches him hope. Hope-fully I can help him out along the way.

Have a great day, my friend. (No, really! It’s going to be great!)

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Rules and Exceptions

On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God.

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.
Nehemiah 13:1,3 (NIV)

A large part of my daily vocation is working with companies and their Quality Assessment (QA) efforts. You know, when you call and they say, “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes”? That’s a piece of what our company does.

Many years ago I observed a pattern in many companies with whom I consulted on their QA programs. An exceptional situation will result in a general rule for the population. Often, the rule had more of a detrimental effect than the exceptional situation that started it ever would. Let me give you an example.

Our team’s customer surveys (another piece of what our company does) typically find that customers appreciate a company who knows their name (Remember Cheers? “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”) and offers a personal service experience. Then one day a well-meaning Customer Service Representative (CSR) makes a mistake and addresses the caller by the wrong name or butchers the pronunciation of an unusual sounding name. The customer goes postal on the CSR and calls back to speak with managers and executives up the org chart making a huge deal out of a relatively little thing. Management, not wanting to have that happen again, makes a general rule: CSRs will no longer address customers by name!

The result? One exceptional, cranky customer who made a mountain out of a molehill has resulted in all customers getting a diminished service experience from the company.

Then I began to realize that this isn’t just something that happens in business. It happens all the time in families, churches, communities, and cultures. In fact, it happens in today’s chapter, but I bet you didn’t see it if you read the chapter.

Back in the days of Moses, there were two exceptional enemies of the Hebrews. The Ammonites and Moabites had gone out of their way to curse the Hebrews and attempted to thwart their passing through the land. Because of this, the law of Moses contained an exceptional rule:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.

Deuteronomy 23:3-4 (NIV)

Then, I read again what Nehemiah and the returned exiles did when they read this text:

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.

Nehemiah 13:3 (NIV) [emphasis added]

Do you see what they did there? They took an exceptional situation that applied to two specific people groups (the Moabites and Ammonites) being allowed into the temple, and they expanded into a general rule excluding all people of foreign descent from the entire land.

Here’s the kicker. In doing this, they were breaking another very specific law of God in Leviticus 19:

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.'”

Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)

I can see the legal wrangling spinning in the hearts and heads of Nehemiah and his people: “If we exclude all foreigners from the land, then we won’t have any of them residing among us, and that renders the Leviticus rule moot!”

By the way, what Nehemiah and the people are doing in today’s chapter is part of why Jesus came 400 years later to find a culture of separation, animosity, prejudice, and hatred between Jews and Gentiles. If they’d have interpreted Deuteronomy 23:3-4 differently and made Leviticus 19:33-34 their general rule, things may have just have turned out differently.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking of all the ways we still do this today. Parents have one child who rebels and they clamp down their draconian rules on all of their children in the belief that the entire brood is a bunch of little rebels waiting to happen. Two young people at a school dance go too far and the girl ends up pregnant, so the church outlaws dancing in any form as evil. One dumb terrorist thought he could plant a bomb in his shoe (simply resulting in him burning his feet), and now billions of travelers have to have their shoes removed and x-rayed at every airport in the world.

By the way, I think both extremes of the political spectrum do this, as well. Let me give you two easy examples. The right does it with guns: “Because the Constitution made an exception for Colonists to have a musket to defend themselves against enemies and provide food for their tables, there’s no reason why I can’t have an M-16 and a rocket launcher in my home arsenal.” The left does it with abortion: “Because there are tragic situations of rape, incest, and life-threatening situations, we should allow abortion for all women, for any reason, right until the moment of delivery in the ninth month.”

The further I get in my life journey the more I observe that we humans are largely driven by fear, distrust, and emotional over-reactions. I don’t want to live that way. I’d rather have my life, words, and actions driven by faith, hope, and love. And, the latter most of all.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

It’s Colder than the Arctic. Oh, the Joy!

I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.
2 Corinthians 7:4b

Note to subscribers: I had a technical glitch publishing this post this morning with some nasty HTML coding issues. My apologies. I trashed the original post and am reposting, so you may have gotten two emails. Sorry. Maybe it’s the cold 😉

I write this post from the depths of winter in Iowa. It’s -13 as I tap out these words, which is a bit warmer than it was yesterday. This morning I woke up to find our hot water heater isn’t working. Lovely.

Just a week or so ago I was sitting in O’Hare airport in Chicago chatting with a wonderfully gregarious transplant from New Zealand. He was complaining about the weather extremes he’s learned to live with here in the midwest of North America. It reminded me of an observation Garrison Keillor once made: Living in the midwest is like spending your summers in Death Valley and your winters in the Arctic. Indeed. Here’s the headline from the Des Moines Register on Tuesday:

 

Article Headline from Des Moines Register, January 29, 2019.

Along the journey we face all kinds of different challenges. While it’s human to grumble and complain, I often find it personally necessary to make myself put things in context. This morning’s chapter provided it for me.

In writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul references “all our troubles.” Later in the letter he provides specifics. Let me jump ahead for the sake of today’s thought. Paul writes:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received the forty lashes minus one.(Note: 39 lashes with a scourge was the ancient prescription to bring the punished to the point of death without letting them actually slip into the comfort of death). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones (Note: Paul’s would be executioners actually believed they had successfully stoned him to death. His body was carried and dumped outside the city of Lystra and left for dead.), three times I was shipwrecked (Note: He doesn’t mention the venomous snake bite that should have killed him.), I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move (Note: Scholars say that Paul logged some 10,000 miles during his journeys. That’s roughly 21,120,000 steps without a FitBit) . I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

As I said: Context can be a good antidote for self-centered misery. It’s cold this morning and my water heater is broken. I am, however, in a warm house, with warm clothes, and a warm wife. The water heater guy will be by in a few hours to deal with the hot water problem. Boo-hoo for me.

What I found even more fascinating as I read Paul’s words today was that while he endured torture, stoning, shipwrecks, snakebites, imprisonment and the rest, he states that his “joy knows no bounds.”

Along this journey Wendy and I have learned a lot about joy (though I will freely confess that I know far less than Paul). Joy always jumps off the page at me, because it is one of those words that holds a lot of meaning for Wendy and me. We’ve learned from our journey together that joy is something deeper than a momentary feeling such as happiness which flits in and out with the ever shifting winds of circumstance. Joy comes from a deep spring. It’s not a surface, run-off emotion. You have to drill through bedrock of suffering to experience the flow of joy. It is a spiritual by-product of the three things that remain when all else is stripped away: faith, hope, and love.

In the quiet (and a blessedly warm home office) I am thankful this morning for the flow of joy that Wendy and I have come to experience, independent of whatever momentary personal circumstances we may be experiencing.

By the way, temperatures here in picturesque Pella, Iowa are forecast to be 57 degrees (above zero) on Sunday.

Context.

Stay warm, my friend. Have a great day.

Waiting and Watching

[Jesus] said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
Acts 1:7 (NIV)

I must confess that I am an impatient person. I always have been. Perhaps being the youngest child in a family of four was a contributing factor. You watch all of your sibling growing up and they are always allowed to do cool things while you have to wait.

You’re not old enough yet.
You’ll have to wait until you’re older.
Someday you’ll be allowed to do that.

Ugh. I can still feel my childish annoyance with these statements.

As I look back on the early years of my journey I can clearly see how impatient I was with the very process of life. I doggedly attempted to push the process whenever I could. I graduated early from high school. I started college early. I was on a mission to find a wife, to get married and get on with life. In retrospect, I can see how often I pursued shortcuts to get further down the road faster. In at least a few cases, the shortcuts had tragic results from which I’ve had to learn some very hard life lessons.

As we enter the book of Acts this morning we find Jesus’ followers in a period of waiting. It’s not just the 11 remaining appointed disciples, but also the women who had long traveled with and supported Jesus’ ministry. There is also a larger circle of a hundred or so believers in the entourage including Jesus’ mother and brothers.

What’s next?” is the burning question among the crew. The resurrected Jesus has been making appearances over a six-week period. With their question “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples are clearly hanging onto their repeatedly stated desire for a shortcut to what they hope is a restoration of the earthly kingdom of the Jewish monarchy (and their own positions of temporal power and authority within that administration).

Jesus first lays down a difficult truth for his followers: You don’t get to know the whole plan. He goes on to explain that the next step is to keep waiting, and to keep praying, for an upcoming event in which the believers will be immersed in Holy Spirit power. Their mission will then be to give witness to ever spreading circles of influence around the globe.

Great,” I can hear his disciples mutter. “More waiting.”

This morning I write from a stretch in my personal journey in which I’m experiencing a process of fulfillment in areas of life that I’ve long waited for. I confess that I’m still impatient. Time, experience and maturity has helped, but I still identify with Peter and the crew. I want to know the plan, with dates, and details about what God is going to do in our lives and when He’s going to do it. I have, however, walked this journey long enough to know that this is not how it works. This is a faith journey, and that usually means simply pressing on to the next step.

In the quiet this morning I find myself once again asking God for patience, and surrendering my self-centric desire to want to know, and to know now. “Just wait,” I hear Holy Spirit whisper to my spirit. I catch what I perceive is a grin. “It’s coming,” the Spirit whispers, “Trust me in this. With each step that is revealed there will be more mystery sitting further up and further in. That’s how this works. It’s a faith journey. You can be confident that all that Father has planned will be accomplished at the right time. You can be sure of this, even if you can’t see it yet.”

Time, Distance, and Perspective

[King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon] took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.
2 Chronicles 36:20-21 (NRSVCE)

Struggle, discouragement, loss, conflict, death, and divorce. Along my Life journey I’ve experienced both events and seasons I didn’t understand in the moment. I had no good answers to the “why” questions. From my vantage point on the road of life, the dark clouds surrounding me had no silver lining. Daily life became a slog through confusion, anxiety, grief, and even despair.

I know my experience is not the exception, but the rule. While the exact events and seasons may differ from person to person, I don’t know a single person who has not experienced at least a few “mountain top” moments in life, nor is there a person I know who hasn’t walked through what the Psalmist aptly describes as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Even Jesus in His earthly journey had His mountain top transfiguration contrasted with His guttural cry of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In today’s chapter we finish the book of 2 Chronicles. It’s a Cliff Notes version of the final Kings of Judah who become puppets of both the Eyptian and Babylonian empires. The season of Judah as an independent kingdom is over.

What fascinated me as I read the Chronicler’s final chapter is how he left the story. It’s very different than the scribe who wrote a parallel history in the book of 2 Kings. The scribe of Kings was writing at the time of the Babylonian exile. The story simply comes to an end with the fall of the Kingdom to Babylon. He is writing in the dark cloud of defeat. He has no vantage point of time and distance. He has no answers to the “why” questions. He is struggling to make sense out of the circumstances.

The Chronicler, however, is writing post-exile. He’s is further down the road of life and history. Cyrus, King of Persia, has allowed the Hebrew exiles to return to Jerusalem and has made allowance for wall of Jerusalem and the Temple to be rebuilt. There is a new beginning. There is hope. The Chronicler looks back at the exile and sees prophetic fulfillment. He sees that the exile has allowed his homeland to experience sabbath in preparation for a new season, the planting of new seeds, and the anticipation of new life and possibility of a fruitful future.

This morning I’m thinking about the ebb and flow of our respective journeys and our stories. There will be mountain top moments. There will be deep valleys and despair. I won’t always have “why” answers in the moment. In fact, I come to accept that I may never have certain “why” answers that satisfy my heart this side of eternity. If I keep pressing on, however, I may be able to look back with much needed perspective. Like the Chronicler, I may see in retrospect that to which I was blind in the moment.

At the end of every valley is another rise, and that which lies beyond. I won’t see it until I get there.

Possibility. Anticipation. Hope.

The Improbable Actually Happens

[The Assyrians] shouted it with a loud voice in the language of Judah to the people of Jerusalem who were on the wall, to frighten and terrify them, in order that they might take the city.
2 Chronicles 32:18 (NRSVCE)

It’s such an improbable moment. Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, and your team trailing by three runs. The grand slam to win the game. It actually happened on Sunday night when a Chicago Cub rookie named David Bote actually pulled off the improbable home run that every kid dreams about on the sandlot.

Sometimes the improbable happens. Jesus, who pulled off all sorts of improbable feats, reminded His followers that with God nothing is impossible, no matter how improbable.

Today’s chapter records one of the most improbable events in history. The Chronicler provides a condensed description of the events, which were more thoroughly told by the scribes who wrote the book of 2 Kings and by the prophet Isaiah.

The Assyrians of the ancient world were really bad dudes. They had taken warfare to a whole new level and made themselves fabulously powerful and wealthy by raiding, plundering, and decimating other nations. They were the first to use siege engines and had a corp of engineers who found all sorts of ingenious ways of breaching the walls of the cities they attacked.

The weapon the Assyrians used most effectively, however, was fear. They were heinously brutal in their treatment of conquered. They impaled people on spikes, skinned people alive, dismembered people, and burned others alive. The Assyrians discovered that the more brutal they were, the more fear they spread into the next cities on their campaign and the more fearful people were, the easier it was to defeat them.

In today’s chapter the Chronicler records another tactic the Assyrians used. They had a master manipulator who would stand outside the city walls and talk smack to the people inside in their own language, psychologically wearing them down with fear and intimidation. The Assyrian envoy loudly mocks King Hezekiah, mocks the Judeans, and mocks God.

Hezekiah stands firm. He reminds his people, “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.”

The defeat of the Assyrians is an improbability bordering on impossibility. Jerusalem didn’t have the defenses to withstand a siege. The Assyrians were on a roll. They were better equipped, more experienced at war, and had everything in their favor. It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and King Hezekiah is down to his last strike.

And then the improbable happened. The entire Assyrian army encamped around Jerusalem dies overnight. Historians to this day argue about what happened to the Assyrian army, but the improbable actually happened. Jerusalem was spared by the most improbable of events.

This morning I’m thinking about discouragement and fear. It’s so easy to get down and discouraged. I find myself bombarded in news media and social media with messages telling me to be afraid of everything. Everything is so bleak. There is so much to worry about. Things are so terrible, so awful,  and so hopeless. Ugh.

Today I’m encouraged by a grand slam and a historical event.

The improbable happens.

The Work

David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.
1 Chronicles 28:20 (NIV)

When all the work Solomon had done for the temple of the Lord was finished
Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.
2 Chronicles 5:3-4, 13-14 (NIV)

King David had been anointed king of Israel by the prophet Samuel while he was still as a boy. Yet, for many years he lived on the run from the reigning King Saul as an outlaw and mercenary. Before becoming King of Israel, first David would be crowned King of his own tribe, Judah. Then began the hard work of reuniting the other tribes into a united kingdom and establishing Jerusalem as its capitol.

From his anointing as King to the fulfillment of the anointing was some 40 years of work to survive, waiting for God to fulfill what had been promised and prophesied many years before.

Once King, David had a passionate vision. He wanted to build a great temple for God in Jerusalem, a permanent version of the tent temple prescribed by God through Moses for the Hebrews as they left Egypt. It would not happen in his lifetime. David made plans, put certain pieces in place, and made provisions. The work, however, would pass to his son, Solomon. “Be strong and courageous,” David admonished his son, “and do the work.”

For over eleven years Solomon diligently carried out his father’s wishes and the construction was completed. It was another year before the dedication would take place.

In today’s chapter, the temple is dedicated. At the inaugural worship service a manifestation of God’s presence, a cloud, fills the temple just as it had filled the tent back in Moses day.

When reading through God’s Message, it’s easy to lose sense of just how long it took for things to happen. David is anointed King, but it took 40 years before it was fulfilled. Solomon promised to build the temple, but it took 12 years of diligent work before it was completed.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve experienced promises, visions, and the prophetic. I’ve also been prone to expect fulfillment in the speed and ease with which I can read David and Solomon’s story from one chapter to the next. When things don’t happen as quickly or as simply as I desired and expected, I fight impatience. Doubts creep in. Faith becomes a struggle. The day-to-day work of pressing on towards the goal often feels like a slog.

This morning as I read about the completion of Solomon’s Temple and as I pictured the cloud of God’s presence being so thick that the priests couldn’t perform their sacrificial work, it struck me that this exciting moment of fulfillment was itself the end of a very long journey. The moment was preceded by a lifetime and two generations of diligent work through faith, struggle, doubt, victory, tragedy, promise, failure, setbacks and hope.

I hear a whisper in my spirit this morning. “Be strong and courageousand do the work.”

And so begins another day.

featured photo courtesy of tjblackwell via Flickr