Tag Archives: Inspiration

Unlikely Hero

“And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther 4:14b

In a couple of weeks, I’m scheduled to give a message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers entitled “It’s a Secret.” In preparation for that message, I have been pouring over some of Frank Warren’s PostSecret books. For those who are unfamiliar, Warren is simply a small business person who decided to do an art project. He handed out about 3000 black postcards with his address printed on them and asked people to share their “secret” with him. Years later they keep arriving from all over the world and his blog at postsecret.com is among the most popular in the world.

As I read today’s chapter, in which Queen Esther is made aware of Haman’s plot to annihilate her people, I thought about her secret. Esther had successfully managed to become the queen of Persia by being keeping her heritage and ethnicity a secret. She had assimilated into Persian culture. She did not demand a kosher diet, which would have given her away. She did not bring up any moral objections during her year-long education in providing the king sexual pleasure. The evidence would suggest that Esther was not a “godly woman” (by the strict definition of religiously following the tenents and disciplines of Judaism) and the faith of her people does not appear to have been something she practiced or felt compelled to take seriously.

I was also reminded, once again, that God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. It’s also interesting that when Esther asked Mordecai and her people to fast for three days it does not mention prayer in conjunction with the fasting. While prayer and fasting traditionally went together, the prayer part of it is not mentioned by the Queen.

Along the journey, I’ve observed that the institutions and adherents of my own faith like to try and keep God in their own binary boxes. I confess that I have, at times, fallen prey to this notion myself. People are either “sinners” or “saints.” God’s pleasure and purpose are reserved for the latter but definitely not the former. And yet, there are so many examples of God using people who wouldn’t pass our moral or religious litmus tests in order to accomplish His purposes. I’ve come to embrace the fact that when Paul wrote of God who is “able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine” it includes working through and accomplishing His purposes through the most unlikely, seemingly unworthy, of individuals.

Esther is an unlikely hero who reveals herself to be, like all of us, very human. I compare her to Daniel who zealously and religiously clung to his faith, religious discipline, and heritage, and he still succeeded to carve out position and purpose throughout a lifetime in captivity. Esther, on the other hand, follows the easier path of cultural compromise. She keeps her heritage, her people, and what faith she might have had in her people’s religion a secret. She likely kept her secret in order to avoid prejudice and persecution. Some would call that cowardice. Her response to Mordecai upon learning of Haman’s genocidal plot reveals her feelings of powerlessness and fear. All of this, and still she finds herself in just the right place at just the right time to accomplish God’s purpose of saving her people.

Ever since I became a follower of Jesus, I’ve sought God’s purpose in my life journey. I’ve tried to be a person of zealous, disciplined conviction like Daniel, but any who care to look closely at my track record will find that it is dotted with the same kinds of compromises, secrets, easy choices, and fear revealed in Esther. My solace is that God did accomplish His purposes in both of them, and I believe that somehow in the mysterious tension between God’s sovereignty and my free will I continually find myself at just the right place, at just the right time, to accomplish the purposes God has for me at this very moment.

And so, I begin another day in the journey. Press on, my friend.

The Miraculous and the Mundane

“There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.”
Daniel 5:11 (NIV)

The book of Daniel is actually a literary compilation with two distinct sections. The first six chapters are selected stories from Daniel’s life in exile. The rest of the chapters are a journal of Daniel’s prophetic dreams, visions, and prayer.

In order to understand the context of the first section of the book and today’s chapter, I have to dig a little into the dates. Daniel, along with a host of other Hebrews, was taken into exile and captivity in 597 B.C. He was a young man. Today’s story takes place when Belshazzar lost the Babylonian throne to the Medes in 539 B.C. It’s now 58 years that Daniel has lived in captivity. Even if he was only 12 when taken captive, he’d be 70 years old in this story.

The six stories told in the first six chapters of Daniel are great stories. They are incredible, miraculous events both instructive and inspiring. But there are six of them in roughly 60 years. Across a lifetime of living captive in exile trying to be faithful to God in a foreign nation often hostile to foreigners, Daniel experienced six miraculous events. There are almost 22,000 days in a 60 year period. Daniel had six incredible days. So, what about the other 21,994?

Daniel served as an administrator for a foreign king. He went to work. He spent time in prayer. He sought God and did his best to be faithful to God’s commands. He did what all of us do as we walk this earthly journey. The mundane, everyday stuff of walking the journey for 21,994 days. And, he had six amazing experiences that were instructive and inspiring.

Along my own life journey, I’ve noticed that it’s easy for those of us fortunate enough to live in the luxury of the West to get addicted to experiences. We go to great lengths to have amazing experiences. For those of us who follow Jesus and regularly gather to worship, we desire to have amazing, miraculous experiences and events, even to the point of trying to conjure them and make them happen.

I’ve had a small handful of amazing spiritual experiences myself. I’m happy to say there were no fiery furnaces involved, and I am by no means saying they were on par with what I’ve read the past few days in Daniel. They were, however, pretty cool spiritual experiences that were unexpected. They were unlooked for. They came out of nowhere. I did nothing to conjure them. I was simply physically present, and spiritually open. Without wasting a lot of time recounting how many I’m talking about, let’s say there are five of them.

The rest of my 19,424 days on this Earthly journey have been spent doing what is the often mundane monotony of walking this life journey. I spend quiet time with God most mornings. I gather with other followers to worship once a week which is often spiritually filling and sometimes just feels routine. I work. I pay bills. I maintain stuff. I cultivate friendships. Wendy and I enjoy time together doing things we do.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the focus of my life. It’s so easy to slip into a mode where I’m chasing after experiences of all kinds. I’ve observed that social media isn’t helpful with this. I see everyone’s amazing experiences that make my mundane, routine existence today feel like I’m doing something wrong or that my life sucks compared to others.

I’ve come to the conclusion of late that if I seek after and find God in the everyday, mundane liturgies of my life then I find myself both more content and open to God doing the amazing and miraculous in His time, for His purpose, if and when He chooses.

And so, I enter day 19, 429.

Moments of Truth

Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.”

Belteshazzar answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!
Daniel 4:19 (NIV)

The company I have served for 25 years works with all kinds of businesses from all over. We survey our client’s customers in order to determine what drives the customer’s satisfaction. We assess phone calls and emails between the company and their customers to determine where they have opportunities to improve the customer experience. Sometimes the data our research and assessments reveal tell a story that a client doesn’t want to hear. It’s our responsibility to communicate the uncomfortable truth. Let’s just say, I have stories of clients who listened, and stories of clients who didn’t.

In today’s chapter, Daniel finds himself in an uncomfortable position. Having gained a reputation for upright honesty and the ability to interpret dreams, he and his friends have attained positions of power and prominence in King Nebuchadnezzar’s administration. When Nebuchadnezzar has another perplexing dream, he calls on Daniel for its interpretation. This time, however, Daniel realizes the dream is not something that his proud, temperamental, foreign master is going to want to hear. The text hints at Daniel’s hesitation and the internal struggle that the King, himself, notices.

The higher the position, the greater the stakes. That’s what I’ve experienced in my own career. When I was a young man working on front-line projects there was very little risk involved. My employer and my seniors had to worry about our clients in closed-door meetings. I just kept my head down and did my job. Now, I find myself at the top of the org chart. I am responsible for others.  My words and actions impact everyone in our company. Now I’m the one facing clients in closed-door meetings. The stakes are very different.

I have to believe Daniel was feeling something similar. Before, he was just an unknown minion in the King’s vast stable of advisors. Now, Daniel and his companions are in a position of prominence and authority. They have political clout. They have enemies. Daniel now knows, first-hand, King Neb’s ego, temper, and fatal flaws. The stakes are higher. It feels like there is more to lose.

Daniel hesitates. The King notices. The King wants an answer.

Is Daniel going to tell the truth? This is a moment of decision.

Daniel does tell the truth. He sticks to his faith and his principles. He once again puts everything on the line and risks losing it all.

It’s Monday morning as I write this and I’ve enjoyed being unplugged for a long holiday weekend with friends. I’m heading back into the work week this morning leading a company that was founded on the principles of God’s Message. That means treating clients the way I’d want to be treated. It means serving well and going the extra mile. It means speaking the truth in love, even when it may not be what our clients want to hear. Daniel provides me an example to follow.

Even when the stakes are higher and it appears there is far more to lose, am I still willing to say what is true?

When Life Throws a Wicked Curve

As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.
Daniel 2:30 (NIV)

One can’t control some circumstances. Life sometimes throws you a curve, and you stand there in the batter’s box with only a proverbial moment to decide what you’re going to do with it.

The latest curveball in our journey happened on Friday when my dad suffered a (thankfully small) stroke. In the course of a few hours, our weekend plans were scuttled and our plans for a week at the lake were placed on hold. I quickly found myself spending my nights caring for my mother who is living in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and spending my days with her and my dad at the hospital entertaining a small army of doctors who are trying make sense of my father’s puzzling mixture of medical issues. I’m glad to report that everyone is well, and it could have been much, much worse.

As doctor after doctor has come in to discuss the various tests that have been continually run over the weekend, my dad has been intent on asking them exactly when his stroke occurred. He’d had symptoms starting on Tuesday of last week and went to the hospital on Friday. I’ve watched as every doctor he asks will look at him quizzically and laugh at the question. Strokes apparently don’t leave a time and date stamp on the brain. Undaunted by this, he continues to ask.

His doctors should be happy they aren’t serving King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In today’s chapter, King Neb asks a similar unknowable question to all of the prophets, magicians, and enchanters on his royal payroll. The mad king had a puzzling dream, and he wanted the interpretation, but he wanted to make sure the interpretation could be trusted. So, he asked them to first tell him what the dream was, and then tell him the interpretation. If no one could do it, then they’d all be killed and their homes destroyed. Talk about a major league curveball.

Daniel and his friends were, at this point, minor minions at the bottom of the King’s org chart of advisors. Nonetheless, the decree of death applied to them, as well, when Neb decided that he was cleaning house in the Advisory Department.

I find Daniel’s response fascinating. He doesn’t seem to panic. Having not been aware of any of the circumstances leading to the fateful knock on his door, he makes a bold move. He asks for an audience with King Neb. It’s possible that Daniel had not even been in the King’s presence since he and his friends were tested and made the cut to be on the King’s advisory staff. Daniel requests a night to see if he could do the impossible. Then he and his friends pray. That night, Daniel receives a vision explaining both the dream and interpretation.

When Daniel approaches the King with the answer, he is quick to let the King know that there was no magic involved and Daniel did not have some kind of ESP. He simply says that God had a message for the King and Daniel was the messenger. In the entire affair, Daniel’s thoughts, words, and actions appear humble, measured, and focused on seeking God’s purpose in the midst of it all. He stands in, keeps his eye on the ball, and knocks the curveball out of the park.

This morning as I write from my folk’s apartment and help get my mom going so we can head back to the hospital, I’m finding inspiration in Daniel’s attitude. As I wrote in my previous post, Daniel had already faced several wicked knuckleballs and curveballs in life. Perhaps he had learned from those experiences. Nonetheless, he provides a good example.

Don’t panic. Take some time. Seek God’s purpose. Be humble. Flow.

My dad was supposed to be discharged from the hospital today. He called last night to report that the doctors have found another complication. Another procedure today, and I have no idea what it will reveal or whether we’ll bring him home today or not.

Here we flow.

 

Chorus to a Tale of Pain & Purpose

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah…
And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
Daniel 1:1a, 21 (NIV) 

In the history of theatre, Greece was the first great age. The Greeks developed several theatrical conventions that are still widely used today including the use of what was called a Chorus to prepare the audience for what they are about to watch and to narrate the events. Shakespeare used the same convention widely in his plays, as do many modern productions.

The first chapter of Daniel is the literary equivalent of a Chorus. The author, traditionally ascribed to Daniel himself, uses the opening of the book to provide a quick lay of the land with regard to the background of the story and introduces us to the major players. The fact that the chapter describes Daniel and his companions as being learned young men who were then given a thorough course in Babylonian literature and culture, is ironic. It seems to me that the chapter itself gives evidence to this in its structure and content.

In the next year, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers will be studying the theme of exile. I’ve written in previous posts about the theme of wilderness throughout the Great Story. The exile of God’s people in Babylon is one of the major examples and many casual readers don’t realize just how many characters, psalms, and books come out of this period. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel, and Nehemiah are all books that chronicle parts of the Babylonian exile and return.

In today’s chapter, Daniel provides bookend dates of the story he’s about to pen. It starts in the “third year of Jehoiakim king of Judah” and ends the first year of King Cyrus. A little study shows this to be 605-539 B.C. In other words, Daniel was an educated young man from nobility in Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah. His hometown is destroyed in a long Babylonian siege in which Daniel watched people starve to death and, according to the prophet Jeremiah, reduced to cannibalism to survive.

Out of this horrific event, Daniel is taken captive by his enemy. He is torn from his family, his people, and his hometown which has been reduced to rubble. He ends up in the capital city of his enemy, Babylon, and finds himself subject to indentured servitude to his people’s enemy number one: King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel’s own name is taken from him and he is given a new name. He is forced for three years to learn everything about the history, culture, and literature of his enemy.

A young man of God forced to live in captivity and exile and to serve his enemies for about 65 years. Welcome to the story of Daniel, whom many people only know from brightly illustrated children’s books in the dusty Sunday School memory bins of their brains.

But the real story is far deeper and more complex than that, as Daniel tries to tell me as a reader in his opening Chorus. It is the story of a young man who finds a way to survive. He courageously maintains and lives out his faith in the midst of the unbelievably difficult circumstances that make up nearly his entire life.

In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the common misperception I observe followers of Jesus often have, and that I confess I find myself unconsciously falling into from time to time. It’s partially driven, I believe, by the American Dream and the Protestant work ethic. If we believe, work hard, and live good lives then life should be a breeze of material blessing and pain-free existence. But as I journey through God’s Message I find that this has never been the message. Daniel fires an explosive shot across the bow of that notion from the very beginning of his story.

Trauma, suffering, starving, captivity, bondage, indentured servitude, and life-long exile in the land of his enemies serving a mad king.

I find God’s purpose in my pain. That’s the message Daniel foreshadows in the Chorus of his book, and the one I’ve been reminded of over and over again on my life journey.

 

Shades of Schadenfreude

[Jonah] prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Jonah 4:2 (NIV)

As I get older, I’ve grown to enjoy etymology, the study of words and their origins. I find it fascinating how these building blocks of communication become part of our everyday conversations, and how they wax and wane in popular usage. I also find it fascinating how cultures ascribe certain significance, power, and meaning to certain words, while others don’t. Our kids in Scotland have a few great anecdotes about uncomfortable social moments when they discovered that a word they used, which has a benign meaning in the States, has a very different meaning in the U.K.

There is a word I first noticed a few years ago, and I’ve found that it’s growing in popularity: schadenfreude. It’s a compound German word that comes from the root words meaning “harm” and “joy“. It means to take pleasure in another’s person’s misfortune.

There certainly is a natural and rather harmless way that we enjoy seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance. I was one of the many who watched the entire series Game of Thrones. The series was masterful in creating really bad characters who I wanted to see come to a nasty, bitter end and was happy when it eventually happened.

At the same time, there is a dark side of schadenfreude that I feel like I’m witnessing more and more in our current culture. It’s not enough to disagree with another person’s political, religious, or social worldviews, we have to publicly call them names and post antagonizing memes on social media. Just last night I found myself shutting off social media and walking away. I realized how mean-spirited the posts were that I was reading and it wasn’t having a positive effect on my psyche or my feelings towards others.

In today’s final chapter of the story of Jonah, we finally learn what was at the heart of Jonah’s mad dash to flee from what God had asked him to do. Jonah didn’t want God to be gracious and merciful with his enemies. Jonah wanted to wallow in schadenfreude and watch his enemies, the Assyrians, suffer.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus took five common statements about matters of relationship and then told His followers He was raising the bar. Jesus’ expectation for me as a follower is that I behave in a way that goes against the grain of common human behavior:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.”
Matthew 5:43-47 (MSG)

Reading Jonah’s story this week has caused me to do some real personal introspection. You can see it in the common ways my posts have ended the past few days.

As I was reading about the etymology of the word schadenfreude, I learned that many cultures and languages have a word that means the same thing. I recognize that there is a relatively harmless pleasure that I take when my favorite team’s rival loses. C’est la vie. I don’t, however, want to wake up someday and find myself in Jonah’s sandals. Following Jesus means loving, even those people who wish to see me suffer; Even those who actually act on it.

“Forgive them. They don’t realize what they’re doing.”

God, make me more like that.

Same Story, Different Age

Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
Jonah 3:4 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve experienced in my continued and repeated reading through God’s Message is that every time I read through a section it is layered with new meaning simply because I am at a different place in my life journey than I was before. I’d like to think that there is some increased depth of wisdom, knowledge, and maturity to account for it. There are times, however, that simply being in a different place on life’s road experiencing different circumstances and challenges offers the opportunity to see things from a different perspective.

I am once again struck this morning by the foreshadowing in the story of Jonah of the experiences of Paul as recorded in the book of Acts.

Reading the ancient prophets can always feel like a long slog in this chapter-a-day journey. They repeat their messages of warning, judgment, instruction, and encouragement over and over again to God’s people. They perform shocking acts of public performance art as metaphorical word pictures. On and on and on they preach and proclaim, and the people rarely responded. While there were periods of repentance and spiritual renewal, most of the story is about God’s people hard-heartedly refusing to listen to God’s Message.

In Jonah’s story, we have a single prophet who proclaims a simple message of eight words. It doesn’t even name God, provide instruction, or offer encouragement. The entire city of Nineveh, from the least to the greatest, repents and seeks God’s forgiveness. An entire city of non-Jewish, Gentile people who are the key enemy of Israel, respond to one minor prophet who proclaims eight words from God.

In the book of Acts, we read of Paul going from city to city proclaiming Jesus’ message. He always began at the Jewish synagogue. More often than not, his message fell on deaf ears and hard hearts while those who were not “God’s chosen people” received it heartily, just like the Ninevites who heard Jonah’s eight-word sermon.

This morning I find myself reminded of the message we heard this past Sunday. It reminded me that life can often be like a new movie that tells an old story with different players. The Lion King is simply the story of Hamlet in the jungle with animals. In the same way, life often repeats itself. How often today are Jesus’ followers like God’s people in ancient times? Do we sit isolated in our holy huddles choosing to hate, condemn, and cast off any concern for those outside the walls of our church building as we ritualistically repeat God’s message of Jesus dying and returning to Life for all people?

Love God,” Jesus basically said as he boiled down God’s commands, adding, “Love people; All people.” God’s Message in six words. Jonah had eight. Pretty simple, if my ears and heart are open to hearing it, believing it, and living it out.