Tag Archives: Journey

Death, Life, Surrender

 Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives.
Jeremiah 21:9 (NIV)

Along my life journey there have been a number of dreaded moments. Those days when the seeds of fear that have silently been cultivated in your heart and mind finally come to fruition. The unexpected phone call with tragic news of the death of a loved one. The final surrender to years of marital struggle. The company’s largest client who unexpectedly and completely walks away from a 25 year relationship, and with the departure nearly half of your income disappears. The ultrasound image of an empty womb.

In today’s chapter, the day of dread which Jeremiah has long prophesied finally comes to fruition. This is the predicted reality everyone around Jeremiah had mocked, ignored, laughed at, and denied. It finally happened. Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian army have surrounded and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem.

Now the King of Judah and the priests of the Temple, representatives of the institutions who have long ignored Jeremiah, dismissed his warnings, threatened his life, and thrown him into the stocks, come begging the brooding prophet for help. It’s now obvious to them that Jeremiah’s hotline to God was real. Perhaps they can throw up a Hail Mary prayer through the prophet and escape the terror of a siege. After all, it worked for King Hezekiah decades earlier when the Assyrians came besieging.

Jeremiah’s response: “Not this time.” The city will be destroyed, all inside the city will suffer unspeakable horror, and likely be killed. There is only once chance a person had to keep his or her life: surrender.

This morning in the quiet of my hotel room as I ponder these things, I am struck by two thoughts;

First, God has woven the paradigm of death and life into the very fabric of creation. “If you want to really live,” Jesus said, “first you have to die.” When I really meditate on this simple teaching, I come to the conclusion that this notion is not some mystical, ethereal thought. At its core this is simple grounded reality of creation. “Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust.” Place the spiritual aside for a moment and think only of the physical and material. Our dead bodies don’t disappear. They are converted to a different kind of energy that, in turn, feed more life in the system. Death feeds life.

God’s language is metaphor, and in the very fabric of creation Jesus tell us that He has layered the material, physical ecosystem with a spiritual reality: life comes through death. Then He surrendered Himself to give us the ultimate word picture of that truth. If you want to experience resurrection, you have to take up the cross.

I’ve learned along my journey the wisdom of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (props to the Byrds for giving it a tune). “There is a time and a season for everything. A time to be born, and a time to die.” Sometimes things need to die in order for new life to come. A lost client makes way for new ways of looking at business. The end of a relationship leads to a different chapter in life. The death of a loved one makes room in time, energy and resources to be invested in new loved ones joining the family. Yes, Jerusalem would be destroyed, Jeremiah says, but a new Jerusalem would eventually be built. In fact, God says this process will be repeated: Revelation ends with yet another new Jerusalem, and new heaven, and a new earth. Old things pass away, new things come.

The second thought I’m pondering this morning is that the lifeline Jeremiah gave to the people of Jerusalem was to surrender. And so I’ve come to believe along my journey that sometimes the harder I fight and deny death and endings the harder my journey becomes. Learning the process of surrendering to God’s natural order of death-to-life, old-to-new, passing-and-coming flow has led me to deeper, fuller, more vibrant, and more peaceful life experiences on the journey.

Finally, I have to mention that U2’s Bad (which is good!) flowed through my spirit as I pondered these things this morning:

If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again
If I could, yes I would
If I could, I would
Let it go
Surrender
Dislocate
If I could throw this lifeless lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame
If I could through myself
Set your spirit free, I’d lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
To let it go
And so to fade away
To let it go
And so, fade away
Wide awake
I’m wide awake
Wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no, no, no

 

Broken Down and Built Up Again

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Jeremiah 18:1-4 (NIV)

Life is a series of screw ups. Let’s face it. I like to project an image of having it all together. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that there’s some acceptable level of life perfection out there (that everyone else seemingly has) while I quietly haplessly flail my appendages behind a series  of nicely painted stage flats. I’ve come to the conclusion along the journey that the real illusion is thinking that any one is any different than me. God’s Message is perfectly clear (in several different places) on this count:

  • No temptation has seized you except what is common to all
  • There’s no one righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
  • All have sinned and fall short.”
  • Whoever keeps the whole law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

I’ve always loved the word picture God gave Jeremiah in today’s chapter. He tells Jeremiah to throw on his sandals because he was going on field trip. They end up at the house of the local potter who was working at his wheel. If you’ve ever tried your hand at a potter’s wheel you know how tricky it is. It looks so deceptively easy, but one slight miscue and the whole pot falls apart in your hands and you’re starting again from scratch.

I had a friend one time who was walking with me through a terribly difficult stretch of my life journey. I went through a litany of all the things that had gone wrong in my life, the mistakes I’d made, the consequences I was facing, and the stresses that felt as if they were tearing me apart. My friend smiled at me warmly and quietly observed that my life was breaking down, being “deconstructed” so that God could remake it like a Potter reworking the marred mess of clay in His hands.

It’s a good thing to have wise companions walking alongside you on your journey.

I find myself so drawn to this notion of the “one-and-done” transformation, the miraculous touch leading to a perfect ending, or God suddenly drawing my number in the Life lottery and suddenly everything is as it should be.

I’ve come to observe that the truth is a lot earthier, more substantive and repetitive. The word picture of the Potter and the clay is not a “once in a lifetime” deal. Rather, I find that life is a constant process of being broken down and rebuilt. My job is to allow Living Water to make me more pliable in the Potter’s hand, to release myself to the steady flow of the wheel spinning, to allow myself to be molded at the Potter’s touch; To stop resisting, even when life breaks me down again and the process starts all over.

Have a good week, friends. Here’s to being pliable.

Spiritual Diet

When your words came, I ate them;
    they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
    Lord God Almighty.
Jeremiah 15:16 (NIV)

I was a young man when I embarked on my spiritual journey following Jesus. One of the first things that I did was to start reading, really reading, the Bible. I had read passages here and there for Sunday School and confirmation class but I had never really read the Bible for myself. So I grabbed the green (seriously, it was the color of mold) hard back copy  of the Living Bible I’d been given for my confirmation and dove in. I was quickly amazed at how much I was learning.

It was less than a year later that my boss in an after-school job offered to do a study with me. The first assignment he gave me was to start memorizing verses, and the first one assigned was Joshua 1:8 (and I can write it from memory almost 40 years later):

This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

One of the foundational spiritual lessons I quickly learned as a youngling embarking on my spiritual journey was that there was a difference between reading God’s Message and ingesting it. Even Jesus riffed on this word picture when tempted in the wilderness: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” The parallel is clear. God’s Word is spiritual food, sustenance, and nourishment. There’s a difference between having a taste once in a while and sourcing it as part of a steady spiritual diet.

So began a process of reading, memorizing, studying on my own, studying with groups, studying academically, studying different interpretations, studying different translations and studying different paraphrases. And yes, devotedly reading and blogging a chapter-a-day.

In today’s chapter, Jeremiah continues his poetic conversation with God. Once again we see the metaphor of the Word as spiritual food (this word picture is sprinkled throughout God’s Message). Jeremiah reminds God that when God’s words came he ate and devoured them. They were a source of joy and delight. It’s quite possible that Jeremiah references the finding of the Book of Law during the reign of Josiah (see 2 Kings 22) after it had been lost and forgotten in Solomon’s Temple.

When I was a kid the big nutrition program in school reminded us continually that “you are what you eat.” As a young man I learned that this is true for the mind and spirit as much as it is for the body. This leads to all sorts of pertinent questions to ask myself. On what am I feeding my mind? Am I giving my spirit any nourishment with the media and conversation I ingest each day? Would a change of mental and spiritual diet be healthy for me?

Healthy questions for mind and spirit to mull over in the quiet this morning. And now, my body is calling for a little nourishment as well.

Have a great day, friends.

“Wanna Get Away?”

“Oh, that I had in the desert
    a lodging place for travelers,
so that I might leave my people
    and go away from them….”
Jeremiah 9:2 (NIV)

I had to laugh this morning when I read Jeremiah’s lament. I imagine the ancient prophet weary of his calling, weary of shouting his messages that no one wanted to hear, and weary of people telling him to shut up. I can hear the politicians and institutional religious leaders threatening him and telling him to “tone it down.” I can imagine his own family members rolling their eyes, embarrassed to claim him as a member of the clan. I can envision the ridicule, verbal abuse, and derision he likely faced on a regular basis.

I hear in my head the tagline of those funny Southwest airlines commercials: “Wanna get away?”

My journey has taught me that dealing with people can be incredibly draining no matter what the capacity or relationship. Even Jesus showed signs of weariness and frustration from time to time. Even Jesus had to regularly get away from the crowds to spend time alone or with His inner circle. We all feel the “I gotta get away” blues from time to time. It’s part of the human experience. It’s part of the journey. The need of regular periods of rest is so important for our well-being that God made it part of the Top Ten rules for life.

This morning as I sit alone in the quiet of my study I’m taking comfort in the fact that even the great prophet Jeremiah felt the exhaustion of dealing with people; Even the Son of God needed to regularly get away. I’m not alone, and why should I think that I would be any different?

This is a long journey. Regular rest stops are required.

Puritans, Relationships and Moral By-Products

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning Home

While the angel who was speaking to me was leaving, another angel came to meet him and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it.
Zechariah 2:3-4 (NIV)

Just over twelve years ago hurricane Katrina ravaged the southern part of the United States and decimated the city of New Orleans. I remember the timing because Wendy and I had reservations to honeymoon in New Orleans and had to scuttle our plans. Residents made homeless by the storm were scattered to communities around the United States willing to take them in.

One of the “Katrina” families lived in an apartment complex across the street from us. We live in a great little community of incredibly generous people, but I remember wondering how long the refugees would stay. Midwest winters are a tough challenge for those who aren’t used to them.

The theme of exiles returning home is a particularly timely one here in the States. Our own country is grappling with what to do about programs that offered “temporary” resident status to people displaced by tragic circumstances in their own country but who have no desire to return to their home country.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

The prophet Zechariah began to record his visions during a very specific time in history. The city of Jerusalem had been reduced to rubble under the hand of the Babylonians. People like Daniel and Ezekiel and thousands of others had been taken captive to live in Babylon. Others had been scattered to live as refugees among neighboring nations.

About 50 years later Nehemiah led a group to people back to the rubble of Jerusalem to rebuild the wall and rebuild the Temple. It was difficult work fraught with obstacles and threats on all sides. Zechariah began his writing nearly 20 years into the restoration and renovation process. The question plaguing the campaign was, “Will anyone come back to Jerusalem?” The people had been living in Babylon and other countries for over a generation. They’d put down roots, started occupations, grew families and their home land had become a distant, painful memory. Would anyone actually come back?

In today’s chapter, Zechariah has a vision of two angels, one of whom assures Zac that there will one day be so many people and animals in Jerusalem that the city walls couldn’t contain them all.

Fast forward again to current headlines. Jerusalem is a boiling hot spot of people from different nationalities, religions, political bents, and cultures. It is the center of world debate and political conflict. The city walls that remain from the Middle Ages frame a small central section of the expansive city. I couldn’t help to remember this morning my own experiences of walking around the city. The featured photo of this post is one I took from the King David hotel looking at the walls of the old city at sunrise.

This morning I’m once again meditating on the theme of “returning.” The wise teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for everything under the sun. There is a time for wandering, and there is a time for returning. It is a common human experience to be scattered, to wander, and even to run away. It is just as common an experience in this life journey to realize that, at some point, we need to return home.

Wandering and Waiting

Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Zechariah 1:3 (NIV)

Over the past few days Wendy and I have thoroughly enjoyed having our daughter, Madison visiting us. It’s become a bit of a ritual for our family to see the newest Star Wars movies together when we have the opportunity. On Sunday evening we watched The Force Awakens together on DVD, and then last night we went to the theater to see The Last Jedi.

On the way home last night we had fun discussing the themes of the story. One of the themes that stuck out for us was that of orphans, children, parents, and awaiting a return. Rey awaits the return of her parents. Han and Leia await the return of their rebellious son. The Resistance awaits the return of Luke. The wait and the return are powerful themes.

The Christmas story echoes these same things. There was 400 years between Malachi, the last of the prophets, and Gabriel’s visitation to Elizabeth and Mary. The people of Israel had been defeated and scattered by empire after empire: Assyria, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman. Their hope was in a deliverer. Simeon and Anna served in the temple awaiting a glimpse of hope. Later, Jesus pushes into this theme in His story of the prodigal son. At the end of His earthly ministry Jesus promised His return at a day and hour known only to the Father. We’ve been waiting ever since.

In today’s opening chapter of the prophet Zechariah’s visions, we once again see the theme. This time it is Father calling out to His children in a foreshadowing of the prodigal’s story: “Return to me and I will return to you.” The image is that of a parent sitting on the front porch, eyes fixed on the road, hoping desperately for a glimpse of a wayward child making his or her way home. Jesus describes so beautifully what happens when the child is spotted:

“But while he [the lost son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

This morning I’m thinking about the holidays of Christmas and New Year’s. I’m thinking about families and parents, and children and homecomings. Christmas is about that which has been long-awaited. It’s about redemption and reconciliation. It’s about new hope, and new beginnings.

There have been some stages of my life journey in which I took on the role of the prodigal. I know what it is to wander, to squander, and to wade in the hog slop of poor choices. There have been other stretches of my journey in which I have waited and hoped for a child’s return. I have felt the grace of God’s embrace. I have felt the joy of extending that grace and embrace. They are all part of the journey.

My prayers this morning are for those who wandering and wondering about the tug in their heart calling them to return. My prayers are for those whose eyes are fixed on the road, hoping for a glimpse of the child returning.

Wandering, waiting, hoping, returning.

They are all a part of this journey.