Tag Archives: Journey

Measuring Up for a Move

Then I looked up, and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand. I asked, “Where are you going?”

He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.”
Zechariah 2:1-2 (NIV)

It’s been a few days since I’ve written my chapter-a-day posts. One of the things I’ve observed along my journey is that sometimes life interrupts my routines. I can’t control when it happens, so I do my best to be present in the moment and not get too stressed out it. The life interruption of late has been two-fold. First, there has been a rather intense travel schedule for work that includes early morning flights and scrambling to prepare for presentations, meetings, and client deliveries.

The more intense interruption, however, has been the health of my parents. My father has been hospitalized for nearly two weeks with acute pain. Seemingly endless tests have led the doctors to believe that he has a nasty infection and they are growing cultures in the lab to find out just what they are dealing with. In the meantime, my mother’s Alzheimer’s requires that my siblings and I must be with her around the clock.

My parents’ situation has caused us to realize that it is time for them both to get a higher level of care. This week we will move them out of their independent living apartment into a smaller assisted living apartment in another building within their retirement community. And so, we find ourselves measuring furniture and determining what’s going to fit where, and what may need to go away.

The “measuring line” was a common theme in the prophetic visions of the ancient Hebrew prophets. In today’s chapter, Zechariah sees an angel with a measuring line. He says he’s headed to measure the city of Jerusalem. In Zechariah’s day, Jerusalem was a rubble heap. He was among those feverishly trying to persuade the Hebrew exiles living in Persia to return and rebuild.

My observation is that there are two reasons a measuring line is used as a metaphor in prophetic writing. One is to find that something doesn’t measure up and judgement, therefore, awaits. The second is that something is going to be built or restored. That is the image that Zechariah is providing for his fellow exiles. It’s a vision of a grand, restored Jerusalem that might inspire his reader’s and listeners to return.

In the quiet this morning, I find my thoughts scattered (An unexpected head cold is not helping!). Zechariah was trusting that God would enable and bless the restoration and rebuilding of Jerusalem. As the events of today’s chapter took place, the very idea of a restored Jerusalem had to have seemed a daunting task. It did happen, however. Jerusalem would become a major city and sprawl well beyond its ancient walls just as Zechariah’s prophecy predicted. It remains so to this present day. Zechariah and the Hebrew people had to have faith, and the willingness to act on it.

And so I bring myself back to aging parents transitioning into new living arrangements amidst so much uncertainty and so much that is unknown. We are measuring and moving. We are trusting for a sense of restoration for them on the other side of dad’s quizzical medical issues. I’ve observed, and have come to accept, that there are moments along this life journey in which I have to accept that I can only do my best to make wise decisions, and trust God with the rest.

I stayed with my mother last night. As I wrote this post she woke from her slumber and began her dementia laced morning routine. It will take her a few hours to get ready and we’ll go to the hospital to check on dad. My siblings and I will continue the tasks of packing up my parents’ things for a mid-week move to a new place. We’re trying to make the wisest decisions. We’re trusting.

Now, where did that tape measure go? (Knowing my mother’s Alzheimers, it might be in the freezer!)

I pray for all who read this a blissfully routine week.

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!

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!

Detours and Déjà vu

But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.
Haggai 2:4 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I’ve come to understand that there are many stops and starts along the way. As a child, I had this (mis)perception that life had a simple linear path. High School, college, career, marriage, children, house, grandchildren, retirement, death. And, in some respects, it may have followed that general direction. The road, however, has definitely never been as straight, flat, and easy as I thought it would be.

A friend of ours once said she personally polled her family and friends with the question: “Has life turned out like you thought it would?” She reported to me that the almost universal answer was “No.” Somehow, I still find myself occasionally falling back into the delusion that when it comes to life not turning out like I had planned I am the exception, not the rule.

Life is full of unexpected twists, turns, dead ends, and detours. Tragedy strikes, houses burn, businesses fail, marriages fail, loved ones walk away, people do terrible things, jobs go away, et cetera, et cetera, and et cetera.

One of the things I’m learning as I’m meditating on the theme of exile is that is also not the exception, but the rule. The Biblical perspective is that exile is the very nature of life on this earth. Adam and Eve were at home in the Garden. The consequence of their sin was to be sent away. They became exiles. All of humanity to follow were/are born into exile. Paul wrote that we are citizens of Heaven. This entire life journey can be viewed through the spiritual understanding that we are all exiles making our way home.

What I’ve found, however, is that despite the road of life not always being easy, I find myself back in situations and circumstances that are eerily familiar. I’ve been disappointed before. I’ve faced similar adversity before. Life has felt like a grind before. What did I learn in those stretches of life’s road? What resources did I draw upon to get me through? What did or didn’t work back then that informs what I should do or not do now?

In today’s chapter, work on the Temple has stalled. It’s not going according to plan or expectations. But that had happened before. David’s plans to build the first temple had stalled, and his expectations for starting construction had been dashed. So David charged his son, Solomon, with doing it saying:

“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

Now, the prophet Haggai addresses Zerubbabel and Joshua who are tasked with rebuilding the temple just as Solomon had been tasked with it before. And he says to them:

“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.”

Haggai 2:4

Sound familiar? Life’s road had circled back to a familiar place. God through Haggai draws upon the same encouragement, the same assurance of God’s presence and faithfulness, the same charge that had preceded Solomon’s successful building project.

In the quiet this morning I am standing on life’s road and looking back. I’ve had my share of tough stretches, but I like to think that I haven’t let it defeat me. Rather, I’ve let it instruct me, inform me, teach me, and strengthen me. As Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Rome:

There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Romans 5:3-5 (MSG)

I’m saying a prayer for any who read this, no matter where they find themselves in their own journey. Press on, my friend.

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!

Trials, Gold, and Dross

So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:21 (NIV)

On Sunday, after I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, Wendy and I were having our normal lunch date together. Wendy had given the message the previous Sunday. She shared the story of her journey through infertility. This past Sunday I spoke about secrets and my own experience with secrets that kept me spiritually imprisoned.

There was a common theme in our messages. We both slogged our way through long stretches of trial and difficulty, and we both experienced previously unknown depths of joy and freedom at the other end of our respective valleys.

As we dined and debriefed, we discussed a few of the things that some religious people cling to as if of vital importance. Things such as church membership and adherence to a particular denominational institution. For the two of us, such trappings hold very little importance. To a certain extent, I realized that our journeys and struggles through hard spiritual terrain had refined our perspectives on what it means to be followers of Jesus. Membership certificates and institutional inclusion are of very little importance to us compared to the more tangible daily realities of our own personal, daily spiritual trek among our community of Jesus’ followers.

In today’s chapter, the returned exiles complete their construction of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is a very small distinction in today’s chapter that is easily lost on a casual reader. The returned exiles are referred to as “Israelites.” When Jerusalem was besieged and the exile began, they were the nation of Judah. For hundreds of years prior to the exile, the tribes of Israel were separated in a bloody civil war. “Israel” was the northern kingdom. “Judah” was the southern kingdom. Now, upon return from their exile and the restoration of the Temple, they were simply “Israelites” along with Gentiles, like Ruth, who had chosen to follow their faith.

I couldn’t help but think that the experience of exile over 70 years changed some things for those who went through it. Old conflicts and prejudices fell by the wayside. Those who returned had a renewed understanding of what was truly important and what things simply didn’t matter all that much in the eternal perspective. That’s what exilic experiences and the spiritual struggle through valleys of pain, grief, and trouble will do for a person. It refines things. I’m reminded of Peter’s words to fellow believers scattered across the Roman Empire experiencing dreadful persecution:

May the thought of this cause you to jump for joy, even though lately you’ve had to put up with the grief of many trials. But these only reveal the sterling core of your faith, which is far more valuable than gold that perishes, for even gold is refined by fire. Your authentic faith will result in even more praise, glory, and honor when Jesus the Anointed One is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7 (TPT)

In the process of refining metal, which Peter uses as a metaphor, the gold remains while the “dross” (literally “scum on molten metal”) is removed as useless and worthless.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering those things that my trials have refined and revealed to be the gold of eternal importance and those things that my trials have revealed to be worthless scum in the grand scheme of things.

Weeping and Joy in the Valley of Infertility

No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
Ezra 3:13 (NIV)

For the past month, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been in a series entitled “Summer Stories.” Each week an individual has shared experiences from their own personal stories and the spiritual lessons they have learned from them.

Last Sunday, it was Wendy who chose to stand and share a piece of her personal story. When she and I married almost fourteen years ago, she was 33. She not only gained a husband but two teenage daughters. Nevertheless, having children together was something we wanted to do. We tried for many years.

Trekking together through the valley of infertility may be the most difficult stretch of life’s journey that I have experienced to date. I’ve heard experts say that tremendous stress either brings married couples closer together or it tears them apart. Looking back, I can certainly appreciate why many marriages don’t make it through the valley of infertility. It is a long, lonely and trying slog on multiple levels. We plumbed depths of grief and relational stress I didn’t think was possible during those years. Wendy’s message, however, was not about the pain as much as it was about her discovery of joy at the end of that journey.

I couldn’t help but think of her message as I read the chapter this morning. The exiles return home to Jerusalem and begin the arduous task of rebuilding God’s temple which lay in ruins after it had been destroyed decades before by the Babylonians. After laying the foundation for a new Temple, the people gathered to worship and praise God. Those who were old enough to remember the original temple wept while the others shouted their praise until “No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping.” 

Yeah. I get that. That description captures our journey through the valley of infertility pretty well.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of one of the points that Wendy made in her message: “One can’t simply ‘choose joy’ any more than you can simply choose to get up off the couch and run a marathon.” As Jeremiah observed in his lamentation (over the destruction of the same Temple the exiles are rebuilding in today’s chapter): “Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” In the valley of infertility Wendy and I learned that you can’t always distinguish the sounds of weeping and the sounds of joy, because they are often the same thing.

For any interested, here is the audio and video of Wendy’s message, posted with her permission:

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

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.

“If You Only Knew What it was Like….”

Meanwhile, the remainder of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also assembled to protect themselves and get relief from their enemies. They killed seventy-five thousand of them but did not lay their hands on the plunder.
Esther 9:16 (NIV)

This past weekend I attended my 35th high school reunion. It’s only the second reunion that I’ve attended and it was a lot of fun to catch up with old classmates and where their life journeys have taken them. I walked to Kindergarten with some of these people. We played Kick-the-Can, Freeze Tag, and Ding-Dong Ditchem’ as children and experienced all the awkwardness of adolescence together. It was especially sobering for me to see the table of memorials to all classmates who have already passed, and to recall moments and life events I experienced with each of them. It was strange to have such vivid memories with these amazing individuals from my childhood and to realize that so much time has passed. One of the common conversations that evening was how our children (and now grandchildren) have no concept of what everyday life was like for us.

I found myself expanding that thought to a macro-level this morning as I read the chapter. It’s been a while since this chapter-a-day journey took me into such a bloody text. It is difficult for this twenty-first century, enlightened Western mind to get my head wrapped around such bloodshed and carnage. I’ve observed along the way that we have a penchant in our modern culture to whitewash, rewrite, or simply ignore certain aspects of history, including the brutal violence which was an everyday part of the culture in ancient days. “Kill or be killed” was the way of life and survival for most tribes and people groups.

In today’s chapter, I found it fascinating that Xerxes did not seem to bat an eye at the destruction of Esther’s enemies. But, I have to remember that his father, Cyrus, established the Persian Empire and became the world’s first “superpower” by destroying a lot of people. Xerxes had a reputation for holding onto that power and his Empire by brutally suppressing any kind of rebellion against him and his kingdom. Again, it was simply the way of life during that period of history.

There are two things happening in today’s chapter that are often lost on the casual reader. The first connects to something I pointed out the other day. The face-off between Mordecai (descendant of King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin) and Haman (descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites) is a historical rematch. In the first round (see 1 Samuel 15), Saul did not complete the task of wiping out Agag and his followers. In today’s chapter, the destruction of Haman and his followers was historically perceived by the Hebrews as righting an old wrong that Saul should have completed.

Second, while Xerxes’ proclamation gave the Hebrews permission to plunder their enemies, you’ll notice the text clearly points out that they chose not to do so. Again, this is further evidence that the events of today’s chapter were perceived as righting the wrongs of Saul, who was forbidden from plundering King Agag and the Amalekites but did so anyway. The story of Esther is layered with the theme of reversals: the reversal of fortunes, the reversal of specific events, and the reversal of past wrongs.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the march of time. Based on conversations this past weekend, I and my classmates clearly wish that our children could understand what life was like for us:

  • “If you only knew what it was like without smartphones.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to write a research paper on a daisy-wheel typewriter without the internet, Google, or Wikipedia.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to walk a mile to school every day in the winter.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to be at college and communicate with your parents once a week (at most) because they didn’t want to pay for the collect call.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to be expected to get a paper route and start working as soon as you were 11 or 12 years old.”

In the same way, I imagine Mordecai and Esther inviting me to take off my modern, rose-colored glasses and to attempt to see beyond my politically correct horror at the violence of their time in history.  I imagine them beckoning me to try and imagine what it was like to live in the “kill or be killed” realities they experienced every day when there was no other choice. “If you only knew what it was like,” I hear them say, “to walk in our sandals as exiles and captives in a foreign land surrounded by enemies bent on killing us.”

I don’t think it’s fully possible, but I’ve found it worth the effort to try. The stories of history have secrets to teach me; Secrets that provide wisdom for my own life journey, and for the journeys of my children and grandchildren.

As Jesus said, “Seek, and you’ll find.

And so my “seeking” begins for another day, in another week.

I hope your own search is going well, my friend.