Tag Archives: Lesson

Soil Samples

Soil Samples (CaD Mk 6) Wayfarer

…Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
Mark 6:20 (NIV)

Here in Iowa, the science of agriculture is big business. Each autumn when harvest rolls around the crop yield is a make-it or break-it reality for farmers. Which is why I know friends whose livelihoods are spent studying soil and seeds to try and grow as much as the land can possibly yield. As I have often confessed, agriculture is not something about which I have vast knowledge. Just enough to appreciate a good parable.

As I’ve trekked my way through the Great Story again and again over the past forty years, I’ve learned that sometimes the lesson is not in microscopically mining the minutia of the text, but in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

Back in chapter four, Mark records Jesus parable of the sower, in which the Word falls like seed on different human hearts that each are like a different quality of soil. A quick recap:

  • Like seed fallen on a hardened footpath: A soon as this person hears it, the enemy snatches it away like a bird.
  • Like seed fallen on rocky ground: Life sprouts in them, but it doesn’t put down roots and can’t survive through difficult weather.
  • Like seed fallen among thornbushes: Sprout and grow, but the things of this world choke it and render it unfruitful.
  • Like seed fallen on good soil: Sprout, put down roots, grow, and bear fruit.

Starting in chapter Five and continuing in today’s chapter, Mark records stories of different people who rejected Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles.

Despite the fact that Jesus drove the demons from the heart of the man living among the tombs of the Gerasenes, the townspeople wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Their hearts are like the hardened footpath. It’s as if the demons snatched the Word from their hearts on their way from the man to the pigs.

In today’s chapter, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. The people of Nazareth listened to Jesus’ teaching, and some were amazed as if the Word was sprouting new life in them. But ultimately, nothing took root as their hearts couldn’t see past their prejudices: “How could Jesus Bar Joseph, the Carpenter’s boy who fixed my chair that one time, be a rabbi?”

Then we get to Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee. Herod sits atop one of the “kingdoms of this world,” the descendant and co-heir of a ruthless tyrant who amassed wealth, political power, and all the luxuries it affords through corruption, deceit, and bloodshed. When Satan went “all-in” and offered Jesus with all the “Kingdoms of this World,” Herod’s kingdom was there in the pot, and Jesus knew it. Jesus grew up knowing all about Herod’s wealth, power, fortunes, women, and fame.

Mark then does something unusual compared to what we’ve read thus far in his biography of Jesus. Mark tells a story that is not about Jesus, but about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. It gives us a picture of seed that falls among the world’s thorn bushes.

Some quick gossip from the tabloids at the checkout line at the Galilean grocery stores: There was a whole sex scandal in Herodian royal family, and Herod Antipas ends up marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist is a local religious figure who is extremely popular and extremely revered by all the deplorable religious types in Herod’s constituency. John publicly preaches against the immorality in the Herodian palace, and Herod can’t risk a drop in his approval rating so he has John arrested. He even has John brought before him (and his guests on occasion) to hear his religious rants. Mark tells us that Herod, “liked to listen to him.”

To Herod, John and his message are playthings. They are one more thing that wealth and power afford him. He has his own holy man at his beck-and-call. John is God’s little vine surviving amidst the entrenched hedge of Herod’s prickly power. Herod might have John preach for him and his party-guests. He might have John beheaded at the whim of his lust for his own step-daughter. It is of little consequence for him. He can always find another holy man: “I keep hearing about this Nazarene,” I can hear him say to his dinner guest after John’s head is carried out on a platter. “Maybe I should arrest him. John’s sermons were so entertaining. I’ll miss them.”

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that Jesus had as many enemies, detractors, and people who dismissed His teaching as He had disciples. Perhaps 3 to 1 if the parable is any indication. My experience is that Jesus’ followers rarely think much about this reality.

And so I find myself thinking about the soil of my own heart.

Is my heart hard and unyielding?

Is my heart shallow and unwilling to put down spiritual roots?

Is my heart choked, overshadowed, and/or overgrown by the things of this world?

Is my heart fruitful with the mixed-fruit of faith, hope, and love?

As I meditated on the metaphor again this morning, I found myself mulling over the fact that the seed among the thorns and the seed on the good soil both sprout, take root, and grow. The only difference Jesus described was that the good-soil plant was fruitful while the plant choked by the thorns of this world didn’t yield fruit.

I also find myself thinking about these chapter-a-day blog posts and podcasts that I scatter across the internet each weekday wondering where in the world they might land. Hard soil? Rocky soil? Thorn bushes? Good soil? I have learned that there is both grief and freedom in not knowing the answer. Such is the lot of the sower who must wait until harvest to know the yield.

I hope this lands well with you, my friend.

Have a great day.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Lessons in the Landscape

Lessons in the Landscape (CaD Ps 125) Wayfarer

As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people
    both now and forevermore.

Psalm 125:2 (NIV)

I have always had a touch of seasonal affect issues. The long, dark nights and confining temperatures of deep winter in Iowa tend to easily put me into a funk. The past few days, the sun has been rising noticeably earlier and with it the temperatures have been rising, as well. The thick, white blanket of winter snow is almost gone. I can feel my endorphins kicking into gear like seeds buried underground in spring.

Yesterday, Wendy and I had appointments late in the day and found ourselves driving down the highway starting at a bright sun and seeing the Iowa landscape uncovered, ready for the resurrection we get to witness around this time every year. The further I’ve gotten in this life journey, the more I’ve come to appreciate the metaphors of creation. Anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows that Romans 1:20 has become a recurring theme in these posts:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

I have found that the spiritual truths that God wove into creation increasingly come into focus and gain clarity as my eyes weaken and my vision fades with age.

My chapter-a-day journey is trekking through a series of ancient Hebrew songs that the editors compiling this anthology put together because they were all “songs of ascent.” They were songs commonly sung by thousands and thousands of pilgrims heading to Jerusalem for seasonal religious festivals.

Of the six songs of ascent I’ve read in recent days, three of them begin with references to “lifting my eyes” and “mountains“:

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains” Psalm 121:1
“I lift up my eyes to you” Psalm 123:1
As the mountains surround Jerusalem” Psalm 125:2

Just as I drove through the Iowa countryside noticing the spiritual lessons embedded in the spring landscape, so the songwriters of the the songs of ascent were writing from the perspective of rural pilgrims hoofing it to Jerusalem. For many, it was a trip that took days or weeks to complete. What do I do when I’m on a road trip and heading to a particular destination? I look to the horizon for that moment I can see my destination and know that I’m almost there.

The lyrics of these songs of ascent use this common human behavior for spiritual purposes. Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple sat at the crest of a mountainous range. Viewed from a distance there are even taller mountains in the “surrounding” landscape. As a road-weary pilgrim finally seeing Jerusalem and those mountains in the distance, I would find myself still miles from my destination. My soul still has hours with which to meditate on the spiritual truths that God wove into creation.

As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people
    both now and forevermore.

In the quiet this morning, I’m feeling gratitude for the sun rising earlier and staying out later. I’m grateful for the sun’s warmth and the promise of the new life ahead. I’m also mindful of the spiritual lessons that creation has to teach me and remind me during this season each year; Lessons that Jesus pointed out to His followers:

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

My First Lesson in Time Management

My First Lesson in Time Management (CaD Ps 90) Wayfarer

Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12 (NIV)

When I was growing up, there still existed a tradition of the grand department store chains having nice restaurants inside the store. In Des Moines, Younkers Department Store was the place to go for both shopping and a nice meal. It was there in the Meadowlark Room that I, at the age of about sixteen, met a mentor for lunch.

I had been fascinated by observing how my mentor seemed to manage his time. He had this really cool little three-ring leather binder to which he constantly referred, making notes with his mechanical pencil and double-checking things written there. I was curious and intrigued about the system he used and how he managed it. So, I asked him to teach me about time management.

What I was looking for was an explanation of the system, the brand of that cool binder with all the daily calendar pages, and the method he used to manage each day. Instead, he told me that the first lesson was to memorize and meditate on Psalm 90:12:

Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

He told me that this was the first lesson. It was the foundation. If I didn’t have a spiritual perspective of time, he told me, then the system I used to manage it really wouldn’t matter that much. He then pointed me to a number he’d written at the top of the daily calendar page of his cool binder. I shrugged as I read it. Number had no meaning for me. It was the number of days he’d spent on his earthly journey.

I memorized Psalm 90:12 that day. I got my calculator out. I began keeping track of my days and have been doing so ever since. The simple process has caused me to constantly meditate on time and my life journey. There are a number of spiritual lessons it’s taught me:

This day is not promised to me. There are no guarantees that I will live through this day or that I will survive to see tomorrow. There are averages and odds, but no assurances. I have several specific examples of individuals I’ve known whose journeys unexpectedly ended far sooner than the average or the odds would have dictated. This gives me the day set before me some perspective.

Yesterday is gone. I can’t go back. There are no mulligans on this earthly journey. How I may have wasted and squandered my yesterdays will remain as will the consequences of my actions. Wallowing in shame and sorrow won’t change it, nor will my perpetual attempts to pretend it didn’t happen or somehow keep my mistakes, failures, and foolishness hidden.

This day is a clean slate that sits before me. My thoughts, choices, decisions, and actions will reveal the fruit of my spirit.

Wisdom is required each day to discern the right choices in the constant conflict between that which is desired, that which is necessary, that which is urgent, and that which is important.

Time flies. Today is 19,969. I have a milestone coming up next month. Where have the days gone? Have they counted for anything? If so, how many of them did I spend wisely and how many did I spend foolishly?

Which leads me to the pertinent question:
What am I going to do with day 19,969?

I might share with you tomorrow, but I can’t guarantee it! 😉

By the way, if you’re curious about your days, this website saves a lot of time: https://www.timeanddate.com/

Epic Wisdom

Epic Wisdom (CaD Ps 78) Wayfarer

I will open my mouth with a parable;
    I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
    things our ancestors have told us.

Psalm 78:2-3 (NIV)

My grandparent’s home in Le Mars, Iowa, was a humble little house with three small bedrooms and one bath. I grew up spending weekends there every few months, and as I got older I had opportunities to spend even more time there. It’s hard to believe it now, but when I was only about ten years old my parents would buy me a bus ticket and put me on the Greyhound bus bound for Le Mars where I would spend my spring break. Mom would tell me to sit right behind the driver so he could keep an eye on me. Wow. How times have changed.

The “west room” at Grandpa and Grandma Vander Well’s house was mostly a storage room that doubled as a guest bed when necessary. The small four-poster double bed, complete with a feather mattress, was from their wedding set and it took most of the room. One entire wall was covered, floor-to-ceiling, with shelves on which my grandparents stored the remnants of their lives. I spent hours in that bedroom exploring all of the strange, old things on those shelves and letting my imagination run free.

I have always had a thing for history. I don’t know why. It presented itself in me when I was very young. I was fascinated by the old stuff that had to be explained to me.

“Hey, Grandpa. What’s this? What does this thing do?”

As I grew, my curiosity led me to explore family history. What was fascinating was what meager little scraps of information were spoken. I have come to believe that there are multiple reasons for this. My grandparents grew up in a time when families tended to bury the family stories that they found shameful. Every family is messy, but my grandparents’ generation was particularly closed when it came to talking about such things. They were also the depression generation. Genealogy and family history are luxuries people could ill-afford when they were desperately trying to survive day-to-day and raise a family. Much of what I eventually learned about both my maternal and paternal families came late in my grandparents’ lives, or after their deaths.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 78, is an epic song in the traditional sense of the word. If you’ve actually been reading the Psalms on this chapter-a-day journey you know that they’re typically quick reads. Much like most of today’s popular music, three verses and a bridge is typically all you get. But then, every once in a while, a song stands out because it is epic. Psalm 78 is a musical epic that was written to teach children and grandchildren the story of their people. Reading was still very rare in the days when Asaph wrote the song, and most of what people learned was through oral history. Stories told by family elders around the fire at night or songs, like today’s chapter, that were sung during seasonal festivals.

Psalm 78 mostly recounts the story of the Hebrew people’s exodus out of slavery in Egypt, the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrew people. Asaph, one of David’s temple choir directors, ends the poem alluding to the civil war between the Hebrew tribes, the fall of the northern tribes to the Assyrians, and God’s blessing of David and the southern kingdom of Judah.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating my love of history on both a large scale as well as the more intimate history of both my paternal and maternal families. I have come to realize that most people don’t care for such things, but it’s through the warts-and-all history of both family and humanity that Wisdom has taught me so much. The shame of my grandparents’ generation led them to keep the past hidden like the little remnants of their lives stuffed on the guest room shelves. I observe the shame of the emerging generation leading to the tearing down of history. I watch history being burned and buried. I imagine both of these extreme approaches to the past have existed throughout the Great Story. They wax and wane with the times.

Nevertheless, my soul aches in both cases. Asaph states quite clearly in Psalm 78 that he wants future generations to learn from the Hebrew past. As I read the chapter, I find that he wrote the epic complete with recollections of the glories and tragedies, the failures and successes, and both victories and defeats. I have met Wisdom in every one of those stories. She is present in every instance. Through each, she helps me see my current stretch of life’s road with more clarity and perspective.

I pray that I pass a little of that Wisdom along, one blog post at a time.

No Apology Necessary

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel.
Zechariah 3:3 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I’ve been serving as a mentor and coach for individuals in our local gathering of Jesus’ followers who are developing their gifts and abilities as teachers/preachers. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience and it’s a radical paradigm shift for almost anyone who grew up in the institutional, denominational church.

When Paul spoke of the Holy Spirit bestowing spiritual “gifts” on believers (see 1 Corinthians 12-13) for the common good, there are no limits or caveats mentioned regarding age, education, gender, race, or occupation. Spiritual gifts are given to every believer for serving the whole. Everyone is included. No one is exempt. Our local gathering is courageously believing that there are individuals within our midst who are spiritually gifted teachers despite the fact that they have not been institutionally trained as such. Like Paul himself, who worked tirelessly as a tentmaker, the teachers I’ve been privileged to serve over the past few years represent a diverse array of day jobs including diesel mechanic, corporate executive, middle-manager, engineer, non-profit director, IT network specialist, banker, writer, realtor, church staff member, and stay-at-home mom.

The feedback I and fellow team members provide each week is both the identification of a teacher’s strengths as well as opportunities to improve. At last night’s teacher’s meeting, I shared my observation that the most common opportunity for improvement I’ve identified across the broad cross-section of apprentice teachers is our seemingly requisite need to apologize to listeners for what they are about to hear. I’ve heard apologies for lack of ability, knowledge, experience, education, preparation, professionalism, and genetic similarity to the senior pastor. The apology almost always comes out in the opening statements. It takes the form of self-deprecating humor, humble confession, and nervous admission. Yet, I’ve observed that in every humorous, humble, or honest guise, this self-deprecating statement at the start of a message asks something from the listener (empathy, sympathy, mercy), when the teacher’s main role is to give something worthwhile to her or his listeners.

I’ve pondered on this for a long time. I’ve observed that there are two common motivations for this need to self-deprecate. The first reason is the simple fear of public speaking and the terror that comes with imagining yourself saying something wrong, silly, stupid, or offensive. The second reason is more intimate, and it’s the question any worthwhile teacher asks herself/himself in the quiet before she/he steps up in front of a group of listeners: “Who am I?”

I know my tragic flaws, my shortcomings, my hypocrisies, and my secret sins. “Who am I?” I whisper to myself as I’m ready to step up to the podium, “to think I have anything worthwhile to say to these people?” And so, I lead with an apology. I beg my listener’s mercy. Immediately, with that apology, I create unwanted and unnecessary nervousness, anxiety, tension, contempt, mistrust, or outright dismissal within the ranks of my listeners.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah has a vision of the high priest, Joshua. This is part of a series of visions intended to instill confidence and hope for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and God’s Temple among the exiles living in Persia. Keep in mind the context. It’s been 70 years since the temple was destroyed, and it was abundantly clear from the prophets, like Jeremiah, that the sins of the nation (including the priests) led to their captivity and exile.

In Zech’s vision, Joshua the high-priest stands there in filthy rags (a common, ancient metaphor for being sinful). Satan (the original Hebrew is more specifically translated “The Accuser”) stands next to him. I can easily imagine “the Accuser’s” stream of whispers: “Who are you to think you’re any better than your grandfathers that got them into this mess? Who are you to think you have anything to offer? Who are you to think you can actually restore God’s temple? Do you compare to Solomon?”

In the vision, the Angel of the Lord oversees the removal of Joshua’s filthy rags, and new garments are placed on him. “I’ve taken away your sin,” Joshua is told. “I’ve made a place for you here.” Joshua was called to fulfill God’s purposes despite his weaknesses, flaws, sins, and shortcomings. There is not one person on this planet whom God could call who doesn’t have weaknesses, flaws, sins, and shortcomings.

In the quiet this morning, I’m finding all sorts of encouragement in that word picture for myself and those I serve on the teaching team. I sometimes think that we do such a good job accusing ourselves that we make The Accuser’s job easy. The truth, however, is that since the ascension of Jesus there’s not one person who’s stepped up in front of a group of listeners to share His Message from Paul (murderer, a persecutor of the church) or Peter (who denied Jesus three times) to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Billy Graham, Mother Theresa or Pope Francis who didn’t stand in the darkness of the wings whispering “Who am I?”

“You are my child, my friend, and one whom I love,” I hear Holy Spirit whisper in response. “I’ve forgiven your sin. I’ve made you clean. I have given you a gift and a calling. You are purposed for this. You have something to say.”

“Say it, without apology.”

When I open the ears of my heart to hear, embrace, and embody that message, I grow to become a better teacher.

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.

Freedom, Indulgence, Hard Knocks, and Wisdom

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14 (NIV)

Among most of Wendy’s and my circle of close friends we happen to be the furthest down the path of life experience. As we enjoy being grandparents for the first time and watch our adult children embarking on their own adult journeys, most of our friends are somewhere between the stages of young children taxi service and sending children off to college for the first time. Just yesterday I was speaking with my friend who is experiencing the latter.

For young people who have lived in a secure home with engaged parents, going off to college is the first opportunity to experience real freedom. No one is looking over your shoulder. No one is reminding you of what you need to do. Plus, opportunities to experience the appetites of life in all their excesses tend to present themselves in abundance.

For many of us, the years of college and young adulthood are when we learn some crucial lessons on life’s road. Chief among them is answering the simple question: “What am I going to do with my freedom?” 

I don’t know a single individual who didn’t, at some point, use freedom to engage and indulge unhealthy appetites in one way or another during these years. Perhaps there are a few true saints out there. Most parents I know, however, like to conveniently white-wash their own young adult excesses as they place all sorts of appetite controls and lofty expectations on their children.

Along the journey I’ve come to the conclusion that each one of us must learn the hard lessons of how we’re going to use our freedom. It’s part of the journey. We all need to have our own wake-up moments like the Prodigal Son finding himself up to his knees in pig slop. We all need our personally induced wake-up calls when we find ourselves saying: “My own choices led me to this awful place. I think I need to make some changes.”

In today’s chapter of his letter to the believers of Galatia, Paul is addressing this same principle. Legalism is great for creating compulsory obedience to a defined set of rules, but it does nothing for helping us learn the crucial, spiritual maturity lessons of appetite control. It’s no coincidence that Paul’s list of behaviors that mark spiritual maturity include “self-control.”

This morning I find myself praying for our own adult children and our grandchild. The truth I’ve discovered is that the lessons of managing our appetites and developing mature self-control are ongoing throughout our life journeys. So, I’m praying for them in their own respective waypoints on this life journey.

I’m also saying prayers for our friends who are in the stages of raising willful children, teenagers testing their boundaries, and young adults experiencing freedom for the first time. I’m praying wisdom for all those parental decisions about rules, consequences, clamping down, and letting go. I’m also praying for the grace and wisdom of the Prodigal’s father, who knew that his Prodigal had to learn his own crucial lessons and experience the awful places we find ourselves when we use our freedom to indulge our appetites. The father didn’t track his son down. He didn’t send a rescue party. He didn’t deny his son life’s required coursework from the school of hard-knocks. The father sat patiently on the front-porch, said his prayers, kept his eye on the road out front, and waited for a much wiser son to come home.

Poured Out, Changed, Improved

“Moab has been at rest from youth,
    like wine left on its dregs,
not poured from one jar to another—
    she has not gone into exile.
So she tastes as she did,
    and her aroma is unchanged.”
Jeremiah 48:11 (NIV)

Wendy and I enjoy wine with a good meal. We’re not experts by any stretch of the imagination, but I have learned some of the basics of pairing a wine with the food we’re eating and getting the most out of the wine we drink. Just last night I put a couple of beef filets on the grill and Wendy made some sweet potato medallions. We opened this big, bombastic Spanish red wine, a Cariñena. It was aptly named El Bombero, and its bold flavor was a wonderful compliment to the richness of the steaks.

One of the things I’ve learned about wine is that it changes after you uncork the bottle. In fact, some of the experts I’ve read believe that almost any wine will taste better if you “decant” it, or transfer it to a glass decanter, and let it breathe for an hour or so before you drink it. Wine often has an initial sharp taste from being shut up inside the bottle for a long period. That sharp or sour taste smooths out, and the true flavor of the wine opens up when it’s transferred to another vessel and oxygen has a chance to work its natural magic.

Today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s prophetic works is a message of condemnation for the ancient nation of Moab (located just east of the Dead Sea). Moab’s mountainous regions were known for their wine and vineyards, so Jeremiah leverages their wineries for the purposes of a word picture. The Moabites had not changed and had not been “poured out” into exile as other nations in the region had. But, Jeremiah’s prophetic word tells Moab she would be “decanted” when the Persian army came through.

As I pondered Jeremiah’s word picture this morning I meditated on my own life journey. One of the unexpected realities of my own journey is how much change I would experience as I reached this stage of life. When I was young I had this notion that a person sort of reaches maximum personal maturity somewhere in early adulthood and then just maintains. To be honest, I have observed fellow adults for whom this appears to be their reality. I had no idea how much, in my experience, the spiritual process of being poured out, matured, and changed is cyclical and perpetual.

Wine that stays corked, bottled up, and unchanged retains a sharp and bitter taste. I’ve observed that humans are much the same way. There is a benefit to wine being poured out, decanted, and allowed to patiently sit so that change can bring out the blessings of maturity and aging. So my spirit  benefits from a similar process as I continue on life’s road.

Spirit Spring and Personal Cistern

They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns
Jeremiah 2:13 (NIV)

Wendy and I came home from our cruise a week ago with a mixture of emotions. We’ve done some debriefing about it together this past week. As I admitted in my recap, our time aboard fell into a very simple (and some would say “boring”) routine. We read a lot. We watched movies in our room. We sat by the pool in the warm sun. We only went to one of the big stage shows they offer in the evenings. We only truly explored one of the four ports of call. The daily list of activities we could enjoy was mind-boggling, but we pretty much ignored it all. We didn’t want endless activity. We have that at home.

On one hand we truly enjoyed the rest, the warmth, and the break from routine. We enjoyed being together as we always do. It was quiet and peaceful. At the same time, we both came home feeling that our Spirit-tank was empty. Independent of one another, we had thoughts of some thing on which we wanted to ponder and dig into. We had plans for journaling, meditating, seeking, and conversation together. We thought the downtime would afford us the opportunity to dig deep from a spiritual perspective. In retrospect, we didn’t do that, nor did we really even talk about it before we left.

In today’s chapter, Jeremiah’s prophetic poetry is pointed at his own people. He offers a word picture that leapt off the page for me in the quiet this morning. They had access to God’s “spring of living water,” but chose to dig their own cisterns instead. Yeah. I get that. I kind of feel like that with our missed opportunity a few weeks ago.

That confessed, I’m not beating myself up about this. It is what it is. It was a restful week and an enjoyable getaway. Nevertheless, it has served as a reminder for me. The line between “surface” and “Spirit” is an important one. Drinking from the spring of Living Water is not the same as drinking from the well-dug cistern of personal satisfaction.

Chalk up another lesson for the journey. I’m going to do it differently the next time we getaway together for a time of rest.

Have a good week, my friends.

Spiritual Bankruptcy

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (MSG)

It is possible to be religious, but not loving.
It is possible to be righteous, but not loving.
It is possible to be generous, but not loving.
It is possible to be doctrinally sound, but not loving.
It is possible to be right, but not loving.
It is possible to be politically correct, but not loving.
It is possible to be a defender of truth, but not love your enemy.
It is possible to know all scripture, but not love those who mock you.
It is possible to have spotless church attendance, but not love.
It is possible to have spiritual discipline, but not love.
It is possible to have success, but not love.
It is possible to have a million followers, but not love.
It is possible to have good intentions, but not love.

Jesus said there were two basic laws:
1) Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2) Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

When pressed to define who He meant by “neighbor,” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, the person who had love was a foreigner and an immigrant. The person who had love carried scars from being the victim of racial prejudice, injustice and systemic social, political, and economic ostracization. The person who had love held heretical doctrinal beliefs. The person who had love stood condemned by the prevailing  institutional religion of which Jesus was a part. But, the hated, heretical, outcast foreigner had love, and Jesus’ story made clear that love was the one thing that mattered to God.

On this life journey I’ve taken a good  hard look at myself, and the prevailing institutional religion of which I am a part.

We still haven’t learned the simple and most basic lesson Jesus ever taught. All of my spirituality, righteousness, and religion is bankrupt without love.

Lord, help me love.

featured image is a detail from the St. John’s Bible