Tag Archives: Literature

The Fool Who Speaks Truth

But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die!”
Jeremiah 26:8 (NIV)

There is a device Shakespeare used in his plays in which the fool, the jester, or the lowly are the individuals who see and speak the truth while the high and mighty continue to live in their deceits and delusions. Great story tellers often use this device. There’s the simple, small Shire-folk who bring about the downfall of the Lord of the Rings, or the eccentric Professor Trelawney who spouts foolishness 99.9% of the time but on at least two rare occasions actually speaks a prophetic word (that she doesn’t even know she uttered). I’m sure you can think of others.

Today’s chapter in the anthology of Jeremiah’s prophetic works goes back in time to the early years of his career. Jeremiah goes to the Temple court and proclaims that God will destroy Jerusalem if the people don’t change their ways. His message of warning and doom is not well received. The leaders of the Temple and other prophets seize Jer in an attempt to kill him. A trial ensues. Even the King and the army want Jeremiah dead, just as they’d extradited and executed a similar prophet named Uriah.

Elders of the community defend Jeremiah, stating that there is plenty of precedent of prophets who spoke unpopular words but were not put to death for their message. A couple of high-ranking officials come to Jeremiah’s defense, and his life is spared.

Along my life journey I have learned that great stories echo wisdom of the Great Story. When emotions are high and “the crowd” is in an uproar (especially when stirred by those in institutional authority) I often perk up my ears to listen for a still, small, contrarian voice amidst the din. Throughout the Great Story I find that God’s messengers are typically unpopular with the crowd. That’s why Jesus told His followers, “You’re blessed when people revile and rebuke you – when they speak all manner of slander against you.”

This morning in the quiet I’m reminded that Truth is rarely popular. Jesus said that the road to Life is a narrow, dusty footpath. It isn’t particularly well-marked and the trek is challenging for the relative few who are willing to embark on the journey. By contrast, the super highway the crowd follows is an easy commute (though one typically has to deal with traffic jams). And so, at the beginning of another day I find myself pondering which path I will choose today. Which role will I choose to play in the Great Story? Am I, like Jeremiah, willing to play the role of “the wise fool” who speaks Truth?

I guess my answer will be revealed in the choices I make today.

 

A Few Thoughts on Prophecy…

Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, “Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’”

Elisha answered, “Go and say to him, ‘You will certainly recover.’ Nevertheless,the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die.” He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael was embarrassed. 
2 Kings 8:9-11 (NIV)

Along life’s journey I have had people speak to me, prophetically, about things that they claimed would happen, or be true, in my life. In fact, it happened to me just yesterday. Sitting down to coffee with a friend and colleague, he started the conversation with, “By the way, my wife had a prophetic word for you.” What it was I’ll keep to myself for now. If there’s anything I’ve learned from experience (and from Shakespeare’s Scottish play) it’s that there are both wise and foolish ways to handle prophetic words.

I’m sure there are those reading this post who think the whole notion of prophecy (e.g. someone knowing and proclaiming something that’s unknowable about the future or about another person), is a bunch of hocus-pocus nonsense. You can’t journey your way through the Great Story God is telling, however, and deny the fact that prophecy is an integral part of the telling. From Isaiah to Malachi, there are 17 books of God’s Message written by prophets. Jesus gave a nod to prophecy when He said that He came to “fulfill the Law and the prophets.” When Paul lists out the spiritual gifts that Holy Spirit manifests in Jesus’ followers, prophecy is smack-dab in the center of the list.

Beyond God’s Message, I have found the prophetic to be part of human experience. Our epic stories always use the prophetic as a device in their telling. From Homer’s Odyssey (Penelope’s Dream) to Shakespeare (i.e. Hamlet‘s Ghost and the Weird Sisters of Macbeth) to Lord of the Rings (“thus saith Malbeth the Seer“) and the Harry Potter saga (“Neither can live while the other survives“) the prophetic is everywhere. Then there are the mystical prophets of history that continue to be pop culture favorites like Nostradamus and the Rasputin. Look back through our history and our stories and you’ll find prophecy all over the place.

Prophecy makes for some dramatic moments. The story in today’s chapter reads like a climactic scene right out of an epic movie.

A man named Hazael, who was a servant of the King of Aram, comes to the prophet Elisha to ask if the King, his master, will recover from an illness. Elisha at first tells Hazael to inform the king that he will, in fact, recover from the illness.

Now, you have to imagine the scene. Elisha glares at Hazael with a long, penetrating look. He’s got an icy gaze like Michael Corleone in The Godfather. The look from Elisha cuts right through Hazael as the tense silence is filled with low, ominous sounding music swelling beneath the scene. Suddenly things are getting really, really uncomfortable…

“Nevertheless,the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die,” Elisha says in a slow sonorous statement that hangs out in space and drips with the prophetic.

Elisha continues his Michael Corleone stare. Shame is all over Hazael’s face. He can’t look at Elisha. His eyes dart back and forth and to the ground. His hand fumbles in his pocket for his fidget spinner…

Can you see it? Man, what a moment.

The King of Aram must have had the 24 hour flu because the very next day (in Macbeth like fashion, I might add) Hazael kills his master and assumes the throne of Aram. This morning I find myself mulling over whether Hazael had already conspired to kill his master the next day, or if Elisha’s prophetic revelation pushed him over the edge. That’s a great conversation for Wendy and me to have over breakfast this morning.

The story also has me mulling over prophesy in broader terms. I do believe in prophesy. Not only because it’s such a part of the Great Story, but also because I’ve had too many experiences with it to be utterly dismissive. I have also learned, however, that I’ve got to handle the prophetic wisely.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. When someone shares a prophetic word with me I receive it, but hold it very loosely. False prophesy is every bit a part of our stories as well. I don’t want to be too quick to cling and I don’t want to be too quick to reject. Chill, let it sit, and contemplate. Pray. Mull. Chew.
  2. I will share the prophesy with my closest, most discerning friends who know me well, who know my journey, and who in my experience have proven wisdom. Their reactions to what ever prophetic word I’ve been given tell me a lot.
  3. I never try to make what’s been prophesied happen. That’s the road to tragedy (just ask Lady Macbeth and her husband).
  4. I confess to myself that prophetic messages can be layered with meaning and may have a very different interpretation than what I’m thinking. The scholars of Jesus’ day read the prophets and had a very different picture of Messiah than the one Jesus fulfilled. It would be just as easy for me to hear a prophetic word and interpret it one way (e.g. the way I want it to mean) when its true meaning is something altogether different.
  5. I continue to repeat step one. I continue to hold on to the prophesy, but I hold it loosely. I contemplate and consider, but I keep pressing forward in my journey day-by-day. Obsessing on the prophetic usually leads to paralysis which leads nowhere fast. Some of the most ineffectual people I’ve ever known are those who’ve mired themselves and their lives in the prophetic. This is another place where I find I must put the “faith” in  “faith journey.” There is a flow to life and story. What will be will be. The prophesy someone gave me will happen or not. I’ve got to keep pressing forward.

And now, it’s time to do just that. If you’re reading this (thank you) I hope you have a great day today.

 

 

Literary Considerations

The family heads among the descendants of Levi up to the time of Johanan son of Eliashib were recorded in the book of the annals.
Nehemiah 12:23 (NIV)

A friend dropped off copies of an old program at the house the other day. They had been unearthed in the estate of a local citizen recently deceased. The programs were from the grand opening of our local community center back in 1989 and our community theatre (just a fledgling organization trying to get off the ground at that time) had a part in the festivities. It was interesting for me to look through the program and see who performed, what was performed, and how the community went about celebrating the center’s opening.

When you blog for any length of time you’re likely, on occasion, to have visitors who take an exception with its content. In my humble opinion, one of the unfortunate outcomes of our social media culture is the ability for people to take snarky pot shots at others from afar. I grieve what appears to be our waning ability to have civil public discourse about our disagreements, especially in our political arena. At the same time, how cool that I can daily publish a blog post that can be instantly accessed and read by billions of people around the world. (“Can be” being the operative words as, on a good day, I eke out only 200 or so visitors from those billions of potential readers)

I received a comment yesterday on a very old blog post I’d written years ago, that was from a chapter of the Bible like today’s. The comment began by insulting my intelligence and then proceeded to criticize the chapter, and the Bible as a whole, for not being appropriately addressing the politically correct issues of our day. It then ended with by criticizing the Bible as terrible literature.

Of course, the humble Hebrew scribes who scratched out the words of the books of law and history in the Old Testament some 3,000 years ago were not concerned with literary merit in the 21st century American sense. Neither were they concerned with animal welfare or human rights in our modern way of thinking of such things. Using stylus on papyrus they were simply concerned with preserving historical record. Even in today’s chapter it self-describes the contents as a “book of the annals.”  It was no more intended to be a work of literature than the program from our Community Center’s grand opening.

One of the most fascinating, and sometimes maddening, challenges of reading God’s Message is that it is not a literary work in the classic sense. It’s a compilation of historical record, code of law, poetry, song lyric, prophecy, biography, and personal correspondence. It’s more puzzle than prose. It was all written in other languages in ancient cultures on the other side of the world. The story is not told in literal, linear fashion. The story emerges over time and requires patience, and the openness of both brain hemispheres, to perceive and embrace the over arching narrative. Those who wish it to read like a 21st century novel will be understandably frustrated, confused, and disappointed.

The Implosion of Evil

merry and pippin held by orcsWhen Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. Acts 23:6-7 (NRSV)

One of the themes I have noticed in epic literature over the years is that evil tends to implode from within. In the Lord of the Rings, Merry and Pippin were able to escape from their captors in large part because of the infighting between the orcs Mordor and the Uruk-Hai of Isengard. Likewise, the reason Sam was able to rescue Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol was because all of the orcs killed each other. Factions of hatred have a hard time uniting.

I was reminded of this as I read today’s chapter. The Jewish council had two main factions who disagreed on theology and who seemed to hate one another more than they hated Paul and the followers of Jesus. The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death or in the spiritual realm while the Pharisees did. Paul, seizing on the opportunity to stir up the on-going debate between the two factions, sided loudly with the Pharisees and got the two factions arguing (orc-like). The Pharisees were suddenly defending Paul as an ally and the Romans were forced to rescue him from the ensuing tumult.

Today, I’m reminded that Jesus command to love others, even our enemies, has powerful consequences far beyond the spiritual health of our own souls. The power of love to unite is one of the most powerful weapons we have against evil.

Prophecy in Story and Life

room of prophecy

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. Ezekiel 34:23 (NIV)

In recent weeks my heart and mind have been mulling over this idea of good stories being reflections of the Great Story that God is telling from Genesis to Revelation. And so, perhaps it’s no surprise that this morning I was thinking about all of the stories that contain the theme of prophecies:

In the Lord of the Rings:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

In the Chronicles of Narnia:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

In Harry Potter:

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies […] 

In The Matrix, The Prophecy was a prediction made by the Oracle and, as told to Neo by Morpheus, states the coming of The One and that it will herald the destruction of the Matrix and the freedom of humanity from their oppression by the Machines. Once The One enters the Source, he will have the power to destroy the Matrix.

These are just a few top of mind examples, but if you think about it for a few minutes you begin to realize that the theme of prophecy and oracles is found in stories from Disney fairy tales to Shakespeare.

One of the important things about reading the books of the Old Testament is to gain an appreciation for how the person, life and work of Jesus prophetically fits into the context of the whole story that God is telling. Ezekiel’s messages were written over 500 years before the events of Jesus’ earthly life, and yet they are an important prophetic link.

As Ezekiel writes his prophetic word picture of God’s flock in today’s chapter “the sheep” have already begun to be scattered. Assyria had assailed the northern tribes and taken them into exile in Persia. Babylon had already laid siege to the southern tribes and many, like Ezekiel himself, had been scattered to Babylon and surrounding areas. Ezekiel’s metaphor of a scattered flock would have deeply resonated with his compatriots.

Into this word picture comes a prophetic word through Ezekiel of one shepherd from David’s line who will be raised up to gather the flock. Then you fast forward 500 years to Jesus who was born a descendant of David (remember the Christmas story when they return to “the City of David” for Caesar’s census?). As Jesus is at the height of His teaching, the question everyone was asking him was: Who are you?

To those who knew Ezekiel’s prophetic oracle, Jesus speaks clearly:

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Today, I am thankful for good stories. I’m thankful for prophecy both in stories and in life. I’m thankful for the Great Story that is being told and lived. I’m thankful for my place in it.

Foreshadowing

job

You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.
Job 14:15-17 (NIV)

The book of Job is an epic poem (bookended with a prose prologue and epilogue). It was likely an ancient story and scholars suggest that the protagonist of the story lived sometime between 1000 and 2000 B.C. The story of Job and his three friends was likely shared through oral tradition for many generations before a Hebrew poet and scribe penned it in the form and structure we read today. The date is unknown, but historians place the books writing anywhere between the reign of Solomon and when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and forced the Hebrews into exile which would put it roughly 600-1000 years before Christ.

Realizing that we’re reading a poem penned so many centuries before Jesus was born, what struck me in today’s chapter was the foreshadowing of Jesus that came out in Job’s words:

You will call and I will answer you;

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” – Jesus

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus

You will long for the creature your hands have made.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…. John 3:16

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” – Jesus

Surely then you will count my steps,

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” – Jesus

but not keep track of my sin.
My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” – Jesus

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

God is telling a story, and it is woven through His Message. Job is a part of that story. His ancient words not only speak to me of my very present human condition, but also foreshadow a chapter of God’s story which would not unfold for many millennia.

This morning, I’m thankful for the rich layers of story and of meaning told through Job, and through the books of law, and history, and wisdom. I’m thankful for the ways I daily relate to them these thousands of years later, and the ways they richly reveal God’s story as it unfolds across time.

Chapter-a-Day Luke 14

Table setting at a wedding diner
Image via Wikipedia

He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left. Luke 14:7-9 (MSG)

I consider stories, books, and films that seem timeless. There is a reason Shakespeare’s works are still staged for packed crowds around the world. There is something in them that resounds with our own core human experience and longing. Jesus was a great teacher because he spoke in stories, parables and spiritual lessons rooted in universal human experiences. He pointed us to eternal significance in everday occurrences.

Life lessons are all around us. They lurk in our daily conversations, in our every day relationships, and in the most mundane moments of our daily journey. God’s Spirit whispers to our spirit in a crowded shopping mall, in the quiet car ride home, and in the midst of our daily work.

For me, the crucial question is the one Jesus asked at the end of the chapter: “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”

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