Tag Archives: Maturity

Childish Notions

Childish Notions (CaD Jud 11) Wayfarer

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Judges 11:30-31 (NIV)

As a boy, I remember that my prayers were often contract negotiations. In my childhood, prayer was something that happened on three occasions outside of church. There was the prayer before meals which consisted of dad saying the Lord’s prayer or his other stock pre-meal prayer followed by all four kids chanting the simple pre-meal prayer in Dutch that grandma and grandpa Vander Well taught us. Then there was the bedtime prayer, which was the stock “Now I lay me down to sleep” version. The third occasion for prayer was when I desperately wanted something to happen and I had no control over it.

Examples of these things that I desperately wanted typically involved girls. For the record, I never experienced the “girls a dumb” phase of boyhood. I had my first crush in Kindergarten and things only grew more intense from there. There were also the four Super Bowls in my childhood that involved the Minnesota Vikings. Those were, perhaps, the most desperate contract negotiations with God of all time. History will tell you how that worked out for me. I’m sure I made God all sorts of promises and vows on those Super Bowl Sundays. Sports, in particular, were the catalyst for contractual prayers: “God, if you see to it that my team wins, then I will….”

Today’s chapter is one of the most difficult and disturbing in all of the Great Story. It involves a man named Jephthah who utters a contractual prayer as a vow to God. If God grants him victory then he’ll sacrifice the first thing that walks out of his home as a burnt offering to God. He is victorious, and the first thing that walks out of his home is his only child, a young daughter.

I am fond of remembering that these stories come out of the toddler stage of human civilization when humanity’s knowledge and understanding of life, self, and God was about as developed as your average three-to-five-year-old is today. There are a couple of other contextual observations I must ponder as I mull over this tragic story. One is that the author of Judges reminds me twice that during this period of time “everyone did as they saw fit” (17:6; 21:25). Jephthah’s vow was incongruent with God’s law, yet this was also a time when the Hebrew people regularly worshipped the gods of neighboring peoples and participated in their rituals, including deities like Chemosh and Milkom. It is well documented that these religions would at times practice child sacrifices and the practice was viewed as a very serious act of religious devotion. In Jephthah’s day, his actions were, sadly, understood and accepted. His actions stand as an example of why God so desperately wanted His people to forsake these other religions.

Paul wrote in his epic love chapter: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” As I look back at my childhood and my childish notions about God and life, I am both amused and ashamed to have thought and believed such things. At the same time, they stand as a benchmark and a reminder of my spiritual progress over fifty-some years. The real tragedy would be to look back and find that my spiritual understanding had never progressed beyond contractual negotiation for trivial gain.

In the quiet this morning, that’s how I find myself viewing and mourning Jephthah’s tragic story. After over 40 years of reading and studying the Great Story, I am mindful that it contains stories that are examples to follow and stories that are warnings and examples to avoid. Today’s chapter is the latter.

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

The Goal

The Goal (CaD Heb 6) Wayfarer

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…
Hebrews 6:1 (NIV)

Religion is relatively easy. I was raised with religion. It was simply a set of ritual tasks that was woven into. Go to Sunday School and the church service once a week. Give a few bucks. Say the Lord’s prayer before family meals along with the Dutch prayer Grandpa and Grandma Vander Well taught us. Pray when I go to bed if I think about it. Volunteer once in a while. These are the basic motions. Repeat.

When I surrendered my life to Christ and became a follower of Jesus, I remember realizing that all of my religious motions had simply that – motions. They didn’t really have any effect on the person I was. The religious rituals had no soul penetration, no life penetration. On Sunday morning in church, I’d sing the hymn Just As I Am and the rest of the week I did just that. I remained just as I had always been.

Early in my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus, I walked among a group that appeared to be rabidly devout about their faith. What I quickly discovered is that they were simply religion on steroids. They had countless rules of appearance and behavior that were thickly layered on top of the religious rituals. I soon noticed that my peers were spiritually immature. They didn’t have to think, they just had to obey. The result was that there was no development of a person’s heart and soul. There was simply adherence to the prescribed rules so that those in authority within the system could see me toeing the line. Along my life journey, I’ve come to believe that there is a corollary relationship between religious fundamentalism and spiritual immaturity.

Reading Jesus’ teachings, this was the very thing from which Jesus came to free me. The word picture He used was that of a beautiful, ornate mausoleum in the cemetery. So pretty on the outside. Full of rotting flesh and dead bones on the inside. My zealously religious friends were concerned about my purity; The purity of my doctrine, obedience, appearance, and social behavior. From what I read in the Great Story, Jesus is most concerned about my spiritual maturity. Because the deeper my spiritual roots descend, the more living water I imbibe, the more mature my growing spirit becomes, the more spiritual fruit my life produces. The goal is not lifeless obedience to a set of rules, the goal is a life that is spilling over with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Those aren’t fruits of religion, they are fruits of Spirit maturity.

One of the major reasons that the author of the letter to the Hebrews was writing to his fellow Jewish believers was precisely for this reason. The Hebrews were big on religion. They had an entire system of ritual tasks, rules, sacrifices, offerings, and festivals. It was so ingrained in them that it was hard for some to give it up. That’s another thing I’ve observed about religious devotion: Once a person is used to it the ritual rule-keeping feels natural and comfortable. It’s like being a spiritual couch potato.

And that’s why the author of Hebrews is urging his fellow believers toward the things Jesus taught: spiritual maturity, spiritual development, and growth of soul that leads to maturity and a life marked by increasing spiritual fruit. You know what’s funny? The more I grow spiritually, the more Life I find in some of those old religious rituals and traditions. Without the Spirit, they were just life-less motions. With the Spirit, they become a vehicle of further growth and development.

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

Knowing and Not Knowing

Knowing and Not Knowing (CaD Gen 46) Wayfarer

[God said to Israel] “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”
Genesis 46:3-4 (NIV)

When I was a kid, many years before Top Gun was a thing, I wanted to be a Naval aviator. I’m not sure how this developed in me, though I’m pretty sure the television show Black Sheep Squadron and the movie Midway were somewhat involved. I wore a sailor cap all the time. I read my Uncle Bud’s Navy manual, and I corresponded with him about his experiences in the Navy during the Korean War. Those are letters I regretfully did not save.

At some point after what seemed like a long period of correspondence in those days, Uncle Bud said he wanted to have a talk with me. He wanted to give me a reality check regarding what life was really like for him in the Navy. He wanted to share with me the things I was not asking him about as I looked at his stories through rose-colored aviator goggles.

My desire to be a Naval aviator quickly died. I consider this a good thing in retrospect.

In today’s chapter, God speaks directly to Israel and assures the elderly patriarch that he should take his entire family and all that he has and go to his son in Egypt. God even foreshadows what will happen next. The clan is going to grow exponentially in Egypt. And God will bring Jacob back. There’s a double meaning in this. Yes, Jacob’s body will be returned and buried in the family tomb. God is also foreshadowing the next chapters in the Great Story when God will deliver and lead the “nation” of Israel’s descendants out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the Promised Land in the book Exodus.

What stood out to me, as one who knows the story well, is that God omits any mention of Israel’s descendants being enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years as they become “a great nation there.” Looking at this as an isolated incident on a merely human level, this seems unjust and unfair. Yet, along my spiritual journey, I have personally learned and observed that struggles, trials, and difficulties are requisites for spiritual maturity in this life. This is not hidden. It’s stated directly in multiple places in multiple ways.

If I had forewarning of every difficulty I have personally faced on my life journey, I’m quite certain I would have opted out of most of them, just like I opted out of my childhood dream of being a Naval aviator. In hindsight, I see now that opting out would have been to my detriment in so many of my life’s struggles. Yes, I would have avoided painfully difficult circumstances, but I also would have avoided the wisdom and spiritual maturity that was forged in me through them. That, I realize from my current waypoint on life’s road, would have been eternally detrimental.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back and being grateful for both stretches of difficulty on life’s road as well as times of deliverance and protection. They are equally important chapters in my story, just as they are in the Great Story. I find it an important reminder as the deliverance of Israel’s clan leads into hundreds of years of slavery between the final chapter of Genesis and the first chapter of Exodus.

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

Exile and Return

Exile and Return (CaD Gen 35) Wayfarer

Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.”
Genesis 35:1 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve discovered along my spiritual journey is that the return is often as important as the destination. In some cases, they turn out to be one and the same.

In today’s chapter, God calls Jacob to return to Bethel which is the place where God first revealed Himself to Jacob. Jacob has been on a journey of exile for over twenty years, and now he has returned to his home and family. At Bethel, God renews the promises made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. God makes Jacob’s name change to Israel official.

The timing of this is important. Isaac is about to die. Having the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, God is leading Jacob through a rite of passage. He’s returned from exile to lead the family, and head the family business. Things are about to change in a big way.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back. My spiritual journey has led me on paths of exile and return. I found it to be the path of both wisdom and maturity. In exile, I face trials and struggles that grow me up as I learn essential lessons in faith, patience, perseverance, joy, and hope. The return is the place where those lessons bear fruit. The landscape looks different upon my return. Time may have changed things, but most importantly I have changed. I see old things with new eyes. In exile, I have been refined, honed, broken down, and rebuilt for a purpose. The return is where that purpose eventually comes into focus.

I also found myself meditating on God’s name change for this patriarch-to-be. In exile, Jacob (meaning the deceiver) is transformed into Israel (he wrestled with God). When Jacob left Bethel, everything he had and came from his (and his mother’s) own deceptive cunning and initiative. In exile, he struggled with his Uncle, himself, and with God. He discovers in exile that his blessings come from God and not his, and his family’s, penchant for deception. Jacob left Bethel and went into exile. It was Israel who returned to Bethel ready for the next stage of the journey.

I have found that there are certain spiritual truths that do not change. Among those truths is the necessity of both exile and return.

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

On Being a “Member”

On Being a "Member" (CaD 2 Pet 1) Wayfarer

For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 1:8 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I have served a number of local churches in either a volunteer or paid part-time basis. As a young man, I spent a total of five years in full-time pastoral ministry and served two different churches in very different denominations. These two full-time stints were very different experiences, but there was one thing the two experiences had in common. In the middle of my tenure at each of these churches, I was called to account by well-intentioned, legalistic busybodies for having not become a “member” of the said church.

I will never forget receiving a phone call asking me to be at an emergency meeting of the elders; the raw emotions of disappointment, anxiety, and suspicion expressed with regard to my reasons for not being a “member.” I will also not forget the abject silliness of jumping through all the institutional, bureaucratic hoops to appease the religious busybodies, including apologizing in a congregational meeting for my “oversight” and requesting that my “membership” be approved by the people who hired me to be their pastor.

It was no different than Jesus getting called to account for healing someone on the Sabbath day of rest. Being a member of a church does not make one a follower of Jesus, and being a follower of Jesus has nothing to do with adherence to religious, institutional bureaucracy. Confusion of the two is one of the legitimate realities that lie at the root of the world’s criticism and condemnation of Christianity. There are a host of other reasons, both legitimate and illegitimate, that lie with it.

In the opening of Peter’s second letter to first century followers of Jesus, he begins by identifying those who are legitimate followers of Jesus. You won’t find mention of a “membership certificate” or congregational approval anywhere in the description. Rather, Peter points to the evidence of ever-increasing spiritual maturity:

Faith that leads to goodness in words and deeds toward all.
Goodness that motivates a desire to know more about the things of God.
Knowledge that contributes to personal self-control in temptation.
Self-control that contributes to perseverance in tough stretches of the journey.
Perseverance that produces deeper levels of godliness in the daily mundane.
Godliness that shows up in sincere affection for others more than self.
Affection that results in acts of sacrificial love for others.

Peter goes on to explain that the goal is life that is effective and productive. This is exactly what Jesus told Peter and the team on the night before He was crucified: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The goal is a life of connection to Jesus, being a “member” of the divine dance in the larger work He is accomplishing in the Great Story. Being a “member” of Christ effectively produces fruit in my life, and that fruit includes the very character traits Peter listed.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about this penchant I’ve witnessed in many for taking institutional church membership so seriously. I’ve just never considered the bureaucracy worthwhile. I’ve always believed that my “membership” is proven, not by taking a class, signing my name, receiving a certificate, and saying “I do” to list of rote questions, but rather by the evidence of my being spiritually effective and productive within my local gathering of Jesus’ followers and my community, just as Peter describes. If I have the former without the latter, then “my faith” is not faith at all. It’s just a membership that carries as much spiritual benefit as my membership in the rewards club of my local grocery store.

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

Not Without Struggle

Not Without Struggle (CaD James 1) Wayfarer

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:4 (NIV)

Just yesterday I returned home from a seven day road trip. Part work, part personal, and part sabbatical, I logged more that fifty hours behind the wheel and just shy of 3,000 miles. It felt good to arrive home yesterday, like I’d reached a kind of finish line, a journey’s end.

Journey has always been the core metaphor of this blog. A wayfarer is one who is on a journey, and in these posts I write about my life journey, my spiritual journey, and this chapter-a-day journey.

On a journey, one moves and progresses towards a destination.

On both my life journey and my spiritual journey, my progress is measured, not by distance, but by maturity, wisdom, and the yield of love produced in my spirit, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions along with love’s by-products of joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

On Wednesday of this past week, I was in Richmond, Virginia. I took the opportunity to visit the U.S. Civil War Museum located there. As is a ritual for Wendy and me, I picked up a couple of magnets to mark and memorialize the visit on the fridge back home. One of the magnets is a quote:

“Without struggle, there is no progress.”

Frederick Douglass

When reading James’ letter, I’ve found it beneficial to consider the context in which he wrote it. It was a time of intense struggle. James was not written by James, the disciple of Jesus, but by James the half-brother of Jesus who became leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus are facing persecution and many have fled the persecution and are living in other places. James chooses to remain and continue the work of Jesus.

James leadership position as a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem puts him in direct conflict with the same religious aristocracy that put Jesus to death, put Stephen to death, and sent Saul hunting down Jesus’ followers. Not long after penning this letter, James will be killed by them, as well. He writes this letter to encourage Jesus’ followers scattered to the four winds and fleeing persecution. He is writing to encourage followers of Jesus to persevere amidst the difficult struggles they faced as wayfarers on journeys of exile.

In the first chapter, James reminds these struggling wayfarers of the goal.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

The goal is maturity and wholeness which are produced through persevering in the struggle of many kinds of trials and tests of faith.

Without struggle, there is no progress towards maturity and completeness.

It feels good to be sitting in the quiet of my office this morning. I find myself thinking about “trials of many kinds” through which I have persevered. My mind flashes back to people I met and spent time with on my journey last week. Each one is facing their own struggles and trials on their respective journeys. Each one is making progress. I was blessed by my time with each of them.

I’m reminded this morning as I begin a new work week. This is a journey. Today I progress toward my destination, but not without struggle.

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

Source, not Compensation

Source, not Compensation (CaD Mk 1) Wayfarer

And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:11 (NIV)

Looking back on my life journey, it’s obvious to me that my early thirties were an important stretch of road. My late teens and early twenties were a period of being cocksure of myself. Entering marriage, fatherhood, and adulthood in my early twenties was, for me, a heavy dose of reality. The side-effects of that reality dosage led to a period of intense personal chaos which eventually led to intense introspection, and this eventually led to a more healthy sense of what psychologists would call my individuation. In the parlance of our times, as the Dude would say, I grew up. I became my own person.

As I trekked through that time of life, I began to inspect my family of origin with a critical eye. As with any human system, there were shortcomings which I had to honestly acknowledge, address, and forgive. But I also discovered strengths which had to be equally acknowledged, addressed, and appreciated.

It was during this time of life that I began to witness a common soul wound that effected a number of my male friends. They had never experienced a father’s love. Never had their ears heard the words “I love you” uttered by their dad. Never had they received a word of affirmation, encouragement, or paternal pride. “The old man” had simply been a stoic source of silence, or constant criticism, or unattainable expectations. The result was a seemingly adult male who was, in reality, the walking wounded endlessly striving to earn a blessing that was hopelessly beyond price.

It was this observation that gave me a much needed contrast in my own process of individuation. Every day of my childhood ended with a hug and kiss from my parents and an “I love you.” My father, as well as my mother, was present, loving, affectionate, proud, and trusting. So much so, in fact, that I was blind to it. I took it for granted. I had no idea how priceless of a gift it was.

With today’s chapter, my chapter-a-day journey embarks on Mark’s biography of Jesus. It is the shortest of the four Jesus Stories contained in the Great Story. It is believed to be the earliest to have been written. Mark, also known as John Mark, was a colleague and assistant to both Peter and Paul. Mark’s mother was one of the circle of women who followed and supported Jesus’ ministry. The early believers met in her home. It is believed that Mark’s biography is his compilation of the stories Peter told as they traveled and taught others in the first century.

It is also believed that a curious side note of Mark’s biography of Jesus was, well, autobiographical. It’s found in his description of Jesus’ arrest:

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

This somewhat comical detail stands out, in part, because Mark’s biography of Jesus is short on details compared to Matthew, John, and Luke. It is a condensed compilation of stories, especially in the early chapters. A dramatization of today’s chapter would contain eight different scenes. That’s a lot of material to chew on in one quiet time.

What resonated most with me this morning was the scene of Jesus’ baptism in which all members of the Trinity are present. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mark the beginning of Jesus earthly ministry and the Father’s voice from heaven declares His love and pleasure with His Son, Jesus. What always stands out to me is that Jesus hasn’t done anything yet.

He hasn’t successfully faced temptation.
He hasn’t hasn’t preached his first sermon.
He has no disciples.
He hasn’t healed anyone.

Jesus has been ritually dunked by His cousin, John. That’s it.

“That’s m’boy,” says the Father. “Man, I love Him. Couldn’t be more proud. It’s such pleasure to be this kid’s Dad!”

Years ago I made this same point during a message I was giving among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One listener accosted me after the service to take issue with this.

“He was thirty years old,” this person exclaimed. “He’d done stuff!”

This individuals insistence quickly made clear to just how wounded their soul was. They could not fathom parental love, pride, or pleasure that had not been demanded, earned, and merited. I have observed along my life journey that much of religious Christianity suffers from this wound. Churches talk about grace (literally, unmerited favor) while demanding that members faithfully earn the system’s social acceptability by carefully being obedient to the silent rules of dress, speech, relationships, and public behavior. In a meritocracy, love, pride and pleasure are a carrot dangled as motivation. They are to be dearly earned through strict obedience.

Not Jesus’ family system. Love, pride and pleasure are the source of the motivation. The divine love and relational intimacy of the mysterious One-is-Three and Three-is-One is what fueled Jesus’ ministry, His mission, His service, and His sacrifice.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful to my father and mother for modeling love. It has mades it easier for me to understand this essential truth about Jesus’ message: Love is the source not the compensation. It is there. It’s right there. All I have to do is believe, receive, and make room. “We love because He first loved us.”

Perhaps the single-most important lesson of my life journey, thus far, was the realization that God’s eternal love, complete forgiveness, and total acceptance was not the result of my “doing stuff” or not “doing stuff.” It is a gift to be simply received. The realization of just how priceless that gift is has been the greatest motivation of my life and has led me to “do stuff” for forty years, like writing this post.

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

Of Traditions

Of Traditions (CaD Ps 124) Wayfarer

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 124:8 (NIV)

Here’s a little trivia for you: The now almost requisite playing of the Star-Spangled Banner at sporting events dates to 1918 at the first game of the World Series between the Cubs and the Red Sox. The series almost didn’t happen that year because so many Americans were across the Atlantic fighting in World War I. Fred Thomas, the Red Sox’ Third Baseman, and furloughed U.S. sailor got up during the seventh inning stretch and sang a moving rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. At that point, it wasn’t even the national anthem (that happened in 1931). It was so moving that it became a seventh-inning-stretch staple. During WWII, technology allowed for the anthem to be played by recording and it was moved from the seventh inning stretch to before the ball game. Other sports followed.

Obviously, the anthem has been a point of tension in recent years. It’s just interesting to me to realize that there were many decades of professional baseball when that the tradition didn’t exist. I find it fascinating how traditions can become so important to us as human beings, whether those traditions are religious, civic, social or familial. Messing with traditions can create major disruption in any human system.

I thought about the national anthem as I read today’s chapter, Psalm 124. The lyrics of this Hebrew pilgrim’s song read like a community anthem reminding the traveler of God’s blessing on their nation and deliverance from many enemies. The lyrics basically read like a national anthem for the Hebrew nation, and thinking of it being a tradition for Hebrew pilgrims to sing it while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem makes me think that it’s not that much different than the Star-Spangled Banner before every ballgame, or singing God Bless America at the ball game on Sunday.

When the songwriter of Psalm 124 penned “the flood would have engulfed us” the imagery was that of a dry river bed that fills up suddenly during seasonal rains and creates devastating flash floods. It’s a metaphor for the warfare and pillaging attacks that happened seasonally, just like the rains.

The song is structured for the first stanza to be sung by an individual leader, describing what would have happened had God not been with them. The second stanza is sung by all the people, praising God for deliverance from their nation’s enemies.

I find myself meditating on traditions in the quiet this morning. Wendy and I even talked about the season of Lent which our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is in the midst of celebrating. Lent is a tradition of followers of Jesus that goes back as early as 325 AD. There is nothing written in the Great Story in regard to it and there’s no requirement to celebrate it in any way. It’s simply a tradition that annually connects followers to Jesus’ story. That’s the way I’ve personally always approached Lent and every human tradition for that matter.

I’ve observed along my life journey that traditions can be a great way to remind a group of human beings about any number of things we find important from gratitude, to sacrifice, to history, and to matters of Spirit. I’ve also observed that when traditions themselves become sacred to the human beings within the system, then the meaning of the tradition can often be lost. The reason behind the tradition sometimes loses focus or potency as the tradition itself becomes the focus of the human system that holds it. I have experienced that the breaking of certain traditions has been a spiritually healthy thing for me personally. I have also found that rediscovering lost traditions, that may have needed to go away for a time, can be equally as healthy to my spiritual journey.

Exilic Reflections

Exilic Reflections (CaD Ps 107) Wayfarer

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.

Psalm 107:6 (NIV)

As I’ve been mulling over the spiritual milestones I’ve shared about recently, I have been looking back at my life journey of 20,000+ days and my spiritual journey of 40 years. There have been some amazing moments, some stretches of prosperity on multiple levels, and then there have been some seasons of soul-stretching adversity. As I recount the peaks and valleys and where they’ve brought me, it occurs to me that the latter has been more critical in my spiritual growth. And, very often the former follows. The valleys of life prune me spiritually, and when I eventually reach the high places they are particularly fruitful.

“Exile” is one of the grand themes of the Great Story. Some scholars have gone so far as to say that it is the primary theme that occurs over and over again, beginning with Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden and their intimate relationship with the Creator. The Hebrews living in bondage and exile in Egypt, then later being exiled and scattered by the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. The crux of the Great Story is Jesus leaving heaven to be exiled here as one of us to make a way for us to escape our own earthly exile and be at home in eternity. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Exile is a theme in the stories of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus, John, and Paul.

All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and I typically find the theme of exile in every major human epic.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 107, kicks off the fifth and final “Book” of Hebrew Song lyrics we know as the Psalms. Psalm 107 is another liturgical song, most likely written to be sung during one of the Hebrew religious festivals. Most scholars agree that it was penned during the period of time when the Hebrews returned from Babylonian exile, rebuilt Jerusalem and God’s temple there. Having come through years of captivity and exile, they have ascended Mount Zion to worship, reflect on their experiences, and give thanks.

The song lyrics introduce different exilic experiences: wandering in the desert, living in darkness, struggling through captivity and forced labor, bitter consequences of foolish choices, sickness and disease, and being lost and rudderless on the stormy seas. In each of the stanzas the description of exilic struggle leads to the phrase: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” This is followed by God’s salvation, deliverance, redemption, and restoration. Each stanza ends calling the listener to gratitude and praise.

In the quiet this morning, I’m seeing the pattern. Out of darkness into the light. Up from the valley to the mountaintop. Return from exilic adversity to the blessing of finding myself safe at home. This is the Great Story. It’s life’s story. It’s my story, too.

As I meditate on the lyrics of Psalm 107 and look back on my journey, I’m reminded that there is purpose in the painful stretches. Perseverance has always paid off. I have always been able to cry out to the Lord in my troubles. There have always been better stretches ahead.

Note: A new message has been posted to my Messages Page.

Dark Places

Dark Places (CaD Ps 88) Wayfarer

For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.

Psalm 88:3 (NRSVCE)

I found it ironic this morning that in the very midst of the holiday season my chapter-a-day journey would bring me to perhaps the darkest song we will encounter in this anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics. As we reach the end of 2020, mental health experts have warned that social isolation, fear, anxiety, and depression created by the pandemic will have long-term effects. Just a few weeks ago it was reported that San Francisco has had more deaths by drug overdose in 2020 than Covid deaths. It is clear that many people are finding themselves in dark places mentally, emotionally, and spiritually right now.

One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate about the Great Story is that it doesn’t gloss over the darkness that is experienced on this earthly journey. In fact, what I have found in the 40 years that I’ve been studying it is that suffering is consistently presented as an essential ingredient in spiritual development, formation, and maturity. I’m reminded of our landscaper telling Wendy and me not to be too generous in giving water to our newly planted trees and shrubs. “They need to suffer a little bit,” he said, “even if it looks like they’re struggling you want to force them to push their roots deep into the soil. It will ultimately make them stronger and healthier.”

The liner notes of Psalm 88 attribute the lyrics to Heman the Ezrahite, who was well-known as a Hebrew sage in the days of Solomon. If the song is at all biographical, then Heman had a rough life. There is no uplifting statement of faith or hopeful assurance like those found in the darkest of King David’s songs. There is darkness, the pit of despair, the loneliness of being a social outcast, and the ever-nearness of death. If you’re an angst-filled teenager or a melancholy Enneagram Type Four, then you’ll love wallowing in the gloom as Heman pens “the Darkness is my closest friend.” It is part of the human experience to attribute life’s difficulties with divine wrath, retribution, or judgment.

It’s easy to overlook, however, that the lyrics quite purposefully state that the person is still praying morning (vs. 13), noon (vs. 9), and night (vs. 1). He is struggling through the darkness, blaming his troubles on the God to whom he continues to cry out, to pray, and to seek. As I meditated on this fact, God’s Spirit brought two other passages to mind:

Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
    to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
    If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings
    to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute—
    you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
    At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you;
    night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.

Psalm 139:7-12 (MSG)

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

In the quiet this morning I find myself reflecting on the difficulties we’ve all experienced in 2020. On this life journey, I’ve observed that every person treks through dark places when the last thing I want to hear is a cheery “Buck up little camper” or some over-spiritualized encouragement. As an Enneagram Four, I’m given to wallowing in the melancholy. In my own life journey, like Heman the Hebrew Sage, I’ve found myself in those stretches just continuing to press on in seeking, stretching, crying out morning, noon, and night.

Jesus told His followers that He was “the vine” and His Father was “the gardener.” From my current waypoint on life’s road, I can look back and see how in the darkest stretches of my life journey the Gardner was present, watching over me, pruning, and prodding: “Keep thirsting. Dig those roots deep into the soil. That’s where you’ll find Living Water.”