Tag Archives: Meaning

A Tale of Two Kings

A Tale of Two Kings (CaD Ps 144) Wayfarer

Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
    mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
    their days are like a fleeting shadow.

Psalm 144:3-4 (NIV)

Bear with me today, because I’m going to theatre-geek out on you a bit.

The tale of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is one that I have found myself referencing repeatedly in these post over the past 15 years. Macbeth is the Bard’s shortest play, and the further I traverse this road of life, the more meaningful I find it. It is full of mystery and of humans striving against both fate and unseen forces to ascend power in the kingdoms of this world to a tragic end.

Did You Know?
In the theatre world, it is considered taboo to utter the name of Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Macbeth. When referencing the play of “he who must not be named,” it is most common to simply refer to it as “The Scottish Play.”

To refresh your memory from high school English class, Macbeth is a soldier who does himself proud. On his way home from war, he meets “the weird sisters” who prophetically tell him that he will become a noble, and then will become king. He writes his wife the news and immediately the first part of the prophecy comes true.

As fate would have it, King Duncan is passing through the area and decides to spend the night with the Macbeths at their estate. Rather than waiting to see if the prophecy comes true, Lady Macbeth and her husband are convinced that this is the opportunity to make the second part of the prophecy come true. They murder the King, seize the throne, but in doing so they unleash circumstances that will cycle out of control and doom them.

Near the end of The Scottish Play, King Macbeth receives news that his wife is dead. As Jesus would have observed: He gained the world, and lost his soul, along with everything else that matters. As this realization kicks in, the tragic hero utters one of Shakespeare’s well-known monologues:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I couldn’t help but think of Macbeth as I read David’s lyrics in today’s chapter, Psalm 144:

Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
    mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
    their days are like a fleeting shadow.

As I meditated on the similarity of sentiments between Macbeth’s lines and David’s lyrics, I was eventually led to contemplate both the common themes and the contrasts.

Macbeth was given a prophesy that he would be king of Scotland in the same way that David was anointed king by the prophet Samuel when he was still a young man. Impatient and hungry for power, Macbeth and his Lady resorted to lies, deceit, and murder to take the throne by force. David lived for many years in the wilderness, refusing multiple opportunities to kill his rival, King Saul. If the prophecy was to be fulfilled, David wanted it to be God who made it happen, not him.

Macbeth’s observations about life being a walking shadow are filled with the emptiness and bitterness amidst the ruins of his choices and their tragic ends. David’s observation is filled with faith and awe that God would choose to love, protect, and bless him when he humbly acknowledges that he is nothing before the hand of the almighty.

In the quiet this morning, I’m thinking about my own life. I turn 55 at the end of this month. Even if I am graciously allowed the average number of days on the “petty pace” earthly journey (and that’s no guarantee), I must acknowledge that “all my yesterdays” account for more than my “tomorrows.” There are more days behind me than before. I will eventually make my exit from this terrestrial stage.

As the “fleeting shadow” of my own journey creeps to the ext, whom will I be most like?

Macbeth in his despair and woes of meaningless futility?

David in his humble praise to God for all the blessings he’d graciously been afforded despite his tragic flaws and many mistakes?

One Song, Two Stories

One Song, Two Stories (CaD Ps 69) Wayfarer

You, God, know my folly;
    my guilt is not hidden from you.

Psalm 69:5 (NIV)

A few months ago I discussed prophetic writing in my Wayfarer Weekend podcast The Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story Part 7. Two of the things discussed in that podcast was that the prophetic exists throughout the Great Story, not just in the writings of the prophets themselves and that the prophetic (like all metaphor) can be layered with meaning.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 69, is a great example.

This song of David is quoted more than any other psalm in the New Testament with the exception of Psalm 22. The followers of Jesus saw prophetic images of Jesus in David’s lament:

“Zeal for your house consumes me” foreshadows Jesus clearing the temple of the moneychangers and religious racketeers.

“I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children,” foreshadows Jesus whose family thought He was crazy and sought to have him committed.

Jesus’ suffering, trials, and crucifixion are foreshadowed in verses 19-21:

You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed;
    all my enemies are before you.
Scorn has broken my heart
    and has left me helpless;
I looked for sympathy, but there was none,
    for comforters, but I found none.
They put gall in my food
    and gave me vinegar for my thirst.

“I am forced to restore, what I did not steal,” prophetically reveals Jesus, the Son of God, sacrificed to restore the relational chasm that sin created between God and humanity.

What’s fascinating to me is that this same song was written by David at a time when the consequences of his own faults and sins were at the root of his suffering. David structured the song as if it were two halves. Remember that the “center” refrain in an ancient Hebrew song reveals the theme, the “one thing,” that the song writers is getting at. There are two of them:

You, God, know my folly;
    my guilt is not hidden from you
. (verse 5)

But as for me, afflicted and in pain—
    may your salvation, God, protect me. (verse 29)

The song was all about David’s sinfulness. David even confesses in the lyric that his suffering, the reason his enemies are piling on, are the consequences of his own sinful mistakes. David sees his wounds, his weakness, and his suffering as divine retribution for his own mistakes:

For [my enemies] persecute those you wound,
    and talk about the pain of those you hurt. (verse 26)

So, what David wrote as a lament of confession for his own sins, mistakes, and their painful consequences was, at the very same time, a prophetic vision of Jesus who would come and suffer on a cross to forgive and redeem those sins and mistakes. Talk about beautiful.

In the quiet this morning I couldn’t help but think back on the darkest moments of my own life journey when my sins and mistakes wreaked havoc on my life and wounded those I love. I know that feeling. I totally identify with that. I see my own shit in David’s shit. Just like my post a few days ago, I read today’s chapter and my spirit says: “THAT story is my story.”

At the same time, it’s not the WHOLE of my story because Jesus has forgiven, redeemed, and restored my life. My story doesn’t end in the painful consequences of my own mistakes. Because of what Jesus did for me I experienced His grace, His mercy, His forgiveness, and His love. He pulled me out of the pit I put myself in. He led me out of the valley of the shadow of death.

One song is layered with meaning and captures both spiritual realities. My mistakes, and Jesus work to redeem those mistakes.

In the stillness, I hear the voice of Corrie Ten Boom on the whispering wind: “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”

Journey

Journey (CaD Ps 68) Wayfarer

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
    who daily bears our burdens.
Our God is a God who saves;
    from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.

Psalm 68:19-20 (NIV)

Quite obviously, my entire blog and podcast is predicated on the metaphor of the journey. This is not novel or new. All the great epic stories are journeys. The journey is everywhere in the Great Story.

Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, and find themselves journeying out of fellowship with God into exile into the world.

When God calls Abram, He is told to leave his home and follow to a land that God would show him.

Joseph is sold in slavery by his brothers and journeys to Egypt, where God establishes him in preparation to save his family.

Moses journeys out of Egypt to Midian, then back to Egypt, then through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

The Hebrew people journey from Egypt through the wilderness, to the Promised Land in Canaan.

David flees and journeys through the wilderness until God leads him back and establishes his throne in Jerusalem.

The 23rd Psalm is a journey from pastures, through the valley of the shadow of death, and to the house of the Lord.

Jesus’ ministry was essentially a journey, complete with a period of wilderness wandering, from the rural flyover country of Galilee to His climactic death and resurrection in Jerusalem.

The story of the early Jesus movement was essentially a journey out of Jerusalem and into the world.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 68, is epic in its length. Scholars believe that it was meant to be a liturgical song sung as worshippers journeyed in procession to the temple in Jerusalem. It’s basically a song of two-halves.

The first half (verses 1-18) references the journey of the Hebrews from Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the Hebrew Law, to Mount Zion in Jerusalem where David established God’s temple.

The second half of the song, (verses 19-35) envisions God’s throne established on earth with the nations journeying to Jerusalem to offer gifts to God.

What really stood out to the early followers of Jesus were the first verses of the second half of the song which seems to prophetically point to the suffering and risen Christ:

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
    who daily bears our burdens.
Our God is a God who saves;
    from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.

With that being the hinge, the early believers viewed the second half of the song as a parallel vision to that of John in the Book of Revelation Jesus’ return.

In the quiet this morning I can’t help but meditate on this metaphor of journey. Why does it resonate so deeply in me? What is it about the journey that seems to weave itself into the fabric of everything? We even envision time as a line that moves from one waypoint to another.

For me, the journey resonates with purpose. Remember, I’m an Enneagram Four. Purpose is our core motivation. If this is just a material universe in which life emerged as a cosmic accident, then there is no real purpose to anything other than those things in which we choose to find purpose. But if there is no God, no eternity, no larger purpose to my existence, then it’s all smoke and mirrors and I’m only just fooling myself.

But if I really believe what I say I believe, the 19,927 days from April 30, 1966 to November 18, 2020 has been a journey from one point in time to another. I’ve matured, developed, learned, and progressed. I am not who I was, and not yet who I will be. My past mistakes have led to growth in understanding. My life, and my journey, are part of something larger than myself in the grand scheme, in the Great Story.

I can take comfort in that. It keeps me going. It frames each day. It leads me on, hinged on a savior who daily bears my burdens, who saves, and through whom death is swallowed up in victorious life.

The Mystery of the Missing Word

The Mystery of the Missing Word (CaD Ps 62) Wayfarer

Selah
For God alone my soul waits in silence,

for my hope is in him.
Psalm 62:5 (NRSVCE)

For most of my life journey, I have spent the beginning of my day in quiet. It helps that I have been a morning person my entire life and am typically the first one awake in the house. It has allowed me to create a spiritual rhythm. Each morning it’s just me in my home office. The neighborhood is silent. The household is silent. I am silent.

You may not know it, but silence is endangered in our world. There are a niche of audio artists and recording specialists who endeavor to capture the simple, pure sounds of nature sans the noises of technology and human civilizations encroachment on it. They complain that their jobs and their passion are made increasingly difficult.

Noise is everywhere.

In my podcast series The Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story I used three words to guide one’s journey through various sections and genres of ancient text that make up the compilation we call the Bible. The three words are:

Metaphor
Context
Mystery

This morning’s chapter led me into mystery. Bear with me as I lead you through it. I typically read each day’s chapter in The St. John’s Bible, the only handwritten and illuminated copy of the entire Bible produced in the last 500 years or so. I love it. It’s beautiful. It is a transcription of the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE…By the way, I explain why there are all these different versions in The Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story Part 2). I will usually then switch and read the chapter a second time in the translation I’ve been most accustomed to for the last thirty years which is the New International Version (NIV). Something was missing:

Selah

In the illuminated manuscript of the St. John’s Bible the word “Selah” was written in red ink along the right margin between verses four and five. In the NIV the word was missing altogether. It was left out.

The game’s afoot, Watson!

Selah is, in and of itself, a mysterious word. The Hebrew language is thousands of years old and it was largely lost to the world for a long time. The result is that there are some Hebrew words that the most knowledgable scholars of the Hebrew language can only shrug their shoulders. The meaning is mysteriously lost to antiquity.

The editors of the NRSV translation chose to leave the mystery in the text.

The editors of the NIV chose to eliminate the word for their readers rather than try to explain it or allow me to consider it.

What a shame. Because mystery is part of the on-going journey of the Great Story, and words are literally metaphors. These squiggly lines made by pixels on my screen are just that. They are lines, symbols that my brain instantly turns into phonetic sounds which make words which are layered with meaning. And, as I continually remind myself, mystery is that which I can endlessly understand (Thank you Fr. Rohr).

It is popularly speculated that the word Selah was some kind of musical rest or pause because it always appears in the middle of musical lyrics such as the Psalms or the poetic work of the prophet Habakkuk. While this is pure speculation and educated guess, what modern wayfarers journeying through the Great Story have done is to find a layer of meaning in the letters and sounds of the word Selah.

I read:

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is in him.

But when I consider that the word Selah might very well mean to actually stop, pause, rest, wait a second, or as The Passion Translation chooses to say: “Pause in God’s Presence” then the verse takes on added meaning:

Selah (Pause in God’s Presence)
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is in him.

In a world of endangered silence, with ceaseless noise of humanity encroaching on me 24/7/365, I find this morning that I need the mystery of Selah, even if the metaphor is purely a layer of meaning I have chosen to attach to it in the endless understanding of possibility.

My spirit needs the pause.

Waiting. Silent. I hear the still, small voice of Holy Spirit.

Love. Peace. Joy. Hope.

Selah.

Same Song, Only Different

Same Song, Only Different (CaD Ps 53) Wayfarer

God scattered the bones of those who attacked you;
    you put them to shame, for God despised them.

Psalm 53:5b (NIV)

Wendy and I really enjoy being fans. For us, the fun is in being loyal to our teams, following them, knowing the players, following the drama, cheering for them, and experiencing what ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to describe each week as “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

A few years ago we found ourselves feeling the emptiness in the depth of our Iowa winter. January through March always feels like a slog, but we realized that it was made worse for us because our Vikings’ season was over and it would be April before our Cubs’ would begin their annual campaign. For whatever reason, the NBA has never tripped our trigger. So, we decided it was time to join our son-in-law Clayton and give the English Premier League a shot.

We knew that for us the fun is in following a team, so we began researching the various teams in a search for the team to whom we would pledge our loyalty. It’s surprising how many resources there are on the internet for Americans trying to choose a Premier League team. In the end, we chose to become fans of Liverpool FC (Football Club). And, as silly as it sounds, the clincher for us was the song.

One of the endearing things about Premier League is the singing. During most pre-covid matches when the stands are packed you’ll hear the crowd singing. Not just a specific moment in the match, like singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in the middle of the 7th Inning. Premier League fans often sing themselves hoarse through the entire match. There are typically different songs fans have for different players, and teams typically adopt a theme song.

Liverpool’s theme song is Gerry and the Pacemaker’s You’ll Never Walk Alone which also happens to be a song from the Broadway Musical Carousel. Wendy and I discovered this fact in our research and then pulled up a YouTube video of the Liverpool crowd singing it before a match. We got goosebumps, and it sealed the deal. Two Liverpool fans were born.

So, you might be wondering to yourself, “Where on earth are you going with this?” Well, if you’ve followed my blog and/or podcast for anything length of time you know that I’m fond of saying that God’s language is metaphor, and metaphor is layered with meaning. The song You’ll Never Walk Alone is a great example.

For many people like Wendy and me, the song has been forever tied to the musical Carousel. A teenager growing up in the early 1960s might never have known it was from a Broadway musical, but the version by Gerry and the Pacemakers might have tremendous emotional ties to a crush they had on a boy or girl, dancing cheek-to-cheek at a school dance, or listening with friends on a crackly AM car radio as you scooped the loop. Then Liverpool takes the same song and it becomes an anthem of solidarity, loyalty, and community for fans of their football club around the world.

For me, the most interesting thing about today’s chapter, Psalm 53, is that it is virtually identical to Psalm 14. If you put them side-by-side you’ll notice that it’s the same song, but verse 5 is different. Scholars believe that the nation took David’s original and co-opted it after a national victory over armies who had sought to destroy them as in the story found in 2 Chronicles 20 when they were unexpectedly attacked by the army of Edom. When David wrote the song to mean one thing during his life and his generation, but a subsequent generation took the same song, the same lyrics, and made it about another thing.

In the quiet this morning, it has me thinking about something I’ve frequently observed in my perpetual journey through the Great Story. Something that had little or no meaning for me thirty years ago might suddenly be powerfully important for me today at this waypoint on Life’s road. Things that meant one thing to me then might take on a whole new layer of meaning for me now. I’m so grateful to my mentors who taught me at the beginning of my spiritual journey that reading and studying the Great Story was not a one-and-done deal. “On it you shall meditate both day and night,” says Joshua 1:8, the very first verse I memorized when I was 15. And, that’s what I’ve tried to do, and it’s made an unfathomable difference in both my spiritual journey and my life journey.

The Great Story meets me where I am every morning. A verse, or chapter, or passage can help me frame my past, make sense of my present, and direct my course for the future all at the same time.

Thanks for walking with me this morning and reminding me that “I’ll never walk alone.”

Go Liverpool! 🙂

Love Song

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The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
in many-colored robes she is led to the king;
    behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.

Psalm 45:14 (NRSVCE)

How on earth could you put together an anthology of the lyrics of 150 songs and not have at least one love song in it?

Today’s chapter, Psalm 45, is the lone love song in the book of Psalms. It was penned for the wedding celebration between the King and the princess of another nation who was being married as part of a political alliance between the two countries. The thought was that one king wouldn’t attack another king if that king was a son-in-law. It also meant that you had a family member who had eyes and ears on what was going on within a rival’s palace. This was a common diplomatic practice throughout history even into the last century. If you look at a chart of European royal families it looks like a spider’s web with all the crossing and intersecting lines. Even Queen Elizabeth married her own cousin.

The song is written from the perspective of the bride looking at her groom and singing of how handsome, strong, and powerful he is. The song’s climax is the bride and her virgin bridesmaids walking into the king’s palace and the very next verse is a promise to bear the king many sons (which was a sign of strength and succession), and also a little racy because it alludes to what’s going to happen once she enters the king’s chambers.

The chapter is also interesting from how it was used in history. After the Hebrews returned from exile in Babylon, psalm 45 was considered a messianic psalm pointing to the messiah who would come and ascend the throne of David. That is interesting because marriage was used by Jesus repeatedly as a metaphor when discussing His second coming and the climactic apocalyptic event known as “the Day of the Lord.” The metaphor is that Jesus will come back like a bridegroom to be united with all believers, collectively and metaphorically referenced as the bride.

In my podcast series The Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story (I know, I know. I have two episodes left, and I will get a Wayfarer Weekend podcast done this weekend I promise!), I mention that God’s language is metaphor precisely because it can be layered with meaning. When I was a young man attending a fundamentalist Bible college I told to interpret passages like today’s psalm only in terms of its spiritual, prophetic meaning. I mean, we wouldn’t want young people in hormonal overdrive thinking about what’s going on in the king’s bed chamber.

Along my journey, I came to realize that this is not a case of “either or” but “both and.” Yes, there is messianic metaphorical imagery in the song, but that’s not why it was written. It was written as a love song to celebrate a beautiful princess entering the palace and the bed chamber of the king. Man, woman, wedding, love, expression of love, life, pro-creation. That’s beautiful. That’s holy.

[cue: Barry White]

Of Layers and Flow

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
    in the morning I lay my requests before you
    and wait expectantly.

Psalm 5:3 (NIV)

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Life has a rhythm. It has a beat and a flow.

One of the things I’ve observed along the way is that God creates things with layers. I’m constantly saying that God’s language is metaphor, and metaphor is always layered with meaning. Life exists on the micro-sub-atomic level and the macro-universe level. My friend Todd, a physical therapist, talked to me over the Fourth of July weekend about the challenges of his profession. The body, he explained, is so infinitely complex that isolating the cause of a patient’s pain sometimes becomes an unexplained mystery. The body is layered with systems that affect one another in strange ways.

In the same way, my life is layered. My well-being and attitude result from the state of many intertwining layers: physical, mental, relational, vocational, social, personal, financial, marital, parental, sexual, recreational, and spiritual.

Over the past three psalms, all written by the song-writing, warrior King David, I can’t help but notice a theme emerging regarding time of day. In the past two songs, David explains that he goes to bed at night and rests with peace and contentment because of his trust in God. In today’s psalm, David explains that his morning begins with time with God. Every morning he lays out his heart, his desires, his fears, his requests and then waits expectantly for God to do His thing.

In other words, David’s day begins with God. David’s day ends with God. In between, David’s day is waiting on, watching for, expecting, and trusting God to respond, act, interact, deliver, surround, save, answer, help, and intercede. The spiritual layer of David’s relationship with God is not just an isolated, religious compartment of his weekly routine that gets opened for an hour at the Temple on Sabbath and during mid-week Torah studies with the small group from his synagogue. The spiritual layer of David’s relationship with God permeated, informed, intersected, and affected every other layer of his life.

In the quiet this morning, I’m thinking about the conversation Wendy and I had early this morning in which we talked about the rhythm of our lives, how our physical and mental layers have changed over time, and what that means to the flow of the spiritual layer of how God is flowing in and through each of us, and both of us.

There are so many layers to life. I’ve experienced in my journey that if, like David, I’ve got the spiritual layer continually connected to God and flowing through all the other layers, the rhythm of each day and night flows better. And, when things aren’t flowing well in my life, I usually find that there’s a layer of my life that got disconnected from the spiritual layer and my relationship with God.

By the way, David’s layers got disconnected from time-to-time with really tragic results. It happens to all of us. I’ve also experienced that the quickly I reestablish connection, the more quickly things get back to a steady, healthy flow.

Time to flow into another day. Flow well today, my friend.

Spiritual Horticulture

Then [Jesus] said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.
Mark 11:14, 20 (NIV)

Over the past three or four years, Wendy and I have worked on a phased landscaping plan for our yard. I’m glad to say that this past year was the final phase (for now). I have never been very good with plants and often joke that I have a brown thumb. Nevertheless, I have been growing in my proficiency as I try to keep the lawn, bushes, trees, flowers, grasses, and shrubs alive.

One of the fascinating things for me to watch is what happens when we plant multiples of certain plants. They may look exactly the same when I planted them, and while they are in the same bed and treated to the same amounts of light and water, one of them will die. I’m sure there are very good reasons why this happened (that I don’t care to spend time figuring out), but it always leaves me scratching my head a bit.

In today’s chapter, Mark tells a curious episode of Jesus and a fig tree. He and His followers were walking from the temple in Jerusalem back to where they were staying. Jesus sees a fig tree and looks for a fig to eat. Finding none, He curses the tree and says, “May no one eat fruit from you again.” The next morning on their walk back to the temple, the disciples find the fig tree withered.

I found myself pondering this rather curious episode this morning just as I would scratch my head wondering why in the world that one arborvitae on the north side of our lawn didn’t make it.

As I am fond of saying, God’s base language is metaphor. Jesus rarely did anything that was not intended to be a metaphorical lesson, so there is little doubt in my mind that the cursing of the fig tree was not just a moment of hunger-induced rage. So, what was that all about?

Jesus and the disciples have arrived at the epicenter of Jewish worship and power. In Jesus’ day, the temple consumed about 25% of Jerusalem area-wise and first-hand accounts say that as many as two million spiritual pilgrims would visit to celebrate the Passover. Passover was the festival which annually memorialized the Hebrews miraculously being freed from enslavement in Egypt (e.g. The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner). Being at the temple would have been a huge deal for Jesus’ followers. Think Times Square on New Year’s Eve, New Orleans on Mardi Gras, or Washington D.C. on the 4th of July.

As Jesus passes the fig tree they have just left the temple. They arrived late in the day and Mark records that they only had time to “look around” at the temple, the crowds, the courts, and the merchants. For Jesus and the disciples, who were from the simple, backwater region Galilee, I have to believe the sights, sounds, and smells of the awe-inspiring location would have been what was on everyone’s minds as they walked.

As I mulled this over, I was reminded of another episode from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story. This happened during the very same visit to Jerusalem:

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Matthew 24:1-2 (NIV)

Then there’s the metaphor of “fruit” which Jesus repeatedly used in His teaching, especially when talking about the religious leaders who ran the very temple they’d just exited:

Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 7:17-19 (NIV)

As I connected the dots, the metaphorical meaning of Jesus’ actions with the fig tree came into focus. The temple and the Law of Moses had been intended to bear good, spiritual fruit in the lives of God’s people, their community, and the world. Instead, it had become a corrupt, institutional religious system centered on power, prejudice, and greed. It was a religious tree bearing bad spiritual fruit. In the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus was providing a prophetic word picture to His followers consistent with what He had been teaching them all along.

Forty years after the events described in today’s chapter, the Roman Empire would tear down the temple and reduce it to rubble. They would also destroy the genealogical records necessary for determining who was able to perform priestly duties, sacrifices, and care for the temple according to the Law of Moses. In essence, the temple “tree” had been cut down for good.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reminded that the same metaphor of “fruit” would continue to be central to the teaching of Jesus’ followers:

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Paul’s Letter to Jesus’ followers in Galatia 5:22-23 (MSG)

As I enter this post-Easter week in a world turned upside-down, I’m reminded that Jesus was never about being a religious rule-keeper. He was about being a cultivator of the spiritual fruit of love in life and relationships. And, I desire to have a green thumb when it comes to spiritual horticulture.

Now, if I could just figure out what the heck happened to those Pencil-Point Junipers by the patio. Oh well. Not as important.

Spiritual Seasons

Sluggards do not plow in season;
    so at harvest time they look but find nothing.

Proverbs 20:4 (NIV)

Here in the state of Iowa Spring is beginning to appear. The temperatures have been slowing creeping into in the 60s and 70s during the day. The last of the giant mountain of Winter’s snow piled up in front of our house was finally completely melted this week. Our brown lawn is starting to “green-up” and the bare trees will soon have a green hue as the leaves begin to bud.

Friends, clients, and colleagues who have never experienced life in the Midwest will often tell me that I’m crazy to live here. It’s like spending your Winter in the arctic and your Summer in Death Valley. There is some truth to the face that we get to experience weather in all of its extremes. But, we also get to experience all four seasons in their unique, diverse distinctions in ways my friends never will.

Along my Life journey, I’ve come to understand that there is a spiritual lesson to be gained in the seasons of a year. Life, death, resurrection, renewal, struggle, trial, perseverance, change, and contentment. They are all part of creation’s perpetual story from Spring to Summer to Autumn to Winter each year.

As I read the proverb above this morning, I was struck by the word “season.” If I’m not disciplined to put in the word and plow in the Spring, then when Autumn’s harvest arrives and I need what is necessary to survive Winter, I have nothing. This means I might not survive to the next Spring.

But it wasn’t nature here in the agrarian land of Iowa that the proverb made me think about.

God’s base language is metaphor. Metaphor is layered with meaning. Here is the layer of meaning that the proverb surfaced for me in the quiet this morning…

Even as a successful farmer is disciplined in cultivating, planting, weeding, pruning, harvesting and storing, so there are spiritual disciplines that are required throughout the seasons of Life to prepare for the unknowns of future seasons.

As a young man, I was taught and mentored in spiritual disciplines such as quiet, study, Word, contemplation, prayer, introspection, sacrament, worship, fellowship, generosity, and service. These disciplines in life’s Spring-like seasons when things are good and life is easy are spiritual seeds. It takes mindfulness, time and discipline to sow them, cultivate them, and tend to them daily. But, they eventually grow and bloom into spiritual fruit such as love, joy, peace, faith, perseverance, and self-control. This fruit will be required when, eventually, Life’s harsh seasons of death, trial, and tragedy blow in unexpectedly.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thankful for those who taught me, schooled me, mentored me, and exemplified for me spiritual disciplines. Along Life’s road, I’ve witnessed and walked along-side individuals who had no spiritual reserves when seasons of tragedy caught them by surprise. Winter gets long if I have nothing stored up. Spiritually, I might not survive.

Unaltered original photo by Scott Mcleod via Flickr

Plans and Purposes

Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
    and he will establish your plans.

Proverbs 16:3 (NIV)

I just finished up an “over the coffee” conversation with Wendy this morning. We talked about race and culture. One of the observations we mulled over was that it’s very easy for things to be perceived as simple, binary, either-or issues when it’s just not. There are so many layers.

I find that the same can be true when reading through Proverbs. It’s really been hitting me as I journey through them this time around. The attraction of ancient sage wisdom is that they are simple. They are binary couplets. It’s wisdom or foolishness, hard work or sloth, honesty or lies, pride or humility. They are easily absorbed and understood. It’s easy to take them at face value and that typically works.

Sometimes, however, it’s not that simple. There are more layers. Context is needed. Take the verse from today’s chapter. At face value, it’s an easy concept. Commit your plans to God and He will establish them. Done. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Rub the lamp and the Genie will appear. This is the kind of verse that can easily get misunderstood:

“I prayed and committed my plans for going to Harvard to the Lord, and I got a rejection letter. God didn’t establish my plans. I guess the whole thing is a lie.”

It’s a bit of synchronicity that this came up in the chapter today because I talked a lot about this in my podcast that was published yesterday. The mysterious, divine dance between my plans and God’s purposes is complex choreography that I never perfect. Just when I think I’ve got it down the steps, Holy Spirit (who is leading the dance) suddenly goes where I didn’t expect or the music changes.

I bring my plans to the dance, but Jesus also talked about asking, seeking, and knocking. My “plans” could be coming from a place of pride, or selfishness, or vain ambition, and what God is ultimately trying to establish for me and where God is leading me is something I can’t see from my current waypoint on Life’s road. In my podcast, I shared the story of my “plans” to have a career in pastoral ministry. Actually, before that, I planned to be an astronaut, a naval aviator, a lawyer, POTUS, a private detective, a professional actor, and one day while drawing on the back of my mom’s old recipe cards, I remember planning to be a cartoonist. What was eventually established was that I would spend my career in the one place I never planned to be: the corporate world. Even though I had been given a foreshadowing of this, I couldn’t see it. I refused to see it.

So, does the fact that my “plans” didn’t come to fruition mean that today’s proverb is a lie?

Not from my perspective. It’s not that simple.

When I chose to become a follower of Christ it was the first step in a never-ending process of surrender. The “plan” that I committed to at that moment was to follow where God led, do what God called me to do, and strive to become more like Jesus each step of the way. The becoming like Jesus part starts with not living for myself, but to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love others as I love myself. If I do that, it changes my plans, which ultimately results in this journey being all about the things that God is establishing as He leads me. God’s purposes will always take precedent over my plans. When you follow Jesus, it’s part of the gig.

I look back now and am overjoyed that my career did not end up in pastoral ministry (sorry, mom), or in law, or in politics, or in space. What God established out my plans to follow where I was led turned into a job that I love and a job that has blessed me in so many amazing ways.

[The cartoonist thing might have been pretty cool, though. I’m just sayin’.]

In the quiet this morning I am thankful for being led down this path on my journey, despite the struggles, heartache, confusion, anxieties, stress, and pains I’ve encountered along the way. The reality is that those are all part of the journey no matter where we’re led or choose to go. And, who knows but that God might lead me into a completely different career at some point. After all, I’m letting Him lead the dance.