Tag Archives: Message

Weeping and Joy in the Valley of Infertility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same Story, Different Age

Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
Jonah 3:4 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve experienced in my continued and repeated reading through God’s Message is that every time I read through a section it is layered with new meaning simply because I am at a different place in my life journey than I was before. I’d like to think that there is some increased depth of wisdom, knowledge, and maturity to account for it. There are times, however, that simply being in a different place on life’s road experiencing different circumstances and challenges offers the opportunity to see things from a different perspective.

I am once again struck this morning by the foreshadowing in the story of Jonah of the experiences of Paul as recorded in the book of Acts.

Reading the ancient prophets can always feel like a long slog in this chapter-a-day journey. They repeat their messages of warning, judgment, instruction, and encouragement over and over again to God’s people. They perform shocking acts of public performance art as metaphorical word pictures. On and on and on they preach and proclaim, and the people rarely responded. While there were periods of repentance and spiritual renewal, most of the story is about God’s people hard-heartedly refusing to listen to God’s Message.

In Jonah’s story, we have a single prophet who proclaims a simple message of eight words. It doesn’t even name God, provide instruction, or offer encouragement. The entire city of Nineveh, from the least to the greatest, repents and seeks God’s forgiveness. An entire city of non-Jewish, Gentile people who are the key enemy of Israel, respond to one minor prophet who proclaims eight words from God.

In the book of Acts, we read of Paul going from city to city proclaiming Jesus’ message. He always began at the Jewish synagogue. More often than not, his message fell on deaf ears and hard hearts while those who were not “God’s chosen people” received it heartily, just like the Ninevites who heard Jonah’s eight-word sermon.

This morning I find myself reminded of the message we heard this past Sunday. It reminded me that life can often be like a new movie that tells an old story with different players. The Lion King is simply the story of Hamlet in the jungle with animals. In the same way, life often repeats itself. How often today are Jesus’ followers like God’s people in ancient times? Do we sit isolated in our holy huddles choosing to hate, condemn, and cast off any concern for those outside the walls of our church building as we ritualistically repeat God’s message of Jesus dying and returning to Life for all people?

Love God,” Jesus basically said as he boiled down God’s commands, adding, “Love people; All people.” God’s Message in six words. Jonah had eight. Pretty simple, if my ears and heart are open to hearing it, believing it, and living it out.

 

The Crazy Man in the Ox Yoke

This is what the Lord said to me: “Make a yoke out of straps and crossbars and put it on your neck.”
Jeremiah 27:2 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor. Remember metaphor from middle school English class? A metaphor is something which represents something else without using “like” or “as” (which would then make it a simile).

Consider this:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

In other words, all that God made is a metaphorical expression of who God is. We can find Him by simply looking at the universe and all that is.

When Jesus talked about Himself  He used metaphors:

  • “I am  the water of life.”
  • “I am the bread of life.”
  • “I am the light of the world.”
  • “I am the gate.”
  • “I am the good shepherd.”
  • “I am the vine.”
  • “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

Other metaphors are used in scripture for Jesus such as:

  • “Word” or “Living Word”
  • “Lamb of God”
  • “Righteous Branch”

When Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion He said:

“This is my body.”
“This
is my blood.”

God regularly gave the ancient prophets metaphors to convey His message. In today’s chapter, God tells Jeremiah to strap an ox yoke around his neck. An ox yoke is the crossbar placed around the neck of an ox to control it when using the ox for pulling a cart, a plow, or some other task. Jeremiah was then to tell the envoys of the neighboring kings who were visiting Jerusalem that if they will all become servants of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon they will be spared the humiliation of being defeated by him.

You have to imagine that for a second. A man standing there strapped to an ox yoke in front of these high-powered diplomatic envoys telling them that they are going to be oxen strapped to a yoke, so they would be strapped in servitude to Babylon. No wonder people thought him crazy.

Just yesterday Wendy and I were talking about a message I gave this past Sunday among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. She once again echoed what I have heard over and over and over again across the many years I’ve been a public speaker: “People love your stories.” I recall a client one time telling me “Just keep telling stories. You tell the best stories.” Stories are metaphors with a “moral” or a meaning larger than the story itself. That’s why Jesus told parables. When talking about God’s kingdom Jesus didn’t give dry lectures on systematic theology. He told stories about lost coins, scattered seed, lost sheep, a priceless pearl, and a runaway son.

Metaphors are powerful. Everything is metaphor. Metaphor is the language of God.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about another message I have to give in a few weeks. I’m thinking about a training session I have to present to a client’s Customer Service team tomorrow. I’m not thinking about the truths I want to communicate as much as I am the metaphors, the word pictures, and the life stories that will best communicate those truths.

After 40 years of public speaking I can tell you that people will quickly forget a list of dry bullet points, but they never forget a good story or word picture that made them feel something. The diplomatic envoys in today’s chapter could easily have tuned out Jeremiah’s words, but they would never forget the crazy man strapped to a yoke. When they returned to their respective kings you know that they said, “Oh king, I have to tell you about this crazy man we saw strapped to an ox yoke.”

Exactly. I’m reminded again this morning that if I want to be an effective communicator I have to continually hone my craft at wrapping my message in stories, word pictures, and images.

The language of God is metaphor.

(FYI: Last Sunday’s message has been added to the Message page)

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.

My Eternal Mystery, My Forever Friend

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it.
2 Kings 22:8 (NIV)

Occasionally I have had people ask me how my “chapter-a-day” journey began. It goes much further back than blogging. The roots of it go all the way back to early 1980s. I was in high school and had only recently struck out on my path following Jesus. I had an after school job, and my boss was also a follower. He invited me to join him in studying God’s Message together, and the first thing he asked of me was to memorize Joshua 1:8:

This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

I did memorize the verse,  and I took it to heart. As I meditated on the verse during the memorization process, I came to mull over the word “meditate.” It struck me in those early stages of my journey that God’s Message was to be more than something I give a nod to on Sunday morning when the pastor refers to it. It was supposed to be more than a routine duty that I check off my daily task list of religious self-righteousness. God’s Message was the guide. It was the constant companion and the mystery to be endlessly understood. It was something to ingest and digest on a continual basis. It was something to dive into, excavate, mull over, and apply to my every day circumstances. Success in the spiritual journey came through the conduit of meditating on the Message.

Thus, what became this chapter-a-day blog began in a young man wearing Forenza parachute pants and sporting a righteous mullet. I’ll let that imagery sink in while I transition back to today. 🙂

The setting of this morning’s chapter is Solomon’s Temple. It is the Temple of the Lord built to the exact specifications prescribed in God’s Message through Moses and by plans developed by David. It was built to be the worship center of YHWH whose first command was “don’t have any other gods before me.”

But, over time the temple had become a multi-cultural interfaith religious center filled with the worship of all sorts of local dieties, some of whom practiced all sorts of nasty things we can scarcely imagine today. The scroll of God’s Message had been so long forgotten that the High Priest didn’t even know where it was nor remember what it said. When the scroll is discovered during some Temple renovations, it is a major find. When King Josiah tells the priest to “Inquire of the Lord for me concerning this book,” the priest has to scour the city to find a lone prophetess named Hulda who was “keeper of the wardrobe.” [Note: I’ve learned in theatre to always trust the costumers. They make a lifetime of keeping track of things long forgotten by others!]

The Message had been packed away, put aside, and forgotten. The words that were to be the guide for the journey weren’t even known and barely remembered. Without the guidebook, the people naturally wandered until they found themselves spiritually lost.

This morning I’m reminded of the simple principle that came out of meditating on a verse that I was asked to memorize as a kid:

If I’m going to be successful in this journey of following after God then I have to do my best to do what God’s Message says. If I’m going to do what God’s Message says then I have to constantly discover what that is and what it means. The Message has to become my source material, my constant companion, my eternal mystery, my forever friend.

A Prophet in Flyover Country

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake….
Amos 1:1 (NIV)

I have lived in “flyover country” my entire life. It’s a great place to live, work, and raise a family. You get used to the fact that most of what we see and hear in American news and entertainment media is sourced on the coasts. New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are where most of the brokers of politics, finance, and entertainment live, move and have their being. It’s quite common to realize that we often see life a little differently here in middle America.

Whenever you read the writing of the ancient prophets in God’s Message, it’s important to understand the context of the prophet and his message. Amos was one of what we refer to as the “minor” prophets, and perhaps it’a an apt moniker for one who lived and wrote from what have been the flyover country of his time.

The “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) lived where the action was. Isaiah and Jeremiah served in Jerusalem, the capital city which was the region’s political and religious center of power. Daniel and Ezekiel lived later and were persons of relative prominence and connection in the ancient city of Babylon during the height of its glory days. Amos, on the other hand, was a shepherd and fig farmer living in a small town of no real significance. We don’t even know if he owned his own flocks and figs, or whether he was simply a hired man.

Amos lived and wrote during a period of relative prosperity in Israel’s divided kingdom (about 740-750 b.c.). Things were humming economically and trade was good. The kingdoms held relatively strong, secure positions in the region. Everyone was feeling optimistic and perhaps even a little bit smug.

Amos, however, begins the assembled volume of his prophetic writings by telling us as readers that his vision preceded “the earthquake.” He doesn’t say “an earthquake” but “the earthquake.” Little is known historically about this event, but geologists have unearthed evidence of a major seismic event in that region around 750 b.c.  Interestingly enough, just yesterday I posted about the connection that is made in God’s Message between the shifting of things in the spiritual realm and events in creation. Amos foreshadows his volume of collected prophesies with a ominous word-picture. There’s going to be a major shake up.

What becomes immediately clear in the historical context is that Amos’ message isn’t exactly the mainstream media spin of his day. During a period of peace and prosperity this learned yokel prophet from flyover country isn’t feeling so secure about things from a spiritual perspective. He’s got a more sober view of where things are headed, if anyone will listen.

This morning I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit of a connection with ol’ Amos. I’m grateful for where I live and move and have had my being on this life journey. It may not be the center of action where finance, politics, and entertainment are brokered. I’ve visited all of them and always have a great time when I’m there and appreciate all the great people I meet. Nevertheless, I know I look at life with a different perspective than many who live in those places. It’s not better or worse. It just is. The major prophets had their roles to play and their message to give at the center of the action. Amos had his role to play and his message to give as he kept watch over his livestock in the flyover farm town of Tekoa.

The key, I’ve come to learn along this journey, is to be content with the role I’ve been given and faithful in carrying it out to the best of my ability.