Tag Archives: Metaphor

Beneath the Text

Beneath the Text (CaD Gen 5) Wayfarer

Enoch walked faithfully with God.
Genesis 5:24

I’ve always been interested in family history. Over the years I’ve learned a great deal, but there’s a point at which the scant evidence of names and dates leave a lot to be desired from a story perspective. My “van der Wel” surname seems to spring from one particular neighborhood in Rotterdam, while the Bloem genes trace back to Gronigen. I have McCoy genes that likely lead back to the McKay clan in Scotland. My Hamblen genes trace back to Virginia during the American Revolution, and then back to England where there’s a knight entombed in effigy in eastern England. Informational clues that leave a lot to the mystery of history.

In the same way, the first 11 chapters of the Great Story are considered “primeval” history. They provide a broad brush sketch of creation and God’s relationship with all of humanity with scant information and a lot of mystery, but there’s plenty of good stuff to mine in the mystery.

For example, numbers and patterns play a role in the telling. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet do double-duty as numbers, and the authors of ancient Hebrew often hide numerical patterns in the writing. The number 10 is associated with harmony and completeness, especially related to humanity. The book of Genesis is divided into ten sections. Ten times in Genesis the phrase “God said…” is used. The genealogies in today’s chapter and again in chapter 11 both list ten generations. God will later deliver the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt through ten plagues, and subsequently provide humanity with ten commandments.

Yesterday’s chapter told of the sin and curse of Cain and then traced his family line to the 7th generation after Adam. Seven is also a number associated with “completeness” but it is more associated with the divine, as in the seven days of Creation. The seven generations of Cain’s line hint at the completeness of God’s divine judgement on the family which remained rebellious toward God in the 7th generation. The 10 generations listed in today’s chapter hint at the complete human family line of Adam that will perpetuate humanity to, and after, the flood.

Then there are the patterns that emerge in the telling. The seventh generation in the line of Cain was Lamech who continued his ancestor’s murderous and rebellious ways. The seventh generation on Seth’s line is Enoch who “walked faithfully with God.” There’s also the fact that Cain, the first born son, was cursed and it was through a younger son, Seth, that humanity was blessed and perpetuated. In human terms, the blessing, power, and position always go to the first-born son, but God’s blessing through the younger son is a pattern repeated through Genesis as well as the Great Story:

Seth over Cain.
Shem over Japheth
Isaac over Ishmael
Jacob over Esau
Judah and Joseph over their brothers
Ephraim over Manasseh
David over his brothers
Solomon over his brothers

The pattern of going against human tradition is a continuous reminder of what God would later say plainly through the prophet Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

As I always say, God’s base language is metaphor. Today’s chapter is more than a genealogy. It is layered with numbers and patterns that metaphorically speak to the moral contrast between Cain’s family line and Seth’s family, the contrast of divine judgement and blessing, and the contrast of death and life.

On Sunday, I’m giving a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers from Ecclesiastes 3, the passage made familiar to millions by the Byrds: “To everything there is a time and season.” One of the things I plan to discuss is that my own life contains patterns that lead to deeper understanding of self, of family, of life, if I’m willing to search under the surface of simple dates and memories.

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

Words and Works

Words and Works (CaD John 10) Wayfarer

The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.

John 10:24-26 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been regular readers of the Wall Street Journal forever. The New York based newspaper is one of a few newspapers to have had subscribers across the entire nation, even before the dawn of the digital age.

One of the things that we have noticed across the years is that you can take the Wall Street Journal out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the Wall Street Journal. The content, from news to opinion to lifestyle are clearly New York City centric and cater to wealthy business professionals in Manhattan who have always been the key constituency in their subscriber base. What this means, however, is that Wendy and I often shake our heads over morning coffee here in small town Iowa. The Wall Street Journal clearly doesn’t get life in fly-over country (even when they visit every four years for the Iowa caucuses) where life and business are still largely centered around agriculture and people see life differently based on a very different daily life experience.

In the same way, it’s often challenging for a 21st century reader to understand the context of a first century story-teller, but it’s not impossible. Learning the context reveals often profound understanding.

God’s base language is metaphor, and in today’s chapter Jesus uses one metaphor in two different messages He presents in the Temple in Jerusalem: the Shepherd. Shepherds and sheep were understood by all of Jesus’ listeners back in the day. Sheep were a staple in their lives for both food, clothing, and the religious system. In fact, the metaphor of the Shepherd was not new to Jesus. It’s all over the place in the ancient Psalms and the messages of the prophets in which God revealed Himself as the “Shepherd of Israel,” the religious leaders were, likewise, to “shepherd” God’s people, and the coming Messiah was prophesied to be a true Shepherd to care for God’s people. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd. Shepherd is an important metaphor in the Great Story.

In Jesus’ word picture, He is both a gate by which sheep go out to pasture and return to the safety of their home, and the Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep because they are His sheep. He is not a thief, robber, or rustler who seeks to steal sheep for their own selfish aims.

John then moves the narrative to another time Jesus was teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem during another national religious festival in which he again uses the metaphor of Shepherd and sheep. There is still tremendous debate and division over Jesus true identity. He is asked plainly: “Are you the Messiah, or not?”

Jesus responds with an interesting statement: “I told you already, not with words, but by my actions, my works, and my signs. You didn’t get it because you’re not my sheep.”

Actions reveal identity.

Jesus says basically the same thing as He did in the previous chapter, but with a different metaphor:

I Am the Light of the World:
– There are blind who I make see
– There are those who see who I cause to go blind

I Am the Good Shepherd:
– My sheep know my voice and follow
– Those who don’t know my voice don’t follow; Not my sheep

What really stuck out to me, however, was that His true identity was revealed by words or claims but by works and deeds. It is the same thing Jesus told The Twelve later: They’ll know you’re mine, not by your claims, but by your love for one another. Jesus’ brother, James, would pick up on this in his letter to the exiled followers of Jesus scattered across the Roman empire: “Faith by itself, with no action, is dead. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that even when Jesus was walking the earth performing signs and wonders, there were many who remained blind and deaf to His message. Why should I think that it would be any different today? I’m also reminded that my claim to be a follower of the Good Shepherd is basically worthless. Jesus said so Himself. It is those acts of love, grace, mercy, generosity, and forgiveness that mark me as one of His sheep.

Time for this sheep to do my best to reveal my faith in action, and not just these words, on this another day of the journey.

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

Birth, and Identity

Birth, and Identity (CaD John 3) Wayfarer

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
John 3:3 (NIV)

A prestigious and knowledgable religious leader named Nicodemus makes a clandestine visit to Jesus in the dark of night. He wants to question this young rabbi from fly-over country who everyone is talking about.

Jesus begins his conversation with the well-educated religious man with a very simple metaphor: you need to experience a re-birth. You need to be born one more time.

Nick didn’t understand.

Jesus then simply explained that, just as there is a birth of our physical bodies, there is also a birth of Spirit.

Born…again.

One of the things that I’ve observed along my life journey is that words or phrases themselves are metaphors. The the printed squiggly lines I read in a book or the little pixelated lines I are read on a laptop screen are just that: squiggly lines. Consider this series of lines: c-a-t. Those lines are not literally a furry, purring pet. Yet we understand the lines to represent letters, which represent sounds which, when put together represent words, to which we have attached a certain meaning. And, the meaning of words and phrases can be layered. One word can have a myriad of numbered definitions in the dictionary.

My friend, Dave, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the “dictionary wars” in European history when different institutional power brokers were seeking to ensure that their dictionary became the authoritative one. They sought to control the meaning of words. It was understood by these power brokers of the world that those who control the language (and, by extension, the message) will ultimately control the masses.

I observe this in our current culture, as well. Words and terms are being used in political discourse, but they mean different things to the individuals using them and listening to them on opposite sides of the political divide. We’re having arguments with the same words to which we’ve attached different meanings. I’m also witnessing that words and terms that have always meant one thing to me have been redefined by groups within the culture. New words and terms are also being created and used within one sub-culture that are completely unknown by other sub-cultures. It’s no wonder we’re having trouble communicating with one another.

Words and terms also matter in this theme of identity that I see threaded throughout John’s biography of Jesus. I use words and terms to both identify myself to others, and to identify other individuals and groups. Those words and terms are layered with the meaning I’ve attached to the term, as well as my opinions, my experiences, and my emotions. The term “Born again Christian” is layered with different meanings to different people.

Which is why I almost chose to ignore it when I read today’s chapter. Writing about the metaphor “born again” feels a bit like walking into a mine field blind-folded. Yet, I found the simple metaphor Jesus shared with Nicodemus to resonate deeply within me. Jesus wasn’t talking about politics, religion, or a particular demographic therein.

I believe that Jesus was using the transformational experience of physical birth to describe an equally transformational spiritual experience to which He was leading people. I’ve experienced it. I’ve known many others who have experienced it. It’s at once simple and yet hard to explain. I imagine it’s not unlike Jeff Bezos or Sir Richard Branson trying to describe the experience of weightlessness to my earthbound mind that has never experienced it.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself trying to strip away all of the layers of meaning and emotion that our culture attaches to the term “born again.” Like U2 trying to steal Helter Skelter back from what Charles Manson made of it, I want to get back to a simple word picture Jesus gave to a spiritually blind religious man.

“You were born physically, Nick. But there’s also a Spirit birth that you have yet to experience. Don’t you see? You’re spiritually trapped in the womb of your earthbound humanity. Once you’ve experience your Spirit birth, you’ll be an infant with an entirely new Life open to you to experience. A new identity. Old things will pass away. Entirely new things will come to you.”

Sow What?

Sow What? (CaD Mk 4) Wayfarer

Again [Jesus] said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
Mark 4:30-32 (NIV)

It is spring in Iowa, arguably the best place to grow things in the world. Growing up, the stated used the tag line: “A place to grow.” I always found this a great tag line full of metaphorical layers. I’m sad it got buried under slogans like “You make me smile!” and “We do amazing things with corn.”

Spring brings my perennial desire to plant something and make it grow. I have to confess that when it comes to being a child of Iowa I’m a bit of a prodigal. Growing things has never come naturally to me. I’ve done okay with my rosebushes, but I think it’s because they do well on their own despite me. Last spring we planted some herbs on the patio. I even got to use them to make fresh seasoning a few times before they died.

It’s a beautiful thing about the cycles of life, isn’t it? It is perennial. Hope springs eternal with Easter. Every spring the Cubs have a chance to win the World Series and I have a chance to successfully grow something. It doesn’t matter that the odds are 1:108. There’s still a chance, and each spring the hope is intoxicating.

Last year, Wendy and I bought actual herb plants. Undeterred by their premature death, I decided that this year we’re going to grow them from seeds. If I’m going to commit serial herbicide, I might as well make it more difficult. So, we got three grow-kits with pots, dirt, and seeds.

What struck me as I planted the seeds was how minuscule they were. Seriously, I felt like I was sprinkling dust particles in the dirt! I followed the instructions for watering and a week or so later Wendy and I went to the lake for a long weekend. When we got back, there were actual plants growing in two of the three pots. What did I do wrong with the third plant? I’m telling you: I can kill a plant before it even sprouts! When I contacted the grow-kit company I was told that sometimes you can get “bad seed.” I’m not sure what that means, but it felt like a pardon from the Governor. I sanded out a couple of notches off the handle of my garden trowel.

I thought about my little herb garden as I read today’s chapter. Jesus uses planting seeds as a word picture of God’s Kingdom. The seed can be as small as a speck of dust, but it can sprout and grow into something huge. Which is why earlier in the chapter Jesus told another story about a person who was sowing seed as they journeyed along. The seed was sown everywhere, which got me mulling this over.

Jesus told His followers that the seed is the Word. In the Great Story I learned that Jesus is the living Word and also incarnate Love. So, one way I sow the Word along my life journey is by sowing love that is joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, faithful, good, and self-controlled. In doing this, I’m scattering that hopeful possibility of spring that the seed might happen to fall upon a soul that it good soil for that seed to germinate and grow into something exponentially huge in relation to that little seed sown in a gentle word, a gesture of forgiveness, a random act of kindness, or a timely hug.

Of course, the Great Story also talks about bad seed that can equally be sown. The seeds of hatred, anger, malice, chaos, violence, rage, jealousy, envy, selfishness, dissension, and division. Bad seeds don’t grow much of anything.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again looking within and without. What am I sowing in my thoughts, words, actions, reactions, posts, tweets, replies, and comments? I look outward at the things I see in the media, on social media, and the people I “follow.” What is being sown? Good seed? Bad seed?

I don’t want to be judgmental, but I do want to be wise.

I can’t control others, but I can control myself.

I am embarking on yet another day. Day number 20,088 of my earthly journey.

It’s spring in Iowa. A place to grow.

What am I going to sow today?

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

Strength in Praise

Strength in Praise (CaD Ps 148) Wayfarer

And he has raised up for his people a horn,
    the praise of all his faithful servants…
Psalm 148: 14 (NIV)

There is a story in the book of Acts in which Paul and Silas were imprisoned the dungeon of a town called Philippi. About midnight the two of them were singing praises and hymns as they prayed. Suddenly an earthquake struck, loosening their chains and breaking open the prison doors. Talk about dramatic. Sometimes our praise has a miraculous, dramatic effect.

In his book, The Philippian Fragment, Calvin Miller tells the fictional story of a first-century pastor in the same town of Philippi who happened be imprisoned in the same cell along with one of his elders. The pastor sees, scratched on the dungeon wall, the names “Paul and Silas.”

Remembering how Paul and Silas sang at midnight as God sent an earthquake to open the doors of the jail, we took courage. “Do it again, God!” cried Coriolanus near midnight. He began to sing a hymn in monotone, and I joined in. We praised God at full volume with some of the great songs of the faith. Ever and anon we stopped to see if we could hear even the faintest rumblings of a quake. By three in the morning we still had not raised a tremor and decided to give it up. There seemed so little to rejoice about.

Suddenly a jailor who had heard us singing sprang into the cell.

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he asked.

We told him in great joy.

“I can’t do that,” he said. “It’s too risky.”

As he left, he yelled over his shoulder, “Would you cut out the noise. It’s three in the morning.”

Still, I felt better for simply having praised Him. Praise clears the heart and dusts the mind of selfishness. It lifts the spirit and transforms the prison to an altar where we may behold the buoyant love of Christ.

It is not jailors who make convicts. It is the self-pitying mind that makes a man a captive.Praise frees us. The jail cannot contain the heart that turns itself to attend the excellency of Christ. “Gloria in excelsis!” deals with stone walls and iron bars in its own way. When morning finally came, I was elated. I found a flint rock in the cell and scratched our own names above the etching of Paul and Silas: “Eusebius and Coriolanus—We sang at midnight and felt much better the next morning.”

Today’s chapter, Psalm 148, is at the center of the final five songs of praise in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics known as the Psalms. As we’ve discovered on this chapter-a-day journey, ancient Hebrew songs often put the central theme of the song smack-dab in the middle. The central theme was in the center holding the core. When the editors of the compilation put the last five songs of praise together, they placed today’s song smack-dab in the middle. It holds the core of the final theme of praise.

Praise is a central theme throughout the Great Story. When rebuked by the religious leaders for His followers shouting His praise, Jesus replied that even if they were silent the rocks would “cry out.” Today’s psalm speaks of all creation praising God, and in fact all matter does continually resonate at frequencies we can’t hear. The universe itself perpetually resonates at 432hz. When John was given a vision of heaven’s Throne Room in his Revelation, he describes it as a scene of endless praise.

Along my life journey, I have learned that praise sincerely offered whether in word, song, or thought is a spiritual activator. To the ancients, a “horn” was a metaphor of strength, and the lyricist of today’s song made clear that there is strength in praise. When I choose to offer up heart-felt praise from the prison of my own circumstances, there is a shift that occurs. It might be a miraculous shift in the tectonic plates of life as Paul and Silas experienced. It might be simply a shift in my faith and spirit as Eusebius and Coriolanus experienced. I’ve learned not to worry about the results and to simply let my praise hold the core in the moment. Whenever I sing praises in the darkness, I always end up feeling “much better in the morning.”

Holy Moment

Holy Moment (CaD Psalm 145.2) Wayfarer

[Note: I know I did Psalm 145 yesterday, but it became obvious to me this morning that I needed to spend some more time in it. So, consider this a blogging BOGO from me to you! :-)]

The eyes of all look to you,
    and you give them their food at the proper time.

Psalm 145:15 (NIV)

He was weeping over the phone. Across the miles, on the other end of the connection, I knew that this moment was qadosh, a holy moment. It was holy, not because of any kind of religious piety or righteous achievement, but because of the depth of its suffering.

Along my life journey I’ve observed that religion has done a number on our concept of holiness. The institutional church has, as it always does, warped holiness into some kind of religious merit badge, a litmus test of morality, a trophy for those religious over-achievers at the top of the Sunday School class. In doing so, religion profanes the fulness of holiness.

Holiness is woven into creation unbound by church membership or religious ritual. Holiness is an encounter with the divine in the human experience. Holiness is not limited to the transcendental, spiritual glory of Jesus’ transfiguration. The emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual agony of his unjust, illegal, blood-drenched execution was a holy moment, as well.

That’s how I recognized the holy moment as my friend wept from the darkness of his own personal pit. He was joining the ranks of many who have gone before him. He was the woman kneeling naked and ashamed in front of the Son of God as her adultery lay publicly exposed. He was the prodigal covered in pig shit and eating the slop of his own choices. He was the wanton woman knelt down before Jesus as his tears wash the feet of the One he fully expects to condemn him like everyone else is in his life seems to be doing. He was me, 20 years ago, as I wept alone in the darkness of a warehouse apartment crying out over the shattered pieces of my life.

I knew this was a holy moment because I had been there myself. This was a holy moment because every human and religious pretense had been stripped away. He was, in that moment, spiritually naked and empty. He had reached a point when he could no longer play the game. This was his breaking point before the One who redeems, recreates, and uses broken things; The Potter who takes the lump of collapsed clay spinning on His wheel and begins to make something new. Whether my friend recognized it, or not, this was the waypoint on his journey that is the inflection point when old things begin to recede in the rearview mirror, and he will find a light on the horizon leading him in a new direction.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 145, begins the last five songs in this 150 song anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics. The editors end their compilation with five songs of praise. Today’s is a beautiful description of God’s goodness and I could have picked out any number of verses to chew on, but it was the phrase “you give them their food at the proper time” that resonated deep in my soul.

Remember that God’s base language is metaphor, and metaphors are layered with meaning. Make no mistake, food is food, as in the miraculous Manna that God provided the Hebrew tribes on their wilderness wanderings and the loaves and fish Jesus turned into an all-you-can-eat, filet-o-fish-o-rama. It’s also that which is necessary for spiritual survival and sustenance, as Jesus reminded the Enemy after fasting for forty days: “You can’t just eat physical bread. You need the spiritual bread of the Word.”

From there the metaphor expands to even more layers of meaning:

“In the beginning was the Word…”

“I am the Bread of Life…”

“He took a loaf and broke it, saying, ‘This is my body, broken for you.'”

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve experienced God’s provision of “food” at the “proper time” on both the physical and spiritual level. I remember being married with two small children, my first mortgage, no job, and no idea what was going to happen next. There have been moments when clients unexpectedly pulled the plug on projects, and I wasn’t sure how we would pay the bills. Then there was that lonely night in the dark warehouse apartment when every religious facade I had mistaken for being an actual spiritual resource had been revealed to be impotent, and my soul was starving for a scrap of real spiritual nourishment.

I had religiously participated in the ritual of Communion countless times in my life, yet that moment was the first time I truly tasted the Bread of Life. It was a holy moment. It was qadosh.

In the quiet this morning, I’m praying for my friend who was on the other end of that call. He’s got a long, long road ahead of him. I did my best to assure him that if he relies on the Bread of Life to sustain him, and he doggedly presses on, one-day-at-a-time, towards that Light on the horizon, he will find himself in amazing places. He may find himself in a deep place, but grace is deeper still. He may despair in the moment at the waste he’d made of his life, but God may transform it into wisdom.

I’ve been there.

In the moment all he could see was the unholy ruins of his life.

Little did he know, it was the holy start of a new creation.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Revelation 21:5 (NIV)


As always, if you know anyone who might be encouraged with today’s post, please feel free to share.


Ruminating

Ruminating (CaD Ps 140) Wayfarer

Sovereign Lord, my strong deliverer,
    you shield my head in the day of battle.

Psalm 140:5 (NIV)

Ever since I was a kid, I have been one to excessively ruminate on conflict or personal problems that I encounter along life’s road. When this happens, I can’t stop thinking about it, mulling it over, replaying things again and again in my head. When it’s really bad, my ceaseless ruminations can steal my sleep and paralyze me from effectively managing other important things in life.

The word “ruminate” has only been a common part of the English language since the 1500s. It derives from a Latin word that refers to animals, specifically cows, who can dredge up already chewed and partially digested food from their stomachs in order to chew it again. This is commonly referred to as a cow “chewing the cud.” I realize that’s a rather gross word, picture. But, it is an apt word picture for the thing my mind does with problems and conflicts.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 140, is another song ascribed to King David. Like other songs of David, he is lamenting unnamed enemies who are bent on his personal and political destruction. What is interesting about the lyrics of this song is the multiple physiological metaphors David uses:

  • stir up war in their hearts
  • sharpen their tongues
  • poison on their lips
  • hands of the wicked
  • trip my feet

As is common with ancient Hebrew songwriting, the central stanza of today’s chapter provides the main theme for the song. And I couldn’t help but notice that David asks God to “shield my head” in the day of battle. Of course, head injuries in human battle can easily be fatal, but as I read it I immediately thought about the conflicts, problems, and relational battles I’ve encountered along life’s road and my seemingly endless ruminating when they occur. I have found that me regurgitating an issue and chewing it over, and over, and over can be as much a spiritual and emotional threat to my well-being as a warrior going into fire-fight without their helmet.

I love that David asks God to shield his head. It’s my own brain that so easily works against me in times of trouble. I also love that David poured out his heart, his conflicts, and his problems in musical and lyrical prayers. I have to believe it was a healthy form of expression that helped him get things out so that they wouldn’t be bottled up inside where rumination can easily lead to unhealthy places.

In the quiet this morning, I’ve thinking back on circumstances that have led to ruminating in the last year or two. I have gotten better at recognizing when I’m doing it and addressing it sooner. I’ve gotten better at getting it out in conversations with the inner circle of confidants I’m blessed to have in my life. I’ve also learned that expressing things in handwritten prayers in my morning pages can be a really good antidote for ruminating.

Along life’s road I’ve observed that my natural temperament, personality, and bents lead me to certain patterns of reaction to negative stimuli I encounter along the way. Some of these natural reactions are both unhealthy and unproductive. Being a follower of Jesus, my relationship has motivated and challenged me to actively address some of my less than stellar traits, like my ruminating. By choosing to get out my ruminations, I make room for my heart and mind to meditate on the things with which Jesus asks me to fill them.

Body

Body (CaD Ps 133) Wayfarer

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

Psalm 133:1 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of leading a team of teachers in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. They are a diverse and gifted group of people, representing paid staff members and volunteers of different ages, denominational backgrounds, gender, vocations, educational levels, and personalities.

Almost every week, I assign the group a message to watch on the internet. We’ve watched teachers and preachers from the National Cathedral to small rural towns. We’ve watched teachers of different styles, traditions, denominations, backgrounds, and abilities. We gather for lunch once a month to discuss what we’ve heard, observed, and learned from the different teachers and preachers we’ve watched. It’s been a really interesting experience.

In the first century, the followers of Jesus used the metaphor of a body to describe all believers. My experience of leading our local teaching team has given me a deeper appreciation for, and awareness of, just how beautiful and powerful that word picture is. The body is made up of eleven different systems. The systems do their thing and have various parts that provide particular functions unrelated to other systems, yet without them providing that function the health of the entire body suffers.

I’ve observed that the different members of our teaching team, each with his or her own communication style, personality, and waypoint on life’s journey, resonate deeply with different constituencies within our local “body” but less so with others. I find this to be natural and healthy for the “body” which benefits by learning from and appreciating different voices and perspectives. I’ve come to meditate quite a bit about unity.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 133, was another one of the songs that ancient Hebrew pilgrims sang as they and thousands of their fellow tribe made the trek to seasonal festivals in Jerusalem. It’s a short little ditty celebrating national unity that would have resonated with the travelers as they encountered fellow citizens making the same trek alongside them.

Along my life journey, I’ve come to understand that unity does not mean sameness. In fact, it doesn’t mean agreement. I am grieved by the level of discord, dissension, conflict, and “cancellation” in our culture of late. I was raised to be respectful of differences in people and appreciative of the opportunity to learn from those differences. As a follower of Jesus, those beliefs have been strengthened and reinforced in me by Jesus’ teaching that calls me to humbly be gracious; To love, forgive, and serve others, especially those whom I might otherwise consider my “enemy.”

Increasingly, I’ve come to realize that spiritually speaking, I am a very minute part of a massive, complex “body” made up of different systems, organs, limbs, and cells. There are parts of the body I don’t touch, and will never interact with. There are parts of the body with completely different functions than mine. There are other systems of the body I don’t fully understand and with whom I observe we are totally different in almost every way. Nevertheless, we are part of a “whole” that may well be beyond my human comprehension.

In yesterday’s post I wrote about things I control and things that I don’t. I can’t control others who choose to live in anger, stir conflict, and sow division and dishonor with anyone who looks, thinks, believes and/or lives differently. It’s unhealthy for the whole, and yet I can only control the part I play in my little part of that whole.

And so, I head out on another day of the journey, choosing to do the best I can to live in love, stir understanding, and sow peace with those I meet along the road on this pilgrimage called life.

Life is a Psalm

Life is a Psalm (CaD Ps 113) Wayfarer

From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
    the name of the Lord is to be praised

Psalm 113:3 (NIV)

There are two themes in the Great Story that I have repeatedly mentioned across the 15 years I’ve been writing these chapter-a-day posts, and they are beautifully present in today’s chapter, Psalm 113. They are, however, easily missed by the casual reader.

The first is that God’s base language is metaphor. God, like any good artist, expresses Himself into everything created. This means that everything we see in creation is connected to God’s Spirit and is layered with meaning. There are spiritual lessons to be found everywhere if my spiritual senses are open to them. The ancient Hebrews understood this. I would argue that they understood it a lot better than we do today.

I say this because the editors who compiled the anthology of songs we know as the book of Psalms did so in a very specific way. They placed songs together in specific sections and in a specific order, which adds an added layer of meaning beyond the text within the psalm.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 113, is part of a group of songs known to the Hebrews as “the Hallel” (Hallel means praise). Psalms 113-118 are part of the Hebrew festival of Passover when they celebrate God’s miraculous deliverance of their people out of slavery in Egypt. These six songs are placed together so as to create a structured psalm out of six individual psalms. A psalm of psalms. Layers of meaning. Metaphor.

If you’ve been reading along in this chapter-a-day journey, you might have noticed that almost every psalm begins with a verse of praise or crying out to God. Psalm 113 is the opening of the six-psalm Hallel. It’s the call to praise. It’s the first song of the Passover feast’s “Hallel,” and it is sung before the meal. It’s the calling of the participants into Spirit mode, to quiet and open hearts and minds to consider the story and the spiritual lessons contained within.

Layers of meaning.

I then happened upon verse 3:
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
    the name of the Lord is to be praised

In recent weeks I’ve blogged out “numbering my days” and the lessons keeping track of the days I’ve been on this earth (20,017 today) has taught me. One of the lessons that I didn’t mention, however, was the lesson about layers of time.

For centuries, followers of Jesus have celebrated Jesus’ story on an annual basis. Each Christmas we celebrate His birth. Each Easter we celebrate His resurrection. Millions of followers all over the globe structure their worship around the annual meditation of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and mission. The Great Story contained with a year.

Ancient followers of Jesus who were known as mystics recognized that our infinitely metaphorical creator had layered time with meaning. A week (which God established at the very beginning, in the first two chapters of the Great Story) is seven days. The number seven is associated with “completeness.” The Christian mystics saw the Great Story and an entire lifetime every week. We toil through the week. Friday we remember Good Friday and Jesus death. Every Sunday we celebrate resurrection and hit the reset button. The next week begins anew. The Great Story contained with a week.

But a single day is yet another layer. Each day begins with a new dawn. There is new hope for what this day will hold. There is a new opportunity for change, redemption, reconciliation, and love. Each night brings the end of the day. It is the end of the opportunities of this day which passes away with the other 20,017 days which cannot be relived. Each morning is a mini-resurrection of life. A day dawns, and I was never guaranteed that I’d live to see this day. Opportunity, hope, and joy spring anew. The Great Story contained with a day.

From the rising of the sun, until it goes down, the name of the Lord will be praised.

A psalm out of psalms.

The Great Story from Genesis to Revelation contained in a year, a week, a day.

Leaving this wayfaring stranger to ask, “What am I going to do with this day?”

Just like a psalm I’m going to start with praise, endeavor to live it out in such a way that it is marked by love, honesty, and humility, and end it with gratitude and praise.

My life this day is a psalm that contains the Great Story.

Meaning in the Metaphor

Meaning in the Metaphor (CaD Ps 80) Wayfarer

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
Psalm 80:8 (NRSVCE)

I have celebrated Christmas as a follower of Jesus for almost forty years, and I can tell you that the most forgotten storyline of the Christmas story is found in the second chapter of Matthew.

King Herod was the regional ruler operating under subservience to the Roman Empire. It was Herod to whom the Zoroastrians (that we call the “Three Kings” or “Magi”) went to find out where the Jewish Messiah was to be born. Herod got the answer for them and sent them on their way to Bethlehem. Herod was a blood-thirsty man, however. A shrewd monarch with boundless ambition, Herod’s successful reign was made possible in part by his ability to assassinate any rival. This included members of his own family.

Matthew shares that Herod, wanting to make sure the newborn Messiah would not grow up to threaten his worldly power, ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and under killed. Warned by an angel in a dream, Joseph and Mary flee with the baby to Egypt. When Herod died a few years later, they returned to Joseph in Nazareth.

In telling this piece of the story, Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea, who said: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1). In my podcast A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story (Part 7) I talked about prophecy and the fact that part of the mystery of the prophetic is that metaphor can be layered with meaning. Hosea was writing about the Hebrew exodus out of Egyptian slavery, but Matthew sees that Jesus, God’s son, was also called out of Egypt.

In today’s chapter, Psalm 80, we have a song of lament written somewhere around 725 BC. The Assyrians were attacking the northern kingdom of Israel. Refugees from the northern tribes were flowing into Jerusalem, and Asaph laments that God brought the nation out of Egypt and planted them in Canaan only to let foreign countries attack them. In this case, Asaph uses the metaphor of God bringing a vine out of Egypt only to let foreign powers like Assyria and Babylon pick “the fruit” of God’s hand.

As a follower of Jesus, I am immediately reminded of Jesus’ words to His most intimate followers the night before His crucifixion:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“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. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. John 15:1-5 (NIV)

When Asaph writes his lyric: “You brought a vine out of Egypt” he was being as prophetic as Hosea was when quoted by Matthew, but here’s where I found added meaning in Asaph’s metaphor. Asaph metaphorically envisions that he and the fellow Hebrew tribes were the Vine. When Jesus came, Asaph’s misunderstanding becomes clear. Jesus is the Vine, and his followers are the branches. If you’re not connected to the Vine, then you get pruned back and cut-off.

The Hebrew prophets made it clear that the Hebrew people had disconnected themselves from God. They worshipped foreign gods and were unfaithful to the covenant they made through Moses. The prophets made it clear that the Assyrians and Babylonians were God’s pruning shears, because contrary to Asaph’s lyrics the only fruit left on those branches was rotten.

In the quiet this morning I wondered how often I, like Asaph, lament the fact that life isn’t going so well. I feel empty, depleted, and attacked like someone plucked everything from me when my real problem is the same as the Hebrews: I’m not connected to the Vine. There’s no spiritual nourishment flowing from the Living Water deep in the root structure. There’s no support from the Vine and no protection from the other branches. The fruit my life is bearing small, tasteless, impotent, even rotten.

As another Christmas approaches, I’m thinking about the least discussed event of that first Christmas. The Son of God, emptied of Heaven and dependent on a young mother, goes into exile in Egypt. Out of Egypt God will call His Son, the Vine. If I miss that connection, then I’m missing the Life, not only of the Christmas story, but the entire Great Story itself.