Tag Archives: Metaphor

I Smell.

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“You shall make an altar on which to offer incense…”
Exodus 30:1 (NRSVCE)

I typically keep a fragrant candle on the desk in my office. I like scents of vanilla the best. Right now I’ve been trying out a candle labeled as “tobacco and vanilla.” I thought it might remind me of the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Not so much. I do, however, like the scent.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that smell is the physical sense to which we give the least attention. Sight, hearing, taste, and touch get the most of our attention. Our olfactory senses aren’t as necessary for human survival as they once were. Nevertheless, a scent can create a powerful response with me. Some experts say that smells plays more of a role in attracting a mate than we even realize. More consciously, it can bring back a memory like the smell of a rose reminding me of my Grandma Vander Well’s perfume. It can create a sense of peace and security like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting up from the kitchen. It also works in negative terms. Some smells give me a headache or can make me feel physically ill.

Incense played a large part in ancient religious ceremonies. In today’s chapter, God continues to prescribe to Moses how the Hebrew tribes will worship. The chapter begins with designs for an altar on which incense is to be perpetually burned and it ends with a unique recipe for the fragrant ingredients a perfumer is to blend the incense. Because the fragrant oil used to anoint Aaron and the priests, and the incense burned in the traveling temple was unique, the smell would become associated in the hearts and minds of the Hebrews with being present at God’s place and giving their sacrifices and offerings. The smoke of the burning incense also became a metaphor for the prayers of God’s people wafting up to heaven.

Incense once again became part of worship in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions in Christianity, though I have head it argued that it was primarily a practical way for the priest to overcome the powerful pungency of body odor emanating from the poor, unbathed masses packing into the church on Sunday. It was never a formally prescribed practice of the early followers of Jesus. In the New Testament, the only references to incense point to either the practice in the Hebrew ritual or else to John’s visions of heaven in Revelation.

The use of incense in Hebrew worship was, however, linked to an important metaphor understood by early believers. In his second letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul writes:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
2 Cor 2:14-16 (NIV)

Once again, I find that the physical bricks-and-mortar (or in this case oil-and-incense) of the Hebrew system matures through Jesus and shifts into a flesh-and-blood understanding of what God is doing. In the former, people came to a central location where the fragrance of the priests and the burning incense reminded them of God’s presence. In the latter, every follower of Jesus becomes part of a “royal priesthood” taking the fragrance of Jesus with us wherever we go and among any and all people with whom we interact in our circles of relationship and community.

I have spent twenty-five years in a career in which I travel and regularly visit our clients in their places of business around the country. I am always praying that I will be the fragrance of Christ while I am there conducting training sessions, making executive presentations, and coaching or mentoring individuals.. What’s fascinating to me is that I have on several occasions had someone literally ask me if I’m a Christian. When I confess that I am, the response is typically, “I knew it. I could just tell.” Equally fascinating to me is that in almost every long-term engagement with a client there is an individual or two who react to my presence with intense animosity. In those instances, I get to practice returning curses with blessings and showing (often unreciprocated) kindness.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think of the message I gave yesterday among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Today’s chapter so beautifully illustrates a point I was making. I observe that many are stuck in the old paradigm of a religious institution founded on the notion of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. People gather to do the regularly scheduled religious bit, then forget about it until my next scheduled appearance on Sunday, or Christmas, or Easter.

Jesus changed all that in practice. He started with getting the Kingdom of God into the individual, transforming the human being into the Temple in whom God’s Spirit dwells. It is the individual who takes God’s Kingdom wherever they go and impacts people in every relationship and circles of influence. I don’t burn incense at the temple, I am the temple from which God’s fragrance seeps out in my love, kindness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness and self-control. Some are attracted. Some are repelled. That’s something I don’t control, though how I respond to it is.

Monday. Another week. Holiday coming up. I have appointments, a little travel, and a weekend full of friends. Hope I’m fragrant in all the good ways.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

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.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Seeds, Soil, and Fruit

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Mark 4:9 (NIV)

As I am fond of saying, God’s base language is metaphor. Jesus was famous for speaking in parables, similes, and word pictures. In today’s chapter, Mark chronicles four different parables. All of them are examples from the everyday life in the agrarian culture in which Jesus and His listeners lived:

  • A farmer sowing seed over his field and the different things that happen to the seed that is sown.
  • An oil lamp like the kind of lamp every one of Jesus’ listeners used in their homes at night.
  • Crops that grow to maturity and produce fruit despite the sower doing nothing other than scattering the seed.
  • A tiny mustard seed that grows into a giant tree.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Romans 1:20 as I read:

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.

In the same way that an artist’s work reveals things about the artist, God’s creation reveals things about his divine nature. Jesus simply identified the ways that creation reveals truth of God’s Kingdom and turns them into a parable.

The thing I found myself contemplating this morning was the fact that Jesus knew not all of His listeners would hear and understand what He was getting at. Some would have the spiritual “ears” to hear what He was saying. Others would hear the words but be deaf to its meaning. Jesus accepts this as a matter of course and embraces it.

I became a follower of Jesus during my Freshman year of high school and was an active follower during those high school years. This past year I attended my 35th high school reunion and really enjoyed renewing acquaintances with my classmates. In the course of conversations, I got to hear stories of others who had themselves become followers on the course of their own journeys even though it happened on a different stretch of road than it did for me. Wendy has had similar experiences with former classmates and sorority sisters whom she has discovered became followers; Individuals she would have never expected to have any interest in spiritual things.

That’s the thing I’ve observed about soil as I’ve lived most of my life amidst the farm fields of Iowa. Some years a field might be less productive because it’s too wet, too dry, or the soil isn’t right. Another year, the soil might have changed because the farmer worked it a certain way and the weather cooperated so that it was ready to receive the seed and allow it to take root, grow, and produce. And, there’s another parable.

Not every heart is ready to hear or see at the same time. Some soil takes time and seasons of preparation. Jesus drew large crowds with His miracles. It’s easy to draw a crowd if you provide a good show. At the same time, Jesus knew that not every one in the audience was ready to hear and He was okay with that. He was speaking to the few who’s hearts were ready to receive the seeds He was planting. In another message He would identify them as those who were asking, seeking, and knocking. Not everyone is.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded of another parable that comes from my observations in the Iowa heartland. Fruit from one season becomes the seed for the next season. The spiritual fruit my life produces today in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and the self-control that I extend to others today is the seed that I scatter. Without me ever knowing it, some of that seed will land in a heart or life that is primed and ready to receive it. Based on Jesus’ example, that’s the way it works.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

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.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Unaltered original photo by Scott Mcleod via Flickr

Yes and Yes and Yes and Yes

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
Luke 17:20-21 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve come to embrace, the further I’ve pressed into this journey, is that we as human beings are earthbound in the way we see and react to everything around us. Interacting with our world through five senses leads us to perceive and believe that spiritual things are bound by temporal limits. We think and speak of heaven and hell as fixed positions somewhere and relegate the general direction of “above” (because we look at the night sky and perceive vast and infinite unknown) and “below” (because we watch the dead be buried in the ground and the bad place to which they go must be further down). The miracles were fairy tales and the resurrection could never have happened because for the majority of us these things don’t happen in our earthly human experience.

Along the way, I’ve come to realize that Jesus was constantly speaking of things that are real, but beyond our earthbound senses. I’m reminded of the prophet Elisha and his servant. Surrounded by an entire enemy army, Elisha tells his servant “There are actually more for us than against us.” Elisha prayed that his servant’s “eyes” might be “opened” and when they were he could see a vast army of angels encircling them. (2 Kings 6)

Jesus carries on this teaching of a dimension, realm, reality, that is just as real but lies beyond the boundaries of our senses. The problem, then, is that I try to describe a reality beyond my senses but I only have the language and reality I’ve experienced through my senses to describe it. Those very attempts at description will naturally fall short because even my words and language have their earthly, human limits.

In today’s chapter, Jesus is asked when “God’s kingdom” would come. They are seeking a fixed point of time that their earthbound brains can accept and perceiving that God’s kingdom looks like an earthly kingdom. Jesus pushes back at the limits of their human perceptions:

Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

It isn’t seen with human eyes, Jesus said. It’s not a fixed position that can be labeled on Google Earth. He then tells them that God’s kingdom is right in their midst, hiding in plain sight.

Now the original language Jesus used, and the language Dr. Luke used to retell the story, must be translated into English. Translations are a sticky wicket. Scholars have landed both on the phrase being “within you” and “in your midst” (there’s actually a footnote in the NIV version stating this).

Now I run into another earthbound reality of human reason, which tends to like to boil things down into binary choices: either or, right or wrong, black or white, true or false, this or that. My perpetual sojourn through the Great Story, however, has convinced me that God’s base language is metaphor, and metaphors are layered with meaning which is why the same words, phrases, stories, and passages can have different but just as relevant meaning to me today as when I studied the same passage years ago.

So was Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is in your midst because I’m the incarnate Christ standing right in front you“?

Was Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is not a fixed position in time and space but a place you inhabit internally and spiritually“?

Was Jesus saying, “When I am in you and you are in me, you are the kingdom of God“?

Was Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is within you when you love God and others as I have been showing you“?

My spirit answers:

Yes, and

Yes, and

Yes, and

Yes.

In the quiet this morning I find my spirit engaged, creativity enlivened, mind curious, and heart imaginative as I think about spiritual realities beyond my earthbound senses. It’s all over the chapter in what Jesus was saying….

  • When you cause someone else to stumble, and harm innocents, you reveal your spiritual condition, and it is not the kingdom of God. (vs. 1-2)
  • When the kingdom of God is within you then forgiveness and grace will pour out of your heart and life no matter how many times you’ve been wronged. (vs. 3-4)
  • When you get beyond your earthbound senses and God’s kingdom is within, you’ll find that the “impossible” is “possible.” (vs. 6)
  • When you embrace God’s kingdom, you find peace and contentment in your divine role in the Great Story. (vs. 7-10)
  • The Kingdom of God is not tied to a particular nation, tribe, race, or institution. It’s deeper than flesh, blood, genetics, citizenship, or doctrinal adherence. A huge number of people who should “get it” don’t and even the most unlikely of outcasts and outsiders will. (vs. 11-19)
  • There will come a time when the fecal matter will be propelled with great velocity at the electric, rotary oscillator of this world; A climactic collision of that which is temporal and that which is spirit. (vs. 22-37)

Jesus was always getting His followers to see, to touch, to taste, to smell, and to feel beyond the limits of what is physical. Because when you do, it changes how you relate to everything else along your journey. It’s taken me a long time to get that. I’ve still got a long way to go.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

An Ancient Ritual; A Fresh Perspective

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.
Luke 3:21 (NIV)

Last week when our family was in South Carolina to celebrate the marriage of our daughter Madison to our new son-in-law, Garrett, we attended their local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday morning. It was a celebration Sunday and several believers were baptized by immersion in a large baptismal pool that had been set up in the middle of the auditorium. It was fun to hear their stories about faith, following, and how Jesus had transformed their lives. The baptisms took place right in the middle of a loud, raucous, worshipping crowd singing and praising at dangerous decibel levels. There were so many people it was standing room only. Inspiring to say the least. Madison said it’s her favorite Sunday of the year, and I’m glad we experienced it.

My visit to the Holy Land many years ago changed the way I understood and experienced the Great Story. One of the things that changed drastically on that trip was my understanding of baptism. In Jesus’ day, ritual baptism was widely practiced by the Jewish people. In the wilderness around the Dead Sea there lived a colony of the monk-like ascetic priests, a Jewish sect called the Essenes. They believed in poverty, simplicity, benevolence, and daily ritual baptism. In the caves where they lived, you can still see the intricate system of baptismal pools in which their daily baptism was practiced.

Scholars believe that the Essene priests were celibate, and it is believed that they took orphans into their community to be raised in their ways and to grow their community. In yesterday’s chapter, Dr. Luke shares the story of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception to the elderly priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. In today’s chapter, the good Doctor fast-forwards to an adult John the Baptist living simply like a hermit in his camel-hair robe in the wilderness around the Dead Sea, preaching repentance, contentment, and baptism. He sounds exactly like an Essene. Born to elderly parents, it doesn’t take a huge mental leap to envision John being orphaned at a young age and his priestly family sending him to be raised by the Essenes, or perhaps a young John choosing to join the sect.

Being raised in the institutional protestant tradition of the Western church, baptism is considered one of the significant sacraments. Babies are sprinkled or adults are immersed. Most Christian theological traditions hold to baptism being a once-in-a-lifetime event. There are very strong feelings about the theology of baptism. Along my life journey, I’ve come to a very different conclusion than the tradition in which I was raised, especially after my visit to Israel and my exposure to the ancient tradition of ritual baptism that preceded and informed the Christian sacrament.

Baptism is a ritual of metaphor just like the sacrament of communion. It’s a sign and a visible word picture. Jesus said, “I am the water of life.” When a believer is plunged into the water it signifies dying to self and being buried in the likeness of Jesus’ death. When the believer rises up out of the water it signifies being raised to a new life in the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection, their sins washed away. It’s a ritualistic way-point on one’s spiritual journey, a fresh start, a new beginning, and an external, public proclamation of an inner-spiritual transformation.

Along my own spiritual journey, I can tell you that my spiritual path has wound itself through some pretty dark places. I’ve experienced my own periods of wilderness wandering. I have found myself the prodigal in far-away lands. I’ve discovered that my own spiritual journey is not a linear, straight-and-narrow interstate but a cyclical, meandering footpath. There are spiritual fits and starts. There are periods of stagnation, moments of repentance, and periodic commitment renewals. I think a ritual cleansing is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for important way-points along the journey. Just as the bread and cup can be a regular reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice, baptism can be a personal statement amidst a supportive community that marks an important shift in one’s spiritual trek.

In my spirit this morning I am still hearing the shouts of celebration, the screams of joy, and the ear-splitting worship that I witnessed with Madison and Garrett’s faith community in South Carolina. I had the opportunity to watch as some of those who were baptized walking out of the auditorium, dripping wet, wrapped in towels as they went to change into dry clothes. Every one of them was smiling, laughing, and visibly ecstatic. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “that’s the metaphor of baptism!” Washed clean, made new, old things passing away, and a fresh start on the right path in a good direction.

Who couldn’t occasionally benefit from that along a long spiritual journey?

Take me to the river.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

“All Kinds” on “All Occasions”

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.
Ephesians 6:18a (NIV)

Among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers we have a small army of individuals who are both passionate and gifted in the spiritual discipline of prayer. I admire and respect them greatly. I probably haven’t expressed that to them enough.

It was Paul who introduced the metaphor of the “Body” to describe the universal whole of all believers. The further I get in my journey the more I appreciate what an apt metaphor it is. Different systems operating with unique parts that make up one body. Each cell, structure, chemical, system, organ and appendage are necessary for healthy functioning, yet those cells, structures, chemicals, systems, organs and appendages are not interchangeable. In fact, some operate independent of one another because they simply don’t mix well, yet they are each necessary for the health of the whole.

In the same way each member has different spiritual gifts, callings, disciplines and abilities that contribute to the healthy functioning of the Body as a whole. Teaching and preaching has always been easy for me. It came naturally. I don’t even think about it, though I know the very idea of standing in front of a crowd and giving a message scares most other members of the Body terribly. Prayer, however, has been something at which I’ve had to work.

One of the lessons I’ve had to learn in my pursuit of developing the discipline of prayer is the very thing Paul encourages of all believers in today’s chapter: pray  on “all occasions” with “all kinds” of prayer.  I’ve had to learn that prayer is not just a rote prayer to bless a meal or the bowing of my head and folding of my hands kind of prayer (though those are both legitimate kinds of prayer). There is breathing prayer. There is singing prayer. There is the type of prayer that is simply an on-going, silent, inner conversation of my spirit with the Spirit. Almost any time I sit down and journal my thoughts, the words on the page naturally transition, at some point, into a written prayer to God. There are set hours of the day when I can “pray the hours” with thousands, maybe even millions, of other members of the Body around the world. There are “popcorn” prayers that blurt out from my system in an unexpected moment. There are prayers of confession, prayers of thanks, and prayers for and over others.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to embrace the truth that while some things are not areas of giftedness, passion, or bent they are, in fact, important for my health and spiritual whole. I have never been a naturally gifted athlete (I think I still have slivers in my butt from all the time I spent “on the bench” as a kid), yet participating in CrossFit has become crucial to my overall health as I age. Likewise, I’ve never been a gifted musician or singer, yet learning an instrument, participating on worship teams, and making a “joyful noise” have taught me many lessons and have played a huge part in my spiritual development and overall health. Prayer falls into the same pattern. I have good friends who are truly gifted and called to prayer in ways that, I confess, I sometimes envy. Yet prayer remains a core spiritual discipline that is necessary for my spiritual growth, maturity, and health. It’s simply something I must work at, learn about, and develop.

This morning I’m thinking about my prayer life. It is ever-present on the mental task-list of of my daily life journey. It is an area of my spiritual life that is in constant need of attention. C’est la vie.

And so, I’m going to finish writing this post and take a few moments to stretch my pray muscles and pray for you who took the time to read it.

Have a great day, my friend.

Note to readers: Occasionally people reach out to ask my permission to “share” or “re-post” one of my posts like this one. Please know you are welcome to share any of my posts at any time if you think they could be an encouragement to others.   – Tom

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.

On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.

Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.

As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.

As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.

The Wisdom of Awareness

“See how the waters are rising in the north;
    they will become an overflowing torrent.
They will overflow the land and everything in it,
    the towns and those who live in them.”
Jeremiah 47:2 (NIV)

A couple of years ago the lake where we spend a good part of our summer (which is actually part of a larger system of reservoirs) experienced some of the highest water levels on record. The flood of water coming downstream wreaked havoc throughout the entire system. Docks broke away, homes were flooded, and floodgates were opened which, in turn, became destructive to the area beneath the dam.

Of course, we knew it was coming. We could monitor the water levels of the rivers and reservoirs north of us online. There were warnings allowing residents to prepare. Fortunately, our house sits up on a hill and was never in danger, but that wasn’t true for all of our neighbors. It was a scary time.

Today’s chapter is  part of a series of prophetic messages that the ancient prophet Jeremiah gave to the nations around him. The message from today is focused on the ancient nation of the Philistines. Jeremiah uses the word picture of the rising waters in the north which foretold a coming flood. The metaphor pointed to the Babylonian army which was heading south and bent on conquering and destroying all nations in its path.

Along my journey I’ve experienced different kinds of difficulty and tragedy. Sometimes things happen suddenly and without warning, catching me off guard and forcing me to switch into emergency mode. Other times, however, there are warning signs. If my eyes are open and I remain aware, there is time to prepare and to shore up my resources against the potential danger even if there is nothing I can do to stop the impending flood headed my way.

This morning in the quiet I’m looking out the window at the calm, peaceful water. It is usually like this on a summer morning, but not always. Jesus said, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

I’m reminded this morning of the wisdom of awareness. In my spirit I’m praying for the perception to see when waters are rising upstream in this life, and the courage to begin preparations when they are.

A Faith Investment

Fields will be bought for silver, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessedin the territory of Benjamin, in the villages around Jerusalem, in the towns of Judah and in the towns of the hill country, of the western foothills and of the Negev, because I will restore their fortunes, declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah 32:44 (NIV)

A few years ago I read a couple of books about the Monuments Men. During World War II this small group of art experts were tasked with finding the hoard of European artwork that had been stolen, looted, and pillaged by the Nazis. Most all of the artwork had been taken from Jewish collectors, dealers, and artists as the Jews themselves were sent to Nazi ghettos and death camps.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a Jewish art collector living in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The round up of Jews has already begun and you’ve personally witnessed the homes of your Jewish neighbors and fellow art collectors being raided. All of their possessions, including their priceless artwork, has been confiscated by the Nazis while your neighbors have been loaded onto trucks and carried off to God knows where. You know that it’s only a matter of time before you hear the dreaded knock on your own door.

Then, an angel of God visits you in a dream and tells you to take all of your life savings and visit a local art dealer to purchase a rare painting by Van Gogh for your personal collection.

It doesn’t seem like a wise investment, does it?

In today’s chapter, it’s just that kind of investment that God tells the ancient prophet Jeremiah to make. The Babylonians have begun the siege of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the land around it, and every single thing that is within it will become the property of King Nebuchadnezzar. God tells Jeremiah at that very moment to make an investment in the purchase of some land.

We’re back to God’s favorite medium of communication: the world of word pictures and metaphors. Jews in Europe during the holocaust would be foolish to invest in artwork unless they knew for a fact that they and their artwork would survive. It is similarly foolish for Jeremiah to buy a piece of land when the Babylonians are clearly going to take it all for themselves in a short period of time.

But Jeremiah’s financial investment was not the issue in God’s . His people’s faith investment was. Jeremiah’s public purchase was made to be a message of faith and hope to his people in a moment of hopelessness and despair. “My people will come back to this land,” God is saying through Jeremiah’s metaphorical purchase. “All that you think is being pillaged, stolen and lost in this moment will eventually be restored.”

Jeremiah’s investment reminds me this morning of God’s faithfulness. 2 Timothy 2:13 says that “If we are faith-less God remains faith-full because He cannot disown himself” (emphasis added). Being faithful is at the core of who God is even when I have trouble seeing it in the blindness of my short-sighted humanity.

In the quiet this morning I’m grateful that The Monuments Men succeeded in finding and restoring much of the artwork stolen by the Nazis (It’s a good movie, btw). I also take solace in knowing that Jeremiah’s people did return to rebuild their city and their temple (as told in Nehemiah). Even in the darkest moments of the Great Story, when all seems hopeless and lost, I have to remember that it’s not the end of the story. I just have to have to make an investment of faith.