Tag Archives: Mystery

The Source Makes All the Difference

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
He appeared in the flesh,
    was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
    was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
    was taken up in glory.
1 Timothy 3:16 (NIV)

Cleanliness is next to godliness,” the old saying goes.

That is not in the Bible, by the way. Scholars say it originated as a proverb in ancient Hebrew and Babylonian texts. It was first quoted in modern times by Charles Wesley in a sermon in 1778.

That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? What human traditions grow up around spiritual themes that actually take focus away from the Spirit to whom I’m supposed to be connected?

The Dutch protestant culture from which I spring has always been fastidious, clean, and hard-working. We memorialize it every year during Tulip Time as we first scrub the streets before the parade can begin. Eventually, however, the social and religious pressure to keep up clean and orderly outside appearances with all we are and all we own takes precedence over a Life-filled inner Spirit. The result is what Jesus described of the religious people of His time:

“Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

Along my life journey I’ve been taught many ways to godliness; Spiritual disciplines, rule following, and following the trending spiritual fad hawked by Christian marketers (looking to make a buck) and the spiritual gurus they put on pedestals for us to idolize. I found myself struggling for so long. On the outside I appeared the poster chid of spiritual health as I dutifully kept up with all the outside rules, disciplines, and exercises. Inside my life was dark and out of control.

In today’s chapter Paul writes to his young spiritual protégé about the mystery [“Mystery is not something we can’t understand, but something we endlessly understand.” – R. Rohr] from which true godliness springs, and it has nothing to do with tidying up a la Marie Kondo. Paul goes on to quote what was an ancient poem or hymn about Jesus. True godliness is sourced in the person and work of Jesus. That’s it.

Paul has just finished giving Timothy multiple lists of qualifications for those who will lead the local gathering of Jesus’ followers. He then ends by reminding Timothy that all of these qualifications are not sourced in religious rule keeping and the keeping up of appearances, but in the endless pursuit and discovery of deep Spirit connection and Life-giving relationship with the resurrected Christ. Paul never wrote “I want you to know how to be good religious rule followers,” but he did write “I want you to know Christ, and the power of His resurrection.”

The source from which I seek godliness makes all the difference.

The Dude Abides

[The man of lawlessness] will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
2 Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV)

Yesterday, as I was getting ready, I had the Cohen brothers’ classic movie, The Big Lebowski, playing in the background. It’s become one of my all time favorites movies. What most people don’t realize is that The Big Lebowski is basically a classic 1940s film noir detective story set in the early 1980s with an unlikely stoner named The Dude unwittingly placed in the role of the protagonist detective.

I grew up watching a lot classic films and the hard-boiled detective movies (e.g. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade) of the film noir genre were among my favorites. In The Big Lebowski you have all the classic detective movie motifs: the old millionaire, the millionaire’s daughter with whom the protagonist falls in love, blackmail, rabbit trails, crime lords, a secondary detective, and the protagonist detective getting “slipped a Mickey” (drugged with a drink).

I’ve observed that most people watch films in a vacuum, as though each film sort of stands alone. The reality is that all good stories and films borrow themes and motifs from one another. All of my favorite epics, for examples, have the overarching theme of good versus evil. Usually an epic story is about an ancient struggle coming to a climax. There’s always a prophecy woven into the storyline, as well. In Harry Potter there is the prophecy Harry retrieves from the Ministry of Magic. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe there is the prophecy and deep magic of the stone table. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn is led to take the Paths of the Dead because of the “words of Malbeth the Seer.

I say it fairly regularly: “All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story.” Our stories reflect our own humanity. Deeper still, I believe that human history is a Great Story being told across the ages. I believe that evil exists and there is a very real struggle between good versus evil. I believe in the prophetic.

Along my life journey I’ve experienced the prophetic. I have found it to be both mysterious and messy and therefore quickly dismissed by many. I have come to believe that tragedy lies on either side of the tension between two possible errors: Dismissing the prophetic altogether or drowning too deeply in the mystery. I’ve always tried to hold the tension between the two.

In the early years of the Jesus movement there were many prophecies given concerning where the plot line of the Great Story was going. This led to many arguments and mistaken assumptions.  In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing some mistaken assumptions  in today’s chapter. Without drowning too deeply in the specifics, I find myself being reminded of two things.

First, there is evil, and evil opposes good. Jesus was very aware of the evil opposing Him. He knew that His coming was prophesied (He proclaimed Isaiah’s prophetic word in His first sermon). He cast out demons throughout His ministry. He knew He was being tempted by the evil one to abandon His sacrificial mission. We don’t like to think too much about the reality of evil, but it exists.

Second, evil cannot create but, instead, it always counterfeits. Tolkien clearly picked up this theme in his epic stories. Orcs were counterfeits made in opposition to elves. Trolls were counterfeits made in opposition to ents. Paul says there is prophesied a counterfeit messiah to come whom he calls the Man of Lawlessness. The Greek term he uses is anthropos (man, mankind, humanity; as in anthropology the study of humanity) anamos (opposition, lawless, wicked; from which we get the English word animosity). Paul explains that it has been prophesied that this counterfeit messiah will come before Jesus’ return in a climax to this Great Story.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering all of these mysteries. I don’t want to get lost in them, but neither do I want to dismiss them. Again, I find myself trying to hold the tension. I believe my life journey is part of the Great Story. How it fits and weaves into the larger plot lines is a mystery to me. I’m just trying to stick to the path appointed for me, to follow the steps I’m led, to do the good God calls me to do, and to be shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove, aware of both the evil and the good around me.

Or, as Jeffrey Lebowski would put it: “The Dude Abides.”

Abide well today, my friend.

Waiting and Watching

[Jesus] said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
Acts 1:7 (NIV)

I must confess that I am an impatient person. I always have been. Perhaps being the youngest child in a family of four was a contributing factor. You watch all of your sibling growing up and they are always allowed to do cool things while you have to wait.

You’re not old enough yet.
You’ll have to wait until you’re older.
Someday you’ll be allowed to do that.

Ugh. I can still feel my childish annoyance with these statements.

As I look back on the early years of my journey I can clearly see how impatient I was with the very process of life. I doggedly attempted to push the process whenever I could. I graduated early from high school. I started college early. I was on a mission to find a wife, to get married and get on with life. In retrospect, I can see how often I pursued shortcuts to get further down the road faster. In at least a few cases, the shortcuts had tragic results from which I’ve had to learn some very hard life lessons.

As we enter the book of Acts this morning we find Jesus’ followers in a period of waiting. It’s not just the 11 remaining appointed disciples, but also the women who had long traveled with and supported Jesus’ ministry. There is also a larger circle of a hundred or so believers in the entourage including Jesus’ mother and brothers.

What’s next?” is the burning question among the crew. The resurrected Jesus has been making appearances over a six-week period. With their question “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples are clearly hanging onto their repeatedly stated desire for a shortcut to what they hope is a restoration of the earthly kingdom of the Jewish monarchy (and their own positions of temporal power and authority within that administration).

Jesus first lays down a difficult truth for his followers: You don’t get to know the whole plan. He goes on to explain that the next step is to keep waiting, and to keep praying, for an upcoming event in which the believers will be immersed in Holy Spirit power. Their mission will then be to give witness to ever spreading circles of influence around the globe.

Great,” I can hear his disciples mutter. “More waiting.”

This morning I write from a stretch in my personal journey in which I’m experiencing a process of fulfillment in areas of life that I’ve long waited for. I confess that I’m still impatient. Time, experience and maturity has helped, but I still identify with Peter and the crew. I want to know the plan, with dates, and details about what God is going to do in our lives and when He’s going to do it. I have, however, walked this journey long enough to know that this is not how it works. This is a faith journey, and that usually means simply pressing on to the next step.

In the quiet this morning I find myself once again asking God for patience, and surrendering my self-centric desire to want to know, and to know now. “Just wait,” I hear Holy Spirit whisper to my spirit. I catch what I perceive is a grin. “It’s coming,” the Spirit whispers, “Trust me in this. With each step that is revealed there will be more mystery sitting further up and further in. That’s how this works. It’s a faith journey. You can be confident that all that Father has planned will be accomplished at the right time. You can be sure of this, even if you can’t see it yet.”

It’ll Pan Out in the End

The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.
Zechariah 14:9, 16 (NIV)

One can’t journey through the totality of God’s Message without running into prophetic messages of the end of things as we know them, though it is important to note that the idea of there being an “end” is a misnomer because God consistently speaks of “new” beginnings. “Old things pass away, new things come” aptly describes one of God’s core message to us throughout the Great Story.

Even in creation of all that we know, the process of death and life is ever-present. Science tells us that the totality of this expanding, living universe is made up of energy that takes on different forms and phases. When solid matter dies and decays it is converted to a different kind of energy that, in turn, feeds other systems. We bury or burn a dead body, it decays, biodegrades or is consumed and the ecosystem uses the converted energy to feed the system in other ways.

The book of Revelation, which we often think of as describing “the end” because it reveals a chaotic time of pain and suffering. But the book actually ends with comfort, peace, joy, and  new life in a new beginning:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.
Revelation 21:1 (NIV)

Today’s final chapter of Zechariah follows the exact same pattern. There is a period of intense conflict and suffering followed by a new reality under a sovereign God who calls everyone to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was an annual harvest feast. Think about it, harvest is that time of year when all that has been sown, cultivated, watered, tended, and pruned is finally harvested. In other words, as plants reach the end of their life-cycle we chop it down and gather it so that it, in turn, will feed everyone (its solid matter changed to a different kind of energy in our digestive systems) and perpetuate life.

Along my life journey I have studied many different theories on the mysterious prophetic texts of the Bible. One thing that I’ve come to learn about prophetic imagery is that it is easy to find in all the mysterious images and metaphors all kinds of things that spark endless theories and debates, which often turn into feuds, which separate people into various opposing camps. Reading today’s chapter I can understand how the Jewish scholars in Jesus’ day were looking for a Messiah to show up on the scene, wipe out the evil Romans, and usher them into global power. It’s what Zac seems to be describing in today’s chapter. However, the Messiah described in the previous chapters is gentle, riding on a donkey, suffering betrayal and death.

What a mysterious contradiction.

This morning in the quiet I’m mulling over some basic beliefs and world views about where our world is headed. Some contend that humanity is essentially good and, despite our penchant for focusing on all that is bad and negative, our world and humanity is slowly getting better and better and moving in designed progression towards the joy, peace, goodness and life described in the final chapter of Revelation among other visions of utopia. Others believe that humanity is essentially flawed and things are only going to get worse and worse until in the final depth of darkness and doom God will show up and save the day. I find it fascinating to observe that friends who occupy both schools of thought are given to doomsday thinking and dire doomsday proclamations depending on the circumstances they see around themselves and their belief (though not knowledge) of where it is leading.

As I make my way through this life journey I find myself increasingly and humbly relinquishing any sense of surety with regard to prophetic versions of the end times. I think of one Christian scholar who was confronted with an either-or question about the Book of Revelation regarding three major theories of the return of Christ. He was asked whether he believed in the pre-tribulation rapture, mid-tribulation rapture, or post-tribulation rapture. Realizing that the question was intended to pigeon-hole him for the questioner’s judgement, the scholar refused to be trapped into the either-or debate and responded, “I’m a pan-tribulationist. I believe it’s all going to pan out in the end.”

I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or in that murky, vague period we see in the future and have dubbed the “end times.” I’m not sure even my speculation profits me or anyone else very much. I do know that we live in an intricately ordered  system that is perpetually converting things from one type of energy to another type of energy to perpetuate life. I know that the Bible describes a beginning, tells stories filled with beginnings and endings that lead to new beginnings, and then ends with mysterious visions of a large-scale ending and new beginning. I believe that Jesus was God incarnate who, interestingly enough, came to suffer, die, and then rose from the dead to usher in a whole new beginning of things. I see in Jesus’ teaching and resurrection the exact same paradigm revealed in creation, in today’s chapter, and in the Great Story as a whole.  I believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” just as He claimed to be, and that’s why I follow.

And so, I will continue to follow Jesus and grow my faith. I will cultivate in my life and relationships the love, grace, and forgiveness that Jesus exemplified and to which He call me. I trust that this earthly journey will lead me to a time of natural harvest from my earthly body and existence. My body will be converted to different kind of energy for the time-being and my spirit (which science can’t produce, quantify, examine, or reproduce) will then be ushered into new beginnings of an eternal nature just as Jesus described. What will that all look like exactly?

I’d be happy to chat with you over coffee or a pint. We can talk about what the Bible says and what scholars and artists have speculated over time. We can talk about people who have seen things in near-death experiences. I’ll be happy to share with you what I’ve come to believe in my studying and reading and contemplation.

Just know that at the end of our conversation, after I have told you what I think about prophecies and end times and heaven and resurrected bodies and eternity, I will shrug my shoulders and tell you, “It will all pan out in the end…right before the next beginning.

 

The Simple Lesson Between the Lines

[Azariah] was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-two years.
2 Kings 15:2 (NIV)

Sometimes the greatest lessons that come out of the chapter are not within the text but within the context. The lesson isn’t within the lines, but between them.

The scribes who penned 2 Kings were chronicling the history of the kings of both divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They wrote it so that I, as a reader, can get a sense of the timing of the overlapping reigns between the two kingdoms.

Today’s chapter begins with Judah’s king Azariah (aka Uzziah) who came to the throne at 16 and reigned for 52 years (FYI: He was a co-regent with his father for the first 25). A leper, he lived a relatively quiet and secluded life. The scribes point out that Azariah, while not perfect, “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.

The bulk of today’s chapter then goes on to describe a string of kings of Israel:

  • Zechariah (6 months) publicly assassinated by…
  • Shallum (1 month) assassinated by…
  • Menahem (10 years) handed the throne to his son…
  • Pekehiah (2 years) assassinated by…
  • Pekah (20 years) assassinated by…
  • Hoshea

Yikes! Talk about political chaos. In each listing of the this bloody string of successors the scribes point out the monarchs of the northern kingdom of Israel “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.”

A long my spiritual journey I’ve learned that there is a balance between embracing that some things of the Spirit are very simple while also accepting that there are no simple answers to some of life’s complexities. It’s too simplistic say that Azariah had a long and prosperous reign because he did good and the kings of Israel had comparatively short reigns marked by violent ends because they did evil. That easily leads down the dualistic, transactional mindset of “If I’m good God will like me and bless me and I will succeed, and if I do bad God will punish me and I won’t succeed.” Both life and the spiritual journey are far deeper and more mysterious.

At the same time, there is simple wisdom in understanding that I experience a certain peace and stability to life when I’m following Jesus and actively attempting to conform my life to His will and His teaching (like Azariah). There is also a certain fear, anxiety and chaos to life when I’m living only for myself and the indulgence of my self-centric appetites for power, pleasure, and personal gain (like the kings of Israel).

This morning I’m reminded that it’s easy to get sucked into our popular culture and the obsession for power, popularity, prestige and worldly success. A quiet life in pursuit of Jesus may not make an exciting movie script, but there’s a peace and continuity to the path which shields me from a lot of other problems and cares.

 

Mysteries Within Mysteries

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 5:8-10 (NIV)

The further I have progressed on this life journey the more I have come to understand that I must embrace mystery if I am going to progress spiritually in certain places. This flies in the face of a system of reason in which I was raised and educated. Our culture is one that places what I have come to understand as an undue premium on knowing. Theories are stated as certainties quite frequently whether they come from the institutions of religion, education, politics, or science. I find that our culture has lost sight of the value of embracing the knowledge of knowing that we do not know or cannot know.

I have found that the desire to try to replace mystery with false certainty is a fool’s errand. I see this repeated over and over again in history. It leads down all sorts of silly and hurtful paths. Minor issues become major battlegrounds, honest exploration is sacrificed on the altar of exclusionary social litmus tests, and institutions make all sorts of embarrassing mistakes (sometimes with deadly consequences). Embracing mystery, on the other hand, has pushed my heart and mind to new avenues of possibility, exploration, discovery and faith. I love how Catholic mystic Richard Rohr puts it: “Mystery is not something we can not understand. Mystery is something we can endlessly understand.”

The letter to Hebrew believers has always been shrouded in mystery, not the least of which is the identity of the author. Two centuries after it was penned we are still not certain who wrote the letter. My fundamentalist Bible professors taught me that I must believe it was Paul who wrote it. Textual critics in education laugh at such a claim, telling me it certainly couldn’t be Paul. Arguments have been made for a host of first century figures (i.e. Luke, Apollos, Barnabas). More recently, some scholars have argued that it was most certainly a woman, Priscilla, who was among Jesus larger circle of 70 disciples and travelled with Paul. I find this possibility fascinating and stimulating. It has led me to discover more about this amazing woman through whom God did amazing things. I know, however, at least one of my fundamentalist professors would have said it most certainly wasn’t Priscilla and would certainly have marginalized and subtly punished me educationally had I steadfastly held to the possibility in his class.

I do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrew believers, and that’s perfectly fine for me. It is a mystery that has much for me to discover in its exploration of possibility.

In today’s chapter we encounter yet another mystery in the revelation of Christ as eternal High Priest. The Hebrew believers who first received this letter would have intimate knowledge about how the Hebrew priestly system worked as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Only descendants of Aaron (Moses’ right-hand man) were to be priests, and the High Priest could only come from those genetic ranks. According to the prophets, however, the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah and the house of David as Jesus did. Remember Christmas? Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the “City of David.” Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem for the census because they were both descendants of David in the tribe of Judah.

But now the mysterious author of Hebrews lays out a claim that Christ is our eternal “High Priest,” the cosmic conduit between God and man. But the Hebrew readers would know that Jesus was not from the line of Aaron, so how could He be High Priest? The author reveals Jesus as High Priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” In Genesis 14:18 Abram (who would soon be known as Abraham) meets a mysterious King of Salem named Melchizedek who was “priest of God Most High.” He serves Abram bread and wine (remind you of anything?) and blesses Abram. Abram in return presents the priest Melchizedek an offering of a tenth of everything.

That’s all we know about Melchizedek. This mysterious person was “priest of God Most High” before Abram was Abraham, before Israel was a people, before the Law of Moses was given, before the Hebrew priesthood was defined as descendants of Aaron. It’s a mystery, and the author of Hebrews attaches the mystery of Christ the cosmic High Priest to the lineage to the mysterious Melchizedek who appears within the Hebrew tradition but outside the system of Moses.

This morning I’m once again perplexed, stimulated, and inspired by the mystery of Melchizedek, of Jesus, and of Hebrews. As I humbly embrace the mystery I push deeper into that which can be endlessly understood and so take another step forward on the path of faith and Spirit.

The Mystery of Sowing and Reaping

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.
Matthew 13:10-12 (NIV)

There is a particular mystery to life which I fully recognize but fail to fully understand. I wonder why two people can grow up in the same household with the same opportunities and advantages and end up at such opposite places in life. I wonder how the families of two brothers can look so very different. I wonder why things that are so clear to one can be so hidden from another.

In today’s chapter there is no doubt about Jesus’ teaching. The hearts of people respond and react differently to God’s Message. Some “get it” while others don’t. Two can hear the same Message with their ears, but one person’s heart will understand while the other’s will not. Hence, the mystery.

I have experienced the moment when the veil of person’s heart is lifted. I have watched people “see” with their spirit for the first time. It’s an amazing moment to both experience and witness. Everyone who has experienced it has their own story of when it occurred and the ways the Spirit brought them to that moment. It is a beautiful thing. Still, I wonder why some see and hear, and not others.

This morning I am thinking about Jesus’ example amidst this realization. He knew some of the multitudes would understand His parables and some would not. He did not judge those who didn’t get it. He didn’t turn away and isolate Himself from those whose spiritual eyes were dark and ears deaf. He didn’t look down on anyone. He continued to love, to teach, to reach out, to heal, to show mercy, and to have compassion. Jesus sowed the Word and allowed the mystery to unfold.