Tag Archives: Mystery

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.

Content with What I Cannot Fathom

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
          declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

When I was a young man I may not have thought I knew it all, but I was pretty certain I had a firm grasp on most of it. The further I get in my journey the more I am convinced that what I know, indeed what we know as human beings, is the visible and temporal tip of an eternal iceberg. I am increasingly captivated by the mystery of what I do not know, and what I can not fathom.

Embracing of mystery, or perhaps better said letting mystery embrace me, is not something I could really do when I was younger. I needed to feel the self assurance of having it all figured out, neatly ordered in my own intellectual box, and tied up with the ribbon of my institutional doctrines. And yet, if I am going to faithfully believe what God has said through His Message, then I must embrace the truth of Isaiah’s poetic verse in today’s chapter. God uses the inverse of my iceberg metaphor. God’s thoughts and God’s ways are light years above what I can see or seem. So, why would I want to even pretend otherwise?

I know what God has expressed through what has been made, which itself confounds the greatest of human minds in the ways with which it functions. I know what God has expressed through Jesus, which is rich in diverse metaphors and spiritual paradoxes that have kept better minds than mine debating since they were spoken. I know the Great Story as it has been told and handed down through the millennia. Chapter-by-chapter I continue my journey through it and find myself ever captivated by the depths of it that I continue to unearth. I have accepted that I will never stop finding new discoveries within it, and asking questions for which I do not know the answers. Still, it will speak to me anew each time I delve into it.

I remember hearing a respected teacher, Gordon McDonald, speak at a conference many years ago. He said he had something he wanted to share with us and then added [I paraphrase], “You may disagree with me. That’s okay. I’m too old to care whether everyone agrees with me or not.” As a young man who cared a great deal that everyone agree with my neatly packaged and wrapped box of knowledge, I was blown away by this statement. Today, I get where Gordon was coming from.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
          declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

More than ever, I’m good with that.

Embracing Truth Wrapped in Paradox

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
Isaiah 52:13-14 (NIV)

Creation is full of mystery.

After stumbling upon a couple of YouTube videos, Wendy and I spent some time this past week pondering a couple of mysteries that have baffled physicists about the Quantum world. In the “Two Slot Experiment” it appears that matter not only behaves in ways that defy reason, but it also behaves differently when we’re watching. In another experiment, two seemingly independent atoms at opposite ends of the universe can be entangled and determine the other’s behavior. In the mystery of Schrodinger’s cat, two seemingly independent realities exist at the same time (the Cosmos’ version of “Yes, And“).

I love mystery. Richard Rohr writes in his book, The Divine Dance that mystery is not something we cannot understand but rather something that we endlessly understand. We don’t capture the mystery, the mystery captures us.

All of creation is the expression of the Creator, including the mysteries of Quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s cat. It is through the ancient prophet Isaiah that God will tell us (later this week in our chapter-a-day journey),

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Even Einstein understood that science and faith were not mutually exclusive, but enjoyed their own form of spooky entanglement . “Science without religion is lame,” he said, “and religion without science is blind.”

Today’s chapter is about redemption. God through Isaiah says in the early part of the chapter:

“You were sold for nothing,
    and without money you will be redeemed.”

At the end of the chapter Isaiah the seer slips into one of his prophetic “Servant Songs” about the coming Messiah, who will do the redeeming. In a mysterious paradox, the “exalted” Messiah suffers in horrific ways:

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—

Paradox and mystery. It is at the core of our understanding of God, the universe, and everything. This is not something of which I should be afraid, rather it is a reality that should both captivate and motivate me to reach further up and further in. It should be enjoyed and pursued. One is Three and Three is One. Two seemingly independent realities are simultaneously true, and two seemingly independent atoms are inexplicably entangled across the universe. Matter behaves differently when it is being observed. The ultimate Redeemer will be exalted, not through power and wealth, but through unbelievable suffering at the hands of those He created. My mind is capable of far more than I can possibly imagine with the fraction of it that I use, and if it were processing at 100% it would still fall infinitely short of the One (er, Three) who Created it.

This morning, I am embracing Truth wrapped in paradoxical mystery.

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Purposes and Implosions of Evil

“I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian—
    brother will fight against brother,
    neighbor against neighbor,
    city against city,
    kingdom against kingdom.”
Isaiah 19:2 (NIV)

‘Yes, they quarreled, seemingly,’ said Sam. ‘There must have been a couple of hundred of the dirty creatures in this place. A bit of a tall order for Sam Gamgee, as you might say. But they’ve done all the killing of themselves.’
The Lord of the Rings, Book 6, Chapter 1

Evil falls prey to its own nature. That’s one of the themes that Tolkien threaded through his epic stories. Left to its own devices, evil implodes from its self-seeking appetites:

  • Several characters relented from killing Gollum and Gandalf even believed that Gollum had a part to play in the fate of the ring. Gollum’s insatiable lust for the One Ring was what ultimately saved Frodo and everyone else, while destroying both the Ring and himself.
  • In the Tower of Cirith Ungol Sam is able to find Frodo and rescue him because all of the orcs fought and destroyed each other. (see quoted passage above)
  • The orcs who took Merry and Pippin quarrel over their captives and their quarrel is leveraged by the hobbits to plot their escape.
  • Gandalf refuses to kill either Saruman or Wormtongue. In the end, Wormtongue finishes Saruman off himself.

I thought about this theme in Tolkien’s stories, and its caused me to think about my responses and reactions to evil that I encounter around me and in others. As a young man I was far more given to the notion of swift and final justice of any perpetrator of evil. The further I get in my journey the more I’ve come to appreciate that life is not always as simply black and white.

Even God, through the word of the prophets, makes it clear that sometimes the agents of evil unwittingly serve the greater design of the Great Story. In Isaiah’s prophetic messages to the nations in the past few chapters there has been a recurring theme of Israel’s enemies accomplishing God’s larger purposes. And, sometimes  implodes and devours itself.

Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement,” Gandalf says to Frodo regarding Gollum’s deserving justice. “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

This morning I’m thinking about grand themes of good and evil, of mercy and justice. I would love for things to always be simple in the story telling and to avoid the messiness of the mystery. I would especially appreciate it as I apply these themes to my own life and relationships. Yet, my life journey has taught me that things are rarely that simple. The truth is that I would have quickly dispatched Gollum and considered it a just end, but then how would the larger epic have ended?

I’m left, as I am so often am, praying for wisdom and discernment. I’m trying harder than ever to suppress my natural eagerness to deal out judgement. I’m trying harder than ever to increase love in tangible ways.

 

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Embrace the Mystery of the Moment

Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
John 13:7 (NRSV)

There was a lot that Jesus’ followers did not understand. It is a subtle, but recurring theme in John’s biography of Jesus:

  • Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
  • They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father.
  • Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word.
  • Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
  • His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

Along my life journey I’ve discovered that I almost always desire clarity and understanding, but it quite regularly eludes me in the moment and in my immediate circumstances. It is only when I reach a waypoint down the road that I look back and perceive with clarity and understanding how God was at work around me, in me, and through me. I have come to accept that there are some things that will continue to elude me until my journey is over and I am safe at home.

At least I’m not alone. I take heart today in the realization that Jesus’ best friends and closest followers on this earth were perplexed in the moment, too. Being physically present with Jesus and hearing His every word, they still didn’t get it until further on down the road. Maybe it’s time for me to cut myself a little slack.

I’m reminded that this life journey is, for me, a faith journey. I will rarely have clarity and understanding in the moment. I am, however, assured of the hope that God will complete His good work in me. Having looked back at how He has brought me to this point, and all that He has faithfully accomplished thus far, it is evident that I can trust that my present circumstances are part of the plan.

You do not know now what I am doing,” Jesus says to His followers, “but later you will understand.”

Indeed.

So, go with it. Trust. Have faith.

Embrace the mystery of the moment.

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featured image by odreamer via Flickr