Tag Archives: Mystery

Iron-Clad Uncertainty

As for you, go your way till the end.
Daniel 12:13a (NIV)

Many years ago I was asked to lead a study with a large group of young people about prophecy and the book of Revelation.  The room was packed each week, not that this had anything to do with me or my teaching. My lessons rarely commanded such interest. Only one of my classes garnered such popularity and that was the one on the topic of sex (go figure). There’s something about the prophetic and the idea of knowing what’s going to happen in the future that intrigues people.

I thought of that class from 30 years ago as I read today’s final chapter of Daniel. There are a couple of specific and unique references in the chapter. In one, the angelic figure in Daniel’s vision tells him that the events he describes will be for “a time, times, and half a time.” In another, the angelic figure makes a specific reference to 1,290 days and then 1,335 days. In the school of thought in which I was raised and educated (and then taught 30 years ago), the phrase and days are referenced as part of a future time referenced in the book of Revelation as “The Great Tribulation,” which is said will last 3.5 years:

a time” = 1
times” = 2
half-a-time” = .5
Sum= 3.5

As I’ve progressed in my journey, experienced more life, and read other learned commentators on the subject, I’m less certain of the iron-clad interpretation with which some of my teachers pompously prognosticated and which I emphatically parrotted 30 years ago. It’s possible that the interpretation is correct, of course, and I have no problem suggesting it as such. There are just so many variables.

Daniel was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew is an ancient language and the definition of many words remain mysteries to the most scholarly of linguists. Aramaic is a dead language no longer even used today. Interpretations of the strange phrase the angel used vary, and the two numbers don’t seem to coincide with any particular events in the past or in prophecy. The Babylonian culture and the educational system in which Daniel was schooled was steeped in very sophisticated arithmetic that they connected to both astronomy and their native religion. So, to emphatically state that the word translated “times” absolutely means “two” and this certainly relates to 3.5 years of the seven-year Tribulation referenced in the seventh chapter of Revelation which was written almost half a millennium later, well…you catch my drift.

I also remind myself that the most learned and emphatic prophetic prognosticators of Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah was going to arrive as a warlord, wipe out the Romans, and set up a global kingdom. Even Jesus’ own followers believed that right up to the time He was hanging on a cross. Oops. The lesson I’ve tried to learn from this is simply to be humble about that which can be known and that which requires faith, defined in God’s Message as “the assurance of what we hope for and the evidence of that which we cannot see.”

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that the further I travel this earthly existence the less need I feel to be emphatically certain about some things, and the more en-joy-ment I derive from living in the mystery. I love the way the angelic being leaves Daniel scratching his head and reeling with confusion about all the mysterious prophetic numbers and phrases. I love that the angel ends the book by telling Danny Boy: “As for you, go your way until the end.”

Keep going.  Press on. Just keep going doing the things I’m doing. When it comes to the prophetic, I can have faith that things will take care of themselves.

Lessons on the Prophetic

“This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”
Daniel 7:28 (NIV)

As I’ve gotten older I’ve found it fascinating to realize how prophecy in its various forms plays a big part in so many of our epics and stories. It is most often found in our fantasy epics and mythological tales. Nevertheless, I find it also popping up in the most unusual places. Wendy and I have a favorite series of contemporary spy novels. In the series, the protagonist has a small handful of episodes with a mysterious old woman who knows things about him she couldn’t possibly know and sees what is going to happen to him. The mysterious world of the prophetic is part of our human experience.

Of course, if one journey’s through God’s Message at all you’re going to run into prophetic passages. In today’s chapter, the book of Daniel switches from stories of Daniel’s life to a series of journal entries recording dreams and visions that he had.

There are a few lessons that I’ve learned about prophecy as I’ve read and studied it over the years. This morning I am reminded of three – make that four – lessons I’ve learned that I try to always remember when I’m reading prophetic passages.

First, there is a mystery to the prophetic. Here I’m reminded of a line from one of my favorite mystics, Richard Rohr. He states that mystery isn’t something you can’t understand but something you can endlessly understand. It’s not easy to pin down, and just when you think you’ve got a hold on it, it slips away from you. If you’re left-brained and want a simple, black-and-white answer then prophecy will drive you crazy. Which leads to a second discovery.

The prophetic can be layered with meaning. In today’s chapter, the beasts of Daniel’s vision have all sorts of connections to the Babylonian myths and literature that he was forced to study when he was taken into captivity. These connections are largely lost on us today. Yet, it can also connect to other prophecies written by other prophets in scripture. Its imagery can connect to contemporary symbols of which Daniel had no knowledge. Unlike parables that typically have one main lesson to teach, the prophetic can be layered with meaning for both the times it was written, times that came later, and times yet to come. Which leads to my third observation.

Prophetic literature is the source of endless debate. You can see pieces of it that have a very clear meaning. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are good examples. Written hundreds of years before Jesus, they both eerily and accurately describe the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Yet most of it, like the beasts Daniel sees in today’s chapter, sounds like the writers were tripping on LSD.  There are many theories as to their meaning, and because prophecy can be layered with meaning whose to say that more than one theory is correct? Which leads to my final observation.

The prophetic is a tempting rabbit-hole to fall into. I have known some individuals along my life journey who delve so deeply into the prophetic that it consumes them. Trying to nail down the exact meaning of a prophetic passage with absolute certainty can be like trying to solve a complex puzzle. Prophecy is a cool subject to study, but if it becomes consuming to the point of ignoring everything else and becoming spiritually out of balance, then it’s time to give it a break.

At the end of today’s chapter, we read that Daniel, troubled by his dream, recorded it in his journal and then moved on. I find that a good example to follow when it comes to the prophetic. Don’t ignore it, but don’t obsess about it either. Focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. Loving God, loving people, and continually trying to do the right thing as I walk the journey each day.

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.