Tag Archives: Prophet

Shades of Schadenfreude

[Jonah] prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Jonah 4:2 (NIV)

As I get older, I’ve grown to enjoy etymology, the study of words and their origins. I find it fascinating how these building blocks of communication become part of our everyday conversations, and how they wax and wane in popular usage. I also find it fascinating how cultures ascribe certain significance, power, and meaning to certain words, while others don’t. Our kids in Scotland have a few great anecdotes about uncomfortable social moments when they discovered that a word they used, which has a benign meaning in the States, has a very different meaning in the U.K.

There is a word I first noticed a few years ago, and I’ve found that it’s growing in popularity: schadenfreude. It’s a compound German word that comes from the root words meaning “harm” and “joy“. It means to take pleasure in another’s person’s misfortune.

There certainly is a natural and rather harmless way that we enjoy seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance. I was one of the many who watched the entire series Game of Thrones. The series was masterful in creating really bad characters who I wanted to see come to a nasty, bitter end and was happy when it eventually happened.

At the same time, there is a dark side of schadenfreude that I feel like I’m witnessing more and more in our current culture. It’s not enough to disagree with another person’s political, religious, or social worldviews, we have to publicly call them names and post antagonizing memes on social media. Just last night I found myself shutting off social media and walking away. I realized how mean-spirited the posts were that I was reading and it wasn’t having a positive effect on my psyche or my feelings towards others.

In today’s final chapter of the story of Jonah, we finally learn what was at the heart of Jonah’s mad dash to flee from what God had asked him to do. Jonah didn’t want God to be gracious and merciful with his enemies. Jonah wanted to wallow in schadenfreude and watch his enemies, the Assyrians, suffer.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus took five common statements about matters of relationship and then told His followers He was raising the bar. Jesus’ expectation for me as a follower is that I behave in a way that goes against the grain of common human behavior:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.”
Matthew 5:43-47 (MSG)

Reading Jonah’s story this week has caused me to do some real personal introspection. You can see it in the common ways my posts have ended the past few days.

As I was reading about the etymology of the word schadenfreude, I learned that many cultures and languages have a word that means the same thing. I recognize that there is a relatively harmless pleasure that I take when my favorite team’s rival loses. C’est la vie. I don’t, however, want to wake up someday and find myself in Jonah’s sandals. Following Jesus means loving, even those people who wish to see me suffer; Even those who actually act on it.

“Forgive them. They don’t realize what they’re doing.”

God, make me more like that.

An “Eternal Question”

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Colossians 3:12 (NIV)

I call them the eternal questions. This is not because the questions have no answers, but rather because no matter how many times you answer them they must be answered again. Perhaps they should be called the “perpetual” questions, but the phrase “eternal questions” has a certain ring to it. The eternal questions are the boulder of Sisyphus, the mythic schlep who perpetually rolled the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again. In our home, the most common eternal questions are:

  • “What are we having for supper?”
  • “So, what’s the plan today?”
  • “What am I going to wear?”

I’ve learned along my life journey not to fight the eternal questions. It’s futile. It’s best to make your peace with them. For me, a step in the process of making peace was the understanding that the eternal questions come from an abundance of blessing. We are blessed to have choices. Indeed, we are blessed to have so many choices available to us from which the eternal questions spring.

In today’s chapter, I found myself intrigued by Paul’s encouragement to “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We don’t often think of kindness as a garment. I don’t think of myself slipping into gentleness and patience like a pair of yoga pants.

Nevertheless, as I meditated on the word picture Paul gave, it struck me that when it comes to my attitude and responses towards both circumstances and people, I have an entire wardrobe available to me. I can choose that bright rage coat, or I can choose the suede jacket lined with gentleness. I have an entire wardrobe of choices available to me. Welcome to the walk-in closet of free will.

“What should I wear today?”

Of course, if you’re anything like me there are those “go to” choices that don’t seem like a choice at all because they’re easy and require no thought. No effort needed, and the choice is oh so comfy. Passivity slips on me like a familiar old sweatshirt. I’ve worn prejudice so long I’ve worn holes in it like my ancient pair of 501 blues. And then there are those well-worn flip-flops of pessimism I can just slip into as I head out on my daily trek.

I once had a prophet who was given a word picture for me. It was the image of Father God handing me a shirt to put on. It was a shirt I would have never picked for myself, but once I slipped it on and looked in the mirror I realized it looked so good on me.

That came to mind as I meditated on the notion of choosing what I’m going to clothe myself with today. My spiritual closet is stocked with love, kindness, patience, joy, peace, gentleness, and self-control. How often do I reach down to the dirty clothes scattered on the floor of my closet and slip into my old stand-bys of resentment, apathy, impatience, complaint, discontent, bitterness, and indulgence?

This morning I’m once again asking myself the eternal question “What am I going to wear?” This morning, however, it’s not about the clothes I put on my body. I’m on a business trip and there’s only one outfit in the suitcase for today. Today, the eternal question is about how I’m going to clothe my spirit, temperament, and attitude as I work with colleagues and clients. Father God has an outfit picked out that I might not normally choose for myself. Maybe I should try it on. I bet it’ll look fabulous.

Dress well, my friend.

The Unexpected Prophecy

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3 (NIV)

During the 2008 presidential election, both John McCain and Barack Obama were interviewed at a leadership conference. Both men, in turn, were asked a fascinating question. The candidates were asked to speak about their greatest failure. True to his masterful ability, I recall that Obama spoke for a few minutes in response. His answer articulately wove a beautiful tapestry of words in that graceful, assuring baritone voice. And, I have no recollection whatsoever of his answer.

Asked the same question, John McCain’s answer was immediate and simple: “The failure of my first marriage.”

I will never forget a conversation I had with a wise counselor as I was navigating the failure of my first marriage. My life was strewn in shattered pieces around me. It was the lowest point of my life, and I had been scheduled to speak with this spiritual sage. To be honest, I expected to hear more of the condemnation I felt like I was receiving on all sides. I expected a message of judgment. I expected a righteous tongue lashing and words of dire warning. What I didn’t expect was a prophecy.

Someday,” the counselor said, “you are going to be called upon to walk along side someone who is going through exactly what you are experiencing in this moment, to guide them, and comfort them, and see them through their pain.” That is all that I remember from my hour with him.

It was an Easter Sunday morning several years later that I was walking out of the annual celebration service and spied a man who I had desired to befriend for some time. Seizing the moment, I pulled the acquaintance aside from the crowd and expressed that I would enjoy getting together with him and get to know him better. I’ll never forget the puzzled way he looked at me for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then he leaned in and whispered in my ear a direct answer with the succinct clarity of John McCain: “Tom, my wife left me. Nobody knows it.”

I had the privilege of becoming a friend of that acquaintance, and walking alongside him as he traversed the same agonizing path of marital failure. I got to guide him, comfort him, and see him through that valley. I was privileged to witness, over time, God’s redemption in his story.

Along life’s journey I’ve experienced that suffering produces a common, repetitive question: “Why?”

Sometimes there  is no answer to that question, and I won’t pretend that there always is. Yet, I’ve also experienced in my own suffering that there is often purpose in my pain, just as I’ve read time-and-time again in my chapter-a-day journey. Consider these three similar messages from three different authors writing to three different audiences:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-3

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7

In the midst of my greatest failure, and in the deepest valley I have thus far traversed in my journey, I unexpectedly learned a valuable lesson through the words of a prophet. Sometimes my suffering, and the spiritual comfort I come to find, in Christ, amidst the agony, prepares me to someday comfort another who is making their way through the same dark valley.

Final Words

The words of Jeremiah end here.
Jeremiah 51:64 (NIV)

Along my journey I’ve had the privilege of officiating a  host of funerals. Some of them have been family members with whom I’ve had a life-long relationship. Many have been complete strangers to me. No matter the case, I’ve always approached these meaningful events with a desire to honor the person, her/her family, and to comfort those loved ones by telling the person’s story well.

I usually start by simply meeting with the family and asking them questions. As I listen, a story begins to emerge about the deceased, what the person did with his/her life, how he/she impacted the people around them, and what his/her journey was really about. I’ve got to be honest, sometimes the story is heart-warming, and other times it is painfully tragic. Either way, there is always a story to tell.

One of the things I’ve most appreciated about this long slog through Jeremiah’s prophetic anthology is the realization that we have a fairly thorough retrospective of Jeremiah’s 40 years of prophetic works from beginning to end. Jeremiah had a very specific message to convey throughout his career: Babylon was going to destroy his city of Jerusalem and take his people into exile. Then, Babylon would eventually suffer the same fate. When the former happens as prophesied, Jeremiah sends the latter message with a servant headed to Babylon. With that act, the editors tell us that they are Jeremiah’s final words (though the story ends with tomorrow’s final chapter).

Jeremiah’s words were never popular. He was threatened, attacked, imprisoned, left to die, and yet he always remained “on message.” He stuck doggedly to the message God gave him. When the Babylonians showed him unusual mercy for his prophetic “support” of their invasion, Jeremiah didn’t hesitate to tell them that their turn was coming. He never backed down. He completed the job. He stuck to the mission.

This morning I’m thinking about the end of Jeremiah’s words, and it’s prompting thoughts about my own life, and my own story. Someday the responsibility will likely fall on someone to listen to my family members and to sum up my story in just a few minutes of oratory. With each day of my journey I slowly pen that story. I hope it’s not unlike Jeremiah’s: sticking to the mission, completing the course set before me. More than anything, I hope the theme of the story is love.

Side-Note to the Lowly Scribe

Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the Lord, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.
Jeremiah 45:5 (NIV)

History records the words and lives of those who were “great” in their time. Little is said, however, about those who surrounded these individuals, walked the journey with them, served them, and witnessed the events of that person’s life and times.

In today’s very brief chapter (only five verses!), we have a fascinating historical side note given to Jeremiah’s servant and scribe, Baruch. Baruch was the son of a man named Neriah. Baruch took Jeremiah’s dictation and wrote Jeremiah’s prophetic messages down on scrolls. Jeremiah’s never-ending stream of doomsday prophecies certainly took its toll on Baruch. I’m sure he would have appreciated an open prescription of Zoloft had it been available in the day.

The other interesting thing we learn from the anthology of Jeremiah’s life and work is that Baruch had a brother named Seraiah who was a servant of King Zedekiah and who ultimately accompanied Zed when he was taken captive to Babylon. So in the back story of today’s chapter we have a tale of two brothers.

Seraiah served the King and was afforded all the worldly power, comfort, and privilege of being in the royal entourage. Baruch, on the other hand, was the lowly scribe of the unpopular Jeremiah. Jeremiah was reviled by the king and those in power. He faced continual death threats. He was belittled, insulted, laughed at, and eventually imprisoned. Baruch was right there by Jeremiah’s side, enduring it all right along with him. Seraiah got to serve Cabernet to the King while Baruch followed a naked Jeremiah through the streets of Jerusalem listening to the insults of passersby and wanting to slink under the nearest rock. Baruch felt the weight of Jeremiah’s gloomy predictions, and he seems to have felt fraternal frustration of not measuring up to the success his brother found.

Today’s chapter is a short but very specific prophetic word from God through Jeremiah, to the scribe Baruch. Yes, God tells him, there are bad times coming. Don’t worry about greatness and success (FYI: your successful brother is going to end up a captive in Babylon). There’s a lot of bad stuff coming, but no matter what happens and where you end up, you’ll escape with your life.

This morning I’m thinking about a conversation Wendy and I had just last night on our patio. Our life journeys lead us to places where we walk along side events that are really happening to others. We witness them. We feel for those involved, but the truth is that we are not intimately a part of the event itself. I’ve learned that this is an important distinction to see and to make. My ego likes to make everything about me, so I take on other peoples events and circumstances and make them about me, my feelings, and my life.

I’m reminded by today’s little side-note of a chapter that God not only sees and knows the heart and circumstances of the great prophets, but also the lowly scribe who his quietly playing his own little role in the Great Story. I sometimes feel that I’m in a culture where I’m expected to react to every news story, empathize with every victim, and take on every cause. Silly. Baruch’s journey was not his brother’s journey nor was it really his boss’. His journey was his own.

God knows, I’ve got my own journey to walk. I don’t need to take on another’s.

“Fish, or Cut Bait”

Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord!”
Jeremiah 44:15-16 (NIV)

With my birthday a few weeks ago I had my annual check-up. I’m thankful to say that I’m in relatively good health, though over the past two years my body has started to show the signs of both aging and the consequences of 25 years at rather sedentary work. Cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose are all too high and continuing to creep up.

I have gone through seasons of regular exercise along my journey, but I confess it hasn’t been consistent. This year’s test results and the annual directive from Doc to “get moving” have confronted me once more with a choice. I’ve got to choose to make some life changes.

Or, not.

In today’s chapter we find Jeremiah, the captive prophet, in the land of Egypt. He’s been brought there by a remnant of his people who were fleeing from the King of Babylon. While there, Jeremiah issues a directive from the Lord telling the remnant to cease and desist from worshiping the local Egyptian gods. He warns doom, death and defeat to the Babylonians if they don’t obey.

What happens next is fascinating. The people directly and unequivocally tell Jeremiah that they will not stop sacrificing to the local gods and they are not going to obey the Lord. This morning as I read their response I felt respect for the Judean rebels. They may not have made the right choice, but they made a clear choice and stood by their decision.

Throughout the Great Story God asks people to choose:

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
Deuteronomy 30:19

 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve….”
Joshua 24:15

Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
1 Kings 18:21

But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Matthew 8:22

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Revelation 3:15-16

This life journey is filled with many “fish or cut bait” moments. Either do it, or don’t. Make a choice. The ironic part is that not making a choice is ultimately a choice. The self-delusion and paralysis of continuous promising, pondering, and wavering, however, has negative consequences all its own. The further I get in my journey the more I’m trying to be more direct and clear in my choices and decisions.

This morning in the quiet I’m respectful of the Judean remnant. They made their choice. They didn’t play games, put things off, or make empty promises.  “No,” they said. “We’re not going to do it.”

As for me, I’m raising my coffee cup with sore muscles.

The Prophet and The Politician

He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.
Jeremiah 38:5 (NIV)

Not long ago I ran into an old school friend from my middle school and high school years. In casual conversation about where our respective journeys have taken us, she asked if I was ever going to run for political office as had been my plan and passion back in the day. I was taken aback that she remembered, and I laughed to myself as I realized how long ago I tossed that childhood dream by the wayside.

Along my journey I’ve known some individuals in politics. Being an Iowan, I have occasionally involved myself in the election process and rubbed shoulders with a few of the small army of candidates who come campaigning for President every four years. I believe that there are really good people in politics who do their best to do good for our country. Yet, here’s what I have observed:

Politics is a game. Power is the prize. A politician says what people want to hear just to get elected. They then say and vote as the power brokers of their party demand in order to get ahead. Both parties pull identical political stunts (depending on their power position in the moment) then point the finger at the opposing party and scream accusations as if they’ve not done the same thing a few years before.

While I’m sure it’s somewhat different at a local level, I learned long ago that I’m not wired to play that game. It would slowly drain all Life from my spirit.

To get a feel for what’s happening in today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s story, you’ve got to read the political situation that’s present between the lines. First of all, the ancient practice of siege warfare was a slow, brutal process. The Babylonian army had surrounded Jerusalem and cut off all supply lines into the city. As the supply of food and fresh water diminish, fear and anxiety grow to unprecedented levels among the population. Power structures break down and those in power desperately try to stave off anarchy.

King Zed finds himself between a rock and a hard place. His political rivals, sick of listening to Jeremiah’s incessant prophesies of defeat, ask the King for Jeremiah’s head. The King grants it (because that’s what you do when you’re a politician trying to hold onto power). Jeremiah is thrown down the bottom of a muddy well to die. The King’s eunuch then asks the King (in private) if he might rescue Jeremiah. The King tells him to do so in secret (because when you’re a politician you secretly work back channels to accomplish what you want).

Jeremiah is summoned by King Zed who asks the prophet to give him a Word from the Lord. “Give yourself up to the King of Babylon and you’ll live,” Jeremiah tells him. Zedekiah, however, is afraid that those citizens who have already surrendered themselves to the Babylonians will turn against him if he gives himself up (and a politician is always worried about maintaining his/her power, popularity, and position). Jeremiah assures the King this will not happen.

Upon conclusion of their private conversation, King Zed warns Jeremiah that he will be asked what they talked about. Being a politician, Zed tells Jeremiah how to “spin” his answer so as to avoid political trouble for both of them (because a politician is always looking for a good win-win).

This morning in the quiet I find myself thinking about the contrast between Jeremiah the prophet and Zedekiah the politician. The prophet suffers for speaking the truth and being true to the Message, but beneath the suffering the prophet seems to exemplify a certain spiritual peace that comes from being true, steadfast, and faithful. The politician, on the other hand, enjoys the position and creature comforts afforded by his power, but beneath the surface lie fear, anxiety, worry, and the mental chaos from constantly navigating political minefields in the endless desperation to survive.

I am thankful this morning for the good people I know doing their best to serve in the political arena (on both sides of the aisle). I’m also thankful that God led my journey down a different path than the one I’d desired when I was a wee lad. I’m wired to be more prophet than politician, I think.

Though, I confess that I’d prefer not to get thrown into a well.