Tag Archives: Purpose

The Epitaph Being Written Today

“He passed away, to no one’s regret….”
2 Chronicles 21:20 (NIV)

Earlier in my life journey I spent a few years in pastoral ministry. I served in a rural community with many aging citizens. I found myself performing an unexpected number of funerals which led to my befriending the local funeral director. As a result, I found myself doing even more funerals as my friend would often call me when the deceased or the deceased’s family had no connection with a local pastor or church.

I encountered an amazingly diverse number of experiences in those few years. I observed beautifully warm family gatherings honoring individuals who left a legacy of love. I observed fractured families who refused to be in the same room with their family members. Factions would take turns paying their last respects to the deceased. I officiated services for individuals who, at the end of their lives, were completely alone and virtually no one came to pay their respects. And, I presided over funerals for individuals who appeared to be universally despised, those in attendance at the funeral sharing with me that they were there to say “Good riddance.”

After several chapters in which the Chronicler shares a rather expansive story of King Jehoshaphat, today’s chapter succinctly describes the brief reign of Jehoshaphat’s son, Jehoram. It was eight years of division and chaos rooted in Jehoshaphat’s ill-fated decision to make a marriage alliance with the evil King Ahab of Israel which set off a chain-reaction of tragedy.

Jehoram married a daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. By the Chronicler’s account, Jehoram was sucked into the dysfunctional family and religious system of his in-laws. This couldn’t have made him popular with his brothers who had been given some regional authority by their father (which made them potential rivals to Jehoram). Jehoram kills off all of his brothers to solidify his hold on the throne. Neighboring enemies, observing the internal political chaos, choose to attack Judah and take advantage of this moment of weakness. It works. Jehoram’s reign ends after eight short, bloody years marked by internal strife, fraternal murder, and failure in almost every respect.

The Chronicler’s epitaph: “He passed away to no one’s regret.”

What a sobering reality to mull over in my hotel room this morning. What kind of epitaph have I been writing over my life journey? What adjectives have attached themselves to my legacy? Love? Anger? Kindness? Pride? Faithfulness? Selfishness? Generosity? Greed? Failure? Redemption?

In the quiet I’m thinking about the opportunity I have this day and every day, in every relationship, in every interaction to make a positive difference. Even a life journey littered with tragic failure can chart a new waypoint each day. It’s never too late. That’s what the word “repentance” literally means: to turn and move in the opposite direction. In my experience, positive life change rarely happens in a moment. Rather, it begins with one willful decision to make a change of direction.

I’m thinking about some of those individuals from years ago with whom I only became acquainted as a body in a casket. What would have been different had I known them, had a chance to interact with them before their journeys end? I don’t know.

But it’s not too late for the people with whom I will interact today.

“Every Little Thing Is Gonna Be Alright”

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

Thirteen years ago today I was living in a personal exile of sorts. I was in the process of a divorce that I had once promised myself would never happen. Rumors were flying, most all of them untrue. I had become a social pariah among many whom I’d once considered friends. I remember at the time clinging to the fidelity of a few individuals who “had my back” along with a word picture of living each day like a turtle. I stayed within my self-protective shell and continued to press forward, slow and steady. Not only did I firmly believe that God had not abandoned me, but I had faith that there were redemptive purposes God has planned for me on the other side of this difficult stretch of my life journey.

Jeremiah 29:11 (pasted at the top of this post) is one of the most optimistic, Pinterest-worthy verses from the entirety of God’s Message (see the featured image, a screen shot from Pinterest). Yet those who quote this verse and post it probably have little or no understanding of the context from which it was originally penned.

Jerusalem is in ruins. Solomon’s Temple, once one of the wonders of the ancient world, is reduced to rubble. The treasures of Jerusalem have been plundered by the Babylonian army. The best and brightest of Jerusalem’s people (artists, artisans, musicians, writers, thinkers, teachers, politicians, prophets, and priests) have been chained and led back to Babylon to serve King Nebuchadnezzar and ensure that no one is left in Jerusalem to mount a revolt against him.

As you can imagine, those forced into servitude in Babylon are anxious and fearful. They find themselves in a strange land among a strange people with different culture, history, philosophy, and religion. Nothing is familiar. Nothing is safe. Nothing is sure. They just want to go home. Life in exile is filled with constant uncertainty.

Jeremiah, meanwhile, had been left behind. So the ancient prophet writes a letter from the rubble of Jerusalem to all of the exiles in Babylon. Compared to the doom, gloom and dystopian vision he’s always painted in his prophesies, his letter reads like a wise grandfather telling his grandchildren not to worry. He assures them God has not abandoned them. It’s all going to be alright. It is in this letter that Jeremiah pens the famous verse. While things may look dark and hopeless in Babylonian exile, God has a plan and a purpose for their good, and for their future.

I’ve come to understand that along life’s journey I will face personal periods of wandering, treks through wilderness, and/or stretches of personal exile. In wilderness, in exile is where I always meet Lady Wisdom. In hindsight I can see that she called out to me from the security and comfort of home, but I refused to listen. It is in exile I find her. It is in the wilderness, stripped bare of the illusions of my securities, that the ears of my heart are open to what she has to say. Her lessons are essential to God’s ultimate plans and purpose for me.

This morning happens to be my birthday. It’s the 52nd anniversary of the beginning of my life journey. This morning in the quiet I am thinking back to thirteen years ago when I woke up in a strange place of personal exile. What a different place on life’s road I find myself this morning. God’s plans and purposes are continually being revealed. I’m grateful for the things Lady Wisdom had to teach me back then.

One of the theme songs of Wendy’s and my life journey together is flitting through my head this morning. It’s a riff on Jeremiah’s encouraging letter to all those in exile from brother Marley:

Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”

A Tyrant, My Faith, and Possibility

“I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations.”
Jeremiah 25:9 (NIV)

On my spiritual journey I’ve had the opportunity to worship with, and serve among, a wide variety of denominational groups. Methodist, Regular Baptist, American Baptist, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Reformed denominations to name the major ones, though the list expands to everything from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal when you consider a vast number of smaller experiences and events. I’ve observed along the way that most institutions dedicated to the notion of following Jesus, along with their respective followers, are reductionist in their faith.

Take the little town where I live, for example. The town was settled by one group of Jesus followers who were led to America from the Netherlands by their pastor. Not long after settling the group split. With time, the two groups split again. Most often, divisions were predicated on some minor disagreement in doctrinal belief. Eventually, some groups aligned with one denominational institution while others joined another. Rinse and repeat. Eventually there are over twenty different shades of the same belief system; Small groups of seemingly homogeneous people who have boxed themselves in their respective neighborhood church entrenched in their firm belief that the way they dot the “i” on their doctrinal statement or the music they sing on Sunday is the correct way.

The problem with this systemic pattern, I’ve come to believe, is that eventually my understanding of God’s designs and purposes get reduced right along side my insistence that my particular corner of truth is the correct way. It’s so easy to get lulled into believing and accepting that God’s official stamp of approval is really only good in my particular box. God can’t possibly bless or be at work in the box across the street where they dot their doctrinal “i” with little happy faces. [cue: rolling of the eyes] (“Goodness, where’s their sense of holiness and propriety?”)

As I journey through God’s Message time and time again I’m always struck at how expansive God’s purposes and designs really are. In today’s chapter, God calls the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar “my servant” and when I read the book of Daniel I find God going to great lengths to reveal Himself to the pagan monarch from “outside” God’s people, to humble Nebuchadnezzar, and to draw the Persian king in. In other words, God is working outside the box and outside the defined lines of “God’s people.” God uses and cares about an evil, arrogant, murderous tyrant who is so deceived as to believe himself a god. God expresses a genuine desire for Nebuchadnezzar to know Him.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about all of the different shades of denominational institutions I’ve experienced and the ways in which I saw God at work in and through each and every one of them. I’m also thinking about specific individuals with whom I shared each of those stretches of my faith journey; Individuals who isolated themselves within their denominational box to the point of believing that God could not, would not possibly bless those outside their particular box.

Lord, have mercy on us.

The further I get in my own journey the less reductionist, and more expansive my faith has become. I realize that the eyes of my heart are in the process of increasingly seeing that the divine dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reaches further, has far greater design, and pulls in far more people from every walk of life than I can possibly know or imagine.

Who can possibly be saved?” Jesus’ disciples asked Him.

With man, it is impossible,” Jesus replied, and then He continued: “But, with God all things are possible.”

I don’t want my faith shrinking into the belief that it’s impossible that God would dance in the lives of others simply because they are different from me, hold to different traditions, have radically different views on religion/doctrine/life/economics/politics, or live a very different life style than mine. I want my own faith dancing and growing into the possibilities that God is dancing with the Nebuchadnezzars of my day (and in my life) as His Great Story continues to be revealed day-by-day, moment-by-moment.

That Which I am Gifted and Meant to Do

So Moses, Aaron and the leaders of Israel counted all the Levites by their clans and families. All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to do the work of serving and carrying the tent of meeting numbered 8,580.
Numbers 4:46-48 (NIV)

Along life’s journey I’ve come to understand that the organization of human beings to accomplish a particular task (or tasks) is an art form in and of itself. Anyone who has had to lead any kind of large scale endeavor understands this. There are numerous models and theories for doing so.

In this morning’s chapter we find the Hebrew clan of Levites were dedicated to the care, maintenance and moving of their nation’s mobile temple and all its furnishings. They alone of all the Hebrew clans set it up, took it down, carried it on the march, and did the work of the Temple while encamped. If you were born into the Levite clan you would not be a warrior, you would work be assigned religious duties the rest of your life.

Throughout history this paradigm has also been followed by many societies. A father is apprenticed into a trade by his father, and teaches the trade to his son. You were born into your occupation just as sure as you might be given the surname of that occupation: Miller, Thatcher, Farmer, and Doctor.

Had things still been done this way, I might be a carpenter today, just as my great-grandfather was apprenticed to be before he came to America as a young man. Anyone who has experienced my carpentry skills knows that this would be a tragedy. While I am capable to do some basic projects, you definitely don’t want me building your house!

In today’s paradigm, we are taught as young people that we “can be anything we want” and this is somewhat true. In our culture we are free to pursue any trade or occupation. I have noticed, however, that just because you desire to pursue an occupation doesn’t mean that you are gifted at that occupation. I have witnessed for years those who desired to pursue certain ministry tasks or roles within the local church only to frustrate the entire congregation by their lack of skill or giftedness. I’ve known preachers who can’t preach their way out of a paper bag, singers who can’t carry a tune with a handle on it, and directors of worship who are consistently lost and unable to capably give direction to anyone.

Just as the generational paradigm had its weaknesses, so also does the “you can do whatever you want” paradigm. Desiring an area of giftedness does not necessarily make you good at it.

This morning I’m thinking about my experiences in leadership with business, church, community organizations, and even the project management required of producing or directing a show. I’ve come to believe that one of a leader’s critical tasks is helping people find their areas of giftedness and helping them both embrace and develop those areas. Sometimes there is a journey of acceptance required to bring us to a waypoint of understanding that I ultimately find joy when I am doing what I am gifted and meant to do.

Into the Wilderness

The Israelites are to set up their tents by divisions, each of them in their own camp under their standard.
Numbers 1:52 (NIV)

Today we begin a sojourn through the book of Numbers. It’s one of the most ancient of texts in God’s Message and the fourth of five books known by many names such as the Torah, the Law, the Books of Moses, or the Law of Moses. It picks up the story of the Hebrew people’s  “exodus” from slavery in Egypt. Having escaped from Egypt into the Arabian desert (as told in Exodus), they camped at Mt. Sinai where Moses was given the commandments and the law (as laid out in Leviticus).

Every sizable journey begins with preparation. In today’s opening chapter we pick up the story as Moses carries out a muster of the twelve tribes and a census of men capable of fighting. They are preparing for a march, and the tribe of Levi is given the role of the set-up, take-down, and transportation of a giant tent called the Tabernacle, which served as a traveling temple for the nation. The destination of the wandering nation is “the promised land,” but first they have to traverse the wilderness.

We’re heading into the wilderness, which is a crucial, prescribed path for every spiritual journey. Moses had his years of exile in Midian. Elijah had his flight through the wilderness to Mount Horeb. Jesus went “into the wilderness” for 40 days to fast and to be tested. Fascinating to connect that at Jesus’ transfiguration it was both wilderness wanderer’s, Elijah and Moses, who appeared on the mount with Him.

The hero’s journey of every great epic includes a journey into a wilderness of unknown territory. Bilbo had his mountain and Mirkwood. Luke Skywalker had his Dagoba, Harry, Ron, and Hermione spent almost an entire book alone in the wilderness seeking the Hallows. The wilderness is where we find ourselves (the good, the bad, and the ugly). The wilderness is where we are tried and prepared for the purpose. Without the wilderness, we will never be prepared for the ordeal through which we reach the reward and begin the road back.

This morning I’m looking back at my own life journey. There have been various stretches of wilderness wanderings spiritually relationally, artistically, and vocationally. I’m quite sure there are more to come before the journey’s end. Wilderness is a part of the process and, as we’ll find in our sojourn with the Hebrews, the longer I refuse to embrace the process and learn the lessons I need to learn, I will continue to wander.

Time to lace up the hiking boots. Here we go.

Exile

He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left.
2 Kings 24:14 (NIV)

This past Saturday evening Wendy and I gathered with our local community theatre for an annual awards celebration. It was a gala affair and several people gave acceptance speeches for awards they received. I had several people comment to me that they picked up a theme in the speeches. Many members of our local theatre community moved into our small town from elsewhere. They spoke about their feelings of struggling to find a place where they belonged in the community and the theatre provided that for them. I  relate to that. It was 13 years ago that I moved to Pella and found myself auditioning for a show, hoping to meet people.

In today’s chapter we read about one of the most climactic events of the story of the nation of Israel. The Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem, eventually destroying the city, Solomon’s Temple, and carrying everything of value, people included, into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah’s poem of Lamentations speaks his grief over the event. The events of the book of Daniel and the prophecies of Ezekiel tell of life in exile. Psalm 137 is an angry blues song grieving life in the Babylonian exile and expressing the desire for violent retribution on their captors.

Exile is a theme in our stories, our histories, and our life journeys. At some point in life, perhaps multiple times, we find ourselves unexpectedly stranded in unknown territory feeling like a stranger and in a strange place.

But in our epic stories there is always purpose in the exile. Harry Potter’s awful upbringing at the hand of his aunt and uncle planted and cultivated the seeds of the courage, endurance, and perseverance that would be required of him later. Aragorn lived in exile as a ranger for a hundred years, traveling the known world and living with different peoples, but it became essential to him becoming the man who would reclaim his throne. Even in the Great Story we find Israel learning important lessons that resonate in their culture to this very day. Even baby Jesus was taken into exile in Egypt to escape a murderous Herod.

Exile is an important theme in our journeys.

This morning I’m thinking about my own move to Pella. Without going into the story I will tell you that it was unforeseen and unexpected. There was a part of me that never wanted to be here. But, now I look back on the road I’ve traversed, where the journey has brought me, and I am so grateful for where the exile brought me and how exile taught me all about new things (including rediscovering my love of the stage). Exile is never easy, but it does have purpose in making me the person I’m called to be if I will choose to lean in and learn the lessons.

A Prophet in Flyover Country

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake….
Amos 1:1 (NIV)

I have lived in “flyover country” my entire life. It’s a great place to live, work, and raise a family. You get used to the fact that most of what we see and hear in American news and entertainment media is sourced on the coasts. New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are where most of the brokers of politics, finance, and entertainment live, move and have their being. It’s quite common to realize that we often see life a little differently here in middle America.

Whenever you read the writing of the ancient prophets in God’s Message, it’s important to understand the context of the prophet and his message. Amos was one of what we refer to as the “minor” prophets, and perhaps it’a an apt moniker for one who lived and wrote from what have been the flyover country of his time.

The “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) lived where the action was. Isaiah and Jeremiah served in Jerusalem, the capital city which was the region’s political and religious center of power. Daniel and Ezekiel lived later and were persons of relative prominence and connection in the ancient city of Babylon during the height of its glory days. Amos, on the other hand, was a shepherd and fig farmer living in a small town of no real significance. We don’t even know if he owned his own flocks and figs, or whether he was simply a hired man.

Amos lived and wrote during a period of relative prosperity in Israel’s divided kingdom (about 740-750 b.c.). Things were humming economically and trade was good. The kingdoms held relatively strong, secure positions in the region. Everyone was feeling optimistic and perhaps even a little bit smug.

Amos, however, begins the assembled volume of his prophetic writings by telling us as readers that his vision preceded “the earthquake.” He doesn’t say “an earthquake” but “the earthquake.” Little is known historically about this event, but geologists have unearthed evidence of a major seismic event in that region around 750 b.c.  Interestingly enough, just yesterday I posted about the connection that is made in God’s Message between the shifting of things in the spiritual realm and events in creation. Amos foreshadows his volume of collected prophesies with a ominous word-picture. There’s going to be a major shake up.

What becomes immediately clear in the historical context is that Amos’ message isn’t exactly the mainstream media spin of his day. During a period of peace and prosperity this learned yokel prophet from flyover country isn’t feeling so secure about things from a spiritual perspective. He’s got a more sober view of where things are headed, if anyone will listen.

This morning I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit of a connection with ol’ Amos. I’m grateful for where I live and move and have had my being on this life journey. It may not be the center of action where finance, politics, and entertainment are brokered. I’ve visited all of them and always have a great time when I’m there and appreciate all the great people I meet. Nevertheless, I know I look at life with a different perspective than many who live in those places. It’s not better or worse. It just is. The major prophets had their roles to play and their message to give at the center of the action. Amos had his role to play and his message to give as he kept watch over his livestock in the flyover farm town of Tekoa.

The key, I’ve come to learn along this journey, is to be content with the role I’ve been given and faithful in carrying it out to the best of my ability.