Tag Archives: Purpose

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.

Faith, Following, and Fairness

Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’
Matthew 20:15 (NASB)

During my lifetime I have observed that fairness and equality have increasingly become societal expectations. There are certainly worthwhile issues to be addressed and ills to be confronted, but I have observed that expectations of fairness and equality can easily expand to encompass almost every area of life. It seems at time as though we want same-ness. Everyone should have the same, make the same, look the same, enjoy the same.

On my spiritual journey I have come to accept that the overarching fairness I observe us striving for does not exist in God’s economy. Everyone has access to the Life, love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness which Jesus purchased through His death and resurrection. Once on the path of following Jesus, however, I discover that God never promised that all followers would all enjoy the same lot in life, be called to the same path, or have the same purpose. In fact, God’s self-revelation gives evidence to infinite and creative diversity in being, calling, giftedness, purpose, and experience. The Trinity itself reveals unity in diversity; Three distinct persons – One God.

In today’s chapter Jesus tells a simple parable that addresses this very issue. A vineyard owner hires workers throughout the day. Some in early morning, late morning, noon, afternoon, and some more for the last hour of the work day. The owners agreed to pay them each the same wage. At the end of the day the laborers who worked all day are indignant that the workers who only worked one-hour received the same amount of money.

Hire a lawyer! Call the Labor Board! Organize a union!

That’s not fair!

But, Jesus points out that each laborer readily agreed to the wage when they began. The issue, then, was not the fairness of the employer but the envy of the workers.

In find it ironic that Matthew follows this parable with the story of Jesus’ own disciples having conflict over who among them were Jesus’ favorites and who would get positions of honor in God’s Kingdom. Jesus response matched the parable He’d just told: “Don’t worry about each other’s rewards; Focus on the job you’ve each been called to do.” 

This morning I am reminded once again that my job is not to concern myself with comparisons to everyone else. My focus is to be on my personal relationship with God, existing in the flow of God’s Spirit, faithfully walking the path God places before me, and fulfilling my role to the best of my ability. When I embrace and embody my unique person and purpose, I contribute to the unity of God’s Kingdom.

Driving the Action

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
Matthew 17:9, 22-23 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a message and the text was the raising of Lazarus in John 11. As we unpacked the story together, I made the point that Jesus was not a victim of the events around Him, rather Jesus was driving the action of the scene.

Whenever a writer crafts a story, play, or screenplay, he or she must be mindful of how to drive the action of the story and propel events forward. Sometimes action can be circumstantially driven when an event takes place which unleashes a subsequent series of events. In The Godfather, there is an unexpected attempt on Vito’s life and an attack on the Corleone family. [spoiler alert!] As a result of these events Vito’s son, Michael, who wanted nothing to do with his father’s illegal business will become just like his father.

Other times action is driven by a character in the story whose words and actions propel the story forward. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf makes a prophetic observation that even Gollum has some part to play in the events leading to the ending of the One Ring. Time and again Gollum’s mischief and machinations drive the action, even to the climactic moment of the epic.

One of the things that becomes very clear as we read the story of Jesus is that Jesus is driving the action. He is not a passive victim of others. He is not the victim of unexpected events that lead to execution. At every turn Jesus is driving the action which will lead to His arrest and even foreshadowing the events to come. In today’s chapter, Jesus twice refers to his death and resurrection. He knows what is coming because it was part of a larger narrative that He had storyboarded in the beginning, and had been prophetically envisioned for centuries (see Psalm 22 [c. 1000 B.C.] and Isaiah 53 [c. 700 B.C.]).

This morning I’m thinking that Jesus came with purpose. He was on a mission and He drove the action. What about me? What’s my mission? Do I act, think, speak with purpose, or am I passively awaiting for circumstances to drive the narrative of my life?

I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that Jesus told us to ask, to seek, and to knock. Those are not commands to be passive, but to participate with God in driving the action of our stories.

Featured image courtesy of bnorthern via Flickr

Discussion Question Over Appetizers

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….
Isaiah 61:1-2a (NIV)

I love “If” questions and discussion starters. For years our family used them around the table to kick-start dinner conversations…

  • If you could have dinner with three people from history, who would you choose?
  • If you were only allowed one song to sing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  • If you had the power to eliminate one illness from the world, which would you eliminate?

I love “If” questions because the answers can vary so greatly from person to person, and those answers allow you to learn new things about even the closest of friends and relatives.

Having journeyed through God’s Message for many years, it is impossible to read today’s chapter and not connect it immediately to Jesus. Because the record of Jesus’ teaching indicates that He chose this passage for His inaugural sermon in His own home synagogue:

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-20 (NIV)

So, Jesus,” I imagine myself saying to the young carpenter from Nazareth as we sit at the table with a glass of wine and an appetizer of freshly made pita bread and hummus. “If you could choose one passage from all of scripture to epitomize your life, what would you choose?”

I don’t have to wonder what He would say, because I know of all the passages He could have chosen for that message in the Nazareth Synagogue, Jesus chose this passage from Isaiah. This was His mission statement. This was His stake in the ground. He didn’t state it as a desire, or a hope, or a goal. He declared it an indisputable fact. Jesus starts His message with Isaiah’s prophetic, messianic proclamation and then begins His sermon with: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Many people think of Jesus as a nice teacher who was eventually deified by His followers. Others think of Jesus as a kind of confused mystic who said a lot of amazing things, but might have been a little deluded. I don’t find anything confused in Jesus first recorded sermon. It was a shot across the spiritual bow. It was declarative. So much so, in fact, that it created a violent reaction among His neighbors:

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.

This morning I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t stumble onto the scene. Jesus didn’t just happen to be at the right place and the right time so as to fall into this teaching gig. Jesus came wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger because, from the beginning, there was a purpose. It was there when Simeon broke into song at Jesus consecration. It was there when Jesus was twelve years old and confounded the elders of Israel with His words. Good news to the poor, healing for the broken, sight to the blind, freedom to the enslaved, this was the mission from day 1.

So, Tom,” Jesus says to me over morning coffee in my office. “If you had one passage from all of God’s Message to epitomize your life, what would you choose?”

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