Tag Archives: Redemption

Don’t Walk Out in the Middle of the Movie

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch….”
Jeremiah 23:5 (NIV)

I have a vivid memory from about the age of 13. My mother sat me down at our family’s dining room table and explained to me that, financially, things were not looking good for our family. My father was in a business  that was not doing well and my father had decided to walk away from the partnership in order for it to survive. There was a possibility, my mother explained, that we would lose our house and have to move. She wanted me to understand that things were tight and there would be no money for extras. We all had to “tighten our belts.”

As is typical with children, I’d never given much consideration to our family’s socio-economic status. Our needs were met. We had a loving family. My parents were hard workers and things were always status quo. This message of doom was a shock for me.

I do remember a few lean years as my dad switched to a couple of different jobs and ended up commuting an hour each day to work. My folks plugged away to make ends meet. It was the years of the farm crisis of the late 70s and early 80s and, while we weren’t farmers, there were plenty of people struggling. As a teenager, I learned some important life lessons in those years about perseverance, hard work and simple faith. In fact it was during those years that I found my faith in Christ.

It is common, I have found, for casual readers to wade into the ancient messages of the prophets and find only doom and gloom. And, to be honest, there’s plenty to be had. There is a lot of violence from a very violent period of history. It’s easy to get weighed down by the negativity. But, if you’re not careful you’ll miss the larger story.

In today’s chapter, amidst a terrible siege and Jeremiah’s prophecies of destruction, death and exile, the message takes an abrupt u-turn. From the royal line of David, Jeremiah predicts, God is going to raise up a “Righteous Branch” to shepherd His people. From a macro-view, it appears that God is pruning back the royal line which has been bearing bad fruit for a long time. There will be lean years. Things look pretty gloomy. That’s what happens when you prune things back. But from that royal line a new Branch will spring which  will become the Vine from which the fruit of the Spirit and new wine will be produced. Matthew and Luke were careful to record Jesus’ family tree in their respective Gospels. They wanted everyone to know that Jesus’ sprung from David’s tree. The “Righteous Branch” had bloomed.

This morning  the chapter has me thinking about the doom and gloom of the prophets. Every great story includes conflict and a period of time in which everything looks bleak. The hero is a “goner” and it’s all going to fall apart. Then comes the eucatastrophy and the climactic moment when it all comes together and works out.

I’ve discovered that giving up on the prophets in the middle of the doom and gloom is like giving up all hope because dad’s job changed and things are going to be tight financially. It’s like walking out of the movie when the hero is tied up next to a bomb and the countdown timer is at two minutes. Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” reminds me today to “wait for it.” There is hope, light, and redemption at the end of the tunnel, but I have to press on and persevere.

Broken Down and Built Up Again

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Jeremiah 18:1-4 (NIV)

Life is a series of screw ups. Let’s face it. I like to project an image of having it all together. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that there’s some acceptable level of life perfection out there (that everyone else seemingly has) while I quietly haplessly flail my appendages behind a series  of nicely painted stage flats. I’ve come to the conclusion along the journey that the real illusion is thinking that any one is any different than me. God’s Message is perfectly clear (in several different places) on this count:

  • No temptation has seized you except what is common to all
  • There’s no one righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
  • All have sinned and fall short.”
  • Whoever keeps the whole law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

I’ve always loved the word picture God gave Jeremiah in today’s chapter. He tells Jeremiah to throw on his sandals because he was going on field trip. They end up at the house of the local potter who was working at his wheel. If you’ve ever tried your hand at a potter’s wheel you know how tricky it is. It looks so deceptively easy, but one slight miscue and the whole pot falls apart in your hands and you’re starting again from scratch.

I had a friend one time who was walking with me through a terribly difficult stretch of my life journey. I went through a litany of all the things that had gone wrong in my life, the mistakes I’d made, the consequences I was facing, and the stresses that felt as if they were tearing me apart. My friend smiled at me warmly and quietly observed that my life was breaking down, being “deconstructed” so that God could remake it like a Potter reworking the marred mess of clay in His hands.

It’s a good thing to have wise companions walking alongside you on your journey.

I find myself so drawn to this notion of the “one-and-done” transformation, the miraculous touch leading to a perfect ending, or God suddenly drawing my number in the Life lottery and suddenly everything is as it should be.

I’ve come to observe that the truth is a lot earthier, more substantive and repetitive. The word picture of the Potter and the clay is not a “once in a lifetime” deal. Rather, I find that life is a constant process of being broken down and rebuilt. My job is to allow Living Water to make me more pliable in the Potter’s hand, to release myself to the steady flow of the wheel spinning, to allow myself to be molded at the Potter’s touch; To stop resisting, even when life breaks me down again and the process starts all over.

Have a good week, friends. Here’s to being pliable.

Hope and Despair in a House of Cards

So justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
    for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Isaiah 59:9 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been watching the acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards over the past year or so. Last night we finished the third season. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are amazing actors. The story is compelling and the plot has some incredible twists that have caught me completely off guard. (FYI: There is some very graphic content, for those who desire to avoid it.)

Over the past couple of episodes Wendy and I have both felt the heaviness that comes when you find yourself mired in dark, depressing storylines. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet gets depressing by the end of the play; The stage littered with the senseless dead. Last night Wendy and I began to analyze and unpack what in the series had brought us to feel this with House of Cards.

As we began to analyze the characters in the show, it struck us that, across almost 40 episodes the writers had not given us one redemptive character. In fact, on multiple occasions the main characters toy with redemption, play on the edges of doing the right thing, only to be sucked back into the tangled web of greed, lust, power and deceit. In the world of House of Cards, goodness equals weakness. Trying to do the right thing makes you a victim or a fool. It is, admittedly, a bleak vision of our political class.

I contrast this with stories of real people I know and have met. They are stories of individuals who were mired in the types of dark places embodied by House of Cards. In these stories, however, a mysterious mixture of personal courage and divine grace led people to turn from dark places to be enveloped in Light. Greed gave way to generosity. Lust gave way to love. Humility replaced pride. The forsaken found forgiveness.

I found it a bit of synchronicity that in today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah spins a poetic description of those lost in the darkness. Isaiah describes those entangled and entrapped in the consequences of their own wrong motives, and perpetually poor choices. Living in those places, as I can personally recall, does feel like a house of cards. You live in constant fear that the whole thing will fall apart, and it eventually does.

As with the stories I recall this morning, redemption comes at the end of Isaiah’s poetic vision. The Redeemer arrives in a eucatastrophic moment. With the Redeemer comes repentance, Spirit, presence, and peace. Darkness gives way to Light. Those are stories to which I am drawn. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with House of Cards for season four. I’m not one to give up hope on redemption.

The Undeniable Reality of Change

Though hail flattens the forest
    and the city is leveled completely,
how blessed you will be,
    sowing your seed by every stream,
    and letting your cattle and donkeys range free.
Isaiah 32:19-20 (NIV)

Things change. It’s an undeniable part of life’s journey.

Sometimes the change is subtle. A sailboat’s point-of-sail can change a seemingly imperceptible degree or two on the compass, but that change will ultimately take the boat to a completely different destination.

Sometimes the change is dramatic. Tectonic plates shift beneath my feet, shaking me to the very core of my being. Complacency is replaced by confusion. The familiar is replaced by fear. Forget the notion of a degree’s difference. I can’t seem to find my bearing at all.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah sends the message loud and clear: Get ready for things to change.

“…you who feel secure will tremble

The fortress will be abandoned,
    the noisy city deserted;
citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever.”

But the change isn’t an end. Change is a waypoint in the journey. Change is the process through which complacency is transformed into commitment. Fear is metamorphosed into faith. Anxiety is redeemed by assurance.

The ancient prophet doesn’t end with doom and destruction. Amidst the change, he says, “the Spirit is poured on us from on high.” Change is not the end. It’s just a waypoint in the journey propelling us to a place of hope:

“Though hail flattens the forest
    and the city is leveled completely,
how blessed you will be,
    sowing your seed by every stream,
    and letting your cattle and donkeys range free.”

This morning I’m remembering changes I have experienced, both subtle and dramatic. I’m recounting the lessons I have learned moving through those waypoints. I am recognizing the good things I have learned; the good place I find myself this morning.

Things change. It’s an undeniable part of life’s journey. It means I am in process. Life is in motion. I am being propelled further up and further in. Change is a good thing if I am willing to accept it. As Isaiah pleads with me with morning:

“...rise up and listen…

…hear what I have to say.”

 

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Over and Over and Over and Over and Over

In recent months I’ve been reading articles about the release of the script of J.K. Rowling’s production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There is a certain amount of frustration among fans who purchased what they thought was a book, only to find that it is actually the script of the stage play. Of course, a novel and a script are two very different things. They both tell a story, but in very different ways. A script requires something more of you as a reader. The author gives you the characters words, but you have to use your imagination to fill in more of the blanks. It’s understandable that many are experiencing frustration with it.

Along my journey I’ve come to understand that there is a similar frustration among those who undertake the reading of God’s Message from Genesis through Revelation. It’s not a novel. It’s not a script. It’s a compilation of writings (and different types of writing) authored across a large section of history. The content is not categorized chronologically but by author and the type of writing. It tells a story, but in a very different way than the way we are used to reading stories. It requires something of me as a reader to connect the dots and see the larger picture.

Even as I wade into the writings of Isaiah, it’s important for me as a reader to understand that I’m reading a smaller compilation of Isaiah’s prophetic poetry. I have to step back and look at the larger picture. I have to connect the dots. I have to see the patterns.

One of the patterns that emerges in prophetic writing is the repeated, cyclical themes of sin, judgement, deliverance, and redemption. I can see it already in the first few chapters:

The people rebel against God:

I reared children and brought them up,
    but they have rebelled against me.
Isaiah 1:2

The consequences of rebellion are God’s judgement and punishment:

Your men shall fall by the sword
    and your warriors in battle.
And her gates shall lament and mourn;
    ravaged, she shall sit upon the ground.;
Isaiah 2:25-26

When the people repent of their ways, God delivers:

On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.
Isaiah 4:2

Ultimately, God redeems and restores in glorious ways:

 Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.
Isaiah 4:5-6

This repetition happens over and over and over and over and over and over again. In the compilation of Isaiah’s writings this pattern can be seen on a macro level (Chapters 1-39 are much heavier on judgement; Chapters 40-66 are much heavier on deliverance and redemption). The pattern can also be seen on a micro-level within a chapter or a few verses. The theme is repeated continually.

This morning I’m thinking about the cyclical, repetitive nature of my own behaviors. No matter how hard I try, I sometimes do or say things that are just wrong or inappropriate. When that happens, things don’t go so well. Relationships are strained or broken. Sometimes I suffer from the consequences of those inappropriate words or actions. I feel guilty. I am guilty. I repent, turning to Jesus whose sacrifice for me on the cross affords forgiveness, mercy, and grace in spite of my repetitive bullheadedness and boneheadedness. Redeemed, not by what I’ve done, but what God has done for me, I humbly and gratefully continue to let go of what is behind and press on to love others as Jesus loved me.

Over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over….again.

A Worthwhile Reminder

Nothing that a person owns that has been devoted to destruction for the Lord, be it human or animal, or inherited landholding, may be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord.
Leviticus 27:28 (NRSV)

Today we wind down our journey through the ancient laws of Leviticus. The final chapter is the ancient Hebrews’ rules as it related to charitable giving above and beyond the regular sacrifices already covered. The ancient Hebrews could dedicate items, even servants or children, to God’s work at the tabernacle (the giant tent which served as nomadic temple) and later the temple that took its place.

For example, in the first chapter of 1 Samuel, Hannah gives birth to little Samuel and dedicates the boy to the Lord. She gives Samuel to the temple for the work of the Lord. In ancient days this would have been a precious gift, not only from an emotional point-of-view, but also from a financial standpoint. The culture of that day attached great worth to boys as they would grow to become warriors, hunters, merchants, and providers. Hannah could have considered Samuel to be security for her retirement, a son who would care for her and provide for her in her old age. Yet she gave her “one and only son” to God.

So, let’s say that a few years later Hannah’s husband kicks the bucket and leaves her destitute. She has second thoughts about giving Samuel to the work of the temple and returns with “givers remorse.” She asks for the boy back. According to the code of Levitical law in today’s chapter, such a “redemption” could be made. Depending on Samuel’s age at the time of redemption, Hannah would have to pay the redemption fee. In many cases, depending on what gift was being redeemed, a 20 percent redemption tax was added.

Then there were items that could never be redeemed. If a foreign idol had been taken as plunder during a battle of conquest, that idol was “devoted to destruction” and had to be destroyed. The person who plundered it had to give it to the priests to be destroyed and couldn’t redeem it. That’s why, in the story of Joshua, a man named Achan got into such trouble. He took plundered idols for himself and didn’t give them over for destruction. That was “against the law” and Achan paid the penalty for it.

This morning my mind is mulling over many things. I’m kind of glad this journey through Leviticus is over. It’s definitely not “feel good” devotional material that pumps my heart full of inspiration at the start of the day. I confess I’m ready to move on. At the same time, I’m thankful for the layers of depth that Leviticus provides to other events and sections of God’s Message. The stories of Samuel, and of Achan, have new layers of understanding for me now.

As I think about summing things up, Leviticus reminds me that God is a God of order, despite our human penchant for making a chaotic mess of life and creation. Leviticus beckons me to seek the Creator’s natural order when life and relationships are in chaos. And, for me, that’s a worthwhile reminder.

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When the Walls Come a Tumblin’ Down

[The travelers from Judah] replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 1:3-4 (NRSV)

In ancient days, a nations walls were everything. Every major city (which subsequently controlled the nearby lands) was surrounded by walls. Walls were your security, making it impossible for enemies to easily invade. Walls were your pride. Their height, width, and engineering told the world how prosperous, industrious, and educated you were. Your gates were your calling card. Being the weakest point of defense, your gate said everything about you. The more secure, enamored, and embellished the gate, the more your city state would be held in high esteem.

The book of Nehemiah is about the walls and the gate of the city of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed (along with Solomon’s temple) by the Babylonian empire in 587 B.C. Most of the nations best and brightest were carried off into captivity in Babylon. Ezra, Nehemiah and their families were among them. As the scene is established in the opening sequence of today’s chapter, Nehemiah runs into some travelers who had arrived in Babylon from back home. He inquires about the state of their homeland and capitol city, and learns that the walls and gates had been utterly destroyed. The remnant back home feel utter shame.

If you have no walls, you are nothing.

Nehemiah’s reaction to the news was telling. He is grief stricken. He weeps. He fasts. He prays and confesses to God his sins, the sins of his family, and the sins of his nation.

We don’t have literal walls surrounding our homes and capitols [Unless you live in a gated community…there’s a good conversation to be explored there. Trump’s promised border wall is another interesting parallel conversation, but I digress] Walls as a line of defense became obsolete hundreds of years ago. The word picture, however, still carries weight for me in my personal life. I still build walls, metaphorically, around my heart and life. I build walls of protection against forces spiritual, emotional, relational, and cultural. I erect walls of possessions and words revealing to others what I want them to see, while hiding safely that which I desire to hide. I engineer relational walls that warn people off, walls that keep people out, and gates of relationship that open and close at my will.

And, my walls can crumble and fall just like Jerusalem’s.

On my left bicep I have a tat that references Psalm 51. It is an ancient song of confession, the lyrics written by King David at a moment when the walls of Jerusalem stood tall and proud, but the walls of his personal life had come crashing to the ground. The gates to his soul lay in utter ruin. It is on my left bicep because the ancients identified left, and left-handedness (I’m a lefty, btw), with foolishness, iniquity, and sin. It is on my bicep because it is a reminder to me that my strength is not in the quality of the walls I build around myself, but in humility and the utter honesty of my confession.

Nehemiah is having a Psalm 51 moment. I have had my own (multiple times). Walls crash and burn. Life sometimes lays in ruin before us. I have learned along the journey that in those moments when life crumbles around me the key to finding seeds of redemption and restoration lie not in the strength of my biceps, but in the condition of my spirit. Nehemiah gets it, too.