Tag Archives: Return

Wander and Return

Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime;
    it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms.
He gives showers of rain to all people,
    and plants of the field to everyone.
The idols speak deceitfully,
    diviners see visions that lie;
they tell dreams that are false,
    they give comfort in vain.
Therefore the people wander like sheep
    oppressed for lack of a shepherd.

Zechariah 10:1-2 (NIV)

Seventy years the Hebrews were in exile in Babylon. They were subject to the Babylonian and Persian Emporers and were immersed in a foreign culture complete with foreign idols and religious practices. When Cyrus sent the exiles back to rebuild, and to restore their temple and the religion of Yaweh. (Note: Yaweh is the name God gave to Moses when asked “Who are you?” It means, “I am.”)

In the opening of Zechariah’s prophetic poem in today’s chapter, there lies hidden from most modern readers an important message to the exilic Hebrew. During that period of time, fertility was often viewed by cultures as coming from a specific idol, and many families had “household gods” that they worshipped for comfort and fortune. Zechariah is subtly reminding his audience that it is Yaweh, not fertility gods, who brings rain to feed the crops. It is Yaweh who speaks truth, gives visions, and provides comfort.

Zechariah then sums up the current climate of the Hebrew people’s faith. They’d lacked their own “shepherd” (a king) and therefore the people had, like sheep, wandered and mixed their faith in Yaweh with other local gods and idols.

What’s fascinating is that Zech goes on to encourage his readers that God was going to re-establish Jerusalem. He gives a vision of the Jewish people returning from all over the world, and of a strong leader, a “cornerstone” who would lead them. Security and strength, he assures them, would come from God.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking of the repetitive cycle of wandering and returning that is present in the narrative of the Great Story. It wasn’t just the exilic Hebrews who needed this message. God’s people wandering and returning is present during the time of Moses, the time of the Judges, and the stories of the Kings. Peter denied Christ three times, as predicted, then returned and restored his faith after the resurrection. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is a story of wandering and returning. In Acts, John Mark leaves Paul and Silas and wanders back home, and Paul writes the young man off. Yet, in Paul’s final days John Mark had clearly returned and Paul speaks of all that the younger man had done for him.

There is something in this theme of wandering and returning that resonates in so many life stories, including my own. I love that Jesus’ story and example was that of welcoming back the wandering exile with open arms and joyful celebration.

And now, it’s time for me to wander into my day, but I will return 😉

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!
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Trials, Gold, and Dross

So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:21 (NIV)

On Sunday, after I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, Wendy and I were having our normal lunch date together. Wendy had given the message the previous Sunday. She shared the story of her journey through infertility. This past Sunday I spoke about secrets and my own experience with secrets that kept me spiritually imprisoned.

There was a common theme in our messages. We both slogged our way through long stretches of trial and difficulty, and we both experienced previously unknown depths of joy and freedom at the other end of our respective valleys.

As we dined and debriefed, we discussed a few of the things that some religious people cling to as if of vital importance. Things such as church membership and adherence to a particular denominational institution. For the two of us, such trappings hold very little importance. To a certain extent, I realized that our journeys and struggles through hard spiritual terrain had refined our perspectives on what it means to be followers of Jesus. Membership certificates and institutional inclusion are of very little importance to us compared to the more tangible daily realities of our own personal, daily spiritual trek among our community of Jesus’ followers.

In today’s chapter, the returned exiles complete their construction of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is a very small distinction in today’s chapter that is easily lost on a casual reader. The returned exiles are referred to as “Israelites.” When Jerusalem was besieged and the exile began, they were the nation of Judah. For hundreds of years prior to the exile, the tribes of Israel were separated in a bloody civil war. “Israel” was the northern kingdom. “Judah” was the southern kingdom. Now, upon return from their exile and the restoration of the Temple, they were simply “Israelites” along with Gentiles, like Ruth, who had chosen to follow their faith.

I couldn’t help but think that the experience of exile over 70 years changed some things for those who went through it. Old conflicts and prejudices fell by the wayside. Those who returned had a renewed understanding of what was truly important and what things simply didn’t matter all that much in the eternal perspective. That’s what exilic experiences and the spiritual struggle through valleys of pain, grief, and trouble will do for a person. It refines things. I’m reminded of Peter’s words to fellow believers scattered across the Roman Empire experiencing dreadful persecution:

May the thought of this cause you to jump for joy, even though lately you’ve had to put up with the grief of many trials. But these only reveal the sterling core of your faith, which is far more valuable than gold that perishes, for even gold is refined by fire. Your authentic faith will result in even more praise, glory, and honor when Jesus the Anointed One is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7 (TPT)

In the process of refining metal, which Peter uses as a metaphor, the gold remains while the “dross” (literally “scum on molten metal”) is removed as useless and worthless.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering those things that my trials have refined and revealed to be the gold of eternal importance and those things that my trials have revealed to be worthless scum in the grand scheme of things.

Lessons in a List of Names

These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean.
Ezra 2:62 (NIV)

The small community in which Wendy and I live was established in 1847 by a group of several hundred immigrants from the Netherlands. They followed their pastor to “the new world” to experience the freedom of religion that was found in America, along with the opportunities that the American frontier offered.

In our town’s Historical Villiage there is an entire wall that lists all of the original families who made the dangerous voyage. It was dangerous. Many died at sea or on the trek by foot across the still untamed American prairie.

There were relatively few families of any significant means among the original colonists, but for those that were there was a clear distinction between them and the poor and “common.” Today, I can look down the list. Most of the names I recognize. The families prospered and grew. They found the opportunities they were looking for. Most of them still have descendants living in the community.

I thought about that wall in the historical village as I read today’s chapter. I find that chapters like today’s are quickly dismissed and glossed over by most casual readers, but in context, they hold lessons to be learned.

In the Hebrew religion and culture, your family determined a lot about your life. They considered the land as “God’s” possession and they were merely tenants. When Moses led the people out of Egypt and they entered the “promised land” the land was divided by tribes. Religious offices were also determined by tribe and family. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and only descendants of Levi could oversee the temple and official religious duties. Your family of origin determined much of life for the returning exiles.

A couple of things to note in the chapter. There is an entire list of men who are not numbered by family, but by their towns. They had no family distinction or genealogy to be listed among the families or tribes. They were “commoners” like many of the people who settled our community. Also, there were those who could not prove their claims as they had no family records. They were religiously excluded until a process could be set up to settle their claims. Then there’s the curious story of Barzillai who had married a daughter of Barzillai and took his wife’s family name rather than his wife becoming part of her husband’s tribe; A very uncommon situation in those days.

This morning I’m thinking about family, about history, and about the opportunities that I enjoy on this life journey that did not exist for most people in all of human history. My great-grandfather came alone to a new world. He was a young, poor, uneducated commoner with some carpentry skills. He started a hardware store and a family. How much do I owe to his daring to cross the ocean and half a continent to make a new life for himself and his descendants? How much do I owe to a country where one is not bound by a family name or trade, but free to pursue any path you desire?

One of the offerings that the ancient Hebrews would bring to the Temple that they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild, was a “Thanksgiving Offering.” This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I find my spirit offering a word, a song, a heart of gratitude to God for the incredible blessings afforded me that I daily take for granted.

 

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:5 (NIV)

When I was a young man I spent five years in pastoral ministry. Three of those years were spent in a very small town here in Iowa. During those years I officiated a lot of funerals. Not only were these funerals for members of my congregation, but the local Funeral Home Director also called me when there was a family who had no particular faith tradition or church home. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time with grieving families.

During these funerals, I began to observe families in all of their glorious dysfunctions. I noticed, in particular, that these sad occasions brought prodigal children home, and that in many cases the children had not been home for many years. This taught me a life lesson: “At some point, one has to return home.” (By the way, this became the inspiration for my play, Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

For the past few months on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been going through books related to what’s known as the “exilic” period when the Hebrews were taken captive and lived in exile under the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Mede, and Persian empires. Today I begin walking through the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) that tell the story of the exiles return to Jerusalem and their work to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple and the protective walls of the city.

For the exiled Hebrews, their return had been something they’d longed for. Right at the beginning of today’s chapter, it’s mentioned that they’d been clinging to the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). The time for return finally arrives. At some point, one has to return home.

Reading today’s chapter, it’s easy to assume that Cyrus felt some special affection toward the exiled Hebrews and their religion. However, the decree and subsequent provision of temple articles stolen by Nebuchadnezzar represented a shift in Empirical policy. Earlier empires had ruled with an iron hand, destroying native temples and demanding that captured peoples adopt the culture of the conquerors. Cyrus, however, realized that allowing captured peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their native temples and shrines was good policy. He did the same for other peoples, as well. The move created goodwill with the people of his empire. In the case of Judah, the move also provided him with allies and a friendly outpost between himself and the yet unconquered kingdom of Egypt.

This morning I find myself thinking about returning home. It can look so different for different individuals. It might be a joyous reunion for some. For others, it’s a necessary immersion back into messy family dysfunction. There are those for whom the return home is a long-awaited return from exile. In many cases, it’s an important and necessary step in addressing past wrongs, emotional injuries, and spiritual blocks so that one can progress in his or her life journey. In many cases, I’ve observed that one can’t move forward until he or she makes the trek and faces the past. I, myself, discovered it a necessary stretch of my own journey.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a quiet prayer for those who have yet to return, those who have returned, and those who find themselves amidst the struggle of returning home.

“Return”

“For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”
2 Chronicles 30:9b (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I wrote a play and the entire play was created out of one simple truth: At some point, you have to return home. From there I reached out and plucked a leaf off the tree of tales about a young boy who ran away from his true love and stayed away for many years. When tragedy strikes just over a decade later he has no choice but to return home, and with it he must face the thing he’s been running from for so long.

The theme of “returning” is a big one across the Great Story. There are so many stories in which people find themselves off in some kind of wilderness. Sometimes they place themselves there and sometimes they are there against their will, but somehow they eventually return in some fashion whether they are led, they are invited, they are forced by circumstance, or they simply choose to do so.

In today’s chapter we pick up the story of King Hezekiah who is trying to help his nation heal after years in which they’ve willfully wandered from the God of their ancestors and many find themselves in the wilderness of captivity. In yesterday’s chapter, Hezekiah had the Levites clean out the temple and prepare it to be used as it had been intended for the worship God. In today’s chapter he sends out a proclamation throughout the land, even to neighboring countries where people were living in exile and captivity. The proclamation simply asked people to do one thing:  return.  Hezekiah wanted all of the Hebrew people to come to Jerusalem for the biggest annual festival on the Hebrew calendar. The Passover feast celebrated God delivering their nation from slavery in Egypt.

Along my journey I’ve seen the theme of return play out in the lives of many people in many different ways. I’ve observed that we often abandon faith in God early in life. Sometimes it’s a willful choice out of disagreement with the faith institution of our childhood. Sometimes it’s prompted by pain or a tragic victimization of some kind. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to go our own way. So we wander, and often our spirits are stuck back in childhood. Then later in our life journey I observe people returning, not necessarily to an institution, but to God whom they find altogether different than those childhood memories of pain, anger, doubt, and frustration. Not because God has changed, but they have changed and with it their understanding and perceptions.

In today’s chapter the people of Judah returned for the Passover. Just as Joseph returned to his family. Just as David returned after years as mercenary in exile. Just as the remnant returned from Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Just as the prodigal son returned in Jesus’ parable. Just as Peter returned after denying Jesus. Just as Jesus returned to the Father after His resurrection.

Just as….

No matter how far we may wander, no matter where we may roam, I’ve found that God’s Spirit is always whispering to our spirits:

“Return.”

 

The Slog Will Give Way to the Passion

“But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.”
2 Chronicles 15:7 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of sharing a rare meal with my oldest friend. Scott and I grew up on the same block growing up and we shared some of our most formative years together. Let’s just say, we’ve got lots of stories. Scott lives in Georgia now and spends a lot of time working in Africa providing love and life’s basic necessities to some our world’s neediest people. We’re lucky if we get a conversation every 5-10 years, but when we do it’s as if no time has passed. We cannonball right into the deep end of the pool.

We were talking about our vocations and where we find ourselves in our careers at this stage of our journey. Scott asked me if I love my work. He asked if I’m passionate about it. The truth is that I do love my job and I do experience passion in my work. Having said that, it’s also work and in my experience every job is a slog sometimes. That’s why it’s called work. It’s also not the thing I’m most passionate about in this life.

In this morning’s chapter, King Asa of Judah is approached by a prophet named Azariah. King Asa and his army were flying high from a huge victory of the nation of Cush (modern-day Ethiopia). Asa had sought God and had been rewarded. Now the prophet brings a message telling Asa that while the thrill of victory and the spiritual high everyone is feeling from God’s blessing is awesome, the work is just beginning. Being passionate and clinging to God can be easy in the midst of a battle. Being passionate and clinging to God when nothing much is going on or I’m slogging through the mundane is a different story.

Scott’s question came to me yesterday morning at breakfast. It was my first day back in the office after a week’s vacation at the lake with Wendy. I knew what was waiting for me after the joy of breakfast with my oldest friend: a pile of calls and emails to return, the backlog of work that didn’t get done last week, and the pressure to catch up. I knew this week would be a slog and I’m wasn’t feeling passionate about it. I’ll feel more passionate next week when I’m working with our client, rewarding people for the great service they’re providing, and helping to make a measurable difference in that company.

Today? I have to listen to the words of the prophet: “Be strong and don’t give up.” The slog will give way to passion.

Stories, Themes, and Waypoints

“Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant;
    do not be dismayed, Israel.
I will surely save you out of a distant place.”
Jeremiah 46:27 (NIV)

We just finished our Memorial Day weekend at the lake with friends and the kids wanted to watch Star Wars’ Rogue One. As I watched I thought about the underlying story of the hero, Jyn Erso. The movie starts with Jyn as a young girl being separated from her parents (particularly her father), which is infused with all sorts of psychological weight. We quickly meet the adult Jyn, and we find her in prison (in more ways than one) and adrift in life. Through the entire movie we accompany her on her journey to be reunited with her father and reconciled to the larger purpose their own journeys play in the larger story. The last words she hears before that final, fateful moment: “Your father would be proud of you.”

Exile and being “on the run” is a common theme in stories. The Star Wars universe uses it over and over again. In the original Episode 4 we meet Luke in exile with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine along with a mysterious old wizard, Ben Kenobi, also living in his own exile. They leave the planet with Han Solo who is on the run from Jabba the Hut and the bounty on this head. In The Force Awakens we meet Rey living in exile on Jakku where she meets Finn who is… wait for it…on the run from the evil Kylo Ren, who in his own self-appointed exile, having run away from home to join the dark side.

Why do stories, novels, movies, and plays use these same themes and devices over and over again? Because they touch something deep inside us. We identify with them in our own respective journeys. When I listen to people tell the story of their life journey and/or their spiritual journey I’ll commonly hear people speaking in terms of “running,” “getting away,” “thrown out,” “straying,” “rebelling,” “distancing,” or being “far from home.” We get it. We connect with it. It’s part of our common humanity.

With today’s chapter we’re entering the final section of the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s works. This final section is a series of prophetic messages Jeremiah made against the nations that made up the socio-political horizon of his day. The messages were seemingly arranged geographically from west to east, beginning with today’s prophetic word against Egypt.

After waxing apocalyptic against Egypt, Jeremiah speaks to his own people, promising them both exile (citing punishment for their idolatrous ways) and the eventual return and reconciliation of their descendants.

Exile and return. There’s that theme again.

This morning I’m sitting at the lake watching the morning fog roll through the trees across the cove. It’s the same view my parents enjoyed for so many years before me. It’s the same view our girls enjoyed growing up. It’s the view I get to introduce to our grandson in a few weeks. There something special about the places that become waypoints in the journey of multiple generations. Generations and their respective stories of being home and being on the run, of exile and return, of separation and reconciliation. The common themes that become a different kind of waypoint, connecting us to the larger story.