Tag Archives: Stories

Maturing into Child-like Wonder

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 (NIV)

It’s fascinating to study the progression of Pablo Picasso’s artwork. He attended art school at an early age and his prodigious talent immediately revealed itself. He could paint with the  beautiful realistic style that his teachers instructed as they copied masters like Raphael. The further he progressed in his life journey, however, and the more he produced, Picasso found himself having breakthroughs that would change both art and culture forever. Instead of becoming more realistic, his art became less so. Rather than following the art world’s prescribed path of the artistic beauty of realism, Picasso embarked on a very different journey.

Wendy and I both have our “God stories.” We each have moments in our journey when God did something rather amazing, and I would in some cases call miraculous, to direct us on our respective and mutual paths, to encourage us in our journeys, or to give us a glimpse of what was to come.

Just last week Wendy was looking through some old journals and ran across a prophetic word that had been given to her during her long, depressing slog through singleness (she was 33 when we wed). She was struggling through a time when all of her other friends were getting engaged and married. It was a brief sentence, and she can’t even remember who gave it to her, but it encouraged her that marriage was, indeed, in her future. It also described me, and our situation, rather aptly. She showed it to me and we both just shook our heads with amazement.

I have other, similar stories. I was raised in Mainline tradition and with believers of conservative theological persuasions who dismiss the signs and wonders experienced by the early church as extinguished realities from a another time. I was taught to value knowledge of scripture and conservative theology above the experiential and often mystical work of the Spirit. As one teacher in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers described it, we were raised in a tradition in which the Holy Trinity was “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” The further I get in my journey, the more I’ve come to confess this as “quenching the Spirit” that Paul tells the Thessalonians to avoid.

And, then there are all these God stories that I’ve experienced along my journey. I had a vision the day after I made my decision to follow Jesus, and that vision changed my life forever. So, I’ve always known it could happen. It did happen. Yet I was taught to dismiss, or at the very least to diminish, such experiences by my early instructors and get back to focusing on proper doctrine. I have a different view of things from my current waypoint on my Spiritual journey. The further I have progressed the less beholden I am to the iron-clad “that was for then, not now” theology I was taught in my youth. The willing I am to explore the mysteries of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The more open I have become to the power of the Spirit in the here and now.

Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you’ll never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” I think this is at the heart of the place I find myself in this journey.  Which brings me back to Pablo Picasso.

How many people have looked at his later works and said, “My child could paint that!” Exactly. Picasso himself said that when he was young he could paint like a master, but it took him a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.

Image result for picasso self portrait

That’s exactly what I feel about the things of the Spirit. When I was young I memorized scripture and learned theology, both of which are important. Yet, now as I’m getting older I find myself following Jesus down this path marked with the bread crumbs of our God stories in all their mess and mystery. I find myself increasingly pushing into childlike wonder and openness to the power and presence of the Spirit in every moment.

When I was young man people said that I had the wisdom and spiritual maturity of an adult. It’s taken a lifetime for me to learn how to seek the faith and Spirit wonder of a child.

Destined for Tough Terrain

We sent Timothy,who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them.
1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 (NIV)

This past week was a bit of a whirlwind for Wendy and me. It began with the unexpected death of a friend. She and her husband had been in a small group with us during a particularly turbulent time of our lives, and her death rocked our world a bit. The morning of the funeral we received news that another friend had suffered a heart attack in the night and had been flown to Des Moines for a hastily performed cardiac procedure.

We visited our friend in the hospital and were encouraged to find him alive and well. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that we knew he’d just been through a life-threatening trauma earlier that day, I’d have told you everything was perfectly normal.

As we spoke with our friend and his wife there in the CCU she shared about their life journey and the fact that the two of them had just entered a particularly enjoyable stretch. Retirement, time together, and the opportunity to enjoy large parts of each day in conversation and shared activity had been brining them both tremendous joy. She told us of her emotions and prayers the previous night as she faced the potential reality that it might be coming to a tragic end.

I thought about these two experiences, with two very different outcomes, as I read today’s chapter in Paul’s letter to believers in Thessalonica. Paul fled the city when his life was threatened. He knew that the fledgling believers he left behind continued to face opposition and persecution. Paul was worried about them, which was why he sent his protege, Timothy, to check on them, and why he was writing them this letter after Timothy’s return and report. Addressing the trials they were facing, Paul states quite bluntly: “You know quite well we are destined for them.”

Along my faith journey I’ve observed many who seem to have approached their life and/or faith journey with the expectation that it should always be a cake walk. In the quiet this morning I’m pondering the various reasons we might come to that conclusion. Is it somehow that the “prosperity gospel” that falsely teaches God wants us all to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise” has permeated our culture more than we care to admit? Is it somehow, for those of us living in America, some kind of bleeding over of the American Dream into our faith? Why is it that I am shocked and feel somehow cheated when life’s road unexpectedly becomes rough terrain?

My journey through God’s Message has taught me that I should expect rough terrain on life’s road. All of the early father’s of the faith said so. Here’s just a small sample of reminders:

Jesus:
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Mt 10:16)

Paul:
We glory in our sufferings.” (Rom 3:5)

James:
Consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials….” (Jam 1:2)

Peter:
“…rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Pet 1:6)

I find myself looking back this morning at Wendy’s and my journey over the past 13 years. Like our friend we visited in the hospital we’ve recently been experiencing a sense that we’re coming out of a valley and into a stretch of smoother terrain. It’s a good feeling, and we’re enjoying the lift. Nevertheless, this past week has been a reminder that I can never know what’s waiting for us up ahead.

As I start this week I’m reminded that with each warning of trouble, suffering, trials, and grief, Jesus and the early followers connected the inevitable hard stretches of life’s journey to heart, overcoming, glory, joy, and rejoicing. This journey will include both good times and unexpected bad times. It’s a natural part of the journey. Paul told the Thessalonians believers “we’re destined for them.” I shouldn’t be thrown for a loop when they happen as though I hadn’t been warned that they will come, or like I hadn’t observed that everyone I know experiences tough stretches along the way. There’s always purpose in the pain.

It’s the trials and the overcoming that make our favorite stories “epic.”

Have a great week my friend.

The Hard Facts

As for the other events of Solomon’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Nathan the prophet, in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite and in the visions of Iddo the seer concerning Jeroboam son of Nebat?
2 Chronicles 9:29 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, the author of Chronicles concludes his account of Solomon’s reign. He chooses, however, to leave out some pertinent facts provided in the eleventh chapter of 1 Kings.

Solomon was a womanizer. He married 700 wives, most of them were daughters or women from foreign royal families seeking to make political alliances with the king. On top of that, Solomon kept 300 concubines. Solomon’s wives worshiped foreign gods, and they convinced Solomon to build altars and temples to their gods. Solomon even worshipped the gods of his wives, including a couple of nasty ones who demanded child sacrifice.

By the end of his reign, Solomon’s years of conscripting slave-labor had created political problems for him. The nation his father worked so hard to unite was falling apart. Rebellions and uprisings began to occur. Prophets began prophesying the end of the united kingdom. Solomon resorted to assassination to maintain power and rid himself of threats.

All of this, the Chronicler fails to mention.

We can only assume why the writer of 2 Chronicles whitewashes Solomon’s story. Scholars believe that the Chronicles were written at the time the Hebrew exiles returned from captivity in Babylon. The temple needed to be rebuilt, and the Chronicler’s account may have been intended to drum up support for the new temple by glorifying Solomon and the old temple. This scholarly assumption concludes that the Chronicler chose to focus on Solomon’s glory and  leave the inconvenient truths buried in the bibliography.

This past Sunday at our local gathering of Jesus’ followers I gave a message about “Story.” Over the centuries the institutional church has turned the concept of “witnessing” into a host of systematic programs for communicating the theological concepts of salvation. However, when Jesus told his followers to be “witnesses” He simply meant for them to share their stories about their experiences with Him. In the opening lines of the letter that became 1 John, Jesus’ disciple literally gives the testimony “I heard him. I saw him. I touched him.” John’s story is how his experiences with Jesus transformed him from being known as a “Son of Thunder” (because of his anger and rage) to “The disciple of love.” Each of us has a story. Each of us has a God story whether that story is how we came to believe or disbelieve.

We also choose how to tell our stories, how to give witness, and what that testimony will be. We may choose to tell our story differently depending on the audience and the circumstances. This is  not only common, but I would argue that sometimes it is even wise. Nevertheless, our stories all contain hard facts. I made huge mistakes in life. I became addicted to porn as a child. My first marriage failed. I was unfaithful. I made a complete mess of things. A big theme of my God story is the grace, forgiveness, and redemption God has shown me despite my being a complete boogerhead. I can’t tell that story without also sharing some hard facts about what a deeply flawed person I am.

This morning I’m thinking about my story. I’m thinking about the hard facts of my life. My life journey is riddled with big mistakes I’ve made. To this day I struggle with being self-ish and self-centered. Wendy can give witness to my melancholy and pessimism, my emotional overreactions, and complete blindness to anyone or anything other than what I’m focused on in the moment.  But there’s also the story of my journey, of God growing me up, freeing me, and giving me second chances. There’s a story of transformation that has come from following Jesus and what God has done in me. It’s a good story.

For whatever reason, the Chronicler chose to leave out the hard facts about Solomon. It makes me sad. Our stories are much more powerful and interesting when we’re honest about the hard facts. Even tragedies make powerful stories from which we can benefit.

Children’s Stories, Powerball, and a Really Good Question

“Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people.”
2 Chronicles 1:10 (NIV)

Yesterday Wendy and I had the joy of hanging out with our niece, Lydia, who is three years old and our grandson, Milo who today marks six months on his fledgling earthly journey. Wendy’s family gathered at her folks house in Ankeny for dinner and an afternoon together.

One of the things I’m looking forward to in the years ahead is reading stories to my grandson. I’ve always loved story-time. When the girls were young it was my favorite parts of the day. Just this morning I was thinking about the theme of “ask whatever you wish” weaves its way through our stories, myths, legends and (perhaps most commonly) jokes. We have a friend who told us that when she buys a Powerball ticket she just considers that she’s spending two dollars for the fun of asking herself, “What would I do with all that money?” It’s an adult variation of the genie in the bottle who grants the bearer three wishes. They beg the question of us: “What would I wish for?”

This morning our chapter-a-day journey embarks through the book of 2 Chronicles. We pick up the story at the beginning of the reign of King Solomon. Solomon was heir to the throne of King David (of David and Goliath fame). David has united the twelve tribes of Israel under one throne (they could be an unruly and contentious lot) and created a strong, if small, regional empire. Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba, the woman with whom David had a scandalous affair and eventually married.

At the beginning of Solomon’s reign he journeys to Gibeon where there was a huge tent, called the Tabernacle, which Moses and the people Israel used for their traveling worship center when they fled Egypt. The Tabernacle was a traveling temple and it’s where the sacrificial religious system was centered. If you wanted to make an inquiry of God, you went to the Tabernacle. So, Solomon goes there to worship God as he embarks on his reign. There, God asks of Solomon that familiar question of children’s storybooks: “Ask anything you wish!

Solomon, in this now famous story, asks for wisdom and knowledge to rule his people. God (who is used to Powerball wishes for wealth, power, and possessions) is so blown away by Solomon’s request that He grants the wisdom, but also the wealth, power, and pessessions.

And so children, what’s the moral of the story?

It is a simple question and seems the stuff of children’s books, but children’s stories often communicate the very questions I need to keep asking myself as an adult. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you can never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (emphasis added).

What is it I truly want?
What is my heart’s desire?
What is it I would honestly desire of God above all else?

Not bad questions for a children’s story. Not bad questions to mull over at the beginning of my day, and my work week. Along my life journey I’ve discovered that (unlike Aladdin or Solomon) these are not one-and-done questions. They are questions I need to ask myself over, and over, and over, and over again. The answers to these questions clarify things, help set direction, establish priorities, and often motivate the changes to which Jesus referred.

So, I’m asking them again this morning.

Have a great week, my friends.

 

The Fool Who Speaks Truth

But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die!”
Jeremiah 26:8 (NIV)

There is a device Shakespeare used in his plays in which the fool, the jester, or the lowly are the individuals who see and speak the truth while the high and mighty continue to live in their deceits and delusions. Great story tellers often use this device. There’s the simple, small Shire-folk who bring about the downfall of the Lord of the Rings, or the eccentric Professor Trelawney who spouts foolishness 99.9% of the time but on at least two rare occasions actually speaks a prophetic word (that she doesn’t even know she uttered). I’m sure you can think of others.

Today’s chapter in the anthology of Jeremiah’s prophetic works goes back in time to the early years of his career. Jeremiah goes to the Temple court and proclaims that God will destroy Jerusalem if the people don’t change their ways. His message of warning and doom is not well received. The leaders of the Temple and other prophets seize Jer in an attempt to kill him. A trial ensues. Even the King and the army want Jeremiah dead, just as they’d extradited and executed a similar prophet named Uriah.

Elders of the community defend Jeremiah, stating that there is plenty of precedent of prophets who spoke unpopular words but were not put to death for their message. A couple of high-ranking officials come to Jeremiah’s defense, and his life is spared.

Along my life journey I have learned that great stories echo wisdom of the Great Story. When emotions are high and “the crowd” is in an uproar (especially when stirred by those in institutional authority) I often perk up my ears to listen for a still, small, contrarian voice amidst the din. Throughout the Great Story I find that God’s messengers are typically unpopular with the crowd. That’s why Jesus told His followers, “You’re blessed when people revile and rebuke you – when they speak all manner of slander against you.”

This morning in the quiet I’m reminded that Truth is rarely popular. Jesus said that the road to Life is a narrow, dusty footpath. It isn’t particularly well-marked and the trek is challenging for the relative few who are willing to embark on the journey. By contrast, the super highway the crowd follows is an easy commute (though one typically has to deal with traffic jams). And so, at the beginning of another day I find myself pondering which path I will choose today. Which role will I choose to play in the Great Story? Am I, like Jeremiah, willing to play the role of “the wise fool” who speaks Truth?

I guess my answer will be revealed in the choices I make today.

 

First Words to My Grandson

My dear grandson,

These are my first official words to you. The first of what I hope will be long and enjoyable correspondence between the two of us as you journey through this life.

This past Sunday our house was filled with women who had gathered to celebrate your mother and your impending arrival in three weeks time. I spent the day before helping Grandma Wendy cooking, cleaning, decorating, and running errands to make sure that the stage was set for the occasion. As the women began to arrive I sequestered myself in the basement to be at Grandma’s beck-and-call should she need help with anything.

I was originally going to entitle this blog post Estrogen Overload as I experienced the humor of being the only male in the house with 20 females. I even used that term as I joked with some of the ladies late in the afternoon. It’s something I’m familiar with having raised two daughters and no sons. I’m quite used to being alone in the company of women.

Suddenly, it struck me that I wasn’t the only male in the room for once. There you were comfortably nestled inside your mother’s womb. Nevertheless, you were very much present. You were the very reason for the celebration. You and me with all the ladies. I smiled to myself at the very thought of it.

So, here are my first words to you, my grandson. Take a good look at these women surrounding you (I only wish we’d gotten more photos of all the ladies who were there and a photo of the entire group). Look at your adorable mother. Grandma Wendy and Grandma Brenda were there. There were three great-grandmothers and a great-great-grandmother present to celebrate you. There’s your cousin Emma, your great-aunt Jody, and your great-aunts Suzanna and Brooke who, amazingly, are younger than your Aunt Madison (I’m going to have so much fun helping you sort out all of this loving, mixed-up mess of a wonderful family). Then there are all the wonderful friends that were there along with family. These are amazing women. They have stories to tell and lessons to teach.

Much of human history has not been kind to our female counterparts. They have been treated like objects, servants, property, and second-class citizens because males have dictated it, encouraged it, and allowed it to be so. It is one of many sad realities of life that you’ll see and experience as you make your own way on your own path. But you will have the opportunity to make a difference simply in your thoughts, your choices, your words, and your actions.

Listen to grandpa. Hear me. Honor these women and all they represent. As a male you will find that much about females will seem mysterious to the point of frustration. There will be moments you’ll  be tempted to be dismissive, patronizing, and demeaning. Along your life journey you will be tempted to place women into two separate buckets in your mind: women to love and honor and women to diminish and objectify. You can’t have it both ways. When you embrace the latter you negate the former. I pray you will have the wisdom to resist these temptations. Someday, I’ve got a few things to share with you about the tragic foolishness of not doing so.

Respect women, all women, in the fullness of their being: body, mind and spirit. Respect the girls you grow up with, the woman you meet in a bar, the woman you work with, the woman you date, and the woman who is a stranger.  Respect them just as you respect the women in these photos. Respect women for all the ways they are different from us guys. Respect their strength. Respect their knowledge. Respect their spirit, ability, courage, and their passion. Learn their stories.  Embrace their wisdom. Love them well.

These women will make you a better man. This, I know from experience.

Thanks for being with me on Sunday. I’m sure it’s the first of many afternoons that you and I will share surrounded and outnumbered in the company of amazing women. I’ll teach you how to groan about it in manly fashion (and then secretly enjoy the heck out of it). I’m overjoyed to have your company.

Love you, little man.

Grandpa Tom

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.