Tag Archives: Story

Judicial Realizations

Judicial Realizations (CaD Ps 139) Wayfarer

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24 (NIV)

Yesterday, I spent some time with a friend who is a bit further down life’s road than I am. He sees the finish line of his vocational journey fast approaching. The fact that his days are numbered and there are fewer days ahead than behind is not lost on him. We talked honestly.

“I just want to finish well,” he said to me.

We then quickly recounted the names of those we know who did not finished life well. It was a sobering thought.

If you ask me to share my individual, unvarnished story with you, I’m going to share things that are pretty unseemly. Along my life journey I have been guilty of both pretty sins and ugly sins. For about the first 15-20 years of my 40 years as a Jesus follower, I did my best to hide these things under a well-polished veneer of goodness. Eventually, things caught up with me. As I hit bottom and could no longer keep up appearances, I had a fellow believer and therapist tell me, “I’ve been watching the slow deconstruction of the image of Tom.”

I’ve learned along this journey that sometimes old things must be razed before new, fruitful things can begin growing.

The 23rd Psalm undoubtedly tops the Billboard Chart for all-time favorite ancient Hebrew songs. Today’s chapter, Psalm 139, is definitely makes the Top Ten. It might even be number two. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to do so. The liner notes ascribe it to David, which adds an intriguing layer of meaning to the lyrics.

It’s easy to read Psalm 139 in the mind frame of the devotional and theological. But in the context of David’s day, the lyrics are judicial. Christian theology holds that God is omnipresent, meaning that God is present in all places at all times. While the lyrics of David’s song support this idea, the ancients of David’s world had no such notion. Rather, they considered that both gods and kings had access to all places and all knowledge. Therefore, no one could run and hide from justice. No matter how high, low, near, or far I try to hide, the Divine Judge has full access, even to see and know the person I am beneath the well-polished veneer of goodness.

Much like the 51st Psalm, David’s song is an honest and intimate confession. David is laying open his life, his heart, and his soul before God, who is the Divine Judge. In doing so, David is exposing and owning his own sins, both pretty and ugly. A man of violence and bloodshed, an adulterer, a murderer, a failed father, a failed husband, and a less-than-perfect king, David stands before God knowing that God doesn’t need the Freedom of Information Act to see it all. David asks God to search his very heart, which ironically is the thing that led God to choose David in the first place.

Which leads me back to my story, and my life, which is every bit as polluted with sins both pretty and ugly. There came a point in my journey that I had my own Psalm 139 moment. I could continue running, hiding, and polishing, but that never got me anywhere healthy. So, I owned my own shit. I processed my feelings, my failings, and my indulgent human appetites. Ironically, it was at that point in my journey that a number of really good things began to spiritually sprout within me.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about the fact that I’m writing these words on Good Friday. As I remember that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for me, so that in him I might become the righteousness of God,” I am reminded that it’s not about the things that I have done, but the thing that Christ did for me. The more honest I am about the things I have done, the more potent the thing that Christ did for me becomes. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, it is that kindness of Christ that leads me to genuine repentance, not judgement, condemnation, nor religious rigor.

This morning, I find myself thinking that if I want to finish well then I have to keep this spiritual truth before me this day, each day, until I reach the journey’s end.

The Song and the Story

The Song and the Story (CaD Ps 136) Wayfarer

to him who led his people through the wilderness;
His love endures forever.
Psalm 136:16 (NIV)

Psalm 136 is one of the most fascinating of all the songs in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics we all the book of Psalms. The ancient Hebrew songwriter crafted it in such a way that the the meaning and metaphor of the lyrics are as much in the structure as they are in the words. First, there’s the organization of the the theme:

  • Six verses about creation
  • Six verses about the Hebrews deliverance from slavery
  • One verse about the Hebrews being led through the wilderness
  • Six verses about the Hebrews conquest of Canaan
  • Four verses that echo/summarize the previous themes
  • A final call to praise God

There is no other psalm in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics that utilizes the call and response device as this song does. Twenty-six times the refrain “His love endures forever” is used. That number is important because for the ancient Hebrews, the letters of their alphabet also did double-duty as numerals. Every letter was used as a number. When you add up the numerical values of the letters of the Hebrew name for God: YHWH (Note: the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have vowels) the total is, you guessed it, 26.

As I thought about the structure of the song, I couldn’t help but think that it parallels every life story, my life story.

I have a creation story. There’s the time in which I was born, the family in which I was raised, the community of my childhood, and the events that set me on my path in life.

Like the Hebrew exodus from slavery, I have climactic events that shape and define my life journey. My decision to follow Christ and subsequent call to proclaim His message, my being cast in a film and meeting the mentor who would play an instrumental part in my life, my early marriage, the births of Taylor and Madison, the divorce that would end my first marriage after seventeen years, and the unexpected arrival of Wendy in my life.

Like the Hebrew wilderness experience, I have my own stretch of life’s road in which I wandered in the wilderness of my own choosing. I chose the path of the prodigal. I ran. I squandered. I was unfaithful to those I loved most. I had my own pig-slop “Aha!” moment. I had to find my way back.

Like the Hebrew conquest, I have my own slate of victories in life. I have accomplishments, awards, and successes.

And, through it all, God’s faithful, enduring love is woven through every major success and every tragic failure. His love is woven through my best moments and my worst. In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul wrote that at the end of the Great Story that contains all stories, including mine, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love. he adds, “The greatest of these is love.”

In the quiet this morning, as I look back at my own story, I am realizing just how much God’s love shows up like the repeated refrain of Psalm 136. I am also reminded that like the 26 love refrains the song writer metaphorically employed to point me to God, Yahweh, I am pointed to a God who is love incarnate, which is the destination and goal of my entire story and life journey through this world. If I’m not growing into love in increasing measure as Jesus defined it, then I am (perhaps even with the best of intentions) headed in the wrong direction.

“God is Grape”

"God is Grape" (CaD Ps 102) Wayfarer

Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord
Psalm 102:18 (NIV)

One of the silver linings of our family’s COVID plague has been the extended amount of time we’ve had with our grandson. This includes both moments of three-year-old hilarity and DEFCON FIVE toddler tantrums.

One of the more endearing developments has been Milo’s insistence on praying for our meal every night. Some nights he insists that we hold hands and pray two or three random times during the meal as he prays:

“God is grape. God is good. And we thank Him for the food.”

The sweetness melts this grandparent’s heart, of course. But for me it’s also witnessing the innocent openness and sensitivity of Spirit in the wee one.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 102, is another ancient Hebrew song lyric that was written during a time of intense illness. In fact, the songwriter was not sure that he was going to make it. The song begins with the writer calling out to God to hear and quickly respond, then he pours out the angst-filled description of his medical and emotional symptoms.

As the song proceeds, the tone of the lyric makes an abrupt switch. The writer stops focusing on his momentary circumstance and, instead, focuses on God’s eternal nature and the perpetuity of life. It’s as though the writer is saying “Even if this is it for me, and my number is up, life will go on. That which is eternal perseveres. The universe continues to expand. The next generation will emerge, then the next, and then the next.”

One of the oft-forgotten themes of the Great Story is that of descendence.

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Genesis 1:28
“God said to Noah and his sons with him: ‘I now establish my covenant with you and your descendants.’”
Genesis 9:8-9
To Abram: “I will make you into a great nation.”
Genesis 12:2
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.
Deuteronomy 11:18-21 (NIV)

The Great Story is a story because it continues, it goes on even when my role is over and I make my final exit. Even in the most tragic and bleak dystopian imaginings, the premise is that Life endures and the story continues.

In the quiet this morning I feel the lingering effects of the virus on my body and realize that at this point in this life journey I don’t bounce back the way I once did. I listen to the unbridled energy of my grandson whose body felt none of the viral effects and who will live his earthly journey without remembering these weeks shut-in with Papa and Yaya.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t important, for him or for me. No matter the narrative of my story, life will continue in his story. Life gets handed off, a little bit each day, as we sit around the dinner table, holding hands and listening to that little voice say “God is grape.”

“That Story Is My Story”

That Story Is My Story (CaD Ps 66) Wayfarer

Come and hear, all you who fear God;
    let me tell you what he has done for me.

Psalm 66:16 (NIV)

It’s been a number of years since I’ve been on stage. Other than a bit part in a friends movie short in which I played a creepy figure in some guys sub-conscious, I have to tax my memory to recall the last part I played that required me to do the work of character analysis. The process of character analysis is, for me, where all the fun is.

Character analysis is a process of peeling back the character you are embodying layer by layer. The playwright gave you the words and the story. Now you begin to dig into who this person really is. This character may have been played a thousand times by the best actors in the world, but not by me. I don’t want to mimic what other actors have done. I want to understand the character myself. What does he look like? How does he walk? How does his voice sound? What is it he wants, and that is it that drives him? How does he feel about every other character in the play?

In the process of character development, I find connections of both sympathy and empathy with my character. The character is going through a divorce. Oh yeah, I sympathize with that because I’ve been through it. It’s not going to be hard for me to feel those feelings on stage. I’ve been there. I’ve never murdered another person, however, so I have no clue what that kind of remorse feels like. So, maybe I need to read different stories or confessions of actual murderers so that I can begin to empathize and cognitively identify with those feelings.

As I read through and identify with the Great Story, one of the things I’ve learned is that God uses story because we find a connection to ourselves, our lives, and our stories in the story. A couple of years ago I gave a message during the season of Lent predicated on the James Bond movie, Skyfall. I know. It was a bold choice. I wasn’t sure I would ever be asked back! The message was really about where we find ourselves in the story of Jesus’ final week on earth. I asked people to make a connection between our life and a character in the story. Am I…

the betrayer?
the denier?
the grieving mother?
the religious rule-keeper?
the crowd member shouting “Crucify him!”?
the fearful follower running for cover?
the doubter demanding evidence?

One of the most important things in reading and studying the Great Story is finding the personal connections to my story.

In today’s chapter, Psalm 66, the songwriter does something very interesting in the lyrics. At the beginning of the song he writes, “Come and see what God has done” and then references the Hebrew story of God leading them out of slavery, through the trials of the wilderness, and into the Promise Land. In the last stanza, the songwriter then says, “Come and hear what God has done for me.” He then describes God hearing his prayer and answering it, ending with words of praise. He found a connection between what God had done for him and what God had done for the Hebrews in the exodus.

Been there. Done that. That story is my story.

In the quiet this morning, this song of thanksgiving for answered prayer, guidance, and provision is connecting with me as my heart and mind prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday coming up. In a year filled with so many trials, I have so much with which I can be thankful; there’s so much, in faith, I have to look forward to.

That’s a good thought for a Monday morning heading into the workweek. I find myself mindful of God’s goodness to me on the road I’ve traveled, thankful for where God has me on this day, and hopeful of where God is leading me in the journey ahead.

The Story Behind the Song

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This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
Psalm 34:6 (NRSVCE)

Everyone has a story. In Monday’s post, I referenced pieces of my story that a lot of people don’t know. Along life’s journey, I’ve found that it’s very typical to only know pieces of other people’s stories. I’ve come to believe that real relationship begins when we begin to share and discover the lesser-known pieces of our respective life stories. Until we know one another’s stories, relationship remains somewhat in the shallows.

The truth can be said of characters in the Great Story. I find it common for people to assume that those told about in the Great Story are some kind of spiritual superheroes, but nothing could be further from the truth. With the exception of Jesus, I find that most every other character is tragically flawed like me, and I believe that’s the point.

David is mostly known for the oft-told story of him slaying Goliath, and that is typically told to children. I have observed that if people know anything else about him it’s that he was King, and perhaps it’s remembered that he had an adulterous affair with a woman named Bathsheba. We love a good scandal, don’t we?

There’s actually a lot to David’s story. While he was anointed as King as a kid (God instructed the prophet, Samuel, to anoint David the king), it would be decades before he actually ascended the throne. Years of David’s young adult life were spent on the run from the reigning king, Saul, and living in the wilderness. He had no real place to call home and, seemingly, everyone wanted him dead.

It was during those wilderness years that David went to a neighboring region called Gath. He was hoping to find an ally in the King there and as well as a safe place to reside from Saul’s henchmen, but his audience with the King of Gath suddenly went south. David realized in the moment that the King of Gath’s advisors had very little reason to provide him asylum while having every reason to serve up his head on a silver platter to King Saul. He’s alone inside the walls of the city surrounded and outnumbered by his armed enemies. How’s he going to get out of this alive?

David pretended to be certifiably crazy. He started acting like a mad man. He frothed at the mouth so spit was running down his beard. He put together such an impressive improv performance that the King of Gath wanted nothing to do with him and just wanted him thrown out of the city before whatever mental disease David had started spreading.

Having escaped with his life, David wrote a song to thank God for getting him out of a tight spot. That song is what we call Psalm 34 according to the liner notes.

Knowing the story adds a layer of context to the song lyrics, which creates added meaning for me as I read or listen. While I may never have been surrounded by armed enemies wanting to kill me (though at least once I’ve had an enemy who literally wanted to beat the crap out of me — but that’s another story), there are plenty of experiences along this life journey when I unexpectedly find myself in tight spots. David’s story, and his song lyrics, remind me that “this poor soul” can throw up a popcorn prayer and trust that God will hear me just as He did David.

Prophecy & Professor Trelawney

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Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
    saying that he has done it.

Psalm 22:30-31 (NRSVCE)

I’ve been doing a series of podcasts called the Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story. There are ten episodes in the series and I’m doing the series for those who know little or nothing about how what we call the Bible. Why do I call it the Great Story? Well, I’m not the first to do so, and I find that just saying the word “Bible” can conjure up so much prejudicial thoughts and notions. Besides, I’m more interested in the Story that is being told through the narrative from the beginning in Genesis to the end of Revelation which, again (spoiler alert!), a new beginning.

The next episode in the Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story series is part seven in which I’m going to talk about the section of texts from Isaiah to those written by the Italian prophet Malachi (Sorry, that’s like a dad joke, it never gets old for me). The prophets were some of the strangest characters in the Great Story, and the prophetic texts are mysterious, sometimes poetic and inspiring, sometimes gruesome and violent, sometimes so graphic it would make church ladies blush (therefore those texts are almost universally ignored by everyone).

Think about how the prophetic is almost universally present in all of our great epic stories. One of my favorite prophetic characters is Sybill Trelawney in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter epic (and NOT because my sister, Jody, could could easily pull off being the doppleganger of Emma Thompson’s iconic take on the character). I just love how Professor Trelawney does virtually nothing by way of being prophetic or accurate in her daily predictions. She’s a miserable failure at her subject. But on just a couple of occasions she actually is prophetic, though in each case she doesn’t know it and has no memory of what she actually said. That is classic prophetic mystery. I love it.

Today’s psalm, written by David, is a classic because the warrior-king songwriter has his Sybill Trelawney moment. Written in the neighborhood of 1000 years before Jesus, the 22nd psalm is dripping with prophetic imagery of Jesus.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

Psalm 22:1

And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Matthew 20:46

But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.
Psalm 22:6

Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has [Jesus] done?” But [the crowd] shouted all the more, “Crucify him!”
Mark 15:14

All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads

Psalm 22:7

The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate.
Luke 23:10-11

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

Psalm 22:9

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the Magi] left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Matthew 2:12-13

On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Psalm 22:10

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
Luke 1:30-35

Many bulls encircle me,
    strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
    like a ravening and roaring lion.

Psalm 22:12-13

Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?”
Luke 22:63-64

I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

Psalm 22:14-15

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him…
John 19:16-18

For dogs are all around me;
    a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.

Psalm 22:16-18

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
“They divided my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.”
And that is what the soldiers did.

John 19:23-25

The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek him shall praise the Lord.

Psalm 22:26

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
John 6:26-27

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
    and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
    saying that he has done it.

Psalm 22: 30-31

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Acts 1:6-9

In the quiet this morning I find myself asking, “Did David have any idea what he was writing when he penned the lyrics to the song we now call Psalm 22?”

I don’t think he did. I think it was his Sybill Trelawney moment. Along my life journey, I’ve observed that this is the way the prophetic works. It’s mysterious, and strange, and comes from the most unexpected of people in the most random moments of time. Maybe even me. Maybe even you. You can’t will it to happen like Professor Trelawney so aptly proved in every one of her utterly useless classes. Those who try to do so end up charlatans like Gilderoy Lockhard or end up drowning their sorrows in a bottle of Sherry like Professor Trelawney herself. The prophetic happens when it’s supposed to happen via the medium God chooses (and God often chooses the strangest of mediums). Yet, when it happens, like David having his Trelawney moment in Psalm 22, it’s pretty amazing.

Today I’m pressing on, not willing things to happen, but open and expectant of whatever is supposed to happen in this Great Story in which I’m simply trying to play my bit part to the best of my ability.

(Exit Tom, stage left) See you tomorrow!

The Adult Version

A ruler who oppresses the poor
    is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.

Proverbs 28:3 (NIV)

One of the great, untaught lessons in the entirety of the Great Story is a sad one. In fact, I don’t believe that I’ve heard it mentioned even once in any lecture or message in my entire lifetime. It is the story of wise King Solomon’s foolishness.

As a little boy growing up in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School I learned a lot about the Bible through simple stories taught in simple ways. I remember learning them with cheesy paper cut-out images of characters placed on a “flannelgraph.” In fact, if you look up “flannelgraph” on Wikipedia, the image they use is of a Bible Story. Today we do the same thing with colorful, bright cartoons that offer children’s versions of ancient stories.

As a young man, I became a genuine follower of Jesus and began reading the Bible for myself. I studied it in college and seminary classes. I’ve been perpetually reading and studying it for forty-years. Along my journey, I’ve worshiped, served, and taught in many different churches from diverse doctrinal backgrounds. I’ve made a couple of observations along the way.

First, I have observed individuals who never moved beyond the stories of the Bible being broad and simple morality tales for children taught in bright colors and cartoonish characters. Then, as young adults, they became easily dismissed along with the rest of the cartoon characters they grew up with. Second, I have known and observed sincerely faithful, adult believers who made a conscious, cognitive decision to accept the doctrinal beliefs of their childhood church or denomination. Still, they have little or no experiential knowledge of the faith they profess to follow, and their faith is based on a combination of Bible tales told to them as a child and a life-long habit of traditions and rituals.

So, now we come back to King Solomon, the son of King David who has been known for almost 3,000 years as the “wise” and extravagantly rich king. The simple Bible story goes like this: as a child, God offered Solomon either wisdom or great riches. Solomon chose wisdom and God blessed him with both wisdom and great riches. It’s a tale with a simple moral to teach our children. Solomon then went on to have three books of “wisdom literature” traditionally attributed to his authorship: Proverbs, Song of Songs, and the book of Ecclesiastes. And, I have observed that this is about all most people remember.

The extended, adult version of Solomon’s story is (much like my own story, btw) much messier and far more complicated than the simple, story-book version. Solomon was the offspring of David’s adulterous marriage to Bathsheba, the woman whose husband David had murdered. Being the last of David’s children, Solomon should have been last in the line of male children (from multiple women) to ascend the throne. Bathsheba maneuvered events to make sure David named Solomon king. Solomon conscripted labor to build all of his great visionary projects (Solomon’s Temple being chief among them), and even his fellow Hebrew tribes complained of being treated like slaves. Solomon also appears not to have passed his wisdom along to his own son, Rehoboam, who succeeded him. Rehoboam followed his father’s example, not his wise words, in ignoring the wisdom of the proverb pasted at the top of this post. Rather than easing the oppression Solomon had placed on his own people, Rehoboam promised more oppression and irreparably fractured the kingdom into bloody and contentious civil war.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reading Solomon’s wise words knowing that he, himself, foolishly failed to follow them. And, that is the lesson for me today. As I contemplate this fact, my thinking goes to two places. One, that it’s too easy for me to be critical of Solomon for his hypocrisy of famously saying one thing while doing another. The truth is that there are plenty of examples of the same types of hypocrisy in my own life and story. Second, I’m mindful of the fact that Solomon’s human failings don’t alter the wisdom of his proverbs in the same way my own human failings don’t alter Jesus’ message. Come to think of it, it only makes His message more relevant to me. After 40 years, I’m still just an imperfect human in need of both grace and mercy as I try to follow Jesus each day. I’ve left behind a lot of foolishness, but I have by no means attained all that Lady Wisdom is still trying to teach me.

Execution Lessons

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Luke 23:42 (NIV)

Just last week I read a news blurb of a convict who was executed. It was your typical news flash on such stories in which just the basic facts were starkly recounted with little embellishment. Years ago, he was convicted of murdering his own wife. Before he died he expressed regret for what he’d done. He apologized to his loved ones, acknowledging the he understood why they couldn’t forgive him, but expressing the hope that they might someday be able to do so. He then said that he couldn’t wait to meet Jesus. He was given a lethal injection and died a few minutes later.

Fascinating. For some reason, I’ve found those few lines of news unusually coming to mind in the days since I read it. There’s more to that story.

Today’s chapter is Dr. Luke’s account of Jesus’ execution. Much like the news blurb, it recounts many facts with little embellishment. What embellishments Luke adds create more questions in me than answers.

With the eye of a playwright and storyteller, I find myself making a mental list of the characters in the story and how they contribute to the narrative.

Jesus, the lamb led to slaughter, refusing to speak or offer a defense.

Pilate, Herod, and the Jewish religious leaders are the power brokers playing their own chess matches of personal power, public opinion, and political intrigue.

Jesus twelve appointed male disciples and heirs to His earthly ministry are the key characters not present (John was there, according to his own account, but Luke does not record this).

The oft forgotten women who have traveled with Jesus, supported Jesus, and provided for Jesus and his disciples are there at a distance, witnessing the execution. This includes Jesus’ mother. One of the women is, ironically, the wife of the head of Herod’s household.

The Roman soldiers are carrying out their duty and having their sport with the victims. As an added perk they get their choice of the victims’ spoils.

The presiding military officer, a Centurion, is observing.

Then there are the three executed convicts.

What struck me was the convict who was crucified next to Jesus and came to Jesus’ defense. The only character in the entire saga of the passion who comes to Jesus’ defense is a convicted, guilty (by his own confession) death-row inmate. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he said.

How did he know about Jesus’ kingdom?

There’s more to this story.

Had he been among the crowds in Galilee, or in the temple courts, who heard Jesus teach? Had he and Jesus spent time talking in a holding cell as they waited to hear the Roman soldier announce “Dead man walking.”

I find so much intriguing about this man. Jesus didn’t explain the Four Spiritual Laws and lead the man in the sinner’s prayer. Jesus only defense was to one of the weakest and least powerful characters in the story, an executed criminal by another executed criminal. The only act in this man’s “death-bed conversion” was simply to acknowledge Jesus before another convict, and humbly ask to be remembered.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the spoken faith of two guilty, convicted, executed criminals. I find myself thinking about my own guilt. I find myself thinking about Jesus’ repeated teachings about simple, small faith being all that is required. It is indicated from the story that this is true no matter the moral standing of the one expressing such simple faith.

Sometimes I think that we religious humans complicate things that Jesus presented as very simple.

Featured photo on today’s post courtesy of PWBaker via Flickr.

Opposite Instinct

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
Luke 13:31-33 (NIV)

This past Sunday I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I made the simple observation that in almost every story, television show, or movie the protagonist is trying to avoid, escape, or solve death while attempting to cling to, extend, and/or enhance life. Life is such a basic human desire we hardly even give it much thought.

I found it fascinating that in today’s chapter Luke continues to foreshadow Jesus’ death. Both Pilate (an official of the occupying Roman Empire ruling over the region, who would eventually sentence Jesus to die by execution) and Herod (a regional monarch who killed John the Baptist and before whom Jesus would stand trial). Both of these rulers were known for their violence and cruelty.

Herod’s family, in particular, had a long history of holding onto power by killing anyone they saw as a threat. It was Herod’s father, Herod the Great, who upon hearing from the three wise men that a prophetic sign told them “the King of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem, proceeded to have every baby in Bethlehem under the age of two slaughtered in an effort to prevent Jesus from growing up and threatening his reign. His son, Herod Antipas, who is referenced in today’s chapter, carried on his father’s bloody, corrupt legacy.

At the end of today’s chapter, Jesus is warned that Herod is attempting to have Him killed. In yesterday’s chapter is said that Jesus has been attracting stadium worthy crowds so large that people were trampling one another to get near Him. This would have rattled Herod. Any person with that kind of popularity was a threat to his position and power, and Herod learned from his father that clinging to power required killing anyone who was a threat to take it from you, (even if that threat is just a baby).

What I found interesting is that Jesus expresses neither fear or concern. Rather, Jesus doubles-down and tells the messengers to return to Herod and tell “that fox” that He would press on:

[Jesus] replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

Beyond the attitude of courage and perseverance in Jesus’ reply, there is also an important subtext that is lost on many readers. Jesus references three days to reach His goal, foreshadowing the three days in the grave before His resurrection. He then offers a puzzling statement about no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem.

Back in chapter 9, Luke stated that Jesus was “resolutely” fixed on going to Jerusalem. Jesus has consistently been criticizing the religious leaders and their ancestors for killing the prophets sent to them. He has also been making consistent, metaphorical references foreshadowing His own death. Jesus is on a mission and He can see how it is all going to play out. He isn’t the victim, but the instigator of events that He knows will lead to His death.

I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words to His followers in previous chapters:

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?

Luke 9:23-25 (NIV)

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.

Luke 12:4 (NIV)

Everything Jesus is doing runs contrary to our most basic human instincts. Humans want to avoid and escape death at all costs. Humans want to cling to this life as long as we can along with everything we can possibly acquire within the finite amount of time we’re given. Luke offers his readers Pilate and Herod as exhibits A and B in today’s chapter. Two men at the top of the heap who will kill anyone who threatens their position, wealth, and power. Jesus, however, is the antithesis. He’s moving in the opposite direction and telling His followers that they must follow if they want to experience the Kingdom of God.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded of a passage I referenced in last Sunday’s message. Jesus’ friend Lazarus is dead. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, tells Jesus that if He’d have arrived sooner then her brother would not be dead. Jesus replies:

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

He then asks her a question:

“Do you believe this?”

Do I believe it?

And, if I say that I do believe it (and I have been saying it for almost 40 years), am I willing to follow Jesus in the opposite direction of the basic human instincts of this world?

Greater Than Fair

“Truly I tell you,” [Jesus] continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
Luke 4:24-27 (NIV)

There are many things I don’t understand in this world. Along my life journey, I have regularly been perplexed at the seeming lack of fairness in life. Like most contemplatives, I am perplexed as to why one person experiences great fortune and another person experiences great tragedy. Even as a follower of Jesus, I have been struck at the incredible diversity in stories and spiritual paths. One person’s life journey appears to be a stroll down Easy Street while another’s is a painful slog down a muddy path riddled with potholes, switchbacks, and roadblocks.

In today’s chapter, Jesus not only acknowledges this reality but also affirms it. As we pick up the story after Jesus is baptized by John, He heads on a sojourn into the wilderness where He successfully overcomes the temptations of the Evil One. Then follows the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and things get off to a great start. Everyone loves his teaching. He speaks with spiritual authority no one has ever heard before.

Then Jesus comes to His hometown of Nazareth. He quotes an ancient prophecy from Isaiah that proclaims the coming of the Messiah who will bring good news to the poor, make the blind see, and set prisoners free.

But not for you,” Jesus says to His long-time friends and neighbors. No miracles for you. He goes on to explain that there is this longstanding spiritual theme in the Great Story in which prophets are never honored in their hometowns. He references Elijah who could have healed any one of his homeboys but instead heals the son of a foreign widow in Phoenicia. Likewise, Jesus states, the prophet Elisha could have healed any leper in his local Jewish leper colony but instead heals a Syrian leper.

This lesson did not sit well with the hometown crowd. This wasn’t fair. So, they attempted to kill Him. It wouldn’t be the last time Jesus’ message ended with death threats rather than any kind of spiritual transformation in His audience. He doesn’t seem concerned. Perhaps for the first time in His ministry, it seems that there is something bigger at stake that Jesus is trying to get at.

What I find fascinating about this episode at the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry is that it so perfectly foreshadows what was going to happen at the end of it. It will be His own people who reject Him and hand Him over for execution. When this happens, Jesus will again reference the recurring theme of His people killing their own prophets throughout their storied history. Jesus also foreshadows that, after His resurrection and ascension, His “Good News” would miraculously explode across the non-Jewish, foreign Gentile population that His own people despised (which is the story told in the book of Acts).

The other reality I cannot escape in this episode is that, on a purely human level, it isn’t fair. A group of people won’t experience Jesus’ miracles. Their demon-possessed children won’t be released. There won’t be a miraculous transformation of tap water into Tempranillo to keep the wine flowing and the reception going at his Nazareth neighbor’s wedding. And, all of these things won’t happen just because Nazareth happens to be Jesus’ hometown? It isn’t fair.

In the quiet this morning I am pondering the fact that Jesus never promised fairness. I searched for it this morning just to double-check. Jesus never said that He came to bring fairness. Of course, He also wouldn’t experience fairness either. He would be unfairly accused, unfairly tried, and unfairly executed. It would seem logical to me to assume that I should not then expect fairness in my following of Jesus either. And, some will choose not to follow Jesus for this very reason. That was the reaction of Jesus’ hometown entourage. I observe people making the same choice today.

But what if fairness isn’t the point? What if my earthly journey is about something purposed which is far greater than what appears on the surface? What if there is a spiritual economy that is, in the grand scheme, actually more real than the temporal experience of my five earthly senses and my base human appetites? In my almost forty-year study of Jesus’ life and teachings, I find that Jesus’ came not to make life fair, but to exemplify love and call us to follow that example. And love isn’t fair. Love sacrifices all that it has, and is generously extravagant, and almost always receives an inequitable return on the investment. I believe that’s what Jesus came to show me, and in doing so He points me to something greater; He leads me to faith in the understanding that the eternal which I cannot touch, taste, see, smell, or hear is far greater and actually more real than any fair thing on this earth.

And so, I keep following.