Tag Archives: Theme

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.

 

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.

…and a Time to Return

Set up road markers for yourself,
    make yourself signposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Jeremiah 31:21 (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I had the privilege of watching as a play I wrote was produced a couple of different times on stage. Having spent most of my life journey in the state of Iowa, I’ve observed a repetitive theme of those who leave our rather quiet, fly-over homeland for more exciting places. Yet, eventually, most every one returns home. The reasons for return are as varied as the individuals who leave, but for most every one who leaves there comes a time to return.

There is a good story there,” I thought to myself. And so, I sat down to write a play and tell the story of a small town Iowa boy who is forced to come home. In his returning he must confront his past and the reasons he left in the first place.

Over the past few chapters in the anthology of Jeremiah’s messages, I’ve mulled over the way the themes of wilderness and exile play into life’s journey. There’s a corollary theme in the return from wilderness and exile. Just as the hero of every epic spends time in the wilderness, so that same hero must return to carry out the purposes for which he/she has been prepared.

In today’s chapter, the theme of Jeremiah’s prophetic letter to the exiles living in Babylon is all about their homecoming. “Drop breadcrumbs along the road to Babylon,” he tells them. “Mark the way because the time will come for your return home.”

Sometimes on this life journey I’ve observed that the return home is long awaited and desired, just as Jeremiah describes in today’s chapter. Other times, like the prodigal son, one’s homecoming is filled with remorse and repentance. Then there are those times when the return home is part of a larger story about the necessary confrontation required in order to progress yet further on life’s road. And, I suppose, there are times when coming home is a cocktail of all these.

As this morning dawns, the little town where Wendy and I live is preparing for our annual Tulip Time festival. As happens each year there will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of individuals who will return home to participate in the festivities (we’ll have some of them staying in our house!). I’m thinking about their respective life journeys, the varied stories they represent, and all of the emotions (and perhaps confrontations) that these homecomings will entail. There is a time to leave home, and a time for those living in exile to return.

I’m whispering a prayer in the quiet this morning for each of them, and for God’s goodness and mercy in each of their respective stories.

Spiritual Vision and Hearing Loss

Hear this, you foolish and senseless people,
    who have eyes but do not see,
    who have ears but do not hear….
Jeremiah 5:21 (NIV)

The other night Wendy and I finished watching the third season of Grantchester produced as part of BBC’s Masterpiece Mysteries. I’m four books into James Runcie’s tales from which the television series sprung (a book review to be published on this blog one of these days). It has been interesting to both read the books and to watch the series which was adapted for the screen by Daisy Coulam. The storylines are quite different between the books and the television series.

The protagonist is an Anglican priest named Sidney Chambers who solves mysteries with the crusty, unbelieving local police Inspector, Geordie Keating. As the third season winds down Sidney finds himself having a crisis of faith that is rooted in his institutional church’s inability to see beyond rigid religiosity and demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit in any real human way.

As I have been fond of saying over the years, all good stories are reflections of the Great Story. The theme of spiritual blindness and deafness is woven throughout God’s Message. In the days of Jeremiah the prophet it was the people of Judah who were afflicted with spiritual blindness and spiritual hearing loss, as we read in today’s chapter.

By the time Jesus came on the scene some 600 years later, it was the institutional religious establishment who suffered from the affliction. Jesus was constantly accused and criticized, not by the “sinners” and common people with whom He associated and ministered, but by the institutional priests, teachers, and lawyers who incessantly criticized Him and found fault with Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

The upstanding, committed religious people who should have been the first to recognize what God was doing were the very ones who suffered from spiritual vision and hearing loss.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Or, as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Along my journey I have found that spiritual vision and hearing loss is more acutely present within the walls of the religious establishment than without.

Wendy and I watched the character of Sidney Chambers struggle through his crisis of faith and grapple honestly with the blind, deaf church. I felt for him. I know that struggle. Many memorable episodes from my own journey bubbled to the surface. I confess, it pissed me off.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded to accept that dealing with those who suffer spiritual vision and hearing loss will ebb and flow along the journey, but will never really end. It is a part of the Story. My role is to continually and increasingly channel the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control to which institutional religion is so often blind and deaf.

Exile

He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left.
2 Kings 24:14 (NIV)

This past Saturday evening Wendy and I gathered with our local community theatre for an annual awards celebration. It was a gala affair and several people gave acceptance speeches for awards they received. I had several people comment to me that they picked up a theme in the speeches. Many members of our local theatre community moved into our small town from elsewhere. They spoke about their feelings of struggling to find a place where they belonged in the community and the theatre provided that for them. I  relate to that. It was 13 years ago that I moved to Pella and found myself auditioning for a show, hoping to meet people.

In today’s chapter we read about one of the most climactic events of the story of the nation of Israel. The Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem, eventually destroying the city, Solomon’s Temple, and carrying everything of value, people included, into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah’s poem of Lamentations speaks his grief over the event. The events of the book of Daniel and the prophecies of Ezekiel tell of life in exile. Psalm 137 is an angry blues song grieving life in the Babylonian exile and expressing the desire for violent retribution on their captors.

Exile is a theme in our stories, our histories, and our life journeys. At some point in life, perhaps multiple times, we find ourselves unexpectedly stranded in unknown territory feeling like a stranger and in a strange place.

But in our epic stories there is always purpose in the exile. Harry Potter’s awful upbringing at the hand of his aunt and uncle planted and cultivated the seeds of the courage, endurance, and perseverance that would be required of him later. Aragorn lived in exile as a ranger for a hundred years, traveling the known world and living with different peoples, but it became essential to him becoming the man who would reclaim his throne. Even in the Great Story we find Israel learning important lessons that resonate in their culture to this very day. Even baby Jesus was taken into exile in Egypt to escape a murderous Herod.

Exile is an important theme in our journeys.

This morning I’m thinking about my own move to Pella. Without going into the story I will tell you that it was unforeseen and unexpected. There was a part of me that never wanted to be here. But, now I look back on the road I’ve traversed, where the journey has brought me, and I am so grateful for where the exile brought me and how exile taught me all about new things (including rediscovering my love of the stage). Exile is never easy, but it does have purpose in making me the person I’m called to be if I will choose to lean in and learn the lessons.

The Placement of Faith in Precarious Times

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
    who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
    and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
    or seek help from the Lord.
Isaiah 31:1 (NIV)

The political situation in Isaiah’s day was precarious. Assyria was a giant, regional super power bent on conquest and destruction. The Assyrian army was on the move, swallowing up every city and nation in its way. The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were now in Assyria’s sights. The Assyrian war machine was large, well-trained, well-equipped and utterly ruthless. The Assyrians didn’t just invade, they destroyed. Assyrian kings would repeatedly inscribe the phrase, “I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire.”

If the Assyrians attacked a city and the city refused to surrender, the men leading the defense of their target would be rounded up to be publicly humiliated. Some could look forward to being flayed alive, their skins hung out for public spectacle. Others could look forward to being impaled alive on stakes or perhaps buried alive. If you approached a city in Isaiah’s day and  found a pile of dismembered limbs by the gate, you knew that the Assyrians had been there. It is no wonder that Isaiah and the people of Judah were in a bit of a panic. The political winds were blowing in the direction of Egypt, believing that an alliance with Egypt would save them from Assyrian devastation.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet questions the object of his fellow citizens faith. They were depending on Egypt to save them. They were bowing to foreign Gods in desperation for salvation. Isaiah reminds them that their trust should be in the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah predicts that Assyria’s ultimate fall would not come about from a “human sword.”

Throughout God’s Message there is a recurring theme. The ebb and flow of power throughout history is subject to a larger context. There is a Great Story that is being told in an ever-expanding universe. As with all great epics, the forces of good and evil, creation and chaos, are in constant conflict. I can focus on the temporal circumstance, or I can trust the Author of Life with the storyline. Isaiah was suggesting the latter, and predicting that the Author was going to show up in a eucatastrophic climax to this particular chapter of history. It might seem a bit naive given the grave circumstances. We’ll learn in the coming week or two how things played out.

This morning I’m thinking about the very real fear and anxiety being felt by people and nations in today’s world. I listen to the feelings of people in the media, on social media, and in casual personal conversations. We are witnessing a fascinating time of tremendous change. There is a tremendous amount of fear, and fear leads us to think, speak, and act in atypical ways. It seems to me that Isaiah’s ancient message to the people of Judah resonates even today. We are living in precarious times, as well.

Where will I find hope?

Where will I place my faith?

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Step Back…There’s More to the Story

“Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
Isaiah 12:2 (NIV)

Last night Wendy and I lay in bed watching our beloved Cubbies lose Game 3 of the National League Championship Series (NLCS) to the Dodgers in very undramatic fashion. For a life-long Cubs fan it’s hard not to feel like it has felt so many times before. It’s hard not to be pessimistic even though we’re only one game down. “There’s more to this story,” Wendy kept reminding me as the seemingly endless, hitless innings continued to rack up. More to the story….

I’ve been blogging this chapter-a-day journey for over ten years, and have been doing it much longer. It’s a great habit to get into, but it also lends itself to some interpretive difficulties.

If we’re reading a narrative history such as Jesus biographies or the Chronicles of the Kings, then reading a chapter each day is a lot like reading a novel. You remember the narrative from the day before and you pick up where you left off.

When it comes to the metaphorical poems of the ancient Hebrew prophets, however, it’s easy to get focused on the text of each chapter, and lose sight of the larger, poetic message the prophet is telling.

Today’s chapter is actually the final section of a larger message Isaiah was delivering from chapters 7-12. It I’m not careful, I might not catch the larger story to which today’s chapter belongs. Yesterday’s chapter was all about the coming Messiah. Today’s chapter is the result of Messiah’s coming: salvation and praise.

There is a pattern in the theme:

Sin -> Judgement -> Messiah -> Salvation -> Praise

This pattern is important because it foreshadows exactly what Jesus would teach us. Salvation is not something I achieve for myself, but something that God has done for me:

“God is my salvation….”

“The Lord himself…has become my salvation.”

“Make known in the nations what he has done.”

And, this great thing that God has done for me leads me to offer praise and thanks.

This morning I’m reminded of the importance of stepping back and seeing the big picture. I’m reminded of the Message that God foreshadowed through the poetry of the prophets hundreds of years before it was fulfilled. I’m reminded, once again, that there is a plan. I’m reminded that there is more to the story if I’m willing to see it. That’s what Wendy was reminding me last night with regard to a game with infinitely less eternal significance.

Gave four of a seven game series is tonight. Come on, Cubbies. Let’s change the narrative!

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