Tag Archives: Theme

Order>Chaos>Reorder

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.
Genesis 6:5 (NIV)

Yesterday was a long day, but a very good day. I spent eight hours in the car with a member of my company’s Board of Directors. We drove to Minneapolis for our first in-person Board gathering since January of 2020. It also afforded me and the Board our first face-to-face meeting with a new member of our team. My colleague and I then drove back. It was a festive occasion in which I, as leader of our company, tried to make sure that the joy of being physically together and the opportunity to eat, drink, and share life in one-another’s presence took precedence over the less important, though seemingly more urgent, aspects of business.

“There is a time for every purpose under heaven,” the Sage of Ecclesiastes said. The purpose for this day was to bask for a moment in togetherness and enjoy the ever-living heck out of it.

It was only natural that our free, open, and meandering conversations led to discussions of the current landscape of life on earth. Observations and contemplation flowed around current events, corporate issues, COVID issues, supply chain issues, political issues, and tech issues. I’m personally grateful to have arrived home late last night to report to Wendy that the spirit of love, contemplation, and gratitude brought me home with a full soul despite the weariness of body.

Yesterday’s conversations, however, came to mind as I read this morning’s chapter. The landscape of life, my team members and I discussed, is full of chaos that has us all shaking our heads with both wonder and perplexity.

Yet this is why I love my chapter-a-day journey and my daily contemplation of the Great Story and the flow of eternity. It provides much needed perspective for the acute anxieties of the current moment.

Today’s chapter is the beginning of the four chapters which contain the story of Noah. We’re just five chapters in from the very beginning and just two chapters from the order and goodness of the Garden. How quickly everything has descended into chaos.

This is the first of a recurring cycle of life outside the Garden, “east of Eden,” and the inaugural appearance of a theme that perpetually reoccurs throughout the Great Story, and also my life journey:

Order —-> Chaos —–> Reorder

A marriage typically starts with a well-ordered wedding and honeymoon phase which then leads to the chaos of two very different individuals who are motivated in different ways learning how to reorder their world together. Families start as a relatively stable nuclear family system and can quickly become chaotically disordered by conflict, financial stress, infidelity, a rebellious child, a tragic loss. Sometimes the system is able to find reorder and remain intact. Other times the system splits and finds reorder in the creation of new systems. Businesses launch with an orderly business plan and bright hope for success only to flow into the chaos of competing interests, personality conflicts, and the disruptions of the marketplace that force restructure, reorganization, and renewed vision. Times of relative peace and stability fall into the chaos of societal change, international conflict, and the disruptions of war, drought, famine, disaster, pandemic, or revolution, only to eventually find their way to the next season of relative peace and order.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself encouraged by the simple pleasure of being face-to-face with my beloved colleagues in the same conference room and around the same lunch table. I’m also encouraged by the reminder of this grand macro-level theme of the Great Story. Order, chaos, reorder, is the natural flow of life on earth between the fall of humanity in Genesis chapter three and the new creation of the last two chapters of Revelation. I find that digesting the reality of this theme into my conscience helps me remember, in times of chaos, that the flow of life from order to chaos is a part of life’s reality on this earth, but reorder is a part of that flow as well and it will eventually follow even if it doesn’t look perfectly the way I desire.

On a more micro level, long days on the road for business are always a bit chaotic. I’m grateful to re-enter the reorder of a normal day in the office.

NOTE
A new message from this past Sunday, on Ecclesiastes 3, is now available on the Messages page.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Exilic Reflections

Exilic Reflections (CaD Ps 107) Wayfarer

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.

Psalm 107:6 (NIV)

As I’ve been mulling over the spiritual milestones I’ve shared about recently, I have been looking back at my life journey of 20,000+ days and my spiritual journey of 40 years. There have been some amazing moments, some stretches of prosperity on multiple levels, and then there have been some seasons of soul-stretching adversity. As I recount the peaks and valleys and where they’ve brought me, it occurs to me that the latter has been more critical in my spiritual growth. And, very often the former follows. The valleys of life prune me spiritually, and when I eventually reach the high places they are particularly fruitful.

“Exile” is one of the grand themes of the Great Story. Some scholars have gone so far as to say that it is the primary theme that occurs over and over again, beginning with Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden and their intimate relationship with the Creator. The Hebrews living in bondage and exile in Egypt, then later being exiled and scattered by the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. The crux of the Great Story is Jesus leaving heaven to be exiled here as one of us to make a way for us to escape our own earthly exile and be at home in eternity. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Exile is a theme in the stories of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus, John, and Paul.

All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and I typically find the theme of exile in every major human epic.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 107, kicks off the fifth and final “Book” of Hebrew Song lyrics we know as the Psalms. Psalm 107 is another liturgical song, most likely written to be sung during one of the Hebrew religious festivals. Most scholars agree that it was penned during the period of time when the Hebrews returned from Babylonian exile, rebuilt Jerusalem and God’s temple there. Having come through years of captivity and exile, they have ascended Mount Zion to worship, reflect on their experiences, and give thanks.

The song lyrics introduce different exilic experiences: wandering in the desert, living in darkness, struggling through captivity and forced labor, bitter consequences of foolish choices, sickness and disease, and being lost and rudderless on the stormy seas. In each of the stanzas the description of exilic struggle leads to the phrase: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” This is followed by God’s salvation, deliverance, redemption, and restoration. Each stanza ends calling the listener to gratitude and praise.

In the quiet this morning, I’m seeing the pattern. Out of darkness into the light. Up from the valley to the mountaintop. Return from exilic adversity to the blessing of finding myself safe at home. This is the Great Story. It’s life’s story. It’s my story, too.

As I meditate on the lyrics of Psalm 107 and look back on my journey, I’m reminded that there is purpose in the painful stretches. Perseverance has always paid off. I have always been able to cry out to the Lord in my troubles. There have always been better stretches ahead.

Note: A new message has been posted to my Messages Page.

New

New (CaD Ps 96) Wayfarer

Sing to the Lord a new song…
Psalm 96:1 (NIV)

It’s a new year, and it is very common for individuals to use the transition from one year to the next to hit the “reset” button on life in different ways. So, it’s a bit of synchronicity to have today’s chapter, Psalm 96, start out with a call to “Sing a new song.”

In ancient Hebrew society, it was common to call on “new songs” to commemorate or celebrate certain events including military triumphs, new monarchs being coronated, or a significant national or community event.

Throughout the Great Story, “new” is a repetitive theme. In fact, if you step back and look at the Great Story from a macro level, doing something “new” is a part of who God is. God is always acting, always creating, always moving, always transforming things. When God created everything at the beginning of the Great Story, it was something new. When God called Abram He was doing something new. When Abram became Abraham it was something new. When Simon became Peter it was something new. When Jesus turned fishermen into “fishers of men” it was something new.

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Isaiah 43:19

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Ezekiel 36:26

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills…”
Amos 9:13

“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.”
Luke 5:37

“A new command I give you: Love one another.”
John 13:34

..after the supper [Jesus] took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
Luke 22:20

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.
Revelation 21:1

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
Revelation 21:5

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that most human beings struggle with real change. A new gadget? Cool! A new release from my favorite author? Awesome. A new restaurant in town I can try? I’m there! But if it comes to a change that messes with my routine, a change that requires something from me, or a change that brings discomfort, then I will avoid it like the plague. Why? I like things that are comfortable, routine, and easy.

What I’ve observed is that “new” is always considered better as long as I think it will makes things easier or better for me. If it will rock my world, create discomfort, or expect something of me outside of my comfort zone, then I think I’ll cling to the “old” thing that I know and love, thank you very much.

And thus, most New Year’s resolutions sink down the drain of good intentions.

In the quiet today, I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Great Divorce, in which a bus full of people in purgatory visit the gates of heaven. There they are given every opportunity to accept the invitation to enter into the new thing God has for them on the other side. One individual after another finds a reason to stick with the drab, gray, lifeless existence they know and with which they are comfortable.

As a follower of Jesus, I embraced the reality that I follow and serve a Creator who is never finished creating. “New” is an always part of the program. It may not always be comfortable, but it’s always good.

As long as I am on this earthly journey, I pray that I will choose into and embrace the new things into which God is always leading me.

The Day the Music Died

The Day the Music Died (CaD Ps 72) Wayfarer

This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.
Psalm 72:20 (NIV)

I have the Don McLean classic American Pie going through my head in the quiet this morning. It’s funny how songs connect to so many thoughts and feelings. The first verse stirs so many memories of being a paperboy at the age of 12. Frigid Iowa mornings being the first person to see the headlines, and trudging in the dark before dawn hand-delivering newspapers to the doorsteps up and down the block.

McLean’s lyrics go like this…

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

I think the inspiration for those words has already been lost to most people. As Mclean’s lyric reveals, it was an event that became known as “The Day the Music Died.” A small plane crashed in an Iowa field and tragically took the lives of three of the most popular rock-and-roll musicians of their day: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 72, isn’t as meaningful to the causal reader without understanding the context of both the song and its placement in the larger work we know as the book of Psalms. As I’ve mentioned before, this anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics was compiled by unknown editors. They’ve been lost in the fog of history, but they probably did their compilation sometime around the time the Hebrews were in Exile in Babylon about 500-600 B.C.

The editors didn’t just throw the songs together willy-nilly. There was tremendous thought put into themes, authorship, chronology, and how the individual songs fit into the larger whole. The Psalms are actually broken up into five sections we call “Books.” As I mentioned in yesterday’s post/podcast, we’ve come to the end of Book II with Psalm 72. Most all of the songs lyrics in the anthology, thus far, have been penned by King David. Yesterday’s lyrics revealed David’s thoughts and expressions near the end of his life.

The final song of Book II is an abrupt transition. The liner notes reveal that it is “of” Solomon or “for” Solomon (perhaps both/and), the youngest son of David and the offspring of Bethsheba (yep, the woman with whom he had a scandalous affair). Psalm 72 is a coronation song, meant to be used during the public rituals when a new king is crowned. As if the meaning of this song coming immediately after David’s aged reflections in Psalm 71, and the fact that we’re at the end of Book II, wasn’t clear enough, the anonymous editors of the anthology added a line at the end of the lyrics:

This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.

Old things pass away. New things come.

David, the warrior-king, God’s minstrel, has passed on.

It was “the day the music died” for the Hebrew people.

Psalm 72 reads like an idyllic vision of monarchy. Like an inauguration speech from a new President, it is full of hope for a new leader who will rule with justice, end poverty, end violence, provide for those in need, be esteemed by world leaders, and be forever established as God’s person for the job. The vision is so idyllic that both Hebrew scholars and early followers of Jesus viewed the metaphors as layered with meaning both as a national anthem for the newly crowned Solomon, and a prophetic vision of the coming and reigning Messiah.

In the quiet this morning, my Enneagram Four-ness can’t shake the melancholy (go figure). A little boy delivering newspapers in the cold, inspired in the grief of a terrible tragedy. In tragics deaths of an Iowa winter, a seed is planted in that little boy which will one day creatively spring to life in a new song that will mesmerize the music world for generations.

What a beautiful image of creation, of life, death, and new life. That’s the theme. That’s the theme of the Great Story.

Creation, Garden, Fall, Salvation.

Birth, life, death, new life.

A time and a season for all things under the sun.

Old things pass away. New things come.

As the Mandalorians in Star Wars would say: “This is the way.”

So, no matter where the journey finds you today, in joy or grief, in melancholy or happiness, take courage, my friend. The best is yet to come.

I have spoken. 😉

The Disorder Blues

The Disorder Blues (CaD Ps 25) Wayfarer

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
    for I am lonely and afflicted.

Psalm 25:16 (NIV)

One of the grand, overarching themes of the Great Story is present and revealed in multiple layers of metaphor:

Creation –> Fall –> Redemption
and
Order –> Disorder –> Reorder
and
Life –> Crucifixion/Death –> Resurrection
and
“Old” Life –> Death –> “New” Life

This is a pattern that God has woven into creation. It is present in a number of ways, and it is necessary to spiritual progress and maturity. Consider the words of James, the brother of Jesus, to the believers of Jesus scattered and living in exile from Roman persecution:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

We all love when life feel in order; When things happen pretty much as expected and things are “normal.” Yet every one of us will experience major periods of “disorder” along life’s road whether it be death, sickness, tragedy, loss, conflict, and any number of other life disruptors. The whole world is going through a period of “disorder” from Covid-19. “Disorder” is the path to “reorder” and in “reordering” we will have made gains in faith, perseverance, maturity, understanding, and wholeness.

Late last week I read that every one of the psalms can be categorized as either “order,” “disorder,” and “reorder.” I’m not sure I’ll ever read another psalm without asking myself which category of the grand theme it falls into.

Today’s psalm, yet another lyric penned by David, is another song written as a Hebrew acrostic. Each verse of the lyrics begins with the subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It definitely falls into the “disorder” category. David is “lonely and afflicted” and more than once he confesses his guilt and begs God’s forgiveness. David is surrounded by enemies and fears that he will be put to shame. His song is a cry to God for deliverance from the circumstantial disorder he’s feeling, and plea for God for reorder. It might as well be titled The Disorder Blues.

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve experienced that understanding the theme of order, disorder, reorder doesn’t lessen the sting of life’s disorder when it occurs. It has, however, helped me put the disorder into perspective. It reminds me that disorder is a natural part of life’s journey and that I don’t spiritually progress without it. It also gives me a much-needed perspective. Knowing that reorder follows the disorder, I can let go of my “Why is this happening to me?” angst and lean into a “God, I know this all part of growing me up” faith instead.

Like most of the world, I am tired of the disorder of the past six months, and the prospect of it continuing. And yet, humanity has been through the disorder of plagues many times in history, and never in human history have we had the level of technology, communication, and global scientific cooperation we enjoy today. It doesn’t take away the circumstantial sting, but it reminds me that reorder is out there on the horizon.

Until then, I’m pressin’ on.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

“Out of the Water”

"Out of the Water" (CaD Ex 2) Wayfarer

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it…When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
Exodus 2:5, 10 (NSRVCE)

There is something we love in stories about a special child, especially when that child is abandoned in order to be saved. The most recent example is, of course, Harry Potter whom Dumbledore leaves with his Muggle aunt and uncle in order to protect the boy from Voldemort and his followers. The theme is recurring, even in the comics. Cal-El is abandoned to Earth in an effort to save him from the destruction of his home planet. He grows up Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas to become Superman.

In the Great Story, this is also a recurring theme. Joseph’s brothers abandon him into slavery and he eventually becomes the savior of the family. Hannah gives up her only child Samuel to the Temple and he becomes a great prophet and leader. With the incarnation, God the Father “gave his one and only Son” to become Savior of the world and to redeem all things.

In today’s chapter, I was struck by how much we are not told. The narrative moves fast and furious. It skips details and provides only the barest of story elements. In one chapter we go from “the child” (sentenced to die by Pharaoh’s birth control program for the Hebrew tribes) abandoned by his mother to become an adopted member of Pharaoh’s family, who commits murder in defense of one of his kinsmen, flees into another land and gets married.

One commentary I read this morning also mentioned this theme of “the child” (present even in ancient literature) and went on to observe that “Moses has ‘hero’ written all over him.”

The other important metaphor lost on many readers is the fact that Moses is so named by Pharaoh’s daughter because she “drew him out of the water.” This is yet another theme throughout the Great Story. Out of the water, Noah and his family are saved and given God’s promise in the rainbow. Out of the water, Jonah arrives in Ninevah to prophetically lead its citizens to repent. Out of the water, Paul arrives at Malta. Out of the water, Elisha miraculously proclaims his arrival as Elijah’s successor, and it is out the water turned to wine that Jesus miraculously signals the beginning of His ministry. Moses will eventually lead his people out of the water of the Red Sea towards the Promised Land. Out of the water of the Jordan River, Joshua will lead those people into the Promised Land. Out of the water of that same river, John the Baptist will lead people to repentance and proclaim Jesus the Messiah. It is out of the water of baptism that followers of Jesus are metaphorically washed of sin and set on the path of new life in the footsteps of Jesus. It is out of the Water of Life Jesus that promises to eternally quench the thirsty souls of His followers:

“Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”

John 4:19 (MSG)

In the quiet this morning, I find both my mind and my soul spinning as I think about all the themes and meaning present in the few verses of the chapter. I didn’t even mention the theme of fleeing into the wilderness, the fact that the Midianite people to whom Moses flees are also children of Abraham, nor the fact that Moses’ father-in-law is a “priest” even though the “priesthood” of God had yet to be defined through the law of Moses. Evidence suggests that the Midianites tribes were worshipping the God of Abraham but we know nothing about it or what that really meant.

Yet, I find myself coming back to the theme of water. It is something so essential to life, and yet for most of us, it is something we so take for granted that we don’t even give it a second thought. Along the journey, I have often found that the profound things of God are often quite simple, and hidden in plain sight for “those who have eyes to see.” I’m reminded of another thing Jesus said:

“We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”

Matthew 10:42 (MSG)

A cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty.

“Out of the water….”

How simple.

Exile, Then and Now

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Mark 16:8 (NIV)

As I have mentioned in previous posts, my local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been entrenched in the them of exile since this past September. It’s been a fascinating and challenging theme. On one hand, the theme of exile is a meta-theme of the Great Story:

  • Since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden at the very beginning of the Great Story, humanity has been exiled from the intended, eternal relationship with God. This is relationship is restored at the very end of the Great Story at the end of the book of Revelation.
  • Jesus left His “home” in eternity with the Father and Spirit, to come to an exile on Earth to live an earthly existence as one of us in order to make the way for the redemption of all things.
  • Abraham followed God’s call to leave his home and wander in exile so that he might be led by God to “a land that I will show you.” (I talked about this in the most recent Wayfarer podcast).
  • Jacob and his family left Canaan to live in exile in Egypt where they escaped famine and were later enslaved by the Egyptians.
  • The tribes of Israel escaped slavery in Egypt and spent 40 years in the exilic wandering of the Sinai.
  • David had to escape from King Saul and spent many years living in exile in the desert where he became a mercenary.
  • The major prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah warned of the coming Babylonian exile.
  • The northern tribes of Israel were taken into captivity and exile by the Assyrians.
  • The tribes of Benjamin and Judah were taken into captivity and exile by the Babylonians.
  • The prophet Ezekiel prophesied in the Babylonian exile.
  • The story of Daniel takes place in the Babylonian exile.
  • The story of Esther takes place during the Babylonian exile under the Persian empire.
  • The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are about the return from the Babylonian exile.

What struck me in the abrupt end of Mark’s version of the Jesus Story (abrupt endings were not unusual for writings and speeches of the period) is both the irony and the exile.

What is ironic is that Jesus spent much of His ministry telling those whom He healed and delivered to keep it to themselves. In almost every circumstance the person ignored Jesus and spread the good news. Now Jesus completes His mission and does exactly what He predicted He would do multiple times. The Marys are told to spread the good news, only this time they fearfully clam up.

This represents the dramatic shift that took place during the final week of Jesus’ earthly exile. He had arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover as a celebrity. Crowds gathered to praise Him with their “Hosannas!” Jesus followers were vying for positions of prominence in what they were sure would be the Messiah’s earthly reign. “Jesus” was trending in all of the social media outlets of the day and His approval ratings were through the roof.

The Marys’ fear, trembling, and Fifth-Amendment-like silence indicate just how quickly the tables had turned. The powerful political and religious leaders of Jerusalem had successfully turned the fickle crowds against Jesus. Having executed the “Head,” the Marys and the rest of Jesus’ followers knew that their own lives had become expendable. The Godfathers of the Temple’s religious racket could very well be coming for them next. And, it wasn’t just the Jewish authorities. The power of the Roman Empire itself had hung Jesus on the cross, and the Romans were notorious for snuffing out any hint of opposition to their power.

In one week the followers of Jesus had experienced a shift from exaltation to exile. This makes the events chronicled in the book of Acts even more profound for me. If the body had been stolen, or if Jesus’ followers had not met, seen, touched, and received instructions from the resurrected Christ, then how do I explain their fearless 180-degree turn from “trembling, bewildered,” and hidden followers into fearless proponents walking boldly into the Temple courts just 40 days later to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and face both persecution and martyrdom?

This morning I find myself contemplating a similar seismic shift that I have observed during my earthly journey. I have, in my lifetime, witnessed the waning of institutional Christianity in our world. All of the mainline denominations have fractured and imploded. I continue to witness arguably the most powerful Christian institution, the Roman Catholic church, as it suffers the consequences of its own internal corruption and deep moral failings. I observe that the current era is almost universally being dubbed the “Post-Christian” world. Even the positive contributions of Christianity and the critical role that Christian faith played in the lives of important figures over the past 2000 years are being erased from the historical narrative. In recent films such as Little Women, Tolkien, and Unbroken, I observe that the critical role that Christian faith played in the lives of the characters and protagonists has been completely removed from the narrative.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself mulling over what all of this means. Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. In the first century, many followers of Jesus fled persecution in Jerusalem and lived in their own personal exiles. Scattered across the Roman Empire, their exile became a key ingredient in the spread of Jesus’ message. Perhaps followers of Jesus are, once again, finding ourselves entering a period of social exile. Looking back at the recurring presence and spiritual purpose of exile in the Great Story, I’m not sure that what I’m observing isn’t simply part of the divine storyboard.

No matter what, I come to the conclusion this morning that my role remains the same. To follow, to love, and to press on one step at a time.

Have a good week, my friend. Thanks for reading.

Apocalypse and Labor Pains

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
Mark 13:8 (NIV)

I recently finished a three-episode podcast series on time. The second episode of the podcast specifically on the so-called “end times” and the apocalypse. The apocalyptic and dystopian has always captured the human imagination, and one of the observations that I made in the podcast is that every generation has those who believe the end is near. I have also observed a pattern within every community of Jesus followers with whom I’ve been associated. As they get older, the more likely it is that they will be convinced that the return of Jesus and the apocalyptic end prophesied in Revelation is near. There must be something human in us that feels comforted by projecting our fear about the end of our own earthly journey on all humankind.

Well,” I hear an older woman [let’s cast Dame Maggie Smith in the role] saying with a shrug, “If I’ve got to die, it would be nice to have some company.

These things came to mind this morning as Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the persecution of His followers, and His eventual return “in power and glory.”

As I read the chapter, there was one little phrase that Jesus specifically uses that I have overlooked for my entirety of my forty years as a follower. He calls the signs of His prophetic events “birth pains.”

This brings to mind my last podcast episode in which I discussed the over-arching themes of the Great Story. One of them being:

Creation –> Destruction –> New Creation

So, the logical question I have to ask myself is: “What naturally happens after ‘birth pains’?”

A birth.

A new life.

A new start.

A beginning.

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that Jesus told His followers not to worry, and not to be afraid, even in the midst of persecution, suffering, and apocalyptic predictions of incredible suffering and destruction.

It is ironic that Jesus encourages such faith and trust. It is just a day or two before He knows that He will endure incredible persecution, injustice, suffering, death, and hell. Jesus has prophesied that He will exemplify this apocalyptic, overarching Great Story theme. The events about to take place at the end of His own earthly journey are layered with meaning. They will be both a micro-human event and a macro-spiritual event. His trials, suffering, death, and resurrection are the “birth pains.” Even as Jesus says these words, amidst the escalation of conflict and the death threats of His enemies, He is feeling the contractions of His divine role in the Great Story. He is providing the example. He is blazing the trail. He is leading the way which does not end on the cross. It is the labor that will give birth to new life:

Life –> Death –> Resurrection

I am also reminded this morning that most apocalyptic movies and stories do not end with the depressing end of all things, but with the seeds of new hope being planted.

All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story.

 “I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.”

Jesus

And,” I imagine Jesus saying with a shrug, “if I’m going to live, I’d love to have some company.”

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.

Wander and Return

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

Zechariah 10:1-2 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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