Tag Archives: Theme

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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Loving Devotion and Life-less Obligation

I have been on a pseudo-sabbatical from my daily chapter-a-day posts for the past month. I took the opportunity of late summer vacations both to the lake and to Kauai to rest from my normal routines, though when I rest from regular routines I have a penchant for developing new ones.. I’ve felt prompted, of late, to wade into the writings of the prophet Isaiah, which I’ve blogged through only once back in the spring of 2010. It’s rather daunting journey, merely for the length of it (66 chapters!). Like all lengthy journeys it affords both tedious plodding and memorable, breathtaking moments. Here we go.

One of the keys to reading the poetic verse and visions of the ancient prophets (nearly all of the prophetic writings of what we refer to as the Old Testament are penned as Hebrew poetry) are 1) the cultural and historic context of the time in which the author was writing and 2) the person and circumstance of the prophet himself.

Isaiah lived in the capital city of Jerusalem during a period of “the kings.” The twelve tribes of Israel had been united under the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, but then split in two during the reign of Solomon’s son. The southern kingdom was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and had its capital in Judah. Judah was loyal to the house and line of David. The northern kingdom (Israel) was made up of the rest of the tribes and claimed Bethel as its capital and religious center. Israel’s monarchy was continually a free-for-all which made for a lot of political intrigue.

Like all great books, the beginning introduces the overarching themes. In today’s opening chapter Isaiah sets the scene in Jerusalem where Solomon’s temple was the center of Israel’s sacrificial system. Over the last few months I blogged through the book of Leviticus, in which set the sacrificial system into being as established through Moses. The dutiful, religious people of Judah continue to carry out their rituals, festivals and sacrifices. But, there’s a problem.

Isaiah gets right to the crux of the matter. The people were carrying out their religious duties, but had forsaken the heart of their relationship with God. They were like a spouse who manages the daily household routines of marital and family obligation while their heart wanders in desire for others. God wanted their obedient actions to be motivated out of love and desire, not rote obligation void of love and devotion.

I have confessed to being a person of routines, and this morning I am thinking about the religious routines in my own life. My daily quiet time and blog post are a routine. Attending church services on Sunday is a routine. Giving financially to my local church and other ministries is a routine. But, are these coming from a heart-felt love and devotion to God, or are they merely Life-less robotic religious behaviors? Do my actions point God toward a living love and desire within my heart or, like the people of Isaiah’s day, have my religious behaviors become absorbed by the rotting stench of my hypocrisy?

Dealing with that stain and stench is another major theme of Isaiah’s poetic visions, which he establishes in today’s chapter:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
    learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.

 

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“L’chaim”

“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.”
Leviticus 18:3 (NRSV)

This past weekend we were with friends at the lake. It was a wonderful weekend. We lay in the sun and on the water. We took a boat ride in which the hum of the engine and the rocking of the waves lulled our friends to sleep. We watched a good movie together that resonated with profound lessons about the contrast between life and religiosity. We drank a luscious red wine and ate a rich mixture of crackers, cheese, fruits and veggies. We explored new ideas. We shared both joys and heartaches. We spoke into one another’s lives.

Our friend raised his glass multiple times during the weekend in what is an important ritual for him, and offered the Hebrew toast “L’chaim” which means “to life.”

When you look at the Great Story God is telling from Genesis to Revelation, there are a few simple themes woven throughout. One of them is the theme of life and death:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live….” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

We continue our journey today through the ancient sacrificial system described in the book of Leviticus. If you’ve been following along I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the whole thing gets a bit surreal to our 21st century western sensibilities. In today’s chapter, we encounter a host of rules centered mostly around sex. The key to unlocking the message is in the third verse (pasted at the top of this post).

The Hebrews had just escaped from being slaves in Egypt. They were headed to the land God promised them in Canaan. They have been immersed in Egyptian culture for hundreds of years and they are about to experience Canaanite culture. Neither culture was particularly healthy.

King Tut RenderingIn Egypt, the ruling families were known to practice incest in the belief that they were keeping the royal bloodline pure. The Pharaoh and his family were considered deities and the thinking went that if the royal family only bred from among each other that they wouldn’t be tainted by any non-deified humans. Of course, we know today that his is a really bad idea. Consider the famous King Tut. Extensive research on Tut’s mummy reveals that the boy king behind the famous hoard of golden treasure was far from what we would consider god-like. He had a club foot, probably walked with a cane, and he had abnormally wide, feminine hips for a boy. These are likely genetic issues stemming from the fact that his parents were brother and sister.

By the way, before we get too judgmental on the ancient Egyptians, it should be noted that the whole “pure blood” philosophy among royals carried on in Europe for centuries. J.K. Rowling didn’t just make up the “pure blood” notion for the fictional wizarding world. The royal families in Europe are a dizzying mixture of marriages between relatives.

Intermarriage among Europe's royal Hapsburg family.
Intermarriage among Europe’s royal Hapsburg family.
In ancient Canaan, the local tribal cultures had their own mixture of unhealthy sexual practices which spilled into their local religious practices. Ritual worship of pagan gods such as Molech included strange sexual practices and the sacrifice of human children by burning them.

So, as we read through today’s chapter we have to realize that it was a prescription against cultural and religious practices from Egypt and Canaan that were unhealthy for individuals and society as a whole. It’s back to the theme of life and death. These things don’t promote life and its healthy regeneration. These things bring destructive havoc on people, relationships, and society. Underneath the rules lies the same old theme: life and death. God is once again saying, “I want you to choose life by living in such away as to avoid those things you’ve seen in Egypt and will see in Canaan which are really unhealthy and contribute to destruction and death.”

Which brings me back to last weekend with our friends which was so full of life. Our bodies rested, our souls refreshed, and our relationships were strengthened. We tasted and drank in goodness spiritually, emotionally, relationally as well as in the literal food and drink we enjoyed together. Our activity and our conversations were life giving. And that’s always what God wants us to choose.

L’chaim.

Hollywood Moment in Colossae

But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.
Philemon vs. 14

One of the things you learn in the world of theatre, film, and story is that conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s Friday before 4th of July weekend as I write this, so we’re all being treated by Hollywood to blockbuster conflicts of good and evil in the form of comic book heroes and alien invasions. Fun epic conflicts that feed the adrenal glands while requiring very little of us emotionally. The more personal and human a story’s conflict, the more deeply it affects us.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is an overlooked personal story amidst the grand epic of the Great Story. It’s a deeply personal moment between two men: Philemon and Onesimus. It’s a moment made possible by an unexpected, divinely appointed meeting.

Philemon is a man of means. He’s a respected local businessman in the city of Colossae, where he met Paul and became a follower of Jesus. Philemon became a generous benefactor to the believers in Colossae. He opened his home for them to meet and worship. He was generous in love and deed and greatly respected by Paul.

Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon. At some point in time, Onesimus stole from his master and ran away. Under Roman law, Onesimus was guilty of crimes punishable by death.

The exact details of the historical story are sketchy, but as a story-teller I’d dare to believe that as a runaway slave, Onesimus likely stuck to a life of petty theft to stay alive and on the run. Petty thieves, especially those who are poor runaway slaves, get caught and thrown into prison. As fate would have it, Onesimus is thrown into jail with a religious disturber of the peace named Paul. Paul recognizing the thief as a member of his friend, Philemon’s household, befriends Onesimus. The runaway slave becomes a sincere follower of Jesus.

Paul tells the slave and fledgling follower that while he has repented of his sins and his sins have been forgiven through Jesus sacrifice, he still must make things right with his master. Onesimus the runaway slave must return to his master, Philemon, as a brother in Christ. Paul pens his short letter. Onesimus, upon his release from prison, returns to his master in Colossae, letter in hand.

What a Hollywood moment. What a churning mixture of emotions as slave owner sees thief and runaway slave walking back through his door. What a moment when Philemon reads the letter from Paul and begins to fathom how God has orchestrated this story. What layers of meaning on personal, spiritual, and cultural levels as matters of slavery and human conflict gets intertwined with fate and personal faith. Runaway slave returns as a fellow follower of the faith. I can only imagine Onesimus’ fear mixed with memories of anger and hatred toward to this man who “owned” him. Philemon’s feelings of legal rights, personal betrayal, and desire for justice is now in conflict with his conscience as the word’s of Jesus’ prayer run through his head: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgiven those who sin against us.”

Today I’m reminded that the test of our faith is in our interpersonal conflicts.

 

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Driven to Distraction

They sent to me four times in this way, and I answered them in the same manner.
Nehemiah 6:4 (NRSV)

For the last couple of years our local gathering of Jesus’ followers have been encouraged to pray about and choose a word that will be a theme for their year. My word for this year is “focus.”

Focus has been an interesting theme as I celebrate my half-century in this life journey, as an empty nest offers increased margins of time and resources, and as I am meditating on the reality of being on the downhill side of this life journey. I am ever and increasingly mindful that while my margins may have expanded in the micro sense, in the macro sense I am working with slowly depleting resources of time and energy.

We’re now almost half-way through the year and I’ve been spending some moments meditating on how my focus is going.  I have to confess that it’s not good. As I think about how I need and desire to focus my time, energy, and resources I find that life serves up a never-ending stream of distractions. I am so easily distracted in a million different ways. Between social media, technology, entertainment, television, games and events there is an endless supply of good and fascinating things on which I can focus my time and attention.

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah is desperately trying to focus on the project he’s been called to complete. He wants to get the wall rebuilt and the gates in place. He’s close to having the job done. Now, he is repeatedly harassed by critics and enemies who want to meet with him. He’s attacked with slander and gossip which requires him to address the lies and rumors. His life is threatened and he’s urged to sequester himself in the temple to be safe. Distractions. Distractions. Distractions.

Nehemiah’s response to these distractions was consistent. First, he took everything to God. He prayed for the work on which he needed to focus, and asked for God’s strength. He handed his troubles and enemies over to God and relegated justice to higher authority. And, he stayed focused on the work.

At the end of today’s chapter:

So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.

Today, I’m thinking again about my focus. The great thing about having a theme or a goal is that it becomes a point of reference. I may get off course or distracted, but simply having “focus” as my word of the year keeps calling me back from distraction. I can’t do anything about what’s past, but I have a new day, a clean day in front of me. And, on June 21 in Iowa, it’s a long day.

Time to focus.

I am Achan

And Achan answered Joshua, “It is true; I am the one who sinned against the Lord God of Israel. This is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them and took them. They now lie hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
Joshua 7:20-21 (NRSV)

The story of Achan is fascinating. God miraculously delivers the city of Jericho to Joshua and his big band of trumpet players. The walls of the city come tumbling down and the nation of Israel plunders the city with one simple rule: don’t take any of the pagan idols or things used in the worship of the idols and false gods of the people of Jericho. Does this remind you of anything? (Hint: “You can eat of any tree of the garden except for that one in the middle.”)

Sure enough, a man name Achan takes some forbidden spoil for himself in direct disobedience to the order (that would be calls sin) and then hides it by burying it in his tent (that would be called shame). God clues Joshua in that someone has disobeyed and, eventually, Achan is confronted and confesses his sin. Achan and his entire family are stoned to death to rid the nation of sin (that would be called a “scapegoat”).

When I was younger, I always saw the story of Achan from the idealistic view of the majority. “Achan, how could you ruin it for the whole nation? Dude, you knew the rules! How simple was it just to do the right thing? What an idiot!

As I have progressed in my life journey I have increasingly come to terms with a simple fact: I am Achan. I am the child who, at the age of five, stole all the envelopes with money in them off my grandparent’s Christmas tree and buried them in my suitcase. I am the one who is guilty of lying, and cheating, and stealing, and breaking my word, and being disobedient to God and my loved ones. Not just once, mind you, but over and over and over again. If I point the finger at Achan, there are three pointing back at me.

In the context of the Great Story, Achan serves as a thematic waypoint. Achan hearkens us back to Eden and reminds us that the problem of sin has not been dealt with.  Achan reminds us, in the moment, of one of the meta-themes of God’s great story: one little sin taints the whole. As Jesus put it, one smidgen of yeast affects the whole loaf. Achan reflects our fallen human nature’s penchant to blame one for the failure of the whole, and a Cubs fan need only to hear the name Bartman to realize that human nature has not changed across time. Finally, the story of Achan is a foreshadow of the solution God will provide when He will send His one and only Son to be the One who will die the death that idol stealing and  Christmas money stealing criminals deserve. Jesus will be the sacrificial lamb and make atonement for the whole.

This morning I am once again humbled by an honest reflection of my own shortcomings. I am thinking about Achan and accepting that I am him. Throw the rocks, man. I deserve it. I am once again grateful for that which we have just celebrated: God becoming man to die for my sin, to take my shame on His shoulders, and then to rise from the grave to give grace, hope, forgiveness, and redemption to one such as me.

 

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