Tag Archives: Thought for the Day

When the Opening Hints of Doom

Now Jehoshaphat had great wealth and honor, and he allied himself with Ahab by marriage.
2 Chronicles 18:1 (NIV)

When you study the art of film, one of the things you learn is that the opening scene of a movie is very important, and a good writer and/or director is going to put a lot of thought into it. A good opening shot sets the stage and tone for the entire film and establishes the movie’s theme. Writers will use an opening line much the same way, and playwrights will do the same with their opening scene or Chorus.

In today’s chapter, the ancient Chronicler uses his opening sentence to set up the reader for the story to follow. I think most modern readers miss it the same way many film-goers miss the importance of the opening scene as they settle into their seat with the popcorn.

First, he references King Jehoshaphat’s “wealth and honor” which ties this part of the story back to the previous chapter which detailed Jehoshaphat’s wealth and honor. The Chronicler also made it clear that the said wealth and honor was linked to Jehoshaphat’s commitment and obedience to God. The next thing he tells us in the opening sentence is that Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with a man named Ahab.

Marriage alliances were common practice of royals throughout history. If you were King of one nation, Kings from neighboring nations would give you their daughters in marriage (or arrange a marriage between your respective children) as a way of assuring peace between nations as you’re not likely to attack your wife’s own father and destroy your wife’s family and tribe. This is why all the royal families of Europe are, to this day, a dizzying mash-up of intertwining family connections:

The fact that Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance is not surprising, but the Chronicler is telling his readers that Jehoshaphat made the alliance with Ahab. All of the Chroniclers contemporary leaders would know Ahab. It’s like a contemporary writer referencing a name like Gates, Buffet, Clinton, or Trump. Everyone knows who you’re talking about.

Ahab was king of Israel (the 10 tribes who split from Solomon’s son and created their own nation). Israel and Judah had been more or less in a state of on-and-off civil war for years. Israel’s monarchy and tribes had abandoned the worship of God. Ahab’s wife was the infamous Queen Jezebel. Together Ahab and Jezebel were one of the most detestable royal couples in the history of Israel. Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with them.

Since I’m on the theme of movies, let me reference the Godfather’s famous leadership principle: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It might be hopeful to think that Jehoshaphat was that cunning, but that would be wishful thinking. What the Chronicler is doing with his establishing sentence is setting his readers up for the fact that this is not going to end well. Especially given the fact that the Chronicler has already established a theme of immediate retribution throughout his stories: Do good by God and good things immediately happen. Do wrong by God and bad things immediately happen. We as readers should know by now that Jehoshaphat getting involved with the idolatrous and murderous Ahab and Jezebel is a foreshadowing of bad things to come.

This morning I’m thinking about the very simple life lesson of being careful who I align myself with. Jesus specifically prayed to God the Father that He would not take his followers “out of the world.” He wanted us in the world so as to influence it and bring His Kingdom’s love, grace, and power to all, especially those who need it most. So, I don’t think being careful with my “alignment” is about staying in my holy huddle and avoiding “those people” all together. There are certain individuals, however, for whom it would be unwise of me to align myself in a close relationship, a business partnership, a marriage, a contract, an obligation or a similar intertwining of life or business.

Even if it looks good on paper, the establishing shot hints at problems to come.

Once in a While, I’ve Gotta Stop Looking at my Feet

“Announce and proclaim among the nations,
    lift up a banner and proclaim it;
    keep nothing back, but say,
‘Babylon will be captured;”
Jeremiah 50:2a (NIV)

Just yesterday I read an article about living in the later stretches of life’s journey. A few years ago I would have simply passed that article by. All of a sudden, it seems more relevant.

When I was a young man, I remember our (somewhat) annual family gatherings at the lake. I would never have imagined during that stage of the journey that my folks would buy a place here, that I would eventually own it, and what life would be like spending chunks of each summer living, working, and hosting family and friends here. In those days, I was just trying to get through each day and living week-by-week. I gave little thought to anything beyond the stretch of the journey I was in at that moment. My eyes were focused on my feet as I put one foot in front of the other.

Today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s prophetic anthology is a fascinating. For most of the 50 chapters through which we’ve waded, the nation of Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar have been prophetically revealed as “God’s servant” gobbling up both Judah and the surrounding nations. Now, Jeremiah’s vision extends further down life’s road when Babylon will be defeated and suffer the same treatment they’ve dished out for years. At that time, the remnant of God’s people will return to their land. Jeremiah looks beyond the next chapter of the story to the subsequent chapters and the events in the plot line.

As a young man I had experienced relatively little of Life’s journey. Without the perspective that comes from experience, I found myself myopically focused on the day-to-day and the next milestone in view. The further I progressed and experienced more and more distinct stages of life, the more capable I’ve become at looking ahead. I can see past today. I can look past the next milestone. I can begin to envision that there’s not only a new chapter of life after this one, but also another one after that, and one after that. It doesn’t mean that I worry about the future, mind you. As Jesus reminded us in yesterday’s post, those tomorrows will take care of themselves. It is what it is. What will be will be. It does, however, give my today some much needed perspective.

This morning I’m reminded of a few specific stages of Life’s road that I thought would never end. There have been stages which required so much thought, energy, emotional, and spiritual resources that I couldn’t see beyond them. I can imagine that those taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and hauled off to Babylon felt that way in the midst of their exile. But Jeremiah’s message in today’s chapter stood as a reminder that there’s more to the story. Past this chapter of the story is another chapter, and then another, and another.

I can’t always see what lies ahead on Life’s road, but I’ve learned that it’s wise to stop looking at my feet from time to time. One in a while I need to look up, look out, and search the horizon. I can’t see clearly what’s coming, but I need the reminder that there’s more to the story. I will get there.

As for today? Press on.

Return

Return, O faithless children,
    I will heal your faithlessness.
“Here we come to you;

     for you are the Lord our God.”
Jeremiah 3:22 (NRSVCE)

I recall an episode with one of our daughters a number of years ago. The details of the episode are irrelevant. Our daughter had placed a considerable amount of relational distance between herself and me. She made some choices that she assumed would not make me very happy, and she basically hid from me for a period of time.

When things were eventually revealed I was, admittedly, upset. My anger, however, was not so much with the choices she feared would upset me as it was with the fact that she felt she must hide and distance herself from me.

“When have we ever been unable to talk things out?”
“When have I ever been unreasonable?”
“When have I ever demanded my own way of you?”
“When have I not allowed you to make your own choices?”
“What must you think of me that you can’t be honest with me?”
“Do you honestly think I would reject you?”
“Do you not realize how much I love you?”
“Do you honestly think my love for you is so conditional?”

These are the questions that plagued me. The injury I felt ultimately had less to do with the choices she had made, for they affected me very little. The injury I felt had more to do with the relational choices   between her and me. They affected me deeply. I love her so much.

Eventually, we talked. We reasoned. There were injuries and misunderstandings that lay underneath the surface. I am not a perfect parent. She is not a perfect child. We slogged through the hard stuff. We forgave. We reconciled. We restored. We learned valuable lessons about ourselves and each other in the process. We let go of what was behind and pressed forward. Old things pass away.

In today’s chapter, Jeremiah’s prophetic poem is about a heavenly father’s frustration with wayward Israel and wayward Judah. Anger and frustration are present, but ultimately there is simply a call to return, to come home, to be reconciled, and for relationship to be restored.

“Return” is a recurring theme throughout the Great Story. Jesus took it to a new level in the beautiful parable of the Prodigal son. Jesus would experience the theme interpersonally in Peter’s denial and ultimate restoration on the shores of Galilee. It is a human story and a Spirit story. We all experience it in various forms both relationally and spiritually in our own respective journeys.

This morning in the quiet I am thinking about the theme of “return” in my own multi-layered experiences across 50-plus years. I’m thinking about my own wayward actions as a son of my parents. I’m thinking about my experiences as a father. I’m thinking about my own prodigal stretches in life when I walked in the shoes of my own daughter; When I made the same mistaken projections and misguided choices.

It’s easy to read God’s Message and to feel the weight of a Father’s frustration so acutely as to miss the heart and the hurt of a loving parent aching for His child to return. Jesus came to recalibrate our thinking and to reconcile us to God…

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

“But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.”

Return. The Father is waiting.

“What Would LOVE Do?”

Do everything in love.
1 Corinthians 16:14 (NIV)

A number of years ago there was a fad that caught on among Christians. The acronym WWJD was printed and hocked by every manner of trinket maker from bracelets to t-shirts to wallets and . I imagine most people still remember that the initials stood for the question “What Would Jesus Do?” It became a pervasive for a time in our culture to the point that it has also been parodied and mocked.

What many people don’t know is that the popularity of the question is rooted in an ancient concept, “imitatio dei,” which among Protestants gained wide-spread popularity after a book called In His Steps (by Charles M. Sheldon) was published in 1898. The book tells the story of a man who decides that he is not going to do anything without first asking “What would Jesus do?” and then acting on the answer. The book chronicles his struggles and the ways the simple act changes his life and relationships.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve occasionally mulled over the WWJD question when facing a particular decision or relational dilemma. Quite honestly, the challenge I always run into is trying to connect the limited number of stories about Jesus told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and extrapolating what Jesus would do in my specific situation were he to be standing in my twenty-first century loafers. Sometimes it’s an easy reach, but sometimes it’s not.

No disrespect to Charles Sheldon or the WWJD minions, but I have found that the question “What Would Love Do?” (based on Paul’s description in his letter to the believers in Corinth) is sometimes an easier connection though just as difficult to actually act upon. Paul ends his letter to the Corinthians telling them to “do everything in love” and John wrote that God is love. So if I’m doing what love would do, I am by extension doing what Jesus would do. The thing about the question “What Would Love Do?” (WWLD) is that it comes with a complete subset of questions with which to think through my motives and potential actions:

  • Love is patient. What is the patient thing to do or say?
  • Love is kind. What would be the kind thing to do or say?
  • Love does not envy. Am I acting or speaking out of personal discontent and/or envy of another persons being or blessings?
  • Love does not boast. Am I acting or speaking from a position of porosity or pride? Am I trying to look good for others? Am I trying to prove something for my own benefit or self-gratification? 
  • Love does not dishonor others. How can I act and speak in such a way that I am “attaching worth” to the person(s) I’m dealing with?
  • Love is not self-seeking. What action would be in others interests or to others benefit rather than my own?
  • Love is not easily angered. Am I reacting instinctually, mindlessly and/or emotionally? What do I need to do to avoid a mindless emotional reaction in order to respond in a deliberate, loving way?
  • Love keeps no record of wrongsHave I truly chosen to forgive others in this situation? Will I let go of my right to be right, or relinquish my right to what I think would be a just outcome?
  • Love does not delight in evil. Would my words or actions instigate or perpetuate a “disruption of shalom” in this situation?  
  • Love rejoices in the truth. Would my words or actions bring clarity and sow life, peace and love in the situation?
  • Love always protectsWhat words or actions would best protect both myself and others from further injury and any further disruption of shalom?
  • Love always trusts. What words or actions would relinquish my selfish desire to control and activate the faith necessary to allow God to truly have Lordship over myself and others?
  • Love always hopes. What words or actions would allow for the sowing, cultivation and harvest of Spirit-fruit in the situation and in relationships (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control)?
  • Love always perseveres. What words or actions would allow for life, love, and reconciliation further along in the journey, even if it does not seem possible in this moment?

Have a good day, my friends. Shalom.

Spiritual Bankruptcy

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (MSG)

It is possible to be religious, but not loving.
It is possible to be righteous, but not loving.
It is possible to be generous, but not loving.
It is possible to be doctrinally sound, but not loving.
It is possible to be right, but not loving.
It is possible to be politically correct, but not loving.
It is possible to be a defender of truth, but not love your enemy.
It is possible to know all scripture, but not love those who mock you.
It is possible to have spotless church attendance, but not love.
It is possible to have spiritual discipline, but not love.
It is possible to have success, but not love.
It is possible to have a million followers, but not love.
It is possible to have good intentions, but not love.

Jesus said there were two basic laws:
1) Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2) Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

When pressed to define who He meant by “neighbor,” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, the person who had love was a foreigner and an immigrant. The person who had love carried scars from being the victim of racial prejudice, injustice and systemic social, political, and economic ostracization. The person who had love held heretical doctrinal beliefs. The person who had love stood condemned by the prevailing  institutional religion of which Jesus was a part. But, the hated, heretical, outcast foreigner had love, and Jesus’ story made clear that love was the one thing that mattered to God.

On this life journey I’ve taken a good  hard look at myself, and the prevailing institutional religion of which I am a part.

We still haven’t learned the simple and most basic lesson Jesus ever taught. All of my spirituality, righteousness, and religion is bankrupt without love.

Lord, help me love.

featured image is a detail from the St. John’s Bible

Cropped Hair and Holy Kisses

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him….”
1 Corinthians 11:14 (NIV)

For the past few weeks I’ve been giving messages about traditions here in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. By traditions I mean those social behaviors or events that a group of people adhere to that are tied metaphorically to a larger meaning. It might be a event or person to memorialize, a teaching or command to follow, or something that brings identity and belonging to a particular group.

For 2000 years those who follow Jesus have had many different rituals and traditions. Those who carry out these traditions can be quite dogmatic about the necessity or right-ness of their particular tradition. Conflicts and division among different groups of Christians have been quite common occurrences over time as one sincere group of Jesus’ followers says “Ours is the right and biblical way to hold this tradition” and another sincere group of Jesus’ followers says, “No! Our way of holding to and observing this tradition is the right and biblical way!”

Typically, groups will point to scripture for heir final authority. The truth is, traditions ebb and flow over time and culture. Take today’s chapter, for example. Paul clearly instructs that women should always have their head covered when they “pray or prophesy.” For the better part of 2000 years women have followed this tradition. A few weeks ago I referenced our local costume shop in a post, where you’ll find hundreds of ladies hats from the early-mid 20th century because women in town always wore hats to church. But, that tradition has changed in the past 60 years in our culture. The tradition no longer carries the meaning that it once did for us.

We pick and choose the traditions we wish to keep. Jesus never said to abandon all of the Jewish traditions and festivals, in fact His example was to observe them. Yet that fell out of fashion as the Church became more and more Roman and the Jewish people fell out of favor late in the first century.

Paul also says in today’s chapter that it’s a disgrace for a man to have long hair. This verse was harped on by the professors of a Bible college I attended one semester. The college had strict, dogmatic rules about how male students should cut their hair based on this particular verse. It was their tradition, and they strictly observed it.

Funny thing. Paul ends his letter to the believers of Corinth by instructing them to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” The school administration seemed to ignore this particular command and tradition. Not once did one of my professors pucker up when I walked into the classroom!

As much as we like to wax self-righteous on being obedient and scriptural, the truth is that followers of Jesus have spent 2000 years following an ever-changing set of traditions and rituals that have ebbed and flowed over time. We can deny this fact and cling to our pride and rightness, or we can humbly embrace that traditions may hold their meaning for a particular time and place only to be released and then, perhaps, rediscovered again. We can let these things divide us, or we can seek to respect and honor the metaphor and meaning others find in traditions and rituals that are foreign to us.  Perhaps God might use them to help me find meaning I’d not before considered.

This morning I find myself praying an ancient prayer (a traditional prayer, mind you) given to us by St. Francis: [I paraphrase], “Help me to be less about being understood and more about being understanding.”

Pesky Pessimism & Rose Tinted Ray-Bans

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.
1 Corinthians 9:1-3 (NIV)

Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. The premise of the article was that while it’s very popular to moan, groan and wax pessimistic about humanity’s rapid descent towards doomsday (a glance at your Facebook feed or a 24 hour news channel should prove this point), a look at actual data shows that life for human beings around the globe are better than they’ve ever been.

I have confessed in previous posts to having a pesky, pessimistic spirit. Ask Wendy and she can give you plenty of examples. It’s very easy for me to slip into doomsday mode with little justification for doing so. I have lived much of my spiritual journey in a form of holy pessimism. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I’ve typically found that my fellow believers eagerly buy-in to the notion that things were spiritually so much better for the apostles and Jesus’ followers in the first century. They saw the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes. They had all these miracles happening everyday. They were living in the socialistic bliss of their local Acts 2:42 commune. In contrast, things seem spiritually worse today than ever. We’re accustomed to hearing this regularly from the pulpit and the media, and it’s a popular mindset. We’re going to hell in a hand basket. So my preacher and the news stations tell me so.

What’s fascinating is that the further I get in my spiritual journey and the more I study God’s Message the more contrarian I find myself becoming in these matters. I think I’ve spent most of my journey looking at the past, even the Bible, with rose-tinted Ray-Bans.

In today’s chapter Paul hints at a conflict that’s been simmering in the leadership ranks of the early church. The term “apostle” was not a title given lightly to the early believers. It generally referred to “the twelve” whom Jesus had chosen, trained and commissioned. There appears to have been some criteria for claiming the title (i.e. having seen the risen Jesus, having been sent by Jesus, performing signs and wonders, and etc.). Paul claimed to be an “apostle” in all of his letters. He begins today’s section of the letter basically citing his resume for being an “apostle” after admitting that some claim that he’s not. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul somewhat sarcastically refers to the other apostles as “super apostles.” He gives a similar sarcastic tone to the term “esteemed apostles” in his letter to the Galatians (before calling Peter out and saying that Peter “stands condemned” for his hypocritical actions).

Something smells rotten in the early church” Shakespeare might have written. I think I gloss over how hard things were for the early believers, how much conflict and strife there was, and how miraculous it is that this fledgling movement even survived.

This morning I’m simply mulling over my own natural pessimism. This past weekend I’ve been thinking long and hard about my penchant for buying into “the past was better, the present is certainly worse and getting worser” line of thinking. I’m not sure the evidence supports that notion. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a glass that’s half-full with my name on it within easy reach.

Trust me. You won’t like it,” my pessimistic spirit whispers to me.

Arrrrrghhh. Happy Monday every one.