Tag Archives: Word Picture

Hope Needs a Description

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”
Zechariah 8:4-5 (NIV)

There are certain stretches of the life journey when, as U2 sang, “You’re stuck in a moment, and you can’t get out of it.” There are times when everything seems to crash in around you and if feels as if nothing will ever be right with the world again.

As I look back this morning, it’s the period of time around the divorce that stands out as one of those stuck moments. It was certainly not how I envisioned things to go, and a circumstance in which I never thought I’d find myself. There was the shame that I, myself, felt. There was the condemnation of others telling me I was going to hell. There was a constant reminder that everything was out of sorts. There were days when I was so discouraged that I couldn’t see beyond it.

I’ve been journeying through the writings of the prophet Zechariah. His visions coincided with a time when the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. No one had been living in the rubble of the city. Everyone settled in nearby towns. Now, a remnant of exiles wants to return and rebuild. I can only imagine the discouragement of standing in front of the rubble heap and thinking, “How is this ever going to be a city again?”

In today’s chapter, Zechariah channels a stream of messages that God gave him for that remnant of exiles. What was fascinating to me was that it wasn’t just a pithy “Buck up, little campers. You can do it!” God gave specific word pictures of safety, security, and prosperity. He helped the exiles picture it in their heads: the old people sitting in front of their homes watching neighborhood children playing tag. He described times of plenty and times of peace.

It reminded me of particular friends who, during those dark days during the divorce, spoke to me specific things I had to look forward to. It wasn’t just a simple, It’s going to get better, but a “Tom, someday this is all going to be a distant memory. You’re going to walk alongside a brother who is going through it, and you’re going to be able to encourage him in his time of need.”

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that sometimes hope needs a description.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

An “Eternal Question”

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Colossians 3:12 (NIV)

I call them the eternal questions. This is not because the questions have no answers, but rather because no matter how many times you answer them they must be answered again. Perhaps they should be called the “perpetual” questions, but the phrase “eternal questions” has a certain ring to it. The eternal questions are the boulder of Sisyphus, the mythic schlep who perpetually rolled the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again. In our home, the most common eternal questions are:

  • “What are we having for supper?”
  • “So, what’s the plan today?”
  • “What am I going to wear?”

I’ve learned along my life journey not to fight the eternal questions. It’s futile. It’s best to make your peace with them. For me, a step in the process of making peace was the understanding that the eternal questions come from an abundance of blessing. We are blessed to have choices. Indeed, we are blessed to have so many choices available to us from which the eternal questions spring.

In today’s chapter, I found myself intrigued by Paul’s encouragement to “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We don’t often think of kindness as a garment. I don’t think of myself slipping into gentleness and patience like a pair of yoga pants.

Nevertheless, as I meditated on the word picture Paul gave, it struck me that when it comes to my attitude and responses towards both circumstances and people, I have an entire wardrobe available to me. I can choose that bright rage coat, or I can choose the suede jacket lined with gentleness. I have an entire wardrobe of choices available to me. Welcome to the walk-in closet of free will.

“What should I wear today?”

Of course, if you’re anything like me there are those “go to” choices that don’t seem like a choice at all because they’re easy and require no thought. No effort needed, and the choice is oh so comfy. Passivity slips on me like a familiar old sweatshirt. I’ve worn prejudice so long I’ve worn holes in it like my ancient pair of 501 blues. And then there are those well-worn flip-flops of pessimism I can just slip into as I head out on my daily trek.

I once had a prophet who was given a word picture for me. It was the image of Father God handing me a shirt to put on. It was a shirt I would have never picked for myself, but once I slipped it on and looked in the mirror I realized it looked so good on me.

That came to mind as I meditated on the notion of choosing what I’m going to clothe myself with today. My spiritual closet is stocked with love, kindness, patience, joy, peace, gentleness, and self-control. How often do I reach down to the dirty clothes scattered on the floor of my closet and slip into my old stand-bys of resentment, apathy, impatience, complaint, discontent, bitterness, and indulgence?

This morning I’m once again asking myself the eternal question “What am I going to wear?” This morning, however, it’s not about the clothes I put on my body. I’m on a business trip and there’s only one outfit in the suitcase for today. Today, the eternal question is about how I’m going to clothe my spirit, temperament, and attitude as I work with colleagues and clients. Father God has an outfit picked out that I might not normally choose for myself. Maybe I should try it on. I bet it’ll look fabulous.

Dress well, my friend.

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.

On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.

Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.

As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.

As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.

“Sea”

He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.
2 Chronicles 4:2 (NIV)

Earlier this year Wendy and I went on our second cruise in a handful of years. I love being on a cruise. I could sit on deck and look out over the ocean for hours and be perfectly content. I don’t know how this land-locked Iowa boy gained a love for the sea. I’ve had it since I was a kid and the ocean was just a picture in a book and figment of my imagination.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler continues to describe Solomon’s temple and all of the furnishings that were crafted by an artisan named Huram. I couldn’t help notice that it describes Huram making a “Sea.” It was really a giant water reservoir or pool. The water was used for ritual washing and cleansing. But the Hebrew word used by the Chronicler translates “Sea.” Interesting choice.

In the Hebrew rituals, washing and cleansing were an important part of worship. You know, the whole “cleanliness is next to godliness” motif. Jesus and his disciples, however, were criticized by the religious leaders for not ceremonially washing before they ate (That’s right. Jesus was a religious rule breaker!). Jesus’ response was classic. He made it clear to his critics that washing their hands religiously while ignoring their filthy souls was completely hypocritical. Jesus would elsewhere claim to be “Living Water”: An internal, eternal, spiritual spring within to quench, refresh, sustain, wash, and cleanse.

In the quiet this morning I’ve been meditating on the “Sea” described by the Chronicler. A ritual pool intended to be a word picture of the internal, spiritual washing we all need. By Jesus day, the word picture had been lost to empty religious regulation. Jesus sought to redeem the metaphor. He would be the “sea” and “spring.” He would be the Living Water not for the washing of dirty hands, but the cleansing of our stained souls.

Paul wrote to his friend, Titus:

“[Jesus] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” [emphasis added]

As I sit on deck of a ship and look out over the seemingly endless ocean, there’s something that it does for my soul. I think my spirit connects the sea to something deeper in Spirit. I look out over the sea and my spirit touches the word picture intended by the “Sea” made by Huram. My spirit connects to the “Sea” of Living Water endlessly springing up within, filling, quenching, sustaining, washing, and cleansing.

Back home in Iowa, a photo and a memory will have to suffice as a reminder (until our next cruise!).

[sigh]

The Wisdom of Awareness

“See how the waters are rising in the north;
    they will become an overflowing torrent.
They will overflow the land and everything in it,
    the towns and those who live in them.”
Jeremiah 47:2 (NIV)

A couple of years ago the lake where we spend a good part of our summer (which is actually part of a larger system of reservoirs) experienced some of the highest water levels on record. The flood of water coming downstream wreaked havoc throughout the entire system. Docks broke away, homes were flooded, and floodgates were opened which, in turn, became destructive to the area beneath the dam.

Of course, we knew it was coming. We could monitor the water levels of the rivers and reservoirs north of us online. There were warnings allowing residents to prepare. Fortunately, our house sits up on a hill and was never in danger, but that wasn’t true for all of our neighbors. It was a scary time.

Today’s chapter is  part of a series of prophetic messages that the ancient prophet Jeremiah gave to the nations around him. The message from today is focused on the ancient nation of the Philistines. Jeremiah uses the word picture of the rising waters in the north which foretold a coming flood. The metaphor pointed to the Babylonian army which was heading south and bent on conquering and destroying all nations in its path.

Along my journey I’ve experienced different kinds of difficulty and tragedy. Sometimes things happen suddenly and without warning, catching me off guard and forcing me to switch into emergency mode. Other times, however, there are warning signs. If my eyes are open and I remain aware, there is time to prepare and to shore up my resources against the potential danger even if there is nothing I can do to stop the impending flood headed my way.

This morning in the quiet I’m looking out the window at the calm, peaceful water. It is usually like this on a summer morning, but not always. Jesus said, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

I’m reminded this morning of the wisdom of awareness. In my spirit I’m praying for the perception to see when waters are rising upstream in this life, and the courage to begin preparations when they are.

A Faith Investment

Fields will be bought for silver, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessedin the territory of Benjamin, in the villages around Jerusalem, in the towns of Judah and in the towns of the hill country, of the western foothills and of the Negev, because I will restore their fortunes, declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah 32:44 (NIV)

A few years ago I read a couple of books about the Monuments Men. During World War II this small group of art experts were tasked with finding the hoard of European artwork that had been stolen, looted, and pillaged by the Nazis. Most all of the artwork had been taken from Jewish collectors, dealers, and artists as the Jews themselves were sent to Nazi ghettos and death camps.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a Jewish art collector living in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The round up of Jews has already begun and you’ve personally witnessed the homes of your Jewish neighbors and fellow art collectors being raided. All of their possessions, including their priceless artwork, has been confiscated by the Nazis while your neighbors have been loaded onto trucks and carried off to God knows where. You know that it’s only a matter of time before you hear the dreaded knock on your own door.

Then, an angel of God visits you in a dream and tells you to take all of your life savings and visit a local art dealer to purchase a rare painting by Van Gogh for your personal collection.

It doesn’t seem like a wise investment, does it?

In today’s chapter, it’s just that kind of investment that God tells the ancient prophet Jeremiah to make. The Babylonians have begun the siege of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the land around it, and every single thing that is within it will become the property of King Nebuchadnezzar. God tells Jeremiah at that very moment to make an investment in the purchase of some land.

We’re back to God’s favorite medium of communication: the world of word pictures and metaphors. Jews in Europe during the holocaust would be foolish to invest in artwork unless they knew for a fact that they and their artwork would survive. It is similarly foolish for Jeremiah to buy a piece of land when the Babylonians are clearly going to take it all for themselves in a short period of time.

But Jeremiah’s financial investment was not the issue in God’s . His people’s faith investment was. Jeremiah’s public purchase was made to be a message of faith and hope to his people in a moment of hopelessness and despair. “My people will come back to this land,” God is saying through Jeremiah’s metaphorical purchase. “All that you think is being pillaged, stolen and lost in this moment will eventually be restored.”

Jeremiah’s investment reminds me this morning of God’s faithfulness. 2 Timothy 2:13 says that “If we are faith-less God remains faith-full because He cannot disown himself” (emphasis added). Being faithful is at the core of who God is even when I have trouble seeing it in the blindness of my short-sighted humanity.

In the quiet this morning I’m grateful that The Monuments Men succeeded in finding and restoring much of the artwork stolen by the Nazis (It’s a good movie, btw). I also take solace in knowing that Jeremiah’s people did return to rebuild their city and their temple (as told in Nehemiah). Even in the darkest moments of the Great Story, when all seems hopeless and lost, I have to remember that it’s not the end of the story. I just have to have to make an investment of faith.

The Crazy Man in the Ox Yoke

This is what the Lord said to me: “Make a yoke out of straps and crossbars and put it on your neck.”
Jeremiah 27:2 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor. Remember metaphor from middle school English class? A metaphor is something which represents something else without using “like” or “as” (which would then make it a simile).

Consider this:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

In other words, all that God made is a metaphorical expression of who God is. We can find Him by simply looking at the universe and all that is.

When Jesus talked about Himself  He used metaphors:

  • “I am  the water of life.”
  • “I am the bread of life.”
  • “I am the light of the world.”
  • “I am the gate.”
  • “I am the good shepherd.”
  • “I am the vine.”
  • “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

Other metaphors are used in scripture for Jesus such as:

  • “Word” or “Living Word”
  • “Lamb of God”
  • “Righteous Branch”

When Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion He said:

“This is my body.”
“This
is my blood.”

God regularly gave the ancient prophets metaphors to convey His message. In today’s chapter, God tells Jeremiah to strap an ox yoke around his neck. An ox yoke is the crossbar placed around the neck of an ox to control it when using the ox for pulling a cart, a plow, or some other task. Jeremiah was then to tell the envoys of the neighboring kings who were visiting Jerusalem that if they will all become servants of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon they will be spared the humiliation of being defeated by him.

You have to imagine that for a second. A man standing there strapped to an ox yoke in front of these high-powered diplomatic envoys telling them that they are going to be oxen strapped to a yoke, so they would be strapped in servitude to Babylon. No wonder people thought him crazy.

Just yesterday Wendy and I were talking about a message I gave this past Sunday among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. She once again echoed what I have heard over and over and over again across the many years I’ve been a public speaker: “People love your stories.” I recall a client one time telling me “Just keep telling stories. You tell the best stories.” Stories are metaphors with a “moral” or a meaning larger than the story itself. That’s why Jesus told parables. When talking about God’s kingdom Jesus didn’t give dry lectures on systematic theology. He told stories about lost coins, scattered seed, lost sheep, a priceless pearl, and a runaway son.

Metaphors are powerful. Everything is metaphor. Metaphor is the language of God.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about another message I have to give in a few weeks. I’m thinking about a training session I have to present to a client’s Customer Service team tomorrow. I’m not thinking about the truths I want to communicate as much as I am the metaphors, the word pictures, and the life stories that will best communicate those truths.

After 40 years of public speaking I can tell you that people will quickly forget a list of dry bullet points, but they never forget a good story or word picture that made them feel something. The diplomatic envoys in today’s chapter could easily have tuned out Jeremiah’s words, but they would never forget the crazy man strapped to a yoke. When they returned to their respective kings you know that they said, “Oh king, I have to tell you about this crazy man we saw strapped to an ox yoke.”

Exactly. I’m reminded again this morning that if I want to be an effective communicator I have to continually hone my craft at wrapping my message in stories, word pictures, and images.

The language of God is metaphor.

(FYI: Last Sunday’s message has been added to the Message page)