Tag Archives: Writer

The Depressed Prophet

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame?
Jeremiah 20:13-18 (NIV)

Across the ages, the ancient prophet Jeremiah has been labeled with  the moniker “The Weeping Prophet.” In our bedroom at the lake Wendy and I have a copy of Rembrandt’s portrait of Jeremiah looking depressed and sullen as he sits amidst the ruins of Jerusalem. It reminds me that the lake is a thin place where any who are burdened can find rest for their souls. Alas, it would seem that Jeremiah had no such place.

In today’s chapter we read of a confrontation between Jeremiah and a priest named Pashur, who was “the official in charge of the Temple of the Lord.” The fact that the one “in charge” was out to get Jeremiah is a good indication of just how corrupt the system had become in Jeremiah’s day. The priest in charge of the Temple was overseeing all of the pagan rituals and cults operating out of the Temple. The Temple had become a religious corporation, a powerful money-maker for those in charge (not unlike the way Jesus’ found the Temple in His day).

While Jeremiah had been protected from the death-threats that had already been made against him, Pashur decided to at least punish the prophet for his inflammatory prophesies of doom and destruction. I’m quite sure they were bad for business. In fact, I can almost hear Pashur saying, “This isn’t personal, Jer. It’s strictly business.” Once again, this is not unlike Jesus who, after His repeated rants against their corruption and His stirring up of the people, pressured the Temple leaders to plot His death .

After his time in the stocks, Jeremiah immediately confronts Pashur with a stubborn and willful repeating of his prophetic message: Jerusalem will be destroyed and its people led into captivity at the hands of Babylon. Obviously the prophet wanted Pashur to know his punishment did not have the desired effect. In fact, it simply appears to have pissed Jeremiah off.

What comes next is fascinating. The weeping prophet goes into a depression and pens a dark poem that graphically expresses his wish that he’d never been born. Obviously, the burden of his role, his prophecies, and the steady threats and persecution were getting to him. Of course they were. It would get to me too.

This morning I’m thinking about how common it is for humans to go through periods of depression. If you were privy to my medical records you’d find that I’ve had a few bouts with the blues along my life journey, and I never faced anything like what Jeremiah was dealing with. I’m also thinking about how common it is for individuals in history (artists, musicians, writers, thinkers) who saw and expressed things no one else could see were given to depression, madness, mental illness, and even suicide. I’d certainly put Jeremiah alongside the likes of Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Parker.

I’m struck by the contrast this morning between the spit-shined image I believe we often have of a “godly” person or a “servant of God.” We demand so much, expect so much, and are so quick to scapegoat individuals for their weaknesses and shortcomings. Jeremiah reminds me this morning that God’s servants were fully human, carried human flaws and weaknesses, were susceptible to all the shortcomings known to humanity, and were even given to deep depression and suicidal thoughts. Jeremiah reminds me to cut others a break. He even reminds me to be a bit more gracious with myself.

Wendy and I were at the lake late last week opening it up for the coming summer season. Once again, I saw and pondered Jeremiah’s portrait as I lay in bed.

I’m looking forward to getting back there.

(FWIW: My latest message was added to the Messages page.)

Prophets, Poets and a Touch of Madness

“Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights, for the Lord has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under his wrath.”
Jeremiah 7:29 (NIV)

There was a fascinating story on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday talking about the connection between creativity and mental illness. There is no doubt that there is a disproportionate number of genius artists, writers, and musicians who struggled with some form of mental condition. Observations of the connection between genius and madness date back to Aristotle, though it’s only been in recent years that the connection has been seriously studied.

As we watched the story Wendy wondered aloud if there isn’t also a disproportionate number of creatives who would be considered Type Four on the enneagram. I would bet that she is right. Creativity often springs from the inherent individuality and expression  natural to Fours.

These thoughts were swimming in my head as I read this morning’s chapter. It begins the transcription of a message God gave to Jeremiah in order that he stand at the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem and proclaim the message. The ancient prophets were often standing in the crowds shouting messages from God.

Amidst the message Jeremiah reports God telling him to shave off his hair and take up the wailing songs and prayers of lament on the “barren heights.” This was another mark of the ancient prophets: acts that today we would call “performance art” (some simple and others quite complex) that God regularly prescribed the prophets to act out in public.

I find that most modern believers approach the prophets with a certain amount of reverence that translates into a white-washed perception of them. Just as Van Gogh sold just one painting in his lifetime, so the prophets were not particularly well received in their day. Only in 20/20 hindsight have their words and reputations been scrubbed clean by institutional religion. As I said before, they were an odd lot. They were often despised and marginalized. They were the sketchy characters from whom parents likely shielded their children:

Mommy? Who’s that strange man over there walking naked and tied to an ox yoke?

Pay no attention, sweetie. Stay away from him. He’s just a crazy old man.”

The prophets were hated, especially by the political-religious class who were commonly the targets of their public, prophetic tirades. The prophets were targeted for assassination and killed by the power brokers of their day. Even Jesus testified to this truth when He confronted the political-religious leaders of His day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you….”

This morning I’m thinking about creativity and its connection to oddity. I’m thinking about God’s use of those odd, strange, mad individuals among us who see what the mainstream doesn’t and express what the mainstream can’t, won’t, and/or doesn’t desire to hear. Prophets, artists, and poets stand as reminders what God said through the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.”

The Moment

Again Peter denied [he was with Jesus in the garden], and at that moment the cock crowed.
John 18:27 (NRSV)

Of the big four biographies of Jesus, John has always been my favorite. Each one has their own style. I can appreciate Matthew for his accounting of the events. I appreciate Mark for his ability to compact so much information into so concise a retelling. I love Dr. Luke for his thorough, methodical presentation of his investigation and the minute details he includes. I love John most of all because John has a flair for writing. John is right brained. John is an artist. He is thematic in his narrative, and he has a flair for the dramatic.

Four chapters ago, John foreshadowed the events in today’s chapter when he recounts Jesus telling Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

As John picks up the story line in today’s chapter I, as a reader, almost feel like I’m stealing alongside Peter and “the other disciple.” (many scholars think the “other” disciple was John himself) as they covertly infiltrate the courtyard and house of the High Priest where Jesus is being questioned. They are in enemy territory. The High Priest is the one who wants to kill Jesus and squash their uprising like Michael Corleone taking out one of the five families. It did not take a genius to know that this High Priest/Godfather would relish the opportunity to kill Jesus’ followers as well. Peter is on thin ice.

John is careful to describe each denial. We learn where he was and who did the questioning. The other biographers merely relay the facts as though Peter’s denials happened in one short burst of conversation. John lays out the story. It is on their way through the gate into the High Priest’s courtyard that the servant woman checking tickets first asks Peter a question and implies a negative answer. “You aren’t one of Jesus’ followers, are you?” The denial is easy and convenient. A little white lie to ensure we get into the courtyard.

John writes out the narrative like a movie script. The scene changes to the questioning of Jesus inside the house. Time is elapsing. Peter’s denial did not come in rapid succession. There was time and space between them.

When the scene shifts back we find ourselves inside the High Priest’s courtyard. We are there warming our hands on the charcoal fire. We feel the chill in the air in the deep watches of the night. There is a crowd around the fire. This is the High Priest’s house and the crowd is full of people who could easily finger us as followers. The situation is tense, to say the least.

A man, an anonymous stranger in the crowd, once again asks Peter if he is a follower of Jesus. Once again the question implies a negative response. “You aren’t one of Jesus’ disciples, are you?” Heads turn. It’s suddenly very quiet around the fire. This is not just a random question. This is a life and death moment. We are about to be found out. Peter, once again, provides a little white lie to shrug off the suspicion.

But, it just may be that the jig is up. Another member of the crowd takes a good look at Peter. This time it is not an anonymous stranger. This is a family member of the man Peter attacked earlier in the evening. When they came for Jesus in the garden, Peter hacked off the ear of this man’s cousin. Now, the question is not just about political loyalty to Jesus. This question is about blood oaths and family and vengeance. You can cut the silence like a knife. Tension hangs in the air before Peter’s denial comes swift and strong. He is preventing a riot. He is saving his own neck. He is making sure we all get out of here alive.

And then, at that very moment, we hear the cock crow.

There is a moment of realization. Peter hears it. We hear it. The words of Jesus come flooding back to mind. “Before the cock crows….” Shame and failure mix in a bitter cup.

What a moment. John is a good writer. He has a flair for the dramatic. This is Jack Nicholson’s “code red” moment in A Few Good Men. This is Michael Corleone’s “I do renounce him” moment in The Godfather. We are there in this moment. We are with Peter. We are Peter. We get it. We understand. There is not one of us who has not had a cock crowing moment in our lives. Our failure and shame crash down on our heads in an instant and we realize just how wretched we are.

Today, I am thinking about my own “cock crowing” moments along life’s journey. It’s not hard to bring them quickly to mind. There are more of them than I care to admit. I am also thinking about John and the way he weaves Peter’s personal story into the Great Story he pens. We are in the darkness before dawn. It will descend to greater darkness before its done. The story is not over, however, for Jesus, for Peter, for you or for me.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

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Unexpected Events in the Narrative

…after having heard that Lazarus was ill, [Jesus] stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
John 11:6 (NRSV)

One of the things that has always fascinated me about Jesus’ story, is the way in which Jesus is aware of the bigger picture of all that is happening in and around Him. There is a master plan that is being carried out. The conflict between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be has been growing for some time, but it is all part of the Great Story narrative that God has been authoring since Genesis. Jesus continually speaks and acts in a way to move the narrative toward its prescribed conclusion.

Life and death, death and resurrection are the grand themes of the Great Story. Jesus knows that events are falling into place. Characters are in their places and the cues are being called. Jesus will soon play His part in the grand climax of the story. He will die and then rise again to life in three days. For those who had ears to hear it, Jesus has been saying it all along…

“I will destroy this temple and raise it in three days.”

“Just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so for three days the Son of Man will lie in the earth.”

In today’s chapter, Jesus hears of Lazarus’ illness and chooses to stay right where He is. He is waiting for Lazarus to die. This is part of the story, though for Mary and Martha their brothers sudden illness and Jesus’ subsequent refusal to act must be both unexpected and frustrating. Jesus must allow Mary and Martha to suffer the grief and sorrow of their brother’s death, knowing the eucatastrophe that will ultimately allow them to experience the power of Life. The author of creation is a master artist and writer, and He is calling the shots. One dramatic miracle, the resurrection of Lazarus, will accomplish multiple layers of purpose:

  • Lazarus’ resurrection will foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection.
  • Jesus’ miracle will up the ante. He has revealed power of sickness and nature, but now He raises the stakes and will publicly reveal His power over death itself.
  • In upping the ante, He will force the hand of His enemies. They will feel compelled to go all in.

Over this past week, Wendy and I have experienced a small handful of unexpected life events that have us scratching our heads. We can’t see clearly where circumstance is leading for us or our loved ones, nor do we have focus regarding how these small events fit in the bigger narrative of our stories. This morning I am reminded, and encouraged, that the author of creation is a master story-teller, and I can trust that He is writing our own stories to fit perfectly into the Great Story narrative.

 

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The Significance of One Word

For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.
Ezra 7:10 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve learned in the process of writing scripts is that words are not chosen idly. When writing what a character says, the writer is trying to capture and communicate that character’s voice. With an eye to what the story is trying to communicate as a whole, the author often chooses a word very carefully for a foreshadowing or subtle thematic effect. Actors, myself included, are notorious for playing fast and loose with the script (e.g. “I know it’s not word perfect, but I got the gist of it!“). Writing has made me a better actor as it’s made me pay more attention to the script and to be more honoring of the words the playwright crafted.

So it is that over the years I’ve increasingly found that when I’m reading God’s Message in the morning I experience a word jumping off the page at me. I try to pay careful attention when this happens because it generally leads me down important paths of thought and meditation. This morning it was the word devoted that jumped off the page at me.

Devotion is not just about duty or obedience. Devotion carries with it a component of the heart. There is a yearning and desire that comes with devotion. I thought what a great legacy Ezra left behind to be known as a person who devoted himself to studying, living, and teaching the earliest chapters of God’s Message.

This morning I find myself asking the question, “to what or whom am I devoted?”

Tom is devoted to _________________________.

When others observe my life, if they are asked to fill in the blank, what would they say? Am I devoted to things that matter? Things that make a positive difference in the lives of others? Things that are eternal? Or, am I devoted to silly things that are temporal and of no consequence? To what or whom am I devoted

Good Doctor Luke

Mattias Stom's depiction of Mark (distracted and looking at us - he probably already finished his 16 chapter cliff notes version on Jesus' life) and Luke (still hard at work with his research).
Mattihas Stom’s depiction of Mark (distracted and looking at us – he probably already finished his 16 chapter cliff notes version on Jesus’ life) and Luke (still hard at work with his research).

With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus….
Luke 1:3 (NIV)

This morning I was up early and spent some time hyperlinking all of the chapters of 1 Chronicles, which we just finished yesterday, into the Chapter-a-Day Index. As I was doing this mundane task I began to think about all of these posts I’ve written day-by-day for over eight years. My brain, still fogged by sleep, had a silly thought: “If I was running for President [talk about a nightmare for all of us], and both the press and public started pouring over my blog to find out more about me, what would they conclude about me based on what I’ve written?”

I then opened to the Luke’s biography of Jesus to start on this morning’s chapter and read Luke’s introduction to Theophilus, the person to whom Luke addressed his account of Jesus’ life. Having just been thinking about what your writing reveals about the person, I realized how much Dr. Luke [traditional holds that he was a physician] revealed about himself in his introduction.

  • He is methodical, making sure that his “orderly” account was properly introduced. There’s a formality to Luke’s style and structure.
  • He notes that his account is the result of “careful investigation,” and I could imagine the brain of a scientist at work.
  • He had researched everything “from the beginning.” The good doctor was thorough as well as methodical.

As I’ve poured over the “big four” biographies of Jesus countless times, I’ve come to appreciate particular things that are unique to each. The thing that I quickly observed in reading Dr. Luke’s investigative report, and which I have come to greatly appreciate over the years, is that it contains small details and entire episodes in the story of the life of Jesus that aren’t found in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and John. A physician diagnosing the events he’d witnessed, you can feel Luke’s brain systematically questioning, researching, cataloging, and filing all of the facts so as to lay them out to Theophilus in the most clear and logical manner. These details and episodes provide incredible color and context to the story.

This morning, I am thankful for context and color. I’m thankful for diverse peoples and personalities whom God created to bring that color and context to both His-story and to each of our own stories. I’m thankful for Dr. Luke, whose physician’s brain does not work like mine (I think I’m more like John), and his meticulous investigation which I have enjoyed and from which I have greatly benefitted.

Be Strong and Courageous, and DO THE WORK

Picasso's studio
Picasso’s studio

David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.
1 Chronicles 28:20 (NIV)

Pablo Picasso created more schlocky crap than any artist in history. Picasso, however, was always at work. His life was a non-stop stream of artistic output. His home and studio were packed to the gils with his work. It was his manic output, it can be argued, that took him in directions no one imagined. Amidst the steady stream of creative work, a masterpiece would occasionally emerge that would forever change the direction of art and history.

 

Most artists I know (whether it be visual artists, writers, musicians, craftsman, artisans, or playwrights) are afraid to do the work. Afraid of criticism, afraid of producing bad art, afraid of the voices in their head, afraid of revealing their heart, afraid of what the parents will say, afraid of being successful, afraid of being a failure, etc., etc., and etc.

“Inspiration will come,” Picasso said, “but it must find you working.”

Several years ago I memorized the above verse from this morning’s chapter. One of the things that I love about God’s Message is that I will occasionally find layers of personal meaning unintended in the original context. David, the warrior, poet, and song writer, was encouraging his son Solomon, the young philosopher, poet, and song writer, to be diligent in accomplishing the work of building the temple. Solomon’s temple, built from his father’s inspiration, plans, blueprints, would become one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

In my writing, acting, and artistic output, I desire to follow Picasso’s example: fearlessly cranking out the work so that inspiration (literally meaning “Spirit breathing into”) will find me at work and will once in a while produce through me something worthwhile. Yet I am susceptible to fear, anxiety, timidity and sloth like almost every other child of the Creator I know. I need encouragement. And so, years ago, I memorized and internalized David’s message to Solomon. By repeating it in my head, my heart hears my Creator, Father God speaking directly to me:

“Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the Lord is finished.”