Discussion Question Over Appetizers

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….
Isaiah 61:1-2a (NIV)

I love “If” questions and discussion starters. For years our family used them around the table to kick-start dinner conversations…

  • If you could have dinner with three people from history, who would you choose?
  • If you were only allowed one song to sing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  • If you had the power to eliminate one illness from the world, which would you eliminate?

I love “If” questions because the answers can vary so greatly from person to person, and those answers allow you to learn new things about even the closest of friends and relatives.

Having journeyed through God’s Message for many years, it is impossible to read today’s chapter and not connect it immediately to Jesus. Because the record of Jesus’ teaching indicates that He chose this passage for His inaugural sermon in His own home synagogue:

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-20 (NIV)

So, Jesus,” I imagine myself saying to the young carpenter from Nazareth as we sit at the table with a glass of wine and an appetizer of freshly made pita bread and hummus. “If you could choose one passage from all of scripture to epitomize your life, what would you choose?”

I don’t have to wonder what He would say, because I know of all the passages He could have chosen for that message in the Nazareth Synagogue, Jesus chose this passage from Isaiah. This was His mission statement. This was His stake in the ground. He didn’t state it as a desire, or a hope, or a goal. He declared it an indisputable fact. Jesus starts His message with Isaiah’s prophetic, messianic proclamation and then begins His sermon with: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Many people think of Jesus as a nice teacher who was eventually deified by His followers. Others think of Jesus as a kind of confused mystic who said a lot of amazing things, but might have been a little deluded. I don’t find anything confused in Jesus first recorded sermon. It was a shot across the spiritual bow. It was declarative. So much so, in fact, that it created a violent reaction among His neighbors:

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.

This morning I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t stumble onto the scene. Jesus didn’t just happen to be at the right place and the right time so as to fall into this teaching gig. Jesus came wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger because, from the beginning, there was a purpose. It was there when Simeon broke into song at Jesus consecration. It was there when Jesus was twelve years old and confounded the elders of Israel with His words. Good news to the poor, healing for the broken, sight to the blind, freedom to the enslaved, this was the mission from day 1.

So, Tom,” Jesus says to me over morning coffee in my office. “If you had one passage from all of God’s Message to epitomize your life, what would you choose?”

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Glory!

 

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”
Isaiah 60:1 (NIV)

There is a piece of the creation story that is often overlooked. Even those who have a mere trivial knowledge of the Bible know that “Let there be light” was the first act of creation in the Great Story. What most people don’t stop to realize, however, is that the sun, moon, and stars were not created until the fourth day:

“And God said, ‘Let there be light in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth. And it was so. God made two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.’ And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the fourth day.” Gen 1:14-17

Fascinating. The universe begins with light, but not from sun or stars or moon, but from a mysterious unmentioned source. What makes this even more intriguing is that end of the Great Story also contains light without sun or moon:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… The city does not need sun or the moon to shine upon it, for the Glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” Revelation 21:1, 23

So there is the theological answer to the riddle. God’s “Glory” is the source of the light. The same Glory that radiated so brightly off Moses’ once he encountered God on the mountain that he had to cover his face. The same Glory that radiated off Jesus so brightly on the mountain top that Peter, James, and John were reduced to frightened, babbling fools. The same Glory that literally blinded Saul on the road to Damascus.

In today’s chapter Isaiah prophesies the coming of God’s Glory amidst the dark days of his current national circumstances (defeat, destruction, death, exile). He prophesies a Moses-like radiance for those who look to the Light:

Then you will look and be radiant,
    your heart will throb and swell with joy;

He goes on to offer precursor to John’s Revelation:

The sun will no more be your light by day,
    nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your God will be your glory.

Most of us are familiar with the word “glory.” We sing “Gloria” in Christmas carols and may even utter a “glory hallelujah!” in exclamation. I’m sure few of us stop to consider what that “glory” is. It is Light direct from the divine source. Its power is terrifying. It is blinding Light that fills dark voids. It is Light that cuts through evil like the most powerful cosmic laser. It is light that radiates off those whom it fills.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

Like a lot of people I’ve been feeling the shadows creeping over my soul of late. A dark sludge of anger, conflict, bitterness, doubt, and fear seems to have flooded our collective cultural consciousness. I have to believe it was even worse for Isaiah considering the realities he and his contemporaries were facing. We are so self-centered to think we have it bad when just a hint of historical context reminds us we don’t have a flippin’ clue. Nevertheless, I identify with the darkness Isaiah describes in his prophetic poem and am encouraged by the Glory-ous Light he prophesies.

I’m praying for a little Glory to penetrate my spirit and radiate out through the creeping shadows today.

Hope and Despair in a House of Cards

So justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
    for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Isaiah 59:9 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been watching the acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards over the past year or so. Last night we finished the third season. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are amazing actors. The story is compelling and the plot has some incredible twists that have caught me completely off guard. (FYI: There is some very graphic content, for those who desire to avoid it.)

Over the past couple of episodes Wendy and I have both felt the heaviness that comes when you find yourself mired in dark, depressing storylines. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet gets depressing by the end of the play; The stage littered with the senseless dead. Last night Wendy and I began to analyze and unpack what in the series had brought us to feel this with House of Cards.

As we began to analyze the characters in the show, it struck us that, across almost 40 episodes the writers had not given us one redemptive character. In fact, on multiple occasions the main characters toy with redemption, play on the edges of doing the right thing, only to be sucked back into the tangled web of greed, lust, power and deceit. In the world of House of Cards, goodness equals weakness. Trying to do the right thing makes you a victim or a fool. It is, admittedly, a bleak vision of our political class.

I contrast this with stories of real people I know and have met. They are stories of individuals who were mired in the types of dark places embodied by House of Cards. In these stories, however, a mysterious mixture of personal courage and divine grace led people to turn from dark places to be enveloped in Light. Greed gave way to generosity. Lust gave way to love. Humility replaced pride. The forsaken found forgiveness.

I found it a bit of synchronicity that in today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah spins a poetic description of those lost in the darkness. Isaiah describes those entangled and entrapped in the consequences of their own wrong motives, and perpetually poor choices. Living in those places, as I can personally recall, does feel like a house of cards. You live in constant fear that the whole thing will fall apart, and it eventually does.

As with the stories I recall this morning, redemption comes at the end of Isaiah’s poetic vision. The Redeemer arrives in a eucatastrophic moment. With the Redeemer comes repentance, Spirit, presence, and peace. Darkness gives way to Light. Those are stories to which I am drawn. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with House of Cards for season four. I’m not one to give up hope on redemption.

External Ritual Sans Spiritual Reality

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.”
Isaiah 58:3 (NIV)

When people think about what it means to be religious, the mind is quickly filled with mental pictures of what religious-types do. Taking an hour or two each week to attend services, praying over meals or certain hours of the day, reading the Bible (and perhaps, blogging about it :-)), lighting candles, burning incense, and all the other rituals and trappings that commonly seem to accompany the religions of the world.

As someone who could easily be labeled a religious person for most of my earthly journey, I can tell you that there are metaphorical reasons for most of the rituals and trappings. Metaphor is the language of God, and it’s the best we have for trying to embody that which is beyond our finite ability to fully comprehend and communicate. God gives us many and diverse metaphors to express His person: wind, fire, water, gate, bread, lamb, lion, and etc.. God also provided tangible external metaphors and spiritual exercises to connect us with the spiritual internal realities He wants us to experience in oneness with Him: bread, wine, water, rest, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, and etc..

The problems comes, however, when the external ritualistic metaphors are carried out without the requisite spiritual realities being experienced. What was supposed to connect us is disconnected. Ritual and religion without repentance, redemption, and righteousness becomes empty and even dangerous.

In today’s chapter God speaks through the ancient prophet Isaiah to address this very disconnection. The people of Isaiah’s day had ritualistically gone without food and covered themselves in the clothes of mourning and repentance hoping for God to respond with blessing. God, however, points out that while they are acting out religious ritual in public, in private they have been self-centered, exploitive, greedy,  unjust, and selfish. There is a fundamental core disconnect between true, internal, spiritual oneness with God, and external, rote religious ritual. When that happens, religion becomes all of the ugly and profane things it has been guilty of across time.

This morning I’m reminded that if my spirit is not connected to Holy Spirit in ways that tangibly increase my love for, and actions towards, others (especially those who are different, down-trodden, beat-down, and in need), then all of my church going, hand-raising, worship singing, communion taking, prayer whispering, Bible reading, (and blog posting) is empty and worthless.

Lord, have mercy… please.

Photo Friday: Shoes on the Power Line

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While in Palms Springs a few weeks ago I spied a pair of shoes tossed over and dangling from a power line. My head was suddenly filled with nostalgic images of years gone by when such iconic pranks were the stuff that childhood was made of.

The shoes and the power lines made an interesting composition against the cloudless blue canvas of California’s desert sky.

Reclamation of “Revival”

For this is what the high and exalted One says—
    he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
    but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
    and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
Isaiah 57:15 (NIV)

“Revival” is a buzzword in many churches, and it is used in many different contexts across our culture. It commonly refers to a period of time when there is an outpouring of Holy Spirit resulting in many people become believers.   It also is used to describe special meetings or services that churches might have over a period of time in which they bring in a special speaker and encourage people to follow Jesus. As a teenager, I became a follower of Jesus at just such a “revival” event. In that vein the word also conjures up images of tent revivals held under a canopy on a hot summer night in which a fire and brimstone preacher calls sinners to repentance. Oh, and it can also mean that you’re producing a stage play that hasn’t been done in a long time.

Words at their very core are metaphors. Something which represents something else without using “like” or “as” (that would be a simile). The particular four lines manipulated into the particular shapes used in the English alphabet to write “love” become a metaphor for the sounds we make when we say the word “love.” The lines represent the sounds which represent the many ways our brains filter meaning of the concept of love. Those lines and sounds can represent my appreciation of Madison’s Facebook post (e.g. “I loved your post”). Those same squiggly lines and unique blend of sounds can also represent the unfathomable depths of my thoughts of, feelings for, and attraction to Wendy (e.g. “I love you.”).

This is what makes communication so tricky, though very few people take time to give it much consideration. We use the same metaphorical lines or sounds to mean very different things in different contexts which can also change radically with time and culture.

The very word “revival,” when you break it down (re-vive-al) has its roots in French (“vivre,” meaning “life”) and also the Latin (“vital,” also meaning “life”). When you add the “re” to the front of it now changes the meaning to include doing something again. To live (vive) again (re). The suffix of “al” simply gives it the meaning of “pertaining to.” So, “revival” has the core meaning of “pertaining to live again.”

So, while “revival” may conjure up images of sweaty, screaming preachers under a tent canopy along the highway, it’s core meaning is to make something live again.

In today’s chapter God tells the prophet Isaiah that He lives in a “high and holy place” but also with someone who is “contrite and lowly in spirit,” a prophetic foretelling of Jesus who humbled Himself to take the form of a servant and to become human like one of us. The purpose is to bring the spirit and heart of those who are lowly and humble back to life.

This morning I’m thinking about those whose hearts are broken and crushed. I’m thinking of those whose very life has oozed out of their spirits until they are void and empty. I’m thankful for One who came to make those very hearts and spirits live again. To take those who are dead, and make them live again. All of my journey has taught me that this is what Jesus and His teachings are about at the very core.

chapter a day banner 2015Featured photo courtesy Mennonite Church USA via Flickr

Inclusive Thinking Among Exclusive Thinkers

…for my house will be called
    a house of prayer for all nations.”
Isaiah 56:7c (NIV)

I was raised spiritually among various “holy huddles” of Jesus followers who were proud of their correct doctrinal interpretation of the scriptures. I remember one professor at Bible college who proudly showed us a video-taped debate of him arguing with a scholar of another denomination. He almost cackled with glee as watched himself intellectually corner and badger the poor old man until it seemed like his opponent was going to take a swing at him. I remember being amazed and appalled watching a teacher who said he loved God with all his heart taking joy in belittling and administering a intellectual beat down on another. Of course, my professor justified his actions because he had already excluded his opponent as a heretic who was going to hell. He simply took on the mantel of God’s theological inquisitor.

One of the things I love about Isaiah’s prophecies, the thing that is often overlooked by many in my holy huddles, is how incredibly inclusive it is. Over and over again Isaiah speaks of all nations experiencing salvation and those who are marginalized being graciously brought into the fold. In today’s chapter, that includes “foreigners” and “eunuchs” who were two constituencies excluded from worshipping in the temple. Isaiah promises them love, hope, and acceptance by God.

Today I’m thankful for the example Jesus continually showed in choosing, loving, and embracing those who were marginalized and excluded in this world. I’m inspired by the inclusive vision God shares through the prophet Isaiah. I am, once again, motivated to worry less about holy huddles of perfect doctrine and concern myself more with the simple law of Love Jesus gave us – the one He said summed everything up nicely.

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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