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

2017-01-palm-springs-w-kevin-and-linda-10

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.

Valentine’s 2017

Wendy and I enjoyed an extended Valentine’s Day celebration this year. This past Saturday our friends Matthew and Sarah invited us to join them and two other couples for a Valentine’s dinner of special magnificence. I don’t want to know how much time, effort, and resources went into the five-course meal they prepared for us.

The table was beautifully set and there were four different wine glasses at each table setting. Even before we sat down we enjoyed drinks with an appetizer of various kinds of cheese. The first course was a cream of leek soup paired with a Cabernet. Next came a luscious salad that blended a host of flavors and was accompanied by a wonderful white Riesling. We finished the white wine with a baked salmon filet. As if we weren’t already stuffed, the main course of Beef Wellington was served with an exquisite French red. We enjoyed conversation and let things settle while the chocolate soufflé was baking. Dessert was paired with a sweet dessert red. After dinner the men excused themselves to the deck for Cuban cigars and a sip of single-malt Scotch while the ladies continued to chat around the dinner table. It was a six-hour, five-course love feast.

Of course, while the food and drink were excellent it was the love, laughter, and conversation among good company that made the meal.

Valentines Day itself was a low-key affair for Wendy and me, as it usually is. We decided to stay in to make and enjoy one of our favorite meals together. Wendy made homemade bread during the day which we used for garlic bread. I made Filet Mignon in a dark chocolate balsamic and red Zinfandel glaze and Wendy made some of her amazing sweet potato medallions. A little sea salt caramel gelato was our after dinner treat. A romantic meal for two right here at home.

Content with What I Cannot Fathom

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
          declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

When I was a young man I may not have thought I knew it all, but I was pretty certain I had a firm grasp on most of it. The further I get in my journey the more I am convinced that what I know, indeed what we know as human beings, is the visible and temporal tip of an eternal iceberg. I am increasingly captivated by the mystery of what I do not know, and what I can not fathom.

Embracing of mystery, or perhaps better said letting mystery embrace me, is not something I could really do when I was younger. I needed to feel the self assurance of having it all figured out, neatly ordered in my own intellectual box, and tied up with the ribbon of my institutional doctrines. And yet, if I am going to faithfully believe what God has said through His Message, then I must embrace the truth of Isaiah’s poetic verse in today’s chapter. God uses the inverse of my iceberg metaphor. God’s thoughts and God’s ways are light years above what I can see or seem. So, why would I want to even pretend otherwise?

I know what God has expressed through what has been made, which itself confounds the greatest of human minds in the ways with which it functions. I know what God has expressed through Jesus, which is rich in diverse metaphors and spiritual paradoxes that have kept better minds than mine debating since they were spoken. I know the Great Story as it has been told and handed down through the millennia. Chapter-by-chapter I continue my journey through it and find myself ever captivated by the depths of it that I continue to unearth. I have accepted that I will never stop finding new discoveries within it, and asking questions for which I do not know the answers. Still, it will speak to me anew each time I delve into it.

I remember hearing a respected teacher, Gordon McDonald, speak at a conference many years ago. He said he had something he wanted to share with us and then added [I paraphrase], “You may disagree with me. That’s okay. I’m too old to care whether everyone agrees with me or not.” As a young man who cared a great deal that everyone agree with my neatly packaged and wrapped box of knowledge, I was blown away by this statement. Today, I get where Gordon was coming from.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
          declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

More than ever, I’m good with that.

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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