A Prophet in Flyover Country

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake….
Amos 1:1 (NIV)

I have lived in “flyover country” my entire life. It’s a great place to live, work, and raise a family. You get used to the fact that most of what we see and hear in American news and entertainment media is sourced on the coasts. New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are where most of the brokers of politics, finance, and entertainment live, move and have their being. It’s quite common to realize that we often see life a little differently here in middle America.

Whenever you read the writing of the ancient prophets in God’s Message, it’s important to understand the context of the prophet and his message. Amos was one of what we refer to as the “minor” prophets, and perhaps it’a an apt moniker for one who lived and wrote from what have been the flyover country of his time.

The “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) lived where the action was. Isaiah and Jeremiah served in Jerusalem, the capital city which was the region’s political and religious center of power. Daniel and Ezekiel lived later and were persons of relative prominence and connection in the ancient city of Babylon during the height of its glory days. Amos, on the other hand, was a shepherd and fig farmer living in a small town of no real significance. We don’t even know if he owned his own flocks and figs, or whether he was simply a hired man.

Amos lived and wrote during a period of relative prosperity in Israel’s divided kingdom (about 740-750 b.c.). Things were humming economically and trade was good. The kingdoms held relatively strong, secure positions in the region. Everyone was feeling optimistic and perhaps even a little bit smug.

Amos, however, begins the assembled volume of his prophetic writings by telling us as readers that his vision preceded “the earthquake.” He doesn’t say “an earthquake” but “the earthquake.” Little is known historically about this event, but geologists have unearthed evidence of a major seismic event in that region around 750 b.c.  Interestingly enough, just yesterday I posted about the connection that is made in God’s Message between the shifting of things in the spiritual realm and events in creation. Amos foreshadows his volume of collected prophesies with a ominous word-picture. There’s going to be a major shake up.

What becomes immediately clear in the historical context is that Amos’ message isn’t exactly the mainstream media spin of his day. During a period of peace and prosperity this learned yokel prophet from flyover country isn’t feeling so secure about things from a spiritual perspective. He’s got a more sober view of where things are headed, if anyone will listen.

This morning I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit of a connection with ol’ Amos. I’m grateful for where I live and move and have had my being on this life journey. It may not be the center of action where finance, politics, and entertainment are brokered. I’ve visited all of them and always have a great time when I’m there and appreciate all the great people I meet. Nevertheless, I know I look at life with a different perspective than many who live in those places. It’s not better or worse. It just is. The major prophets had their roles to play and their message to give at the center of the action. Amos had his role to play and his message to give as he kept watch over his livestock in the flyover farm town of Tekoa.

The key, I’ve come to learn along this journey, is to be content with the role I’ve been given and faithful in carrying it out to the best of my ability.

Tectonic Shift in the Spirit Realm

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake….”
Matthew 28:1-2a (NIV)

I have not experienced an actual earthquake. I should actually say that I haven’t consciously and physically felt the effects of an earthquake though a sensitive seismograph might have indicated that the earth shifted deep beneath me. In my travels to the west coast and the Pacific I’ve wondered if I’ll ever have that experience. It’s just curiosity, though you can believe me when I tell you that I’m perfectly content never to experience it.

As I finished Matthew this morning I was struck by the earthquake that accompanied the events of the resurrection. It brought to mind that Matthew also recorded that an earthquake that shook Jerusalem the previous Friday afternoon as Jesus breathed His last breath on the cross.

Throughout the Great Story we find a connection between God and creation. Unique events in the natural realm are regularly an indicator or agent of things happening in the spirit realm: flood, fire, cloud, fish, locust, river, ocean, drought, rain, wind, storm, plague, and earthquakes. Jesus is crucified. A massive shift occurs in the Spirit realm, and the earth cries out. A few days later the Spirit realm experiences another massive shift as Jesus is rises from the dead. Once again creation cries out in the form of an earthquake.

We know that earthquakes occur when massive tectonic plates shift far beneath the surface of the earth. It’s happening all the time, even though we can’t necessarily feel it. I went out to earthquaketrack.com this morning and was surprised to find that there have been 10 earthquakes in the past few days here in the southern part of the midwest region of the United States. Who knew? Yet when the shift or collision of the plates is strong enough we not only do we feel it on the surface experience its life changing effect.

God’s Message says that God’s invisible qualities and eternal nature can clearly be seen by what has been made. Creation reveals the Creator. So it is this morning that I’m meditating on the spiritual word picture God reveals in earthquakes. God is constantly moving, shifting and at work underneath the surface of our lives. We may not feel it feel it for days, months, or years, but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t moving and shifting things. Once in a while, however, the tectonic plates of the Spirit make a massive shift and we both feel it and experience its life changing effects.

 

The Crowd

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
Matthew 27:20 (NIV)

I have read the story of Jesus’ trial and execution countless times along my journey. It is packed with so many fascinating and meaningful moments that it’s hard to focus on one thing for a blog post like this. As I read a chapter each day I try simply to have my heart and mind open to what resonates most deeply with me in this moment, and this morning what resonated with me was the crowd.

Perhaps it’s because of the preponderance of media that gets focused on crowd events and all that we’ve witnessed in recent months and years. I’m thinking of all the marches, riots, demonstrations, and protests I’ve seen reported on the news and in social media recently. Whenever a crowd gathers it gets attention. We seem to have a lot of crowds.

There is a entire branch of sociology and psychology dedicated to understanding crowd (or mob) mentality. Interestingly enough, consensus among scholars is as hard to come by. I was intrigued, however, by the theory of Gustave Le Bon who boiled it down to three things:

  • Submergence: In the anonymity of the crowd individuals lose their sense of individual self and personal responsibility.
  • Contagion: Having lost their sense of self, individuals unquestioningly follow the predominant ideas and emotions of the crowd.
  • Suggestion: Ideas and emotions of the crowd are primarily drawn from a shared racial unconscious, uncivilized in nature, and limited by the moral and cognitive abilities of its least capable members.

Three things came to mind as I thought about the crowd shouting for Jesus’ execution.

First is the fact that five days earlier the crowd was shouting “Hosanna” as praising Jesus as “king” as He entered Jerusalem. Now the crowd has been persuaded to shout for Jesus’ blood. Wow. That’s a major drop in approval rating in just five days. It’s amazing how fickle crowds can be.

Which leads me to remembering a passage from John’s biography of Jesus. In the second chapter we find that the crowd of people believing in Jesus and following Him was growing rapidly. Jesus was trending in all the major outlets. The crowds were growing and His popularity was skyrocketing, but John records that Jesus “would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all people.”

Which is why, perhaps, Jesus continued to remain silent as He stood by Pilate and witnessed the crowd that had turned on Him. Wednesday’s post about silence and spiritual authority comes back to mind. What a contrast we see in this picture. The lone figure of Jesus standing silent, bloodied, yet resolute in His mission against the submergence and contagion of the crowd whipped into a frenzy at the suggestion of Jesus’ enemies.

This morning I’m reminded of my desire to follow Jesus’ wisdom as it relates to crowds. I need to avoid entrusting my self to any crowd. This applies even to seemingly good crowds, for I’ve witnessed and been prey to crowd mentality even in nice neighborhoods, churches, social groups and communities.

I want my life, my beliefs, and my daily decisions to be guided by something more solid than the ever shifting mentality and emotion of a crowd. I want to be wise and discerning as I watch the crowd mentality emerge and “trend” in my social groups and in the media (including Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social media outlets). I want my life to be focused on my mission, my role, and my responsibilities. That’s hard to do if I am unwittingly submerging my thoughts, emotions and actions to the crowd around me.

 

Silence and Spiritual Authority

But Jesus remained silent.
Matthew 26:63 (NIV)

Just last week, on the 15th of April, the Major Leagues celebrated Jackie Robinson day just as it does every year. Every player in Major League Baseball wears Jackie Robinson’s number: 42. It was on April 15th, 1947 that Jackie Robinson  walked out onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and broke the color barrier in baseball.

This morning as I woke up in my hotel room I happened to have a documentary about Jackie Robinson playing in the background and reminded me of the familiar story. When Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Dodgers, brought Jackie to the major leagues he made Jackie promise that for three years he would not respond to the taunts, insults, and attacks that he would face as the first black man to play in the major leagues. Jackie agreed.

The abuse Jackie faced in those years is well documented. The treatment he received in opposing cities was unjust and unfair. Racial slurs and terrible insults by opposing teams and crowds rained down on him non-stop from batting practice until the last out of the game. Pitchers threw at his head intentionally. Runners intentionally spiked him with their cleats, opening up gashes on his legs. But true to his promise, Jackie remained silent. And, he played great baseball.

It seemed like a bit of synchronicity that this morning’s chapter documented Jesus standing before His enemies. They taunted Him. They falsely accused Him. They beat Him and they mocked Him. But true to what had been prophesied, Jesus remained silent. And, He fulfilled His mission.

I’m simply reminded this morning of the power of silence in the face of personal attacks and social adversity. Human nature and our own culture desires – even demands –  justice at an intimate, interpersonal level. If insulted, return the insult. If he talks smack to me, I’m going to dish it right back. If falsely accused, make a spirited defense. On the face of it, Jesus’ encouragement to “turn the other cheek” seems foolishly weak.

But it’s not.

It took incredible courage and spiritual strength for Jackie Robinson to remain silent those three long seasons. His silence was, in fact, an act of spiritual endurance while it took a tremendous physical and mental toll.

Turning the other cheek is not running away, slinking back, or cowering in fear. Turning the other cheek requires standing in, facing your enemy, and defiantly presenting him the opportunity to do it again. It reveals and highlights the injustice. It makes known the truth of the situation.

After three years of sticking to his promise, Jackie was released from his bargain with Branch Rickey. Then it was the wisdom of Solomon that took over. “There is a time to be silent, and there is a time to speak.” Three years of remaining silent before his enemies had earned Jackie Robinson the spiritual authority to be one of the greatest voices for civil rights and social change. Jackie Robinson Day continues that legacy each April 15th.

I find it ironic that Jackie Robinson Day fell between Good Friday and Easter Sunday this year.

Jesus, likewise, followed His own teaching before the kangaroo court that had been hastily and illegally assembled to arrange His execution. He remained silent. He stood in. He faced His accusers. He turned the other cheek each time He was beaten. All that Jesus would endure took its lethal physical toll, but the spiritual power that was unleashed would conquer death itself.

“Enough” With Which to be Faithful

“The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”
Matthew 25:22-23 (NIV)

A wise counselor once asked me to name my pain. “At the depth of your soul,” he asked me, “what would you label the core ache that feeds your strongest feelings of sadness and inadequacy?”

I pondered the question, but it didn’t take me long to come up with an answer: “Not enough.”

I came to realize that most of my life I have had to actively work to overcome an inherent sense of never being enough, giving enough, doing enough, loving enough, caring enough, sharing enough, serving enough, or achieving enough. Addressing “not enough” is a  large part of my spiritual journey.

In today’s chapter Jesus tells a parable that has grown increasingly powerful to me as the years have gone on. As with most of Jesus’ parables, it is quite simple. A master gives each of three servants different amounts of his money and goes away for a long time. The master returns to find that two of the three have invested his money and earned a return on the investment. The third buried his master’s money out of fear and returned just what he’d been given.

Two lessons from this parable have become quite important to me.

First, the master does not evenly distribute his money among the servants. One was given five bags, another two, and the other one. This is another reminder to me that a seemingly fair and equitable distribution of anything in this temporal world has never been part of the economy of God’s eternal Kingdom. I have been given more than some and less than others. The question has never been what I’ve been given, but what I do with what I’m given.

Herein lies the ying and the yang of my core pain. I must learn to be content with what I’ve been given, but also accept that I am responsible for it. I must learn to accept that I have been given “enough” and that God knows I am capably adequate to faithfully invest it wisely.

The second lesson I take from this parable is in the master’s compliment to his servants. “You have been faithful with a few things” he says. The servants were not burdened with the entirety of their master’s affairs. They were given a relatively small amount and were rewarded simply for being faithful with what they’d been given.

Sometimes my feelings of “not enough” grow to epic disproportion in my heart and mind, fueling all sorts of unproductive thoughts and paralyzing fears (much like the third servant in the parable). I quite literally blow everything up in my mind until its completely out of proportion to the truth of the situation. In these moments the master’s compliment helpfully reminds me to boil things down to the simplicity of being faithful to the tasks right  in front of me.

This morning, that means serving my client well in a day full of meetings. If you’ll please excuse me, I have a few things to which I must faithfully attend. And, that will be enough for today.

Have a good day.

Featured image courtesy of AZQuotes

Apocalypse, World View and Work

So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time?
Matthew 24:44-45 (NIV)

Whether we know it or not, each one of us approach life with a certain ingrained perspective. It’s called a world view and we each have one. Our world view determines how we perceive and react to events and circumstances around us. If something happens that doesn’t fit neatly into our world view, it can be rather disconcerting.

I thought a lot about world view this past November when Donald Trump unexpectedly won the Presidency. It was an event that most of us never could have imagined happening. We know that anyone can run for President, but we’ve come to expect from history that the winner is always going to be a member of the political establishment.

The election results definitely shook things up, and with it came all sorts of apocalyptic thinking. I still feel it simmering beneath the surface of news articles, posts, and current events. Along my life journey I’ve noticed this pattern in human behavior. If we’re rattled hard enough we go into doomsday mode.

As I sat in my hotel room on election night at 1:00 a.m. swapping text messages with Wendy and Taylor I got to thinking about world views. Among followers of Jesus the prevailing world view has been a predominantly medieval one in which things are going to get worse and worse and worse and worse until the very end when Jesus returns in a eucatastrophic moment.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a teacher of medieval literature and his epics reflect this world view. Saruman is a great example of how Tolkien viewed modern man felling the innocence of the trees to fuel his machines of war. (Interesting to think how serving in WWI and living through WWII may have affected his world view. ) Darkness grows and spreads until the forces of good stand on the field of battle outnumbered and hopeless. Then at the darkest moment something happens to miraculously bring about unexpected victory. That’s what he called eucatastrophe.

There is another world view among followers of Jesus, however, that holds that things are actually getting better [cue: The Beatles’ It’s Getting Better All the Time]. It’s the “glass is actually half-full” world view. This world view holds that despite the headlines and 24 hour news channels skewing our perspective by bombarding us with the latest tragedies from around the globe, the situation world-wide is actually better today than at any point in human history. There’s less disease, life spans are the longest they’ve ever been, things are safer than they’ve ever been globally, and food production is the highest it’s ever been around the globe. Poverty world-wide is lower than its ever been in history and what we would call “poor” in today’s world is far different (and better) than our definition just a generation or two ago.

In today’s chapter Jesus gives his followers some generalities about what’s to come in the future. It reads like the medieval world view with wars, famines, false messiahs, and Jesus returning when no one is expecting it. Even in the description Jesus admits that He does not know the exact timing of events.

These things are fascinating to think about, and many people dedicate much of their lives to studying eschatology and all the various theories of the end times. Google it and you’ll find all sorts of charts, graphs, opinions, and theories about what’s to come.

I found it interesting that Jesus concludes His apocalyptic overview with a parable of a servant in charge of feeding his master’s servants while the master is away. When the master returns the only question was whether or not the servant was found doing what he was supposed to do. Jesus’ message is clear: Don’t worry about these ordained events that I cannot control. Worry about being faithful to do each day those things I am called to do. Actively love God. Actively love others. The rest will take care of itself.

On election night our daughter asked me to text her something wise. I don’t know how wise my message was, but I gave her my perspective at that moment. Donald Trump may be President, but the next morning I was going to get up, go to work, and do the things I do everyday. Just like I did when Obama was President, and Bush 43, and Clinton, and Bush 41. Life goes on. My job is to focus my time and attention on my spheres of influence and doing the things I’m called to do to the best of my ability.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do 😉

Jesus Goes “All In”; Seals Deal

Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
Matthew 23:32 (NIV)

There are times when focusing on one chapter each day risks losing continuity of the story that is important for the sake of context. Today is one of those days.

When we left yesterday’s chapter, Jesus had been teaching in the public courts of the Temple in Jerusalem during His final, climactic week of earthly life. The leaders of the institutional Hebrew religion had sent waves of envoys to test Jesus with hot political and religious questions of their day. They wanted to get a sound byte they could use to discredit Jesus, who was a threat to their power and religious racket. Jesus deftly answered each question then went on the offensive and stumped them with a question of their own.

This is a high stakes game being played between Jesus and the religious leadership. They want Jesus dead and out of the way so that they can carry on with their lives of localized power and greedy luxury. Jesus knows this, and having successfully played the cards in His hand He now doubles down and goes all in.

Jesus turns to His listeners and begins to publicly criticize the leaders of religion, and many of them are standing there listening. He acknowledges their systemic authority and tells His followers to honor that authority while refusing to follow their example. Jesus then turns to face the religious leaders and goes off.

Today’s chapter records the most intense and scathing rant Jesus ever offered. It is angry, pointed and provocative. What is essential to understand is that Jesus’ harshest words and most scathing criticisms were aimed at the most conservative, upstanding, strict rule-following religious people.

Jesus repeatedly called them names: hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, brood of vipers, sons of hell. He condemned them for their hypocrisy, their judgmental ways, and the selective ways they used God’s rules to make themselves look good and justify their poor treatment of the marginalized. These religious power brokers had already said they wanted Jesus dead, now with every word and every public criticism Jesus is upping the ante and forcing them to see His call and go all in against Him.

Jesus knows it.

At the end of Jesus’ rant He reminds the religious leaders that it was their predecessors who had killed God’s prophets in earlier centuries. It was the High Priests and religious keepers of the Temple who had violently silenced the ancient prophets. Now Jesus ends His tirade by saying, “Go ahead, finish what they started.” 

Jesus was not a victim. Jesus was on a mission. He was pushing buttons. He was driving the action.

This morning I’m meditating on the Jesus who forgave the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. I’m remembering that Jesus broke all social, cultural, racial and religious barriers of His day when He conversed with a Samaritan woman while she drew water from a well. I’m recalling that Jesus healed the son  of detested Roman officer and healed the child of a despised and “heathen” Gentile. It comes to mind this morning that Jesus hung out with “sinful” Tax Collectors and their worldly, sinful friends at loud parties where who-knows-what sinful things were going on.

I often encounter the misperception that Jesus is all about condemnation of sin and sinners. The record shows, however, that Jesus showed incredible mercy, tolerance and forgiveness to those we would terms sinners. Jesus reserved anger, judgment, and condemnation for “good” religious people who used religion to condemn sinners and make themselves look good.

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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