The Embrace of Interconnectedness

I offered my back to those who beat me,
    my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
    from mocking and spitting.
Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
    I will not be disgraced.
Isaiah 50:6-7 (NIV)

The ancient prophets wrote in poetic form. The verse of today’s chapter is a poem, though it is nothing like the pithy rhyme of a Hallmark card, which is about the only poetry consumed by most people I know. Nevertheless, knowledgable commentators have called Isaiah’s poetry “unsurpassed” among the ancient writers who penned the poetry in God’s Message.

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons that the prophets get scant attention and appreciation among contemporary believers. A verse quoted here, a Pinterest-worthy line there, and maybe a cross-reference for study. That’s about it. I get it. Poetry isn’t exactly a popular art form in today’s contemporary world of force-fed sound bytes. Add to it the complexities of translation and both historical and cultural context, and it’s a lot to wade through.

We’re now 50 chapters into Isaiah’s works (16 more to go). As I read this morning, I could feel the “voice” of his poetic verse change at verse four. Isaiah started off with “This is what the LORD says” but then in switches into the voice of the “servant” who says “The sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue.”

Wait a minute. If it is the Lord saying this to Isaiah, then who is the “Sovereign Lord” to which the verse refers and who is the person speaking to the “Sovereign Lord”?

There answer is that there are four “Servant Songs” penned by Isaiah (they are in chapters 42, 49, 50, and 54). They are unique in the exhaustive book of Isaiah’s prophetic works. They are the only place that Isaiah uses the exact Hebrew term for “Sovereign Lord.” The “Servant Songs” are the scripted words of Messiah.

In today’s chapter, the servant song prophetically prefigures the trial and suffering of Jesus at the hands of both the religious and political powers of His day. Read through the verse I’ve pasted at the top of this post. It’s as if Isaiah is storyboarding the scene of Jesus’ trial before the religious leaders and the Roman governor, and he’s writing this over 500 years before it happened.

This morning I am thankful for a Creator God who is artist, story teller, and poet. I’m appreciative of ancient prophetic poems that preview future events. I’m reminded once again of the eternal epic in which I find myself living. This Great Story is so much larger than the ice storms, business travel, and task list of my day, yet it systemically wraps the most minute and seemingly insignificant pieces of my day into the embrace of its interconnectedness.

Inclusive Love in an Exclusive World

“I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Isaiah 49:6 (NIV)

Along life’s journey I’ve come to recognize that we as humans love to  categorize and label ourselves and our fellow human beings. It’s part, I believe, of an inherent desire to know ourselves and our place in this world.

“Who am I?”

“Where do I belong?”

“How do I fit in?”

In the process of self-definition, we come to understand our social groups. I belong to a groups genetically (Dutch, English, Irish), racially (White), sexually (Male Heterosexual), geographically (small town, Pella, Iowan, Midwest, American), religiously (Protestant Christian), educationally (college graduate), economically (upper middle class), politically (conservative), fanatically (Cubs, Vikings, Cyclones), and vocationally (business owner). I could go on, but you see the point. And, if you are reading this your mind is probably already contrasting yourself from me (and perhaps even judging me) based on your own contrasting personal social groups.

Never in my life journey have I recognized how people in society are so quick to label and categorize others. Never have I witnessed so many different social groups (racially, nationally, politically) being so judgmental and dismissive of those who don’t look, think, act, believe, and belong like they do.

This observation comes at a time when, in my own spiritual journey, I am becoming more aware than ever that God’s entire Message is about love and inclusivity.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Isaiah is writing prophetically, in the first person. Isaiah is taking up the voice of the Messiah. He is writing the scripted the words of Christ. Christ speaks in the first person of God the Father giving Him a mission of being redeemer of the tribes of Israel, the primary genetic, cultural, and religious social group to which He would belong during His earthly mission. Then He adds “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

God’s love and God’s Message were never intended to be exclusive, secret, guarded, hoarded, and doled out to a selective few. They were intended to be generously and inclusively shared to every societal group we could ever think of or imagine. You can’t reach the “ends of the earth” until you’ve reached through every societal group and touched every one.

This morning I’m thinking about the fact that I can’t fulfill Christ’s calling to me as His follower to inclusively share and spread that Love, Light, and Message, if I live and love exclusively within my own societal groups.

“No Peace for the Wicked”

“There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.”
Isaiah 48:22 (NIV)

I am intrigued by words and common phrases. Where do familiar phrases come from? How do they change over time?

When I read the final verse of today’s chapter I suddenly had memories of my Grandma Golly and Grandpa Speck. I could hear them with my memory’s ears muttering the words, “No rest for the wicked!” They would say it when they were busy and had too much to do. Notice that they changed the word “peace” with “rest.” As they referenced it, I always took it as a reference to the theological concept of original sin. In the Garden of Eden God punishes Adam’s sin by condemning humanity to toiling for our food:

To Adam [God] said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.

This got my curiosity going and prompted a little research safari online. I found it interesting that some of the more popular online sites for the origin of phrases interpreted the phrase “No peace for the wicked” as a Biblical reference to the hell-fire and brimstone awaiting sinners. Wow, I’ve gone from original sin to eternal hell-fire and brimstone.

So what exactly was Isaiah getting at?

First of all, the Hebrew word interpreted “peace” in this verse (and paraphrased “rest” by my grandparents and others) is the Hebrew word shalom – which is commonly translated into the English word “peace” has a broad definition of peace that also includes tranquility, wholeness, and welfare. It is an overall positive sense of well-being. It makes sense, therefore, that our Hebrew friends use the word like “Aloha” is used by our island friends. It is used for both “hello” and “good-bye.” It is a wish of well-being both in your coming and going.

Earlier in today’s chapter God through the prophet Isaiah speaks to the Hebrew people taken in exile to Babylon. He promises their return and homecoming from captivity, then says,

If only you had paid attention to my commands,
    your peace would have been like a river,
    your well-being like the waves of the sea.

No shalom for the wicked,” is no reference to eternal hell-fire and brimstone. It’s not a direct reference to original sin. It is a loving parent speaking to wayward children being welcomed back into a loving embrace. It’s dad reiterating the moral of the story. It’s mother’s reminder after scolding: “Listen carefully, my dear child. When you don’t pay attention and are disobedient, then the natural consequences lead away from wholeness, tranquility, well-being and peace.”

And, that’s a good lesson. That’s a lesson this grown-up child needs to be reminded of on a regular basis.

Artist’s Date with Vivian

It was a few years ago now that I read a fascinating story in the Wall Street Journal about a woman named Vivian Maier. Maier was never married, never had children, had virtually no family relationships, and was a nanny by trade. She would have quietly faded into obscurity were it not for one young man named John Maloof who purchased a tub full of photo negatives at an auction.

Maloof’s journey of uncovering  the story of the nanny photographer Vivian Maier is told in his documentary film Finding Vivian Maier. The mystery of this woman, her life, and Maloof’s discovery is compelling, but even without their fascinating story the photographs she compulsively took stand as amazing artwork in and of themselves. Maier took thousands and thousands of photographs in her solitary lifetime. Only a fraction of them were ever developed.

To see her photographs, visit http://www.VivianMaier.com

I was overjoyed when I found out that an exhibition of Maier’s photographs was on display at the Des Moines Art Center (always free admission!) and even more excited to hear that the Art Center would be showing the documentary in conjunction with the exhibition. It sounded like the perfect Artist’s Date.

So it was that Wendy and I drove to Des Moines yesterday to pick up Taylor at her new apartment (adorable). We headed to Louie’s Wine Dive for a scrumptious brunch complete with Mimosas and Beignets. We then headed to the Art Center to take in Maier’s photographs and watch the film together. Lovely afternoon.

Finding Vivian Maier is on Netflix. The exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center runs through January 22.

Personal AND Universal

“Sit in silence, go into darkness,
    queen city of the Babylonians;
no more will you be called
    queen of kingdoms.”
Isaiah 47:5 (NIV)

The Great Story told throughout God’s Message weaves multiple storylines together throughout history. There is the storyline about God’s relationship with humanity on an individual, interpersonal level, but there is also the storyline of God’s relationship with the nations. As I journey through God’s Message I believe that it’s important to recognize and distinguish between the two in understanding the Story.

In today’s chapter, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah to the nation (you might also say Kingdom or Empire) of Babylon. Earlier in the Isaiah’s prophetic writings God said that He would raise up that nation of Babylon in order to deal with the rebellious Kingdom of Judah.

When we read the story of Daniel and his friends, who had been taken into exile by the Babylonians, we find that God is at work in the life of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Once again we see God at work in storylines on the national level and on the personal level.

Now Isaiah’s prophetic pen targets this nation of Babylon whom God will bring low just as He had raised her up. God was at work in the storylines of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Isaiah, Jeremiah, while at the same moment being at work in the storylines of Babylon, Israel, Judah and Persia.

This morning I’m thinking about my belief that God cares about me and my story in intimate and detailed ways, AND that God cares about the nations and the larger storyline being told in the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms. I have heard some argue that God has bigger issues to deal with than their own personal troubles. I don’t believe that God is limited in power, knowledge or presence so that either storyline be excluded for the other. I’m thinking this morning about the tension of being grateful for God’s care and involvement in my own personal story, without being deluded into thinking that it’s any more important than all the billions and trillions of storylines woven into the Great Story God is telling.

One Word for 2017

A few years ago our local gathering of Jesus followers went through a series of messages entitled “One Word.” One of the exercises we were challenged to undertake was to pray about one word that would be our personal word for the given year – a theme of sorts.

To be honest, I haven’t expended much thought or effort into the process. I have just tried to keep my spirit open and listen. I’ve had a sort of “you’ll know it when you hear it” kind of attitude.

Two years ago my word was fulfill, or as I liked to write it full-fill. Going into the year I had all sorts of ideas about what that meant. That year saw the fulfillment of a decade of leadership in our local community theatre. We were fulfilled to watch our daughters finishing their graduate and undergraduate degrees, respectively. We fulfilled our time of Wendy’s sister, Suzanna, living with us. We fulfilled a calling to build a house. At the end of the year was the unexpected fulfillment of a legacy as the founder of our company, and my life-long mentor, passed away.

Last year my word was focus. Once again I think my early expectations of what that might mean in coming year was not at all what it ended up being. It is easy for me to feel like it was an epic fail when I think about ways that I wanted to focus my time, energy and life. Instead, it seemed to be more about how life required me to focus my time and energy, at times in less than fun ways.

This year my word is empty which, honestly, does not strike me as particularly inspiring or Pinterest-worthy. More than once I’ve asked in my spirit, “Really?!” I always feel the confirmation.

The past two years I’ve entered the year with my word inspiring all sorts of grandiose notions of what it could mean, only to find in the end that reality was more grind than grand. This year my word has my spirit whispering, “Oh, shit.”

Through This Stage and the Next

Even to your old age and gray hairs
    I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
    I will sustain you and I will rescue you.
Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

It’s a new year. The craziness of the fall, being neck-deep in production of a musical, gave way to a busy holiday season. For the first time in months Wendy and I are beginning to feel just a smidgen of margin. With it, I am feeling the need to get back into important life routines derailed by the tyranny of the urgent.

Into this mix I’m also continuing to feel, acknowledge, and understand the change in life’s seasons. I was on stage in two shows this past year, and in both I was asked to color my hair so as to hide the gray and make me look younger for the audience. I feel myself changing in almost every aspect of life. I’m doing my best to acknowledge, to accept, to understand, and to embrace the changes.

Some mornings I read the chapter and it feels like God meets me right where I am in the moment, with a conversational gift appropriate to exactly where I am in my journey. So it was this morning with the prophetic words of the seer Isaiah which I’ve pasted at the top of this post.

My body is feeling the soreness of working out again. My brain is feeling the strain of transition to projects and tasks that need to be accomplished. My spirit is feeling stretched by my annual New Year’s contemplation:

Where have I been?
Where am I at?
Where am I headed?

For a contemplative Type 4 like me, it can feel a bit disconcerting. This morning I’m thanking God for the reminder that He will continue to sustain, carry, and rescue – through this stage of the journey and into the next, and the next, and the next.

chapter a day banner 2015

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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