A Reasonable Mystic

In love a throne will be established;
    in faithfulness a man will sit on it—
    one from the house of David—
one who in judging seeks justice
    and speeds the cause of righteousness.
Isaiah 16:4b-5 (NIV)

Yesterday I has someone approach me about a couple of dreams they’d had in which I played a part in their dreams. This person was nervous to share them with me, but they need not have been. I found the images interesting, though I can’t say for certain what they mean, or if they mean anything at all.

I consider myself a reasonable mystic. I believe that there are things in God’s creation, things of the Spirit, that lie outside our conscious understanding. I believe that God uses the prophetic. I believe that God sometimes speaks through dreams. I equally believe that we humans always mess things up whenever we try to package the divine into a human equation. I don’t believe all dreams are divine. Sometimes dreams are just dreams.

So it is with the ancient prophets. Isaiah was pronouncing a prophetic judgement against the Kingdom of Moab, a small nation that existed on the east side of the Dead Sea. Yet amidst the prophecy against Moab there lies a verse about the Messiah. It sort of sticks out in today’s chapter like a sore thumb.

Love is His throne.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” – Jesus

Faithful is the One who sits on the throne.
“…if we are faithless,
    he remains faithful,
    for he cannot disown himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13

One from the House of David.
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2:11

One who in judging seeks justice.
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.”
(Jesus quoting Isaiah) Matthew 12:18

and speeds the cause of righteousness.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” -Jesus

The world of the prophetic is an interesting place. It is a place where one prophetic message carries within it a wholly separate, though complementary prophetic message. Within a message for Moab on which Isaiah himself places a three-year timeline (vs. 13) is a prophetic word that would begin to be fulfilled some 700 years later.

And, sometimes dreams, which might otherwise be merely a natural nocturnal brain activity, contain snatches of the divine.

I thanked my friend for sharing the images and dreams with me. I explained that I would store the information and hold on loosely. If it’s something important then it will be made clear at the right time and place. If not, then it was certainly entertaining to hear the dreams described. I am discovering that the divine dance is an exercise in holding the right tension. Cling too tightly, step too mechanically and I step on my Partner’s toes. Hold too loosely and I let my Partner slip away. Then I’m dancing on my own, and that’s always awkward.

Three Heroes: Bob Dylan

This is the third and final post in a challenge I had been given by a good friend in my local gathering of Jesus followers. The assignment was to list three personal “heroes.” For the sake of this exercise, the heroes had to be persons (dead or alive) I did not know personally and Jesus could not be listed among the three. In previous posts I named Winston Churchill and Miles Davis. As chance would have it, I have pictures of all three (among others) taped to my well-worn paperback Bible (see featured image).

I’ve been waiting on this last installment about Bob Dylan. I’m not sure why. I thought it a bit of synchronicity that last week Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I thought it apt that he should receive it for the body of his lyrical writing. It is his lyrics that have inspired me in life, in faith, and in my own creative journey. It is also classic Dylan that he has refused to acknowledge the honor. Both of these facts are part of the reason he’s one of my heroes. So the timing of this post now seems right.

I became a follower of Jesus in the spring of 1981. Within months of that life-changing decision I was in a record store and happened upon Bob Dylan’s album Slow Train Comin’. I still remember the moment. It was a record store on University Avenue in Des Moines near Drake University. I am the youngest of four siblings and my older brothers (seven years my senior) were audiophiles with an extensive collection of LPs. Following in their footsteps, I had cut my musical teeth early on rock classics and had a fairly diverse musical palette for my age. I knew Bob Dylan from Like a Rolling Stone and Rainy Day Women. When I happened upon Slow Train Comin’ I was both surprised and intrigued by the reports I’d heard regarding Dylan’s own newly discovered faith. His lyrics and music resonated with my own spiritual journey.

I devoured the tracks on Slow Train Comin’ and then moved on to the heavy gospel of his next album, Saved followed by the very different musical and lyrical takes on Shot of Love and Infidels. There was something altogether different in Dylan’s music and lyrics compared to the other “Christian” music I was exposed to in those years. No offense intended to Christian artists of that day, but the music always repeated what was commercially popular at the moment and the lyrics were simple and cookie-cutter. Dylan on the other hand, was altogether different.

I found Dylan’s lyrics to have a depth and honesty that stood in stark contrast to other music I was listening to. His music wasn’t canned. It didn’t sound like everything else. It was brutal in its forthright transparency and I identified with the raw feelings of confession, faith, doubt, struggle, and determination that were being communicated. I was challenged by references I didn’t understand and metaphors that pushed the envelope of my knowledge.

My love and appreciation for Dylan’s lyrics led me to delve deeper into his past. I went back to the beginning and followed the path of his musical journey. I fell in love with his earlier music and gained an even deeper appreciation for the artistry of his lyrics.

As time went on it was fascinating for me to watch Dylan shun the Christian and religious labels to which the press, the Christian record industry, and others tried to pigeon-hole him. It was reported the he left the faith. He was branded a heretic by the religious press to whom he refused subservience. The mainstream press and music industry welcomed him back as a backslider who got the religious stuff out of his system.

I didn’t pay much attention to what the press said. I just kept listening to his music, to the lyrics that poured out of him, in which I found the honest musings of a fellow wayfarer trying to figure things out. In his lyrics I continued to find faith, doubt, honesty, struggle, love, and pain that mirrored my own experience. All of it was communicated in words and metaphors that never ceased to challenge and inspire me.

So, why do I consider Bob Dylan a personal hero?

First, he seems always to avoid being labeled or confined by others’ expectations. The institutional church and evangelical Christians are subtly and successfully manipulative in pressuring followers into a prescribed box of what they deem acceptable. I watched as Dylan simply refused the label, and refused to be placed inside someone else’s box. Not just in his so-called “religious” years but throughout his entire life. He’s not done the same thing to the literati elite on the Nobel committee. God has given me a very individualist spirit and Dylan’s example gave me an example to follow, a freedom to be the person and the artist God created me to be, even if it doesn’t meet others expectations of what I should do or be. I’m okay being me even if it does not fit neatly in the box prescribed by my family, friends or some other constituency.

Second, Dylan’s lyrical artistry wanders all over the map. You name it and he references it. He’s an explorer in the expansive sense. He references the religious, historic, artistic, scientific, personal, and literary. He draws on life in its abundant diversity in all of his artistic expression. As someone with a sometimes embarrassing repository of trivial knowledge (Wendy to me: How can you possibly know that?! Answer: I don’t know how I know it. I just do.) I love that Dylan makes art out of the arcane. He pulls together seemingly disparate references and expresses something meaningful, powerful and creative out of them. I get that. I creatively want to be like that.

Finally, and much like Miles Davis (and Picasso and Van Gogh and Woody Allen), Bob Dylan has ceaselessly pushed into new things lyrically and artistically. He’s a creative wellspring. He doesn’t rest. He doesn’t stop exploring and expressing. It just keeps pouring out of him. I love that he is a visual artist as well as a musical artist. He’s never been afraid to explore a different medium. Some of his albums feel entirely experimental. He explores the old and the new. He plays. Dylan inspires me to never be afraid to try new things, push into new areas, embrace and experiment with what was, what is, and fearlessly forge ahead.

Project Postscript….

My family has been having a lot of conversations over the past few years about the nine Enneagram personality types and how each of our “types” affect our lives and relationships. I happen to be a Type 4: The Individualist, and when I look through the institute’s list of examples of Type 4s, would you know it, but two of my three “heroes” from this project are there.

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The Luxury of Relative Peace and Safety

Ar in Moab is ruined,
    destroyed in a night!
Kir in Moab is ruined,
    destroyed in a night!
Isaiah 15:1 (NIV)

It’s hard to believe that those now graduating from high school have no recollection of life before 9/11. How quickly life, as we knew it, changed that day. I can still remember walking by the cafeteria inside my client’s office building that morning and catching a crowd of people huddled beneath a suspended television. Out of my peripheral vision I saw it, and it caused me to stop and wonder what was going on. I slipped quietly to the back of the crowd and watched the first tower burning. While I was standing there watching the second tower was struck. I packed up my things and went home. I knew that all of our meetings would be cancelled that day.

It had really been 50 years since the last time an event of that magnitude shook the U.S. From the accounts I have read, and from the testimony of my family members I know that Pearl Harbor had a similar effect. Everything changed in a moment.

It is a luxury to live in relative peace and safety.

I read the words of Isaiah’s prophecy against the ancient cities in Moab. I try to imagine what it was like in that day. How hard life must have been. How dangerous. A wandering raiding party could change everything for you and your family in a moment. I have to believe that is how it is for many people today living in certain villages of  Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, and other war zones.

It is a luxury to live in relative peace and safety.

This morning I’m waking up to a beautiful morning. I will go to my client’s office. I will conduct my training sessions and return to my hotel. My concern this morning is not fear of life, of safety, of security or provision for me and my loved ones. My concern is finding my way in a city strange to me, finding favor with the new team with whom I’m working, where I’m going to eat tonight among the myriad of choices, and my beloved Cubs finding their offense tonight against a formidable Cleveland pitching staff.

It is a luxury to live in relative peace and safety.

Thank you God, for blessings I so often take for granted. Shower your peace, safety, and provision on those who know they afford no such luxury this day.

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Featured image courtesy of Jason E Powell via Flickr

Words That Reach to What Was, and Is, and Yet Will Be

How you have fallen from heaven,
    morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
    you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
    to the depths of the pit.
Isaiah 14:12-15 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor, and metaphors (e.g. word pictures) are layered with meaning. That’s what makes them so powerful as a tools of communication. Their meaning resonates far deeper and reaches much further. Metaphors are layered with meaning. Like God, you keep mining the depths only to find there is more there than you ever realized before.

That is often what makes the words of the ancient prophets both confusing and powerful. Take the words from today’s chapter pasted above as an example.

Let’s start with the first layer of meaning: Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Babylon. Babylon was an aspiring superpower and becoming the largest city on Earth. Babylon was swallowing up peoples and territories. Babylon was swelling with pride at its greatness. One day its king, Nebuchadnezzar, would literally fulfill the sentiments cited by Isaiah (Read Daniel 4).

But let’s also go back in time and remember the root of Babyl-on. Think Babel. The story in Genesis 11. The people said, “Let’s make a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens and make a name for ourselves.” It’s the same root of pride. The same sentiment.

Let’s go back further to the Garden, where the serpent tempted Eve and Adam with the notion that they could eat the fruit and “be like God.”

Many commentators have said that Isaiah’s prophecy reaches further back and refers to Satan, or Lucifer, who tradition tell us was God’s most beautiful angel. Lucifer wanted to be like God and was cast from heaven to inhabit death. Again, the sentiment is the same. Wanting to ascend to the place of God. The same sentiment with which he tempted Adam and Eve.

Think forward to the prophecies of John in Revelation, in which he sees a woman, “Babylon the Great,” sitting on a beast covered in blasphemies.

Things that were. Things that are. Things that yet will be. The thread is the same: that which sets itself to ascend in its pride and become God, therefore diminishing God of all that God is (and was, and is to come).

And that’s where my heart settles in its meditation this morning. Where do the seeds and fruit of pride – those same seeds of Lucifer, of Adam, of Nebuchadnezzar, and of Babylon – show their roots in my heart and life? In what ways do I seek to be god of my life, my relationships, my spouse, my children, my business, my house, my possessions? Where does my pride ascend in thinking I create, conquer, possess, control, and/or dominate?

In what ways do I, in contrast to John the Baptist, seek to become more and make Jesus less?

Isaiah was writing about the nation of Babylon, but his word picture is layered with so much more meaning. His word picture stretches back before creation. It stretches forward to that which yet will be. It stretches forward in time to this morning, in this place, at this moment and ask this person to contemplate both the evidence of my pride, and my desperate need to seek humility.

Pondering the Prophetic

Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
    the pride and glory of the Babylonians,
will be overthrown by God
    like Sodom and Gomorrah.
She will never be inhabited
    or lived in through all generations;
there no nomads will pitch their tents,
    there no shepherds will rest their flocks.
Isaiah 13:19-20 (NIV)

Prophecy is a part of the human experience. It is a mysterious thing, yet even our great stories are filled with it:

  • The weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.
  • The otherwise prophetically inept Professor Trelawney utters the  prophetic words that speak of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort’s  connected fate.
  • Aragorn cites the words of Malbeth the Seer in making his fateful decision to traverse the Paths of the Dead.

I find it fascinating that our greatest stories quite regularly contain an element of the prophetic. Good stories are a reflection of the Great Story. The prophetic is a mysterious part of our human experience.

Reading and interpreting the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrews requires knowledge, context, and discernment. The writing of the ancient prophets like Isaiah point to things that were, things that are, and things that yet will be. They are often woven together in a stream of poetic imagery that can be, and often is, misunderstood as we try to separate the strands.

As I attempt to understand the weave of prophetic strands in today’s chapter, there are two themes on which I find myself meditating this morning.

First, God was not opposed to utilizing kingdoms like Babylon and Assyria, to accomplish His purposes. This is not an isolated to occurrence. In fact, it is a recurring theme in the Great Story. From Balaam’s donkey, to the mysterious Melchizedek, to Rahab the prostitute, to the evil King Herod whose tax-raising census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, God uses a diverse and motley cast of characters and nations to drive the story line of history. This raises a number of fascinating questions. This morning, however, I find myself reminded not to try to put God in a box that He has not defined.

Second, I’m thinking about the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, which are very visible today. While God used the Babylonian kingdom (despite their wickedness) and wove them into narrative in interesting ways, Isaiah’s prophecy is quite clear about the ultimate end (see the verses above). The ancient city of Babylon was, by all accounts, an amazing city. During two periods of history it was the largest city in the world. The hanging gardens there were among the “seven wonders of the ancient world.” But, within a few hundred years of Isaiah’s writing, the words of his prophecy would be fulfilled.

The ruins of Babylon are located just outside of Baghdad in Iraq, and can still be seen today. Despite Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to resurrect the glory old city, Babylon remains “a large tell of broken mud-brick buildings and debris.” (Wikipedia)

In a time of political upheaval and present uncertainty, I find myself this morning taking quiet solace in the larger narrative of the Great Story, in the realization that God weaves many diverse Peoples and political regimes into that narrative, in the mystery of the prophetic, and in the present evidence of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic words.

 

Step Back…There’s More to the Story

“Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
Isaiah 12:2 (NIV)

Last night Wendy and I lay in bed watching our beloved Cubbies lose Game 3 of the National League Championship Series (NLCS) to the Dodgers in very undramatic fashion. For a life-long Cubs fan it’s hard not to feel like it has felt so many times before. It’s hard not to be pessimistic even though we’re only one game down. “There’s more to this story,” Wendy kept reminding me as the seemingly endless, hitless innings continued to rack up. More to the story….

I’ve been blogging this chapter-a-day journey for over ten years, and have been doing it much longer. It’s a great habit to get into, but it also lends itself to some interpretive difficulties.

If we’re reading a narrative history such as Jesus biographies or the Chronicles of the Kings, then reading a chapter each day is a lot like reading a novel. You remember the narrative from the day before and you pick up where you left off.

When it comes to the metaphorical poems of the ancient Hebrew prophets, however, it’s easy to get focused on the text of each chapter, and lose sight of the larger, poetic message the prophet is telling.

Today’s chapter is actually the final section of a larger message Isaiah was delivering from chapters 7-12. It I’m not careful, I might not catch the larger story to which today’s chapter belongs. Yesterday’s chapter was all about the coming Messiah. Today’s chapter is the result of Messiah’s coming: salvation and praise.

There is a pattern in the theme:

Sin -> Judgement -> Messiah -> Salvation -> Praise

This pattern is important because it foreshadows exactly what Jesus would teach us. Salvation is not something I achieve for myself, but something that God has done for me:

“God is my salvation….”

“The Lord himself…has become my salvation.”

“Make known in the nations what he has done.”

And, this great thing that God has done for me leads me to offer praise and thanks.

This morning I’m reminded of the importance of stepping back and seeing the big picture. I’m reminded of the Message that God foreshadowed through the poetry of the prophets hundreds of years before it was fulfilled. I’m reminded, once again, that there is a plan. I’m reminded that there is more to the story if I’m willing to see it. That’s what Wendy was reminding me last night with regard to a game with infinitely less eternal significance.

Gave four of a seven game series is tonight. Come on, Cubbies. Let’s change the narrative!

chapter a day banner 2015Featured image: teegardin via Flickr

 

Reason, Creativity & Metaphor

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
Isaiah 11:1-2 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor. Throughout God’s Message He speaks through word pictures: poetic word pictures, word pictures in parables, typology, foreshadowing, metaphorical names, dreams, visions, and prophecies. God is a creative artist. God is the Creator Artist. The intricate, mathematical design of all creation is balanced by the Creator’s artistic flair in communication and story telling. We are made in God’s image. Left brain and right brain. Reason and creativity.

I have found that many people get perplexed and confused when approaching the writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets. Reading the prophets can be a head scratcher. There is no doubt. This is especially true considering that we are reading an English translation of the original Hebrew text. The original Hebrew is much like the balanced reason and creativity of Creation. It can be very left-brained in its intricate (even mathematical) poetic structure and very right-brained in its metaphorical content.

This morning’s chapter begins with a Messianic prophecy. If you delve into the word pictures, you begin to unlock the full meaning.

Jesse was the father of King David. King David was told by God that his throne would be established forever (e.g. the Messiah would come from the line of David). During the time of Isaiah’s writing, the line of David was still sitting on the throne of Judah in Jerusalem. Alive and bearing generational fruit. But, within a couple of hundred years of the writing the monarchy of Judah would be cut-off by a series of occupational empires (Babylonian, Persian, Roman). There would be no king in Jerusalem. The family tree of Jesse’s royal lineage would become a lifeless stump.

From that dead, life-less stump comes a shoot, that will develop into a branch which will bear fruit. Life will spring out of the seemingly dead line of Jesse. That’s why Matthew and Luke are both careful to record the family tree of Jesus in the telling of the Jesus story. Jesus was a descendent of Jesse, born in the town of David, the town of Bethlehem.

And what does Isaiah’s prophecy communicate about this new shoot of life?

Spirit.
Spirit.
Spirit.
Spirit.

Consider Jesus’ own words:

“No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of both water and spirit.”

“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”

“God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in Spirit and truth.”

“The Spirit gives life. The flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of Spirit and life.”

Jesus even took this same word picture of trunk, branch and fruit and passed it on to His followers (see John 15). How cool is that to see the manifestation of the word picture the Creator planted in the design of creation: Trunk give birth to branch which bears fruit that falls to Earth and “dies” and is buried, which then gives birth of Life to a new tree which develops branches and bears fruit. God’s intricate, creative design speaks God’s language: metaphor.

This morning I’m inspired thinking about the depth and layers of meaning in Isaiah’s prophetic writing. There were layers of meaning Isaiah himself could not possibly comprehend as he wrote the verses 700 years before the “Shoot of Jesse” would spring to Life. I am thinking about design and creativity. Words and word pictures. Spirit and Life. I’m praying that I perpetuate the word picture; praying that Spirit and Life is bearing fruit in and through me today.