The Placement of Faith in Precarious Times

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
    who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
    and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
    or seek help from the Lord.
Isaiah 31:1 (NIV)

The political situation in Isaiah’s day was precarious. Assyria was a giant, regional super power bent on conquest and destruction. The Assyrian army was on the move, swallowing up every city and nation in its way. The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were now in Assyria’s sights. The Assyrian war machine was large, well-trained, well-equipped and utterly ruthless. The Assyrians didn’t just invade, they destroyed. Assyrian kings would repeatedly inscribe the phrase, “I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire.”

If the Assyrians attacked a city and the city refused to surrender, the men leading the defense of their target would be rounded up to be publicly humiliated. Some could look forward to being flayed alive, their skins hung out for public spectacle. Others could look forward to being impaled alive on stakes or perhaps buried alive. If you approached a city in Isaiah’s day and  found a pile of dismembered limbs by the gate, you knew that the Assyrians had been there. It is no wonder that Isaiah and the people of Judah were in a bit of a panic. The political winds were blowing in the direction of Egypt, believing that an alliance with Egypt would save them from Assyrian devastation.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet questions the object of his fellow citizens faith. They were depending on Egypt to save them. They were bowing to foreign Gods in desperation for salvation. Isaiah reminds them that their trust should be in the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah predicts that Assyria’s ultimate fall would not come about from a “human sword.”

Throughout God’s Message there is a recurring theme. The ebb and flow of power throughout history is subject to a larger context. There is a Great Story that is being told in an ever-expanding universe. As with all great epics, the forces of good and evil, creation and chaos, are in constant conflict. I can focus on the temporal circumstance, or I can trust the Author of Life with the storyline. Isaiah was suggesting the latter, and predicting that the Author was going to show up in a eucatastrophic climax to this particular chapter of history. It might seem a bit naive given the grave circumstances. We’ll learn in the coming week or two how things played out.

This morning I’m thinking about the very real fear and anxiety being felt by people and nations in today’s world. I listen to the feelings of people in the media, on social media, and in casual personal conversations. We are witnessing a fascinating time of tremendous change. There is a tremendous amount of fear, and fear leads us to think, speak, and act in atypical ways. It seems to me that Isaiah’s ancient message to the people of Judah resonates even today. We are living in precarious times, as well.

Where will I find hope?

Where will I place my faith?

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The Mystery of Real Strength

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
    in quietness and trust is your strength,
    but you would have none of it.
Isaiah 30:15 (NIV)

I have a tat on my left bicep. It is a reference to King David’s song of repentance, written after he’d been caught committing adultery, conspiracy, and murder (along with a host of other mistakes). The reference is on my the left arm because throughout the ages the left has metaphorically been used in reference to foolishness, oddity, and wrong doing (Wendy and I are both left-handed, btw). It has an illuminated “P” inspired by the Book of Kells in honor of the monks of Ireland who kept God’s Word alive on the edges of the known world while the institutional church and ecclesiastical powers in Rome and France led the western world into the dark ages. It is on my bicep to remind me of exactly what the ancient prophet Isaiah called out in today’s chapter:

In repentance and rest is your salvation,
In quietness and trust is your strength

For a good, long time on my life journey I followed the path I find most of the world follows. I hid my shortcomings beneath a well crafted public veneer of purity and self-righteousness. Like a successful political candidate I obfuscated, excused, ignored, and covered up. I refused to acknowledge my selfish motives, wanton appetites, and foolish choices. Like David, I woke up one day to find myself at a place on life’s road I swore I would never be. I had wandered so far.

My experience taught me hard and painful lessons in humility. Trouble is a powerful tutor, and I quietly began to understand what Paul was talking about when he wrote to the followers of Jesus in Corinth “But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.'”

The mystery of the spiritual paradox began to lay hold of me. In repentance is strength. Spiritual power is birthed through grace amidst the shattered pieces of my life and the tragic evidence of my own frail humanity. I struck out in a new direction, understanding that repentance, not self-righteousness, was the way of strength.

I put a tat on my left bicep to remind me, every day for the rest of my journey, what I have learned, and what I am continually learning.

Last night on the way home from rehearsal I was scanning through the music on my iPhone and stumbled upon an unlikely song I didn’t really know I had. It’s essentially a negro spiritual sung by the old Irish rocker Tom Jones. Talk about a paradox. I listened to it multiple times on the way home. Seems now like a bit of synchronicity in light of my thoughts this morning. I may find myself in a place of trouble, but God uses that trouble “for to make me human, to make me whole.”

Here are the words:

When I close my eyes, so I would not see,
My Lord did trouble me.
When I let things stand that should not be,
My Lord did trouble me. 

Did trouble me,
With a word or a sign,
With a ring of a bell in the back of my mind.
Did trouble me,
Did stir my soul,
For to make me human, to make me whole. 

When I slept too long and I slept too deep,
Put a worrisome vision into my sleep.
When I held myself away and apart,
And the tears of my brother didn’t move my heart. 

Did trouble me,
With a word and a sign,
With a ringing of a bell in the back of my mind.
Did trouble me,
Did stir my soul
For to make me human, to make me whole. 

And of this I’m sure, of this I know:
My Lord will trouble me.
Whatever I do, wherever I go,
My Lord will trouble me. 

In the whisper of the wind, in the rhythm of a song
My Lord will trouble me.
To keep me on the path where I belong,
My Lord will trouble me. 

Will trouble me,
With a word or a sign,
With the ringing of a bell in the back of my mind.
Will trouble me,
Will stir my soul,
For to make me human, to make me whole. 

To make me human, to make me whole.

Thanksgiving 2016

We celebrated Thanksgiving with Wendy’s family in Ankeny this year. Wendy and I waited for Grandma VH to get back from her church’s Thanksgiving service so we could pick her up and take her with us. We arrived around noon and the meal was just about ready.

With a total of seven Hall siblings, it’s increasingly rare to have all the family together. This year there were four siblings home for the festivities. Josh was home for the first time in years and it was our first opportunity to meet his bride, Ellie. Brother Lucas and his wife Brooke were there as well as Wendy’s sister, Suzanna. Taylor drove up from Des Moines to join us as well. There were FaceTime calls with other family members during the afternoon.

It was a traditional Thanksgiving feast which was wonderful. All of us gathered around the table together. Lots of love, laughter, and a little teasing. Wendy’s Dutch Letter Cheesecake was, unquestionably, the hit of the afternoon – which was spent watching football and enjoying conversation in the family room together.

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Madison’s “Friendsgiving” in South Carolina.

We wish Madison could have been with us, but when you’re a young salesperson working in retail your presence on Black Friday is pretty much mandatory. Maddy Kate enjoyed “Friendsgiving” with her growing community in South Carolina, and we’re thankful that she has a wonderful group of friends developing in her new home. Taylor left Ankeny in the late afternoon to join another Thanksgiving celebration with friends from the Catholic Worker community in Des Moines.

I got to spend Thanksgiving with my folks a week ago. Their retirement community has an annual feast on the weekend before Thanksgiving in which family are invited to share a special meal prepared by the Chef and staff there. My sister Jody and I were able to celebrate with them there. My folks were at Jody’s house on Thanksgiving yesterday.

There is so much for which I am thankful. When I stop to think about it all…well, it gets a little overwhelming.

Reflecting on Life Changes

The Lord says:
“These people come near to me with their mouth

    and honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me

    is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”
Isaiah 29:13 (NIV)

Thanksgiving is a day of reflection. Wendy and I certainly felt all the normal moments of gratitude yesterday. We are so abundantly blessed in so many ways, and we are so grateful.

I found that my reflection in recent days has stretched beyond the normal annual checklist of family, friends, community, provision, and regular blog readers. With my 50th birthday still relatively close in the rear-view mirror, I’ve been reflecting on the ways I feel my entire life changing this year.

I’m sleeping more, which is a huge paradigm shift for me. I’ve spent my entire life struggling with insomnia and being a chronic early riser. Instead of averaging 5-7 hours a night of sleep I find myself sleeping 8-9 hours a night and being much slower about getting out of bed in the morning.

The loss of 1-3 of waking hours, on average, has also changed my daily routines. For almost a decade I’ve rarely missed writing a blog post (or two) each weekday morning. I suddenly find my daily routines struggling to find equilibrium with my changing biorhythms. I’ve had to allow myself grace in the shift. If there are any regular readers out there who have noticed the more regular lapses in my posts, I beg your grace as well. It is what it is. My routines are increasingly whacked out.

There are also spiritual paradigms shifting along with the physical ones. I find myself being far less religious and more deeply Spiritual. I’m increasingly open and less uptight with just about everything. Rules increasingly matter less to me than relationships. My understanding of God is expanding rapidly in unexpected ways while I feel my own admitted sense of self-importance receding. I feel as though I’m just beginning to understand what Jesus meant when He said that the entirety of the law is summed up in the command to love God fully and love my neighbor as I love myself. I’m feeling a bit sheepish about it taking me so long to get here.

As I read the words the ancient prophet Isaiah penned (pasted above) this morning I was reminded that Jesus quoted this passage directly*. I feel like I’m just beginning to understand the heart of God’s message to me. More heart, less lips. More heart worship, less rote ritual. More heart relationships, less rule keeping. I’m beginning to experience the differences, and it makes me excited for where my journey is leading me (in my shorter waking hours :-))

In a little synchronicity, I received this quote from Fr. Rohr in my inbox this morning:

Evolutionary thinking is actually contemplative thinking because it leaves the full field of the future in God’s hands and agrees to humbly hold the present with what it only tentatively knows for sure. Evolutionary thinking agrees to both knowing and not knowing, at the same time. To stay on the ride, to trust the trajectory, to know it is moving, and moving somewhere always better, is just another way to describe faith. We are all in evolution all the time, it seems to me. It is the best, the truest, way to think. —Richard Rohr, “Evolutionary Thinking”

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*Matthew 15:9-8; Mark 7:6-7

Changing Rules & Healthy Development

So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:
    Do this, do that,
    a rule for this, a rule for that;
    a little here, a little there—
so that as they go they will fall backward;
    they will be injured and snared and captured.
Isaiah 28:13 (NIV)

When our daughters were young children there were a lot of rules that had to be made, repeatedly communicated, and enforced. Children, by their very nature, lack of development and require these rules for their safety, instruction, and healthy development.

There came a time in their development, however, when the rules alone were insufficient. The girls’ growth and natural development as  human beings allowed them to think, reason, and act with greater and greater complexity and autonomy. The black and white world of a parent’s rules were trumped by their ability to think and act as individuals.

As a parent, I recognized that my role had to change. Instead of authoritarian rule maker I had to introduce reasoned instruction to my role as father. It was no longer wise or practical to use my parental authority as a battering ram of family law. While I had a license for policing, judging, and punishing my children at will, the black and white approach that worked so well on young children was inadequate for the task of dealing with teenagers and young adults.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah prophetically finds a similar situation with  the religious leaders of his day. As the shepherds of Israel they found it easier to parent their flocks by making endless black and white rules to control behavior rather than wade into the admittedly more difficult pedagogy, understanding, and demonstration of love, wisdom, mercy, and forgiveness.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Jesus faced off against the same human tendency toward legalism when he angrily told off the religious leaders of his day (cf. Matthew 23). Today, we still have religious leaders and their followers who reduce the power of divine love to the spiritually impotent authority of fundamentalist legalism.

I was by no means a perfect parent, and our daughters are quite capable of providing you with evidence of that. Nevertheless, I am enjoying watching each daughter, now in their mid-twenties, finding and developing their very own unique and life-giving relationship with God. This was not the result of rules and parental penal authority. I did my best to be an example and to show them the way, but I couldn’t legislate them into maturity and spiritual openness.

This morning I’m thinking about the many ways we live in a world where humans love to paint everyone into a black and white world. It’s quite useful for categorization and alienation, but I have found it useless at developing the things that God requires (in either grown children or adults):

to act justly
to love mercy
to walk humbly with God.

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featured image: doctorow via Flickr

The Ever Evolving Definition of “Home”

And in that day a great trumpet will sound. Those who were perishing in Assyria and those who were exiled in Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.
Isaiah 27:13 (NIV)

Last week I had the opportunity of spending an evening with my friend, Shanae, who is in her first semester of college. As we enjoyed a meal together she shared with me all that she was experiencing in her first months away from the home she’s always known into her new home at college. She shared with me the excitement about where she was, the yearning for people back home, and the mixture of feelings which accompany times of transition. It was only a few days later that I read Shane’s post on Facebook, giving further evidence that the definition of “home” is continuing to expand for her in unexpected ways.

This is certainly not an uncommon experience on life’s journey. I encouraged Shanae that I expected her feelings to continue changing dramatically in the coming months. The landscape on life’s road changes rapidly during the college years. I remember it well, and I’ve recently watched both of our daughters in their young adult years as their definition of home evolves, and then continues to evolve. It does for all of us. Even Madison posted the other week from  her new home in South Carolina about the experiences of the first Syrian refugees in Iowa, and I thought it interesting, her words and feelings about home in Iowa.

As I read the chapter this morning I thought about the Hebrew exiles, uprooted from their homes and taken into captivity in Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. Not exactly a going off to college experience, nor the young adults adventure of taking a new job in a distant state. Nevertheless, I think we all grapple with the concept of home, and what that means. Our life journeys tend to give us all experiences in which we feel exile, distance, longing, redefinition, nostalgia, and homecoming.

This morning I’m thinking about the upcoming holidays. I’m pondering distance, homecomings, family and what “home” means for me in its ever-expanding definition. I’m reminded that Jesus said He would go and prepare a place for us, and that the end of Great Story we are given in Revelation describes a homecoming.

Perhaps that’s God’s reminder that the definition of “home” will never stops growing, changing, and evolving.

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“You Seem Incredibly Zen”

You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.
Isaiah 26:3-4 (NIV)

In the late evening of November 2nd, when the Cleveland Indians had inexplicably rallied with two outs in the bottom of the 8th to tie game seven of the World Series, there was a high degree of angst in the family room here at Vander Well Manor. It seemed like it was all going to fall apart like it had done so many times before. Then came the rain delay that has already gained legendary status. Wendy and I had a chance to catch our collective breath along with the rest of the nation.

You seem incredibly zen about this,” Wendy said to me, observing the lack of emotional angst in my affect. I have written ad nauseam about our devotion to the Chicago Cubs over the years, so no need to expound on how momentous of a moment this was, nor how nervous I should have been.

The truth is, I was feeling an inexplicable sense of peace in that moment that I’m not sure I would have been feeling a year ago. I certainly would not have been feeling a sense of peace in this moment  five, ten, or 20 years ago. That night, I was.

When I was a young man, I memorized the words the ancient prophet Isaiah penned, pasted at the top of this post. At this waypoint in my life’s journey I’ve come to realize that peace is a relatively rare human experience on life’s road. This is especially true in the extra innings of World Series game 7, an unforeseen tragedy, an unexpected election result, or a painfully blank ultrasound reading.

On the night that Jesus was arrested, submitted to kangaroo court, beaten, scourged, nailed to a cross and mocked by the on looking crowd He looked at his followers and said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” 

The testimony and stories of Jesus followers in the following hours and days were not stories of peace. They scattered and fled to avoid arrest and gathered clandestinely behind locked doors. The betrayer committed suicide. Their leader, Peter, followed Jesus at a distance, but three times fearfully denied any knowledge of the Man he’d earlier hailed as Christ. While the female followers of Jesus risked going to the tomb to anoint the body after the sabbath, the men remained fearfully hidden. Not exactly a picture of peace.

Tradition and history tell us, however, that something happened in the days and years that followed the tragic events of that fateful night. Something had been transformed in these same fearful, peace-less followers. They encountered a resurrected Christ. Forty days later they fearlessly proclaimed the risen Jesus to public crowds. They peacefully accepted arrest, imprisonment and trial. They scattered once more, not in fear but with a mission to share the Message with the known world. With the exception of John, who died of old age, the rest peacefully accepted the brutal death of martyrs.

This morning I am reminded that the peace that Jesus promised His followers did not come instantly. It budded, it took root, and it grew to fruition. God’s creation is a growing, expanding, organic cosmos. Miracles happen, but most of the time things take time to grow before you experience the fruit.

So it was on the evening of November 2nd Wendy noticed my zen-like peace during the rain delay. I think I’m finally hitting a stage of the journey in which I’m enjoying the fruit of peace after many years of steadfast seeking. Peace in the knowledge of a Divine Dance that is so much bigger, deeper, and greater than I’ve ever fathomed. Peace that comes with faith in the Great Story being told by the Author of Life. Peace with my place and role in that Story. Peace in the knowledge that our journeys are all full of bitter defeats and disappointments, but also include rare moments of satisfying victory. I’m increasingly at peace with the knowledge that I will certainly endure the former as I always have before, and might even gain a little wisdom in the experience. I will also enjoy the latter when it comes, even more fully in proportion to the measure of defeat that preceded it.

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Featured photo: kudumomo via Flickr