One Word for 2017 … (continued)

I mentioned in a post a week or two ago that over the past couple of years Wendy and I, along with some other family and friends, have been engaged in finding “One Word” that is like a theme for our year. For Wendy and me, the idea is not that we consciously choose a word we desire to be the theme of our year, but that we are open to what word we believe God has chosen for each of us in that year. It’s a faith thing. Ask. Seek. Listen. You’ll know it when you hear it.

I shared in my recent post that the word I’ve been given for 2017 is “empty.” I’m still wrestling with that.

Those who know us well know that Wendy is far more deliberative (literally, about every single thing in life) than I am. I’m an intuitive go with your gut and go with the flow kind of person. Wendy typically weighs and reweighs decisions, and then she double checks her choices in case she might have made the wrong one (I can, at this moment, hear God joyfully cackling at our union). So, the reality is that one year Wendy didn’t really get her one word until sometime in the summer.

Having said this, there are times when Wendy determines something quickly and with abnormal (for her) immediacy. When that happens I’ve learned to pay attention because it’s usually God at work.

So it was yesterday during our weekly worship that Wendy told me that she felt called to go to the elders for prayer. This is a regular thing among our local gathering of Jesus followers. Elders stand ready during worship to pray for anyone who desire is. Wendy went to the side of the room to pray and was there a good while.

On our ride home Wendy shared with me that she had felt prompted to go over for prayer because she has been feeling so “empty.” Yes, she used that exact word. Then she said that as one of the elders (a dear friend and prophet whom God has used to speak into our lives at different times) prayed, she uttered a word that dropped onto Wendy’s spirit. “I went, ‘I think that’s my word!‘”

Pay attention,” the Spirit said to my spirit.

Abundance. Her word was abundance.

My word is empty.

This is going to be interesting.

The Prophecy

Isaiah 53 is among the most amazing pieces of prophetic writing ever written. I’ve first read it over 35 years ago and I still find myself in awe when I read it this morning. Written by Isaiah nearly 700 years before the life of Jesus, this chapter beautifully describes the person and final day of Jesus life on this earth.

Here is a sampling of Isaiah’s prophetic verses in today’s chapter and I’ve taken the liberty to add verses from the biographies of Jesus by Mark, Luke and John which fulfill Isaiah’s prophetic imagery:

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

But the crowds kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Lk 23:20

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;

When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there… Lk 23:33

one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. John 19:34

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”

Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. Lk 22:59-62

and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Jesus (Mk 10:45)

He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.

When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. Lk 23:8-11

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death

Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. Lk 23:50-53

though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth

Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Lk 23:13-15

This is just a hastily put together comparison, but I think we can all see the parallels. I personally find it rather amazing that Isaiah’s prophetic poem could describe with such detail the events from Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution six to seven centuries before it happened.

This morning I’m thinking about prophecy and its fulfillment. I’m thankful for evidence that the Author of Life has a plan, a storyboard, for this Great Story. As I head out into a long day I take solace in seeking to live out my bit part in that Story, and am excited to discover where it might lead.

 

Embracing Truth Wrapped in Paradox

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
Isaiah 52:13-14 (NIV)

Creation is full of mystery.

After stumbling upon a couple of YouTube videos, Wendy and I spent some time this past week pondering a couple of mysteries that have baffled physicists about the Quantum world. In the “Two Slot Experiment” it appears that matter not only behaves in ways that defy reason, but it also behaves differently when we’re watching. In another experiment, two seemingly independent atoms at opposite ends of the universe can be entangled and determine the other’s behavior. In the mystery of Schrodinger’s cat, two seemingly independent realities exist at the same time (the Cosmos’ version of “Yes, And“).

I love mystery. Richard Rohr writes in his book, The Divine Dance that mystery is not something we cannot understand but rather something that we endlessly understand. We don’t capture the mystery, the mystery captures us.

All of creation is the expression of the Creator, including the mysteries of Quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s cat. It is through the ancient prophet Isaiah that God will tell us (later this week in our chapter-a-day journey),

“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.”

Even Einstein understood that science and faith were not mutually exclusive, but enjoyed their own form of spooky entanglement . “Science without religion is lame,” he said, “and religion without science is blind.”

Today’s chapter is about redemption. God through Isaiah says in the early part of the chapter:

“You were sold for nothing,
    and without money you will be redeemed.”

At the end of the chapter Isaiah the seer slips into one of his prophetic “Servant Songs” about the coming Messiah, who will do the redeeming. In a mysterious paradox, the “exalted” Messiah suffers in horrific ways:

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—

Paradox and mystery. It is at the core of our understanding of God, the universe, and everything. This is not something of which I should be afraid, rather it is a reality that should both captivate and motivate me to reach further up and further in. It should be enjoyed and pursued. One is Three and Three is One. Two seemingly independent realities are simultaneously true, and two seemingly independent atoms are inexplicably entangled across the universe. Matter behaves differently when it is being observed. The ultimate Redeemer will be exalted, not through power and wealth, but through unbelievable suffering at the hands of those He created. My mind is capable of far more than I can possibly imagine with the fraction of it that I use, and if it were processing at 100% it would still fall infinitely short of the One (er, Three) who Created it.

This morning, I am embracing Truth wrapped in paradoxical mystery.

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Lessons of the Past

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
    and who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were cut
    and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
look to Abraham, your father,
    and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
When I called him he was only one man,
    and I blessed him and made him many.”
Isaiah 51:1-2 (NIV)

I’ve always been a lover of history. I love learning about the past, and I love it for a host of reasons. Among those reasons are the lessons found in one of life’s paradoxical mysteries. Things do change, yet we often use the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” There are some things about human nature and society that remain amazingly static and simply get reinterpreted with each subsequent generation within the context of the times they find themselves. I find this a perpetually helpful reminder.

I can’t help but think of the current circumstances we find ourselves in here in the States. We feel acutely the tumultuous election in the United States and the deep division that’s being felt and expressed among our fellow citizens.

What has changed is that social media has allowed for unprecedented exchange and dissemination of immediate thoughts and feelings from POTUS to the lowliest citizen in real time. This has highlighted the stark differences of thought and opinion across hundreds of millions of people in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a decade or two ago. We are quick to stake our claim that we’re “more divided than ever” and we are this or that “of all time.” Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that we as humans like to lay claim to being wholly unique and exclusive in our human experiences.

It’s another thing I love about the past. It teaches us lessons of comparison that put our present circumstances in context. I’ve seen snarkiness, sarcasm, rage, and vitriol across the entire spectrum from extreme right to extreme left and back again. We are living in divisive times. Nevertheless, we haven’t killed a half-million of each other as we did in 1860-1865 (the featured photo of this post is that of Civil War dead). I haven’t seen in recent months the attack dogs and fire hoses of Bloody Sunday. I haven’t seen news stories of entire neighborhoods on fire. I pray we can learn from those lessons and keep ourselves from returning to such insanities.

In today’s chapter, God through the prophet Isaiah hearkens the Hebrew people to learn a lesson from their history. He tells them to look back and remember the story of Abraham and Sara. He tells them to recall the promises made and kept to Abraham. They were encouraged to trust the promises of the past. As God was faithful in His promises to Abraham, He would be faithful to His promises to Abraham’s children.

This morning I’m thinking about the past. I’m recalling my own relatively short life journey and the difficult times I’ve witnessed and experienced. I’m recalling some extraordinary good times I’ve experienced as well. The things we feel so acutely in this moment will pass. They will give way to other experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Time will march on.

One of the things my faith has given me is a broader eternal context in which to place my present circumstances. I do believe there is a reason for all of this. I believe it’s all connected and part of a larger narrative. The past has moved us to this point int he story. We will propel the story forward in our lifetime. Just as Isaiah encouraged the Babylonian refugees to take comfort in the promises of Abraham, I can hearken back to the eternal promises given through Jesus, the prophets, and apostles and take comfort in them.

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.