While We Wait for Deliverance

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—
Isaiah 63:7 (NIV)

We love stories of the lone hero. The mysterious figure shows up out of nowhere to aid the victim(s) of injustice and take out the bad guys who are oppressing the many. We see echoes of this theme from chivalrous medieval tales like Robin Hood, to the great Westerns like High Plains Drifter, and even the classic Samurai movies of Kurosawa.

As I often say, all good stories are echoes of the Great Story. In today’s chapter the prophet Isaiah presents us with a poetic vision of Messiah who stands alone in doling out wrath and vengeance to the oppressive enemies of His people. This theme, and Isaiah’s imagery, is intricately wound into the visions of John’s Revelation, which would come hundreds of year’s later.

Isaiah’s poem starts out all bloody wrath as Messiah alone dispenses divine justice. Then, Isaiah’s poem turns to reveal the kindness and compassion towards the victims of injustice. Isaiah proclaims this kindness towards a rebellious and undeserving people who, in Isaiah’s current circumstances, are suffering from the destruction of their nation and God’s temple. The poem ends with a plea for that mysterious hero to show up.

I’m reminded this morning that we all go through times in our lives which seem dark and hopeless. We long for a hero, mighty to save, to dispense justice. Our hearts pour out pleas for deliverance as an unceasing mantra. Both of these are longings for that which we do not control. Yet amidst the two, the hope for a Deliverer and our pleas for deliverance Isaiah places a simple act:

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal there was an article with advice for those who chronically worry. One expert advised that people “tell themselves a different story.” I think that’s exactly the example Isaiah provides us. Even in the darkest of times, as we wait for deliverance and better times to come, we can recall the stories of blessings we have been graciously afforded, and ways that God has strengthened, provided, and shown us faithfulness.

What’s in a Name?

you will be called by a new name
    that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
Isaiah 62:2b (NIV)

A friend recently shared with Wendy and me that their child had reached the age when they wanted to be called by the more formal version of their first name. This is not unusual. I remember hitting the age when I wanted people to drop what I considered the childish sounding “Tommy” and call me just “Tom.” That lasted until college when friends just stated calling me “Tommy” or “Tommy V” and I just sort of rolled with it. Our Madison went through a similar journey with her moniker. She asked that we drop the “Maddy” and call her “Madison.” Somewhere in her young adult years she came to accept “Maddy Kate” as the endearment with which it is used.

For millennia names were attached to specific meanings. The name given to a person was, itself, a metaphor that attached meaning to that person’s life. In fact, the study of names and their meaning is an interesting thread of study across all of God’s Message. Not only are name fascinating, but God quite regularly changes or gives people new names in the midst of their earthly journeys. Here are a few examples:

Abram becomes Abraham
Sarai becomes Sarah
Jacob becomes Israel
Hoshea becomes Joshua
Solomon also named Jedidiah
Simon becomes Peter
Saul becomes Paul

In some cases, the name changes were cultural, shifting from one language to another. Daniel was given the name Belteshazzar when he was taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Sometimes name changes were bestowed by others, almost like a nickname,  in response to an episode or event in that person’s life. Other times, however, it was God who did the changing and there was spiritual context to the change. Jesus told Simon that He was going to call Him Peter (which was also a language change, Petras was Greek for “Rock”) and added “on this rock I will build my church.”

In today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah is promising the people of Judah that their momentary circumstances of devastation, defeat, destruction, and depression will give way to better times. The times, they will be a changin’.  And with the change comes a new name.

As I meditate this morning it strikes me that in some corners of our culture names have ceased to have any attachment to meaning at all. When I go on-site with clients and meet with teams I will regularly run across people with names with spellings and pronunciations simply made up by a parent. I even had one woman tell me this past month that her name was “meaningless,” and the subtext of the statement was that she felt a lack of meaning in her life. I found it fascinating that a name without common metaphorical meaning became, itself, metaphorical to her.

So, what do I call you?

chapter a day banner 2015

Featured image is a name cloud of popular baby names in 2010 from behindthename.com

Discussion Question Over Appetizers

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….
Isaiah 61:1-2a (NIV)

I love “If” questions and discussion starters. For years our family used them around the table to kick-start dinner conversations…

  • If you could have dinner with three people from history, who would you choose?
  • If you were only allowed one song to sing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  • If you had the power to eliminate one illness from the world, which would you eliminate?

I love “If” questions because the answers can vary so greatly from person to person, and those answers allow you to learn new things about even the closest of friends and relatives.

Having journeyed through God’s Message for many years, it is impossible to read today’s chapter and not connect it immediately to Jesus. Because the record of Jesus’ teaching indicates that He chose this passage for His inaugural sermon in His own home synagogue:

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-20 (NIV)

So, Jesus,” I imagine myself saying to the young carpenter from Nazareth as we sit at the table with a glass of wine and an appetizer of freshly made pita bread and hummus. “If you could choose one passage from all of scripture to epitomize your life, what would you choose?”

I don’t have to wonder what He would say, because I know of all the passages He could have chosen for that message in the Nazareth Synagogue, Jesus chose this passage from Isaiah. This was His mission statement. This was His stake in the ground. He didn’t state it as a desire, or a hope, or a goal. He declared it an indisputable fact. Jesus starts His message with Isaiah’s prophetic, messianic proclamation and then begins His sermon with: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Many people think of Jesus as a nice teacher who was eventually deified by His followers. Others think of Jesus as a kind of confused mystic who said a lot of amazing things, but might have been a little deluded. I don’t find anything confused in Jesus first recorded sermon. It was a shot across the spiritual bow. It was declarative. So much so, in fact, that it created a violent reaction among His neighbors:

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.

This morning I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t stumble onto the scene. Jesus didn’t just happen to be at the right place and the right time so as to fall into this teaching gig. Jesus came wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger because, from the beginning, there was a purpose. It was there when Simeon broke into song at Jesus consecration. It was there when Jesus was twelve years old and confounded the elders of Israel with His words. Good news to the poor, healing for the broken, sight to the blind, freedom to the enslaved, this was the mission from day 1.

So, Tom,” Jesus says to me over morning coffee in my office. “If you had one passage from all of God’s Message to epitomize your life, what would you choose?”

chapter a day banner 2015

Glory!

 

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”
Isaiah 60:1 (NIV)

There is a piece of the creation story that is often overlooked. Even those who have a mere trivial knowledge of the Bible know that “Let there be light” was the first act of creation in the Great Story. What most people don’t stop to realize, however, is that the sun, moon, and stars were not created until the fourth day:

“And God said, ‘Let there be light in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth. And it was so. God made two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.’ And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the fourth day.” Gen 1:14-17

Fascinating. The universe begins with light, but not from sun or stars or moon, but from a mysterious unmentioned source. What makes this even more intriguing is that end of the Great Story also contains light without sun or moon:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… The city does not need sun or the moon to shine upon it, for the Glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” Revelation 21:1, 23

So there is the theological answer to the riddle. God’s “Glory” is the source of the light. The same Glory that radiated so brightly off Moses’ once he encountered God on the mountain that he had to cover his face. The same Glory that radiated off Jesus so brightly on the mountain top that Peter, James, and John were reduced to frightened, babbling fools. The same Glory that literally blinded Saul on the road to Damascus.

In today’s chapter Isaiah prophesies the coming of God’s Glory amidst the dark days of his current national circumstances (defeat, destruction, death, exile). He prophesies a Moses-like radiance for those who look to the Light:

Then you will look and be radiant,
    your heart will throb and swell with joy;

He goes on to offer precursor to John’s Revelation:

The sun will no more be your light by day,
    nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your God will be your glory.

Most of us are familiar with the word “glory.” We sing “Gloria” in Christmas carols and may even utter a “glory hallelujah!” in exclamation. I’m sure few of us stop to consider what that “glory” is. It is Light direct from the divine source. Its power is terrifying. It is blinding Light that fills dark voids. It is Light that cuts through evil like the most powerful cosmic laser. It is light that radiates off those whom it fills.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

Like a lot of people I’ve been feeling the shadows creeping over my soul of late. A dark sludge of anger, conflict, bitterness, doubt, and fear seems to have flooded our collective cultural consciousness. I have to believe it was even worse for Isaiah considering the realities he and his contemporaries were facing. We are so self-centered to think we have it bad when just a hint of historical context reminds us we don’t have a flippin’ clue. Nevertheless, I identify with the darkness Isaiah describes in his prophetic poem and am encouraged by the Glory-ous Light he prophesies.

I’m praying for a little Glory to penetrate my spirit and radiate out through the creeping shadows today.

Hope and Despair in a House of Cards

So justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
    for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Isaiah 59:9 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been watching the acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards over the past year or so. Last night we finished the third season. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are amazing actors. The story is compelling and the plot has some incredible twists that have caught me completely off guard. (FYI: There is some very graphic content, for those who desire to avoid it.)

Over the past couple of episodes Wendy and I have both felt the heaviness that comes when you find yourself mired in dark, depressing storylines. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet gets depressing by the end of the play; The stage littered with the senseless dead. Last night Wendy and I began to analyze and unpack what in the series had brought us to feel this with House of Cards.

As we began to analyze the characters in the show, it struck us that, across almost 40 episodes the writers had not given us one redemptive character. In fact, on multiple occasions the main characters toy with redemption, play on the edges of doing the right thing, only to be sucked back into the tangled web of greed, lust, power and deceit. In the world of House of Cards, goodness equals weakness. Trying to do the right thing makes you a victim or a fool. It is, admittedly, a bleak vision of our political class.

I contrast this with stories of real people I know and have met. They are stories of individuals who were mired in the types of dark places embodied by House of Cards. In these stories, however, a mysterious mixture of personal courage and divine grace led people to turn from dark places to be enveloped in Light. Greed gave way to generosity. Lust gave way to love. Humility replaced pride. The forsaken found forgiveness.

I found it a bit of synchronicity that in today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah spins a poetic description of those lost in the darkness. Isaiah describes those entangled and entrapped in the consequences of their own wrong motives, and perpetually poor choices. Living in those places, as I can personally recall, does feel like a house of cards. You live in constant fear that the whole thing will fall apart, and it eventually does.

As with the stories I recall this morning, redemption comes at the end of Isaiah’s poetic vision. The Redeemer arrives in a eucatastrophic moment. With the Redeemer comes repentance, Spirit, presence, and peace. Darkness gives way to Light. Those are stories to which I am drawn. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with House of Cards for season four. I’m not one to give up hope on redemption.

External Ritual Sans Spiritual Reality

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.”
Isaiah 58:3 (NIV)

When people think about what it means to be religious, the mind is quickly filled with mental pictures of what religious-types do. Taking an hour or two each week to attend services, praying over meals or certain hours of the day, reading the Bible (and perhaps, blogging about it :-)), lighting candles, burning incense, and all the other rituals and trappings that commonly seem to accompany the religions of the world.

As someone who could easily be labeled a religious person for most of my earthly journey, I can tell you that there are metaphorical reasons for most of the rituals and trappings. Metaphor is the language of God, and it’s the best we have for trying to embody that which is beyond our finite ability to fully comprehend and communicate. God gives us many and diverse metaphors to express His person: wind, fire, water, gate, bread, lamb, lion, and etc.. God also provided tangible external metaphors and spiritual exercises to connect us with the spiritual internal realities He wants us to experience in oneness with Him: bread, wine, water, rest, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, and etc..

The problems comes, however, when the external ritualistic metaphors are carried out without the requisite spiritual realities being experienced. What was supposed to connect us is disconnected. Ritual and religion without repentance, redemption, and righteousness becomes empty and even dangerous.

In today’s chapter God speaks through the ancient prophet Isaiah to address this very disconnection. The people of Isaiah’s day had ritualistically gone without food and covered themselves in the clothes of mourning and repentance hoping for God to respond with blessing. God, however, points out that while they are acting out religious ritual in public, in private they have been self-centered, exploitive, greedy,  unjust, and selfish. There is a fundamental core disconnect between true, internal, spiritual oneness with God, and external, rote religious ritual. When that happens, religion becomes all of the ugly and profane things it has been guilty of across time.

This morning I’m reminded that if my spirit is not connected to Holy Spirit in ways that tangibly increase my love for, and actions towards, others (especially those who are different, down-trodden, beat-down, and in need), then all of my church going, hand-raising, worship singing, communion taking, prayer whispering, Bible reading, (and blog posting) is empty and worthless.

Lord, have mercy… please.

Photo Friday: Shoes on the Power Line

2017-01-palm-springs-w-kevin-and-linda-10

While in Palms Springs a few weeks ago I spied a pair of shoes tossed over and dangling from a power line. My head was suddenly filled with nostalgic images of years gone by when such iconic pranks were the stuff that childhood was made of.

The shoes and the power lines made an interesting composition against the cloudless blue canvas of California’s desert sky.