Tag Archives: Creation

Promises of the Uncontainable

I am the Lord,
    the Maker of all things,
    who stretches out the heavens,
    who spreads out the earth by myself…

who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’
    of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,’
    and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’
Isaiah 44:24b,26b (NIV)

I am reminded this morning of English class back in the day. Our teacher assigned us “compare and contrast” papers in which we were to compare two different things. We were to discuss their contrasts, their differences. Isaiah’s prophetic poetry in this morning’s chapter is a compare and contrast composition.

The first five verses are an introductory statement for Isaiah’s readers. They are a “now hear this” to draw the reader in.

Verses six through 20 are a treatise on the nature of the religious idols popular in society and culture of Isaiah’s day. Idolatry was common among the people of Israel and Judah at the time, and many would have Egyptian and Canaanite idols in their homes. People might worship both at the Jewish temple and one of the many idol shrines or temples in town.

Isaiah’s comparison poem focuses on the fact that these idols were images made by carpenters, smiths, and artisans. They were a product of a human’s hands. The carpenter might make a chair with part of a tree, and an idol with the other. The blacksmith might take a hunk of metal and make a hammer with part of it, and an idol with the rest. The idol is a human product, Isaiah repeatedly reminds his readers.

Isaiah then writes a second call to the reader in verses 21-23 in which he weaves all of creation. Clouds, morning, mist, sky, earth, mountains, and forests are all mentioned. Isaiah is already contrasting the small wood or metal god made by the carpenter or blacksmith with the expanse of all creation. The idol is a human creation, but humans are God’s creations. So, which is truly God? In verse 24 Isaiah makes his main comparative statement. God is the creator of all things, beyond the heavens, who cannot be contained in a hunk of wood or metal. God is beyond all that we see or know.

Having established God, the Creator’s, expansive, uncontainable person and power, Isaiah makes a prophetic promise. Those children of Judah living under political exile will return. A ruined Jerusalem will be rebuilt, along with the temple.

This morning I am reminded of the Creator who cannot be contained by human knowledge, reason, description, image or craft. God uses countless metaphors in communicating with us simply because metaphors are the very best we can do in our finite minds. Isaiah doesn’t even attempt to use a metaphor. God is simply the One who created all that we see and beyond it.

Isaiah reminds his readers that God is the power behind the promise of a rebuilt Jerusalem. As I stand on the cusp of a new year, not knowing what will happen, I am reminded that this same God is the power behind the simple promise given by Jesus (in a different compare/contrast statement) whose birth we just celebrated:

“If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

The Recurring Theme of “Old and New”

theoden-transformation-gif

On this last weekday of 2016 it seems to me a bit of divine synchronicity that I should read these words from the ancient prophet, Isaiah:

“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!”
Isaiah 43:18-19a (NIV)

Old gives way to new. Growth. Metamorphosis. Transformation. As I have journeyed through God’s Message these many years I find this to be one of the basic, recurring themes in all of God’s Message to us. In fact, it’s a recurring theme in all that God has created. God is all about transformation:

“Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
– Jesus (Matthew 9:17)

 “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
– Jesus (Matthew 13:52)

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.”
– Jesus (Mark 2:21)

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
Romans 7:6

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Revelation 21:1,4

Another year draws to a close. Once again I am prompted to reflect on where I’ve been, recognize where I am, and set course for where I’m going. I can’t do anything about yesterday. I am not guaranteed tomorrow. But I can choose what I think, say, and do today. I will set my trajectory. I can make a course correction. I can let go of that which has brought death. I can reach out and choose Life.

This morning, I find my spirit whispering (once again):

God,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

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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.

The Natural Order of Things

“…but I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, to be their God: I am the Lord.”
Leviticus 26:45 (NRSV)

When our girls were young I could have said of them that when they were a bit older they would bristle against their father’s authority and would test what I had always said about right and wrong. Our relationship would be strained and stretched thin. They would, in one way or another, choose to do that which was unpleasing to me. They might even rebel against me and say things against me that were untrue. They would likely spurn my advice and choose their own path and experience the consequences of their actions. But, my love for them would not change nor would it change my caring for them in need or my desire to have harmonious relationship with them. In time, their hearts would turn back toward me and we would have a good relationship once again.

As I write that previous paragraph I am recalling specific moments with both of my daughters over the past 15 years. How could I have predicted all of this when they were young? Because it is the natural order of things. Children grow to be their own persons. They bristle against authority and roll their eyes at parents. They test that which they’ve been authoritatively told. They stake their independence and choose their own way. Once they strike out on their own path, their perspective changes. The father who seemed so stupid a few years earlier suddenly seems to have worthwhile wisdom.

God is winding down His ancient law given to Moses. In today’s chapter God delivers an amazingly prescient foreshadowing of what’s to come in His relationship with His children:

  • “If you will not obey me…” (they wouldn’t)
  • “If you continue to be hostile to me…” (they would)
  • “But if, despite [correction] you continue to be hostile…” (they would)
  • “I will scatter you among the nations…” (He did)
  • “Those who survive I will send faintness into the heart of the land of your enemies…” (Like Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel, and etc.)
  • “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors…” (they did)
  • “Then I will remember my covenant…” (He did)

As I read this foreshadowing this morning I am reminded that God is parenting His fledgling children. I could have predicted when our girls were small what was likely to happen, and I’m nowhere near as omniscient as God. Yet there’s an order to God’s creation. There is a natural way of things and God knew how they were going to go. He wove it into telling of the Great Story.

This morning I’m thinking about the natural order of things. This morning our daughter will arrive at the lake after making a 14 hour road trip to join us for a few days. We can’t wait to see her and to be with her. There was a day, not so long ago, when I’m not sure she would have considered a 14 hour road trip just to spend a day or two with dad and Wendy worth her time. But today it is, and we’re overjoyed. It’s the natural order of things. I can fight against it, or I can learn to be at peace with it. I think I will continue to fight my natural inclination toward the former and continue to seek to embrace the latter.

Rest

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord.
Leviticus 25:2 (NRSV)

When you grow up in Iowa, you gain an appreciation for the earth. There are close to 90,000 farm operations in our state and 30.5 million acres of Iowa land is dedicated to agriculture. But the importance of the land goes much deeper than the sheer market value of its produce. The land is a part of people’s heritage. It gets into their souls and becomes a part of who they are.

I find it fascinating that in the ancient Hebrew law God’s principle of rest was extended beyond human beings to the land. Rest is not just something human’s need. It’s something woven into the fabric of creation. Living things need rest. Humans need rest. Animals need rest. Plants need rest. The land needs rest.

I am reminded this morning that when God created Adam and Eve, the task given to them was agriculture. They were caretakers of the Garden. When cast out of the Garden, it was clear from God’s words to Adam that agriculture would continue to be at the core of humanity’s existence. There is a natural connection between humanity and creation that God wove into our DNA. I have never been a farmer and my family has never farmed, but when you live in Iowa you get the connection. The land requires care taking. A part of taking care of living things is making sure there is sufficient rest.

Work hard today. Then rest well.

 

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Resuscitating a Worn Out Phrase

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
John 3:5 (NRSV)

I find it fascinating how some words or phrases take on unintended meanings. As I follow the media coverage of the presidential elections, I will on occasion hear those in the media labeling people, or groups of people, as “Born Again” Christians. The phrase became popular back in the 1970s when Chuck Colson, a convicted Watergate conspirator, wrote a book entitled Born Again to tell the story of his own spiritual rebirth. Now when the label is used by members of the media, I get the feeling that the intended image is that of a narrow-minded, widely ignorant, politically conservative, socially repressed minion blindly leading some televangelist. While there are definitely people who fit that description, I find it sad that they seem to have become synonymous with the term “born again” because it empties the phrase of its intensely powerful meaning.

The phrase “born again” did not originate with Chuck Colson or evangelical Christians. It comes directly from Jesus, and it’s found in today’s chapter. Jesus was having a conversation with a religious man name Nicodemus and he simply makes the statement that if you want to enter God’s kingdom you must experience a rebirth.

The idea of rebirth is not new and it wasn’t new when Jesus said it to Nicodemus. It’s a theme woven into the tapestry of time and creation, and even Jesus seemed a bit frustrated that Nic was perplexed by something so spiritually elementary. Every year lifeless seeds buried in the ground bear life from the ground in the spring, grow to maturity in the heat of the summer, bear fruit during autumn’s harvest, then die and decompose in the harshness of winter. Spring is an annual, seasonal rebirth. Each week we start on Monday and work towards Friday night when we can take a break, end the week and start a new one. Every night we go to bed in darkness, enter the oblivion of sleep then with the break of light and the dawn we start a new day.

“Wait ’til next year.”
“Tomorrow’s a new day.”
“This is only for a season.”
“I just have to get through this week.”

God layers the Great Story with this theme of rebirth. The final chapters speak of a new heaven and new earth, and God says, “Behold, I make all things new” (btw, the reference to that verse was embedded in the the crux of my first tat). So, it should not be a surprise that Jesus tells Nicodemus that one of the basic realities and necessities of God’s Kingdom is a rebirth of Spirit, a new start, a new season, a spiritual new beginning. It has nothing to do with political affiliation, demographics, denomination, or attending church. What Jesus was saying was simple and organic: those facing a dead end need a new start, anyone whose spirit is languishing in darkness needs a new day to dawn, those whose hearts are frozen need the thaw of Spring, everyone who is dead in their sin and shame need to experience the power of a spiritual resurrection.

Today, I’m feeling the desire to breath new life into the worn out phrase “born again.”

Power of the Art of Acting

I have observed along my life journey that acting is largely misunderstood and under appreciated as an art. To many who have asked me about my experiences on stage, acting is perceived to be nothing more than adults engaged in a child’s game of make believe. That notion certainly contains a nugget of truth, as good actors tap into a child-like sense of play and imagination. It does, however, fall short of the whole truth. One might equally say that a painter is simply “coloring” or a composer is simply “making up songs.” In every one of these examples the notion falls far short of understanding both the art form and the work of the artist.

Acting, to steal a term used by Tolkien and Lewis with regard to their writing, is a form of sub-creation. It is the art of creating an individual being, from the inside out, in all of his or her (or its) infinite complexities. Think how intricately layered each one of us are in our unique experiences, gifts, talents, intentions, thoughts, feelings, desires, quirks, flaws, handicaps,  strengths, and idiosyncrasies. What a Herculean task to start with nothing more than words in a script and attempt the creation of a living, breathing, believably real human being on stage. Even more challenging is the fact that the actor must fulfill this task utilizing his or her own existing body and voice. Imagine a composer being asked to take exactly the same notes, key, and time signature that exist in one piece of music and rearrange them to make a uniquely different work.

An actor’s task is made even more difficult when his or her creation must interact with others on stage whom they do not control.  Your creation, in all his or her uniqueness, must react and respond to others in the moment without the assurance of knowing exactly what will happen or be said (or not said) in that moment. Like all other artists actors put their creation out there for all the world to see. It is a courageous act fraught with the risk. Unlike artists in other mediums, actors are, themselves, the canvas, the composition, the sculpture, the sonnet. When actors step on stage they present their own flesh and blood as part and parcel of the art itself. The risk is more personal and more public than almost any other art form.

In the process of creating this living, breathing creation on stage, the actor becomes psychologist, historian, private investigator, sociologist, theologian, and priest. Actors become among the world’s most accepting and empathetic inhabitants because they are required to find understanding and empathy for some of literature and history’s most heinous villains. In this pursuit of the embodiment of a real person on stage, an actor comes to embody love and grace that believes, hopes, and endures even for the most tragic of characters.

As with all art mediums, there exists in this wide world of actors a diverse panacea of education, talent, experience and ability. You may not find Olivier, Hoffman, Streep, or Theron at your local high school, college, or community center. You may, however, be pleasantly surprised if you take the risk of venturing out and buying a ticket. You will find courageous actor-artists stepping into a real world created on the other side of the fourth wall. They will transport you to another time in another place. You may just find yourself swept up in a story that not only entertains, but also causes you to think, laugh, weep, and feel. Your disbelief may be suspended just long enough for you to care, truly care, about these characters, these persons, these living, breathing, real creations and their stories. That is the power of the art of acting.

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Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Character
Preparing for a Role: The Rehearsal Process
Preparing for a Role: How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?
Preparing for a Role: Bits and Moments in the Grind
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Preparing for a Role: Ready for Performance
Theatre is Ultimate Fitness for Your Brain!

 

Photo: Arvin Van Zante, Wendy Vander Well, and Karl Deakyne rehearse a scene from Ham Buns and Potato Salad. Pella, Iowa.