And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. Acts 20:22-23 (NRSV)
One of the things that Wendy and I found fascinating about our time in Edinburgh a few weeks ago was that there’s hardly a straight, level street in the entire city. There are steep inclines, winding roads, angled streets, narrow alleys, and stairs upon stairs. We felt like we were constantly going up a steep hill or down a sharp incline. Our calves were killing us.
That came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. I’m reminded that life’s path is not always easy, and the way does not always meander through pleasant, level places. The theme of Dr. Luke’s account of the first generation of Jesus followers if filled with difficulties, persecutions, executions, imprisonments, riots, shipwrecks, and floggings. And, time and time again Luke says that the Message flourished and daily the number of believers grew.
I found it interesting to bullet out Paul’s conversation with his fellow believers from Ephesus in today’s chapter:
I was a living example in my time with you. Follow it.
I’m going to Jerusalem and expect to be persecuted and imprisoned.
You’ll never see me again (I’m going to die before I can return)
Be on guard! Wolves are going to infiltrate your flock.
Give, and don’t expect anything in return.
The message was followed by weeping and grief.
It’s not exactly a Thomas Kinkade scene come to life. And, so it is with life’s journey. Sometimes the path leads through difficult terrain, but there is purpose in our pains and in the places God leads us. Paul wasn’t complaining about the road ahead. He may have felt fear and grief as he set out, but courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the willingness to press on in spite of fear.
Today, I’m thinking about the balance of hoping for the best while knowing that “the best” does not always look the way I want it to look.
They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” Acts 4:16-17 (NRSV)
Along life’s journey, I have had the opportunity of finding myself in leadership of different groups and organizations. As a leader, I am always looking for ways that things can be improved. I want to be effective and for whatever I’m involved in to have a positive and lasting impact. Often, this means I have to fight against the entrenched attitudes of others.
I have found that there will always be individuals who are motivated by a need for a sense of safety and stability. These individuals can easily equate sameness with safety. If things remain exactly the same then the anxiety produced in their spirits by the fear of change is reduced to acceptable levels. Sameness becomes tradition which is zealously protected. When personal authority and power is attached to the tradition, the desire to shun change and maintain the status quo becomes even stronger.
I was amazed reading today’s chapter that the priests and temple leaders gave little thought to the fact that a well known person in their community, a man who had been lame his entire life, was healed and dancing in the streets. They were not the least bit concerned about the miracles which were taking place or the thousands of individuals in whom God was working with life changing power. Their only concern appears to have been maintenance of the status quo and their vice grip hold on power.
Today, I’m praying that I never become one who fears change. Jesus said, “you don’t put new wine in old wineskins, otherwise the skins will burst and the wine is lost.” I want my heart and mind to remain fresh and pliable so that any new thing God is doing will fill me with Life rather than cracking and bursting my spirit because of some false sense of security to which I cling. I want to be part of whatever new thing God is doing in our midst.
Your wealth, merchandise and wares, your mariners, sailors and shipwrights, your merchants and all your soldiers, and everyone else on board will sink into the heart of the sea on the day of your shipwreck. Ezekiel 27:27 (NIV)
Reading the newspaper (the actual paper and ink newspaper) is a old school habit that has become a little luxury for Wendy and me. Growing up as a “Paperboy,” I learned early in life to enjoy taking a few minutes each day to read through the news. I long ago grew tired of the way our regional newspaper, The Des Moines Register, became little more than a giant circular advertisement with regurgitation of syndicated content from the AP wires. Wendy and I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and enjoy reading and discussing the news of the day with our breakfast each morning.
One of the things Wendy and I have come to observe about “the Journal” is the laughable way that economic indicators grab headlines. One day the front page signals that we’re back to the economic glory days of the Roaring ’20s and the next day the headlines scream that we’re teetering on the brink of another Great Depression. There is little doubt that the paper caters to its core constituency of business and investors who tend to look at everything in life through the lens of commerce.
In today’s chapter, Ezekiel continues his prophetic message of doom for the ancient city-state of Tyre. The prophecy, however, takes a sudden turn worthy of a front page mention on the Wall Street Papyrus of their day. Ezekiel, whose prophetic messages centered around religion and idolatry, turns his prophetic lens on Tyre’s economy.
Situated on the Mediterranean coast, Tyre was an important harbor of trade back in that day. Ships from northern Africa, Greece, and southern Europe regularly sailed in and out of Tyre. The trading ships of Tyre had a strong reputation. Ezekiel, however, prophesies that their ships and their economy are about to sink.
My high school history teacher once told us that if we really wanted to find out what is really going on in the world we should “follow the money trail.” I have never forgotten it, and have found it sage advice. Greed is a powerful force, and economics regularly gets the better of our strongest moral principles and religious virtues. Ezekiel’s message in today’s chapter seems to tap into that knowledge of the human condition. Business often scoffs at religion and politics. Commerce seems to think that it will always find a way to escape and make a buck off the suckers in the world. If you want to strike fear into the heart of the business class simply threaten their bank account. Which is exactly what Ezekiel was doing.
This past weekend Suzanna reminded Wendy and me that it was just a year ago (on Valentine’s Day) that she and I left to go on a glorious seven day cruise. Over the weekend I have been thinking about all that changed in life since we returned from that cruise. Yesterday, as we gathered with our fellow Jesus followers, we were given time during worship to do some journaling. I poured out a list. Here’s a partial list:
We gave up our long-term dream of renovating 607 Columbus
We bought a lot and started planning to build a house
Suzanna finished high school and entered the working world
Taylor went through a divorce
Madison became a flight attendant
Moved to Salt Lake City for a month of training
Moved to Chicago to work out of O’Hare
Moved to back to Colorado
Taylor moved to Scotland to start grad school
Wendy’s parents moved
My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s
We broke ground on a new house
We decluttered 607 Columbus and put it on the market
Seismic shifts in work, relationships, and directions
Robbery of my hotel room: Computers, electronics, photos all stolen
607 Columbus sold, closed, and packed up after almost a decade.
Holidays without either Taylor or Madison present
Needless to say, life has felt a bit like shifting sand under our feet. I was reminded again by Ezekiel’s words this morning. The “end has come” for many things in our lives since Wendy and I arrived back in the harbor one year ago. With endings come certain feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and grief. And yet, I am reminded that God’s Message also tells there is a time for everything under the sun. There is a time for endings and a time for beginnings. There is a time for some things to die away and a time for new things to be born. There is a time for old things pass away and a time for new things come.
Today, I am choosing to embrace both the grief and hope that come with transitions.
But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. Job 23:8-9 (NIV)
This, I have come to know: Children see in part, and they know in part. A child’s understanding of the adult world is incomplete. A child’s perception of reality is innocently askew. Children see bogey-men in the shadows, yet their fear is real. A child in an empty room may feel utterly alone in the universe, even when the house around them is fully occupied. For a parent, a child’s warped perception of reality can be alternately endearing and maddening.
We reach a point in adulthood, if we are fortunate and wise, when truth catches up with honest misperception. Having ventured out on our own road to waypoints on the broader horizon, we glance back to find that our vision has expanded with our experiences. What we once saw, as children, in black and white we now see in full Technicolor. When we were young we never saw those details in the background of our child-like perceptions, but now we look back and they suddenly appear to us in high-definition.
I have also observed along my journey that when we experience suffering as adults our reactions are often very child-like. Adult pain unconsciously brings out the screaming, fearful, lonely child in all of us. We want to be embraced. We desire to be comforted. We want to hear a confident whisper in our ear letting us know that everything will be alright. I wonder if, in those moments of pain, we don’t also regress back to our childish misperceptions.
I thought of this as I read Job’s words today. He feels utter isolation from the omnipresent God. It seems to me that his perceptions are askew, yet his feelings are real. Maybe that is the point. Job is on a journey, too. He is progressing through his pain and his feelings and perceptions are working themselves out amidst the mind-bending, spirit quenching realities of his suffering. Like an innocent child suddenly thrust into the harsh realities of an adult world, Job is desperately seeking his spiritual bearing. He will find his way. He will look back from that way-point on the horizon and see this stretch of road with greater clarity. But that’s not where he is in this moment. And, that’s okay.
Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again. Job 7:7 (NIV)
I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning. Job 7:16 (NIV)
I have never experienced suffering like Job, and I hope that I never do. I have not met anyone who has suffered the level of tragedy that Job suffered. I have, however, heard many people lament the suffering they are experiencing with Job-esque intensity. I have even been been to wail out the blues on occasion myself.
As I read through Job’s diatribe this morning I noticed a common thread that I often discover in my own wailing and in the wailing of others: extremes. Intense emotions tend to produce extreme thinking. Job proclaims that his eyes will never see happiness again. His days have no meaning whatsoever. I empathize with Job’s plight, and I fully understand the extremity of emotions he’s experiencing and expressing. Nevertheless, neither statement is true.
Job does not, at this point, know the end of his story. He does not see the days that lie ahead for him, and he has no crystal ball do divine whether he will ever be happy or not. Not only does Job’s days and suffering have meaning, they will become the source of meaning, understanding, and inspiration for billions of people across the breadth of time.
These are words and phrases that I hear in conversation which set off my “extremity” alarm. When the alarm goes off it tells me that whoever is saying it (and, it might very well be me) may be feeling an intensity of emotion that is leading to the experiencing of irrational thought. It’s not necessarily wrong, bad, or sinful. It may very well be part of a healthy progression and expression of feelings that will lead to good things and a healthier place. The pinnacle of the emotional storm might be a very good time to try and empathize with that person, but it may not be the best moment to try and reason with him or her.
Today, I’m thinking about my own penchant for thinking in extremes, and thinking about some extreme proclamations I’ve heard out of people’s mouths in recent days. As I learn to discern these intense conversations in the moment I am able to respond to the extremity alarm with grace, patience, kindness, and empathy rather than anger, frustration, or vengeance. Wisdom is found in knowing when to speak and when to be silent. I’m finding that present, loving silence is often the best response to storms of extreme emotion, and rational words are better left for the calm that eventually comes after the storm.
One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house,a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby,and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house,when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
Last night Wendy and I attended a special healing service at our church. The theme of the service was healing our losses. It was about facing those griefs that have us mired on life’s road, about processing them so we can spiritually move forward. There was a large crowd on hand, and a good portion of the night was spent in quiet worship. There were stations set up around the perimeter of the room for people to receive communion, prayer, holy water, or to symbolically surrender their losses. Wendy and I have both had our share of losses in life, and it was good to meditate, reflect, and have some personal conversations with God about those things.
What struck me most last night, however, was the tremendous compassion I felt for others. I was surprised how many people I knew. I was also surprised at the pieces of their stories I knew. The abused who became an abuser and whose life fell completely apart. The person who lost a spouse. The person whose marriage ended in terrible pain and whose life is out of control. The person with incurable disease that is wreaking havoc on the home front. On, and on, and on. My heart broke for friends and acquaintances. My own whining and petty complaints were silenced in relation to the pain I saw realized in the lives of others.
Job seemed an appropriate book to start this morning. I was struck by Job’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. We all fear getting “the call” telling us tragedy has struck, but Job gets four of them in rapid fire succession. Assets gone, employees gone, business gone, children gone. We all have our share of pain in this journey, but I imagine that precious few of us know the sheer terror of losing everything we own, and nearly everyone we hold dear in a matter of minutes.
Psalm 112 is a psalm that I’ve internalized as a foundational text for my life journey. It describes the kind of person I desire to be, and I found myself reciting it over and over in my heart last night at the service. It came to me again this morning as I read of Job’s unforeseen calamity:
“He has no fear of bad news, His heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. His heart is secure, he will have no fear. In the end he will look in triumph at his foes.”
I am going to have my share of tragedy in this journey. It’s inevitable. Worrying about it, fearing its arrival, and being anxious about what dark tidings the future may bring do nothing to make this day worthwhile. In fact, I’ve come to realize that the unholy trinity of worry, fear, and anxiety serve only to suck the life out of me and keep me from living this day fully and abundantly.
Today, I’m thinking and praying about those who are suffering tragedies and losses in life that I can scarcely imagine. At the same time, I’m trusting God with today, tomorrow, and each day of my journey so that I can be free to live this day fully. I will have my own share of grief and loss along the way, but I will also have God’s grace and provision in the moment(s) that I need them.