Tag Archives: Past

Pondering the Prophetic

Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
    the pride and glory of the Babylonians,
will be overthrown by God
    like Sodom and Gomorrah.
She will never be inhabited
    or lived in through all generations;
there no nomads will pitch their tents,
    there no shepherds will rest their flocks.
Isaiah 13:19-20 (NIV)

Prophecy is a part of the human experience. It is a mysterious thing, yet even our great stories are filled with it:

  • The weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.
  • The otherwise prophetically inept Professor Trelawney utters the  prophetic words that speak of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort’s  connected fate.
  • Aragorn cites the words of Malbeth the Seer in making his fateful decision to traverse the Paths of the Dead.

I find it fascinating that our greatest stories quite regularly contain an element of the prophetic. Good stories are a reflection of the Great Story. The prophetic is a mysterious part of our human experience.

Reading and interpreting the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrews requires knowledge, context, and discernment. The writing of the ancient prophets like Isaiah point to things that were, things that are, and things that yet will be. They are often woven together in a stream of poetic imagery that can be, and often is, misunderstood as we try to separate the strands.

As I attempt to understand the weave of prophetic strands in today’s chapter, there are two themes on which I find myself meditating this morning.

First, God was not opposed to utilizing kingdoms like Babylon and Assyria, to accomplish His purposes. This is not an isolated to occurrence. In fact, it is a recurring theme in the Great Story. From Balaam’s donkey, to the mysterious Melchizedek, to Rahab the prostitute, to the evil King Herod whose tax-raising census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, God uses a diverse and motley cast of characters and nations to drive the story line of history. This raises a number of fascinating questions. This morning, however, I find myself reminded not to try to put God in a box that He has not defined.

Second, I’m thinking about the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, which are very visible today. While God used the Babylonian kingdom (despite their wickedness) and wove them into narrative in interesting ways, Isaiah’s prophecy is quite clear about the ultimate end (see the verses above). The ancient city of Babylon was, by all accounts, an amazing city. During two periods of history it was the largest city in the world. The hanging gardens there were among the “seven wonders of the ancient world.” But, within a few hundred years of Isaiah’s writing, the words of his prophecy would be fulfilled.

The ruins of Babylon are located just outside of Baghdad in Iraq, and can still be seen today. Despite Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to resurrect the glory old city, Babylon remains “a large tell of broken mud-brick buildings and debris.” (Wikipedia)

In a time of political upheaval and present uncertainty, I find myself this morning taking quiet solace in the larger narrative of the Great Story, in the realization that God weaves many diverse Peoples and political regimes into that narrative, in the mystery of the prophetic, and in the present evidence of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic words.

 

The Importance of the Backstory

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
Leviticus 20:10 (NRSV)

Over recent months I have been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It is not an easy read. Rather than a simple and continuous narrative, The Silmarillion is a collection of stories that, together, create the cosmology of Tolkien’s fictional universe from its creation.  Having a lot of excellent on-line reference material has been extremely helpful.

Slogging my way through The Silmarillion I am constantly inspired as I make connections and gain a broader understanding of the backstory of The Lord of the Rings. Knowing the backstory makes the story I know so well even more colorful and thought provoking. I better understand why the elves are leaving Middle Earth and where they are going. I better understand exactly what the “Three rings of elven kings” really are and represent. I learn the skinny on Shelob the giant spider and the evil Sauron, the scary faces in the Dead Marshes, all the obscure references made by the hobbits and about hoard they find with the barrow wights in the Old Forest, and the song Aragorn sings as he and the hobbits camp on the road to Rivendell.

In many ways The Silmarillion parallels the loose collection of history, poetry, prophecy, and legal text that make up what is commonly known as the Old Testament. For many people these ancient writings are difficult to wade through and understand. Nevertheless, I’ve always found that without them I have an incomplete view of who Jesus is, what His message was about, and why things happened the way they did. The stories of Jesus suddenly gain more color and depth in context with the backstory.

One such example struck me this morning. According to Levitical law in today’s chapter, those who committed adultery were to be put to death – both the man and the woman who committed the deed. I then thought about the story in John’s biography in which the religious leaders, seeking to trap Jesus and discredit him, bring a woman to Him. She had been caught “in the act” of adultery and deserved the death penalty. They wanted Jesus to render the verdict. If He let them kill her then it would be unpopular with the crowds, but if He let her off then they could accuse Him of being a lawbreaker.

But Jesus knew today’s chapter as well as they did. If she was caught “in the act” then where was the man who was committing adultery with her? He was to be put to death as well. The story said that Jesus sat doodling in the dirt as the religious leaders were making their case. Perhaps Jesus was symbolically writing the name of the woman’s lover into “the record.” Knowing the law, I begin to understand how hypocritical, misogynistic, and crooked these religious leaders proved themselves to be with their accusations. Without even saying a word, Jesus’ brilliant response called the leaders to a legal point-of-order. His gracious forgiveness of the woman means even more to me in light of this context. [Note: you can read the brief story in John 8]

This morning I’m thinking about backstories. Beyond The Silmarillion and the Old Testament, there are also backstories to our lives, our families, our communities, our nation, and our world. I realize, once again, this morning why I love history. Knowing backstories helps me better perceive and understand things in the present. With that, I can made better decisions and judgements in the present just as Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery.

chapter a day banner 2015

Recounting

“The following are the kings of the land whom Joshua and the Israelites defeated….”
Joshua 12:7a (NRSV)

In the fall of this year, Wendy is scheduled to direct a musical for our local community theatre called The Christmas Post. She’s directed it twice before. It’s been ten years since the last time. Yesterday Wendy was putting together some of the required paperwork and she handed me a list of all the shows she’s been involved in over the past 11 years. It filled the better part of a page, single-spaced.

Oh my gosh,” she exclaimed as she held up the list for me to look at. “This is a lot of shows! You don’t think about it until you really write it all down and see the whole list!”

She is right, of course. Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that it’s good to recount things. Just think about the word: re-count. Count it again. Make a list. Go over the list. Think about it. I have always had a bent towards history and nostalgia, so perhaps it comes a bit more naturally to me. Nevertheless, I’ve found it worthwhile. Recounting things reminds you of where you’ve been, which gives you perspective of where you are, which then helps you make informed decisions about where you’re going, which helps you choose the next step.

Recounting can also remind you of what God has done in the past, which strengthens the faith you need in the moment, so that you can press on in the journey to which He has called you. It is a repetitive theme throughout God’s Message: Remember these things. Teach them to your children. Don’t forget this story. Feast each year and recount what happened. Count your blessings and name them one-by-one.  “As often as you do this, remember me.”

Today’s chapter is not exactly full of inspiration. It’s simply a recounting of the kings who Josh and the 12 Tribes defeated. But it serves as a reminder that sometimes it’s good to re-count. Recount the good times. Recount the times God answered a prayer. Recount what got me to this place. Recount the lessons I’ve learned.

Happy recounting.

chapter a day banner 2015

Backward Glance

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead….

Philippians 3:13b (NIV)

Anyone who has regularly read my blog, listened to me speak, or who knows me for any length of time comes to realize that I am a lover of history and one who appreciates the past. I have this freaky brain that remembers all the names of the kids in my 1st grade class but can’t recall the name of the guy I met this morning. I have an appreciation for the way our past has shaped us and has led us to where we are today.

I have equally come to appreciate this reality: While the past has shaped my present I am not bound to it. I am free, in the present, to choose this day what I will do and how I will act. The past may have ushered me to this place, but I choose where I go from here. The only power that the past has over me is that which I choose to give it.

Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back, is fit for service in the kingdom of heaven.” If I’m looking backwards then the row I’m hoeing will be crooked. I can’t move productively forward in life if my mind, will and emotions are fixed on what happened to me, or what I did and chose to do, in the past.

A glance backwards can be beneficial as a point of reference. Where have I been? How far have I come? How did I get here? What can I glean from where I have been? I cannot, however, truly progress in my life journey until I willingly choose to turn away from the past, look at where I am, give thought to where I am going, and move.

 

photo:  madelinetosh via flickr

Everyone Has a Past; Everyone Has a Story

An illuminated manuscript showing Dr. Luke at his writing desk.
An illuminated manuscript showing Dr. Luke at his writing desk.

And Saul approved of their killing [Stephen]. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Acts 8:1, 3 (NSRV)

Sometimes there is meaning not only in the text itself, but in the context of the writing. Dr. Luke is writing this historic account of the events surrounding the early days of Jesus’ followers after the resurrection. He not only investigated the events but was a primary source. He knew these people. He spoke with them, travelled with them, and observed many of these events first hand. Three of Paul’s letters (Colossians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon) reference Luke specifically.

So, today as I read Luke’s account of Stephen’s execution and the bloody persecution of Jesus’ followers, it was not lost on me that Luke is not shy about naming the responsible party: Saul. In tomorrow’s chapter, Saul will be blinded by the Light and transformed into Paul. Paul, Luke’s friend and traveling companion. Paul, the author of most of the texts we find in the New Testament. Paul, who would be transformed from executioner into the  early Jesus followers greatest champion.

I wonder what it was like for Luke to write these things about Saul, even as he knew Paul.

This morning I am reminded:

  • Everybody has a past. I wonder how many of Paul’s later converts knew that he was responsible for the killing, torture, and imprisonment of many fellow believers. No time for shame. It’s not about who we’ve been, but who we are and who we are becoming.
  • God can transform lives. Saul became Paul. God can and does transform lives. Light shines in darkness. Love conquers hate. Old things pass away, and new things come.
  • Every person has a story to tell. I love hearing people’s stories. I find it fascinating to hear people talk about what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned, and where they are purposing to go in life. So, what’s your story?

The Thunder of His Voice on the Horizon

source: andyrs via Flickr
source: andyrs via Flickr

“At this my heart pounds
    and leaps from its place.
Listen! Listen to the roar of his voice,
    to the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven
    and sends it to the ends of the earth.
After that comes the sound of his roar;
    he thunders with his majestic voice.
When his voice resounds,
    he holds nothing back.”
Job 37:1-4 (NIV)

While I was in college I had a friend whose family owned a cabin on the southeastern shores of Lake Michigan. One evening we were visiting their cabin and parked along some cliffs that afforded an expansive view of the western horizon, the Great Lake, and the Chicago skyline in the distance. It was a gorgeous, calm evening but behind the skyscrapers of Chicago we saw black clouds rising. Over the next couple of hours we watched a massive midwestern thunderstorm develop before our eyes. The dark clouds rose like mighty pillars and giant tentacles of lighting spread out like a breath-taking fireworks display across the evening sky. As the storm enveloped the city and began to cross the lake, the wind rose and giant white caps began to break against the shore beneath us. The thunder was deafening.

God says that His eternal nature is evident in creation, in what He has made. That night looking out over Lake Michigan I remember thinking that we were witnessing a tour de force of God’s might. I’ve never forgotten that experience, and as I read the opening lines of Elihu’s conclusion in this morning’s chapter, my mind took me right back to that night.

Elihu’s final words regarding the thunder of God’s voice foreshadows the final chapters of Job’s epic poem. After 37 chapters of silence in response to Job’s questions and the long debate with his friends, God is about to open His mouth to speak.

As I write this post it is the morning of New Year’s Eve day. I look back on a strange and somewhat difficult year in 2014. I stand on the precipice of 2015 with more questions than answers. It’s perhaps apropos that the year had ended with a journey through Job’s epic poem, with questions, and with struggle. It is equally appropriate that the current year ends waiting to hear from the Almighty, and that the new year will begin with God’s voice. Whether God’s voice arrives in the thunder of a  midwest storm or the whisper of a still, small voice, I’m anxious to hear what God has to say. I’m looking forward to what the new year will bring.

Sometimes, You Have to Go Back

broken chainI am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.
Philemon 1:12 (NLT)

Sometimes the words are impotent outside the context of the story. Philemon is one of the shortest books in all of God’s Message. It is forgotten. There aren’t a ton of pithy statements worthy of a graphic on Pinterest. It’s not really inspiring in great ways. It’s simply a short letter from one friend and follower of Jesus to another.

But, the little told story behind this brief epistle is nearly Shakespearean.

Paul is in prison. He has been imprisoned for telling others about Jesus and creating a stir wherever he goes. So, he serves his time and shares about his experience on the Damascus road with anyone who will listen. He shows love and kindness to his fellow prisoners.

Enter Onesimus. He is in trouble too. A runaway slave from the town of Colosse, he stole from his master and took off. Both offenses are punishable by death under Roman law. Onesimus runs into Paul and the talk. Paul shares with Onesimus about Jesus and Onesimus chooses to become a follower himself. Then, the realization. The man from whom Onesimus stole and ran is none other than Paul’s good friend, Philemon. Imagine the conversation Paul had with Onesimus:

Paul: Onesimus, you have to go back.

Onesimus: Back? To my OWNER?! The man who considers me his PROPERTY?!

Paul:
Yes. You have to go back to him and make things right.

Onesimus: What’s all this talk about if Jesus SETS YOU FREE, YOU’RE FREE INDEED?

Paul: Your soul will not be truly free until you make right what you have wronged.

Onesimus: Do you get it, Paul?! He OWNED me!

Paul: And now that you’ve both taken up your crosses to follow Jesus, you are both owned by God. You are not your own. Neither of you. You’ve been bought with a price: Jesus’ blood. Philemon is now your brother in Christ. You must go back to him and beg his forgiveness.

Onesimus: But, he can have me KILLED!

Paul: Yes. Yes, he can. But, he can also give you what both of your souls truly need. You both need grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The chains that bind you, both you and Philemon, are not physical. Don’t be anxious. I will send a letter with you. Philemon is a brother in Christ. He is a good man, just as you are, Onesimus. He will listen to me. But, make no mistake, my friend. You must go back to Philemon. You must make things right.

I can only imagine the scene when Onesimus arrived back at Philemon’s house and confronts the man who “owned” him, letter from Paul in hand. What were Philemon’s emotions as the sight of the slave who stole from him and ran away? What was his reaction when he reads Paul’s letter to find out that God orchestrated a divine appointment between Paul and Onesimus? What conflict of heart, if any, did Onesimus feel looking into the eyes of a runaway slave and seeing a spiritual brother in Christ for the first time?

Sometimes, you have to go back and confront the past before your future can truly begin.