First Words to My Grandson

My dear grandson,

These are my first official words to you. The first of what I hope will be long and enjoyable correspondence between the two of us as you journey through this life.

This past Sunday our house was filled with women who had gathered to celebrate your mother and your impending arrival in three weeks time. I spent the day before helping Grandma Wendy cooking, cleaning, decorating, and running errands to make sure that the stage was set for the occasion. As the women began to arrive I sequestered myself in the basement to be at Grandma’s beck-and-call should she need help with anything.

I was originally going to entitle this blog post Estrogen Overload as I experienced the humor of being the only male in the house with 20 females. I even used that term as I joked with some of the ladies late in the afternoon. It’s something I’m familiar with having raised two daughters and no sons. I’m quite used to being alone in the company of women.

Suddenly, it struck me that I wasn’t the only male in the room for once. There you were comfortably nestled inside your mother’s womb. Nevertheless, you were very much present. You were the very reason for the celebration. You and me with all the ladies. I smiled to myself at the very thought of it.

So, here are my first words to you, my grandson. Take a good look at these women surrounding you (I only wish we’d gotten more photos of all the ladies who were there and a photo of the entire group). Look at your adorable mother. Grandma Wendy and Grandma Brenda were there. There were three great-grandmothers and a great-great-grandmother present to celebrate you. There’s your cousin Emma, your great-aunt Jody, and your great-aunts Suzanna and Brooke who, amazingly, are younger than your Aunt Madison (I’m going to have so much fun helping you sort out all of this loving, mixed-up mess of a wonderful family). Then there are all the wonderful friends that were there along with family. These are amazing women. They have stories to tell and lessons to teach.

Much of human history has not been kind to our female counterparts. They have been treated like objects, servants, property, and second-class citizens because males have dictated it, encouraged it, and allowed it to be so. It is one of many sad realities of life that you’ll see and experience as you make your own way on your own path. But you will have the opportunity to make a difference simply in your thoughts, your choices, your words, and your actions.

Listen to grandpa. Hear me. Honor these women and all they represent. As a male you will find that much about females will seem mysterious to the point of frustration. There will be moments you’ll  be tempted to be dismissive, patronizing, and demeaning. Along your life journey you will be tempted to place women into two separate buckets in your mind: women to love and honor and women to diminish and objectify. You can’t have it both ways. When you embrace the latter you negate the former. I pray you will have the wisdom to resist these temptations. Someday, I’ve got a few things to share with you about the tragic foolishness of not doing so.

Respect women, all women, in the fullness of their being: body, mind and spirit. Respect the girls you grow up with, the woman you meet in a bar, the woman you work with, the woman you date, and the woman who is a stranger.  Respect them just as you respect the women in these photos. Respect women for all the ways they are different from us guys. Respect their strength. Respect their knowledge. Respect their spirit, ability, courage, and their passion. Learn their stories.  Embrace their wisdom. Love them well.

These women will make you a better man. This, I know from experience.

Thanks for being with me on Sunday. I’m sure it’s the first of many afternoons that you and I will share surrounded and outnumbered in the company of amazing women. I’ll teach you how to groan about it in manly fashion (and then secretly enjoy the heck out of it). I’m overjoyed to have your company.

Love you, little man.

Grandpa Tom

Legacy

The line of Korah, however, did not die out.
Numbers 26:11 (NIV)

As a dabbler in genealogy it fascinates me how people react and respond to their family histories. I live in a small town founded by Dutch settlers in 1847. I have on occasion run across individuals who wear their family name with honor, attributing social weight to being the descendant of one of the original settlers. Likewise, I will occasionally run across an individual who exhibits a certain amount of shame when discussing their family because of some old scandal or something an ancestor did generations ago. Memories can be slow to die out in a small town.

This morning’s chapter is a genealogical list of the Hebrew tribes and clans. Whenever I encounter one of these chapters in my journey through God’s Message (and there area  a lot of them!), I always pay attention to the things that the writer found important to note along with the rote recitation of names and numbers.

Today I noticed that the line of Korah did not die out. Korah was leader of the rebellion against Moses back in the 16th chapter. Despite Korah’s actions, his line was not wiped out. This made me curious about what became of his line. Doing a little digging I discovered the prophet Samuel was from Korah’s line. Despite his ancestors rebellion, Samuel became the last Judge of Israel and an important prophet who oversaw the establishment of David’s reign.

This morning I’m thinking about family and legacy. Our first grandchild is scheduled to come into the world in December. It makes me think about his family, his legacy, and what he will know and learn about his family. I hope he will learn that each person’s journey is his or her own. Yes, we inherit DNA and we may be influenced by our family system. The truth is, however, that each person can make his or her own way, follow his or her own path, and seek his or her own relationship with God.

People are people no matter the family tree from which you stem. Korah and Samuel attest to that. Dig back into any family tree and you’ll find good and bad fruit. Every peach of a person and every rotten apple made their own choices. I get to make mine. My grandson will make his. I hope to share a little wisdom that might prove beneficial to the little man, but he’ll have to walk his own path just as I have to walk mine.

Have a great day.

Human Manipulation Present and Historical

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
Numbers 25:1-3 (NIV)

One of the reasons that I enjoy being a student of history is that it so often affords me the wisdom to put current events into historical context. In the 24/7/365 world of network news and social media it is fascinating to watch people getting whipped into a frenzy by every trending story of the moment. In this past year the story about Russian interference in American elections has driven an incredible amount of airplay. The truth is that countries attempting to effect the outcome of foreign elections, or the opinions of a foreign people, has a very long and rich history around the globe and including my own government here in the United States. There are always slimy political agents willing to play both sides, or any side, for profit.

Today’s chapter is an ancient case in point.

Balaam the Seer may have appeared to be a faithful follower of God in the previous few chapters. Balaam knew God’s voice and he knew enough that it was not profitable for him to curse Israel if God was on their side. Balaam was also the prototypical double-agent. If military victory against the Israelites was out of the question, perhaps a campaign of religious and moral subversion would introduce chaos and disruption to weaken the Israelites.

So, women were sent to seduce Israelite men into joining them in the rather depraved sexual fertility rights of the local fertility god named Baal (Btw, men being easily seduced sexually for political or personal advantage is another well-documented historical pattern). It was not just a one night stand, but the narrative says the men “yoked” themselves to the Canaanite deity, which is a word picture of servitude. The disruption worked. The spiritual, moral, political, and religious struggle between God and Baal would continue for nearly a thousand years and eventually become part of the recipe that divided Israel into a long civil war.

What is fascinating is that the shadowy political operative manipulating things behind the scenes was none other than Balaam the Seer. In a few chapters (31:16) we discover that it was Balaam who instigated the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men into Baal worship.

This morning I’m thinking about manipulation. I can be manipulated so easily. I live in a world in which the microphone on my cell phone can pick up my conversation and feed marketers the ads I’m likely to be interested in. I live in a world in which I may see only what the cameras of my news program of choice want me to see. I live in a world where relatively few inflammatory social media posts, strategically placed, can disrupt the collective thought of a nation. This isn’t new, it’s just old spiritual, commercial, political, and social paradigms discovering new and more powerful tools.

As I enter into a new work week, I’m reminded over Jesus excellent advice to His followers:

Be shrewd as a serpent; gentle as a dove.”

Have a good week, my friend.

Balak’s an Idiot (and so am I)

Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed themthese three times.”
Numbers 24:10 (NIV)

Yesterday morning, after writing my post and finishing my quiet time, I settled in at the breakfast table. Wendy was just finishing reading our previous chapter as she waited for me.

Balak is an idiot,” she said with a chuckle and shake of her head.

I laughed, and agreed with her. The narrative clearly portrays the Moabite king as not being the sharpest tool in the shed. Balaam the seer clearly spoke the terms up front to Balak. He would say only what the Lord told him to say, no matter how much treasure Balak offered Balaam to say what he wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, Balak makes Balaam view the Hebrew encampment from three different vantage points, expecting Balaam’s prophetic message to change with the view. When the prophecy doesn’t change to his favor, Balak tells Balaam that he’s not going to pay. Duh. Balaam reminds Balak that he knew that up front.

It is out of Alcoholics Anonymous that we got the popular notion that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It appears Balak could have benefitted from the Twelve Steps.

In the quiet this morning, however, I’m reminded that I can often find my own reflection in the individuals I criticize. There are stretches of my own journey in which I was looped in endless cycles of brokenness. Truth be told, I have found that significant spiritual progress usually requires breaking systemic negative patterns of thought or behavior. The further you progress the deeper, more intimate, and less obvious those negative patterns are to the casual observer. Recovering Alcoholics will tell you that they once thought drinking was their problem. Journeying through the Twelve Steps you discover that your addiction is just the tip of the iceberg.

This morning as I laugh at King Balak’s idiocy, I have to humbly confess that I am also laughing at myself.

Have a good weekend, my friend.

Line Gisters and Line Nazis

Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!”

He answered, “Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”
Numbers 23:11-12 (NIV)

I have found among actors that there is a rarely discussed spectrum. It parallels the ongoing legal debate about our Constitution here in America, between those who interpret the Constitution as a “living document” versus those who interpret it in context of its “original intent” as written.

On one end of the on-stage spectrum are those who memorize their part of the script and present the general gist of a line. They call it good. Let’s call them the “Line Gisters.” At the other end of the spectrum are those we will lovingly refer to as “Line Nazis.” Line Nazis are rabid defenders of the script, word-for-word, as written.

The playwright wrote these words for a reason,” a Line Nazi will passionately admonish his/her fellow actors. The Line Nazi then explains that changing a word or two here or there can change the entire interpretation of a line (and thus the play itself, and the intent of the playwright).  In my experience it’s at this point that the “Line Gisters” proceed to roll their eyes, the Line Nazis grumble in frustration, and the rehearsal continues.

I’ll confess to you that I have spent most of my theatre journey at the Line Gister end of the spectrum. Then, I actually wrote a couple of plays and had the privilege of watching them being produced. For the first time I began to feel personally what my Line Nazi brethren had been preaching to me all along. I was suddenly on the other side of the spectrum seeing things from a different perspective. Line Gisters would memorize and deliver a loose version of the words that I had written. Sometimes it wasn’t a big deal, but other times I had specifically crafted that line for a reason! Just getting the “gist” of it didn’t cut the mustard.

In today’s chapter, the mysterious seer Balaam continues his cameo role in the story of the Hebrews wilderness wanderings. King Balak of Moab hires Balaam to curse the Hebrew hoard camping on his borders. Multiple times Balaam speaks the words God gives him, and each time it is not what Balak paid Balaam to say. Rather than cursing the Hebrews, Balaam blesses them.

Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” Balaam asks his prophetic patron.

Balaam understood that it was important to deliver the line as written.

God’s Message is just like the Constitution or any playwright’s script. Words can be interpreted in context or out of context. Lines can be quoted verbatim or butchered in an effort to communicate the gist. The words end up in the hands of the expositor and out of the control of the originator and/or author.

As a reformed Line Gister I confess that my years on that end of the spectrum were rooted in a generous portion of laziness and a general lack of discipline. This morning I find myself appreciating Balaam’s fidelity to deliver the words as given to him by God, heedless of the reaction of his patron. I find it honorable. I’m not sure you can call me a full-fledged Line Nazi (still working on that laziness and self-discipline), but it is a character trait I increasingly desire to exemplify in my own life, both on stage and off.

(Line Nazis Unite!)

Mysterious Ways

But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God.
Numbers 22:18 (NIV)

Wendy and I went to see The Color Purple in Des Moines a few weeks ago. It is one of our favorite musicals. The story of a young African American woman on a journey of discovering just how beautiful and strong she is has been a source of fascination and conversation for us since we first saw it years ago.

The musical begins with a raucous gospel song in which we are told that the Lord works in Mysterious Ways. What proceeds is a story of a young woman who finds herself on an unconventional path out of unspeakable circumstances to discover what a beautiful and beloved child of God she truly is. The Color Purple is not a neat and tidy morality play residing inside the safety of religion’s comfortable box. True to the message of its opening song, the musical reminds us that God, the Creator of this universe, often works outside the boxes we create to put Him in for our our comfort.

Mysterious Ways flitted through my head this morning as I descended the stairs to pour my first cup of coffee after reading this morning’s chapter. Numbers 22 is one of the strangest, most mysterious chapters in the entirety of the Great Story. It is the story of Balaam, an ancient seer. Balaam is not a Hebrew. He is not Jew. He is a non-Jew living Mesopotamia. The Moabites, fearful of this massive wandering nation of Hebrews heading their way, reach out to Balaam to divine some help from the Almighty.

We quickly learn that Balaam takes a night to seek the LORD’s guidance. Balaam says he will report what the LORD tell him. When he reports to the Moabites that the LORD won’t let him curse the Hebrews, they offer him a huge wad of cash. Balaam reports that no matter how much cash he’s offered he can’t go against what the LORD has told him to do.

Time-out. Back the truck up.

This Great Story we’re journeying through is about God working through the Hebrews. They are “God’s people.” So who is this bit player named Balaam who suddenly appears from the wings for this important cameo moment? Where did he come from? How on earth did he forge a relationship with God, which it is clear he has, outside the box of the Great Story?

And we aren’t even to the strangest part of the story yet; The part where Balaam’s donkey speaks to him.

The further I get in my journey the more appreciation I have for the fact that God is, and does, “exceeding, abundantly above all that I could ask or think.” Whenever I think I’ve got God figured out inside the neat and tidy box of my religious doctrine I, like Job, am confronted on the cosmic witness stand as God stands me up and asks,

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
    or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”

No, sir.

This morning I am both fascinated and humbled by the sudden appearance of the perplexing character of Balaam and his miraculously anthropomorphic ass. I am reminded that God is not, and can not, be confined. Balaam, much like The Color Purple, reminds me that the Good Lord works in mysterious ways.

Family is Family

 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way;
Numbers 21:4 (NIV)

My maternal grandfather, Claude Hendrickson had a particularly difficult childhood. Grandpa Spec’s father committed suicide after learning he had tuberculosis. It was assumed that Perry Hendrickson wanted to spare his family the medical costs and difficulties associated with a long, terminal illness. My grandfather, the eldest of three siblings, was farmed out to his maternal grandparents to be raised. His mother retained custody of the younger siblings.

“Spec,” as he was known this whole life, experienced a strict upbringing with his grandparents. There was, however, discipline and faith. He managed well, got married, worked hard, and made a decent life for his family. Meanwhile, his siblings suffered their own difficulties as their mother, Olive Hendrickson, went through a string of failed marriages. Spec’s brother Ralph, an alcoholic, came looking for a job from his older brother. Spec agreed to hire his brother, but explained that he would fire him the first time he found his brother drinking on the job. When that eventually happened, Ralph was fired and promptly returned family in Illinois where he spread malicious lies about Spec among the family there. Spec felt ostracized by much of his family from that point on.

Spec and Ralph remained estranged, yet when Ralph died Spec drove to Illinois to pay his respects and to face a family who thought the worst of him because of Ralph’s malicious stories. Imagine my grandfather’s horror when the funeral director handed him the bill for his brother’s funeral. As “next of kin” the family expected him to pay the bill for his estranged brother who had caused him so much trouble. My grandfather paid the bill, returned home to Iowa, and let it go.

Family is family,” I can hear my grandfather say from his rocker, chewing on a cigar.

This story came to mind as I read today’s chapter. There is a subtle, recurring theme through the story of the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews. It appears again today when the nomad nation takes a circuitous route to avoid the land of Edom. Skirting Edom to the east meant living in an extremely desolate area east of the Dead Sea.

Back in Deuteronomy God had told Moses to leave Edom alone because the land of Edom had been settled by Esau, the twin brother of Jacob (aka Israel). The story of the twins is back in Genesis 25. Esau had been Jacob’s older twin, but Jacob had deceived Esau into giving him his birthright. The result was “bad blood” between the brothers and their descendants.

It has been some 600 years since the days of Jacob and Esau, and now the nation of Israelites are living in a desolate desert wilderness clawing out their survival because God had ordered, through Moses, that they leave Esau’s land alone. The people weren’t happy.

“Family is family.” There has always been an unwritten human principle about being faithful to family, to provide for family, to be true to family. In my life journey I believe I’ve seen the power of this sentiment slowly fade in our culture as families spread out over larger and larger geographical areas. Yet, I’m not sure it will ever fade completely. There’s something that’s built in our DNA. It’s why millions of people are doing DNA tests and searching out their roots to understand who their family is and “where I come from.” There is a part of us and our life journey that we realize is only understood in the context of the family from which we spring.

This morning I’m thinking about our human family and the things that connect us. I continue to marvel that modern genetics has definitively shown that all of us descend from what scientists refer to as “Genetic Eve.” We are all part of the same human family. Like the Hebrews, over time we feel less and less connection. Despite the fact that God reminded the Hebrews that the Edomites were “family” they didn’t think of the Edomites in those terms. They saw their distant cousins as enemies who refused to allow them to pass through the land. The Edomites didn’t see the Hebrews as distant cousins but as a threat to their very existence. Along the way our self-centered fears and desires turns human family members into mortal enemies.

Then there are those like Grandpa Spec. Despite having every reason to save his money and walk away angry from his brother’s funeral, he simply paid the funeral bill and let it go.

Family is family.

Indeed.

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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