Don’t Stop the Music!

For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Nehemiah 12:46 (NIV)

This past week, Wendy and I went to a craft brewhouse in Des Moines. About three times a year they have an event called “Hymns at the Hall.” There was a large gathering of people that night. There were young families with children playing board games. There were older folks (I guess you have to start including me in that demographic). It was a fascinating mix of people who gathered to eat, drink, and sing the old hymns of the faith together.

Along my spiritual journey, I have experienced that music can be the subject of tremendous religious passion for some people. I grew up with hymns accompanied by a pipe organ and traditional choral music. I witnessed the emergence and growth of the “contemporary” music industry. Music within the churches I’ve associated has shifted radically in one generation. Most children today have never seen a hymnal or sung in a church choir in which you had to learn to read music and sing harmony.

So here’s the thing: I have lent my ears to friends who bemoan the changes as watering down and diminishing worship. I have witnessed heated debates over the theological implications of certain songs. My observation is this: music continues to change and evolve as does music’s place in worship. With all of the change, there are three things that are constant:

  • Our general discomfort with change.
  • Music’s ability to stir spirit, emotion, and thought (sometimes it does all three at the same time) in individuals and groups.
  • Worthwhile things that are discarded by culture as “dead and gone” are eventually resurrected to experience new life.

We are nearing the end of Nehemiah’s account of the return of the Hebrew exiles from Persia and the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem. In the previous chapter, the people made a legally binding agreement to rededicate themselves to the law of Moses, the responsibilities of the sacrificial system, and the contributions required to keep Temple worship going. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah calls all of the musicians together from the region and forms two great choirs to march around the top of the wall in worship and dedication.

At the end of the chapter Nehemiah observes:

For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Nehemiah 12:46 (NIV)

In other words, the music of worship and of the Temple had been silenced for many years. It had been silenced at least 70 years since the destruction of the Babylonian siege. It may have been silenced before that. Nehemiah was resurrecting a worthwhile thing of the past and breathing new life into it for the discovery of a new generation. The subtext of the statement feels as if Nehemiah is defending the action and explaining his rationale for those who are grumbling about the change (see my first bullet above).

As my friends and I shared our “Hymns at the Hall” on social media, we had friends and family who seemed to bristle at the idea of singing hymns and drinking beer at the same time. I quietly smiled to myself knowing that hymn writers such as Martin Luther and Charles Wesley often took melodies of well-known songs that were sung in bars and taverns and changed the lyrics. In the days of illiterate and uneducated masses, it was easier if they used tunes that everyone knew (and everyone knew popular bar songs). Ironic that the songs have found their way back home. As I sang I watched people being stirred. You can take the hymns out of the church, but you can’t take God out of the hymns.

In the quiet this morning, Alexa is playing Gregorian Chant and ancient choral music, which is what I prefer in my quiet time with God. Later in the day, I’ll switch to more contemporary worship music as Wendy and I work in the home office. This evening we might switch to Gypsy Jazz, blues, or the music of the Rat Pack as dinner is prepared.

I don’t get too hung up on music. For me, is not a “holy” or “unholy” “either, or” binary thing. Sure, any good thing can be coopted for profane reasons, but it’s easy to turn it off or tell Alexa to skip a song. For me, music is a “both, and” equation.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

The Latest: Kick-Off to a Chaotic Season

Wendy and I knew that we were entering into a fall and winter 2019-2020 that was going to be jam packed with events and travel. We didn’t plan it that way. It just sort of evolved. So, we’re embracing it.

We considered last weekend the kick-off of the chaos. Long ago we’d planned a Twin Cities getaway. It just so happened that the Twins and Vikings had home games on the same weekend. Wendy and I got a hotel in between Target Field and U.S. Bank Stadium.

Friday night was unseasonably hot and humid as we trekked about a mile to Target Field. We had seats right behind home plate and found ourselves surrounded by professional baseball scouts with their stopwatches and clipboards. We had a fun evening watching the Twins beat the Royals.

Saturday was a day of simply being together. We walked about a mile to have a wonderful breakfast at Eggsy, then trekked back to the hotel where we hung out and watched the Iowa State football game. We dressed to the nines in the late afternoon and took an Uber to the Red Cow for dinner. There was a gorgeous, cool breeze and we walked back to the hotel, stopping at Finnegan’s Brewery for a pint.

Sunday morning we headed to the “mother ship,” U.S. Bank Stadium, and really enjoyed watching the Vikings beat the Raiders. It was a really fun getaway to launch a busy season.


Earlier this year we’d heard about an occasional event at one of Des Moines’ breweries, the Foundry, called “Hymns at the Hall.” We put it on our calendar to attend the next one, which was this past Thursday. We joined our friends, Kev and Beck, and ordered some food truck pizza for dinner as we waited for the festivities to begin. We didn’t realize that one of the organizers of the event is a good friend of Taylor and Clayton’s, and we ran into some of the kids’ peeps which was a lot of fun. A very festive evening of singing great hymns and enjoying some great craft brews.


Last night was our community theatre’s annual Awards Night. Last year Wendy was inducted to Union Street Players Walk of Fame. This year it was my turn. We were surrounded by our friends and I was given a wonderful, honoring introduction by Doug DeWolf. It was a really fun evening with our theatre community. Lots of laughter and reliving memories. I was both humbled and honored. We retired to the Vander Well Pub afterwards for some enjoyable conversation.

When Exile Becomes Home

Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns.
Nehemiah 11:1 (NIV)

In recent weeks the Bahamas were struck by Hurricane Dorian. The devastation was immense. Fresh in my mind are the images of the rubble as entire communities appear to have been completely leveled. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to get supplies to the island and how expensive and labor-intensive it will be to rebuild. I’m sure that there will be some survivors who will be evacuated and never return to their homes.

It’s easy for me to read the handful of chapters of Nehemiah and get the sense that the walls of Jerusalem were quickly rebuilt by the returned exiles, the gates were put in their place, and suddenly Jerusalem was settled. Mission accomplished! The people moved in and all was well. But, it didn’t work that way.

The Babylonian’s destruction of the city was devastating. It wasn’t just the walls and Solomon’s Temple that were leveled. The Babylonians destroyed and burned dwellings. Those who were left in the area seem to have largely resettled in nearby towns. The exiles who returned preferred not to live in the rubble of Jerusalem where redevelopment and rebuilding would be hard and costly. Most exiles would prefer to live easier in the countryside outside the city.

Governor Nehemiah and his fellow leaders implemented a forced repopulation of the city by forcing ten percent of the people to move into the city as decided by an ancient form of lottery. This type of forced repopulation was somewhat common in ancient times.

I was reminded as I read the chapter this morning that many of the Hebrews taken into exile never returned home. Jewish communities in Persia lived and thrived near ancient Babylon until modern times. Those who did return faced many difficulties and hardships. Rebuilding isn’t easy. Sometimes exile becomes permanent. Our concept of “home” shifts.

There’s a spiritual lesson in that for me. Among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, we are continuing to explore the broader theme of exile. I mentioned in a message I gave a few weeks ago that exile is universal in the Bible. Once Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden they became exiles. We all did. Paul and Peter both wrote that this world is not our home; we are citizens of heaven.

I’ve observed, however, that it is very easy for my mind and spirit to be repatriated in my earthly exile. I make this world my home. I put down roots. I store up possessions. I build a home (that could easily be blown apart by a tornado just as the Bahamas were devastated by Hurricane Dorian). I invest in my earthly future. Eventually, without even giving it much thought, I find myself treating my earthly exile as if it’s my eternal home. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at…

“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

Jesus

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that God’s Message repeatedly speaks of our days being numbered. Just as Nehemiah cast lots that brought exiles back into the City of Jerusalem, my number will come up one day and my exile will be over. I will return to what John’s Revelation calls the New Jerusalem. In the meantime, I’m left figuring out how to tangibly do what Jesus instructed. I must learn how to invest less time, energy, and resources on my earthly exile, and transfer the investment into God’s eternal Kingdom.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Membership and Motivation

“We will not neglect the house of our God.”
Nehemiah 10:39 (NIV)

I had been serving as the pastor of a small church for about a year when I got a call asking for my presence at an emergency meeting of the church Elders. That’s never a comforting sign.

I arrived at the meeting to find that there was one major issue on the agenda: Me. Specifically, one of the Elders expressed grave concern that was not an official member of the church.

Big trouble.

“Um, you all called me to be your pastor. Doesn’t that, kinda by default, make me a member?”

Nope.

“So, what do I have to do to become a member?”

Write a letter requesting I be granted membership status, then present it to the congregation for a vote.

“Um…Okay.”

I happy to report that the vote was overwhelming in favor of me, the church’s Pastor, becoming a member.

Whew!” [cue: Wiping sweat from brow.]

What’s both funny and ironic is that the “membership” issue has arisen in almost every church I’ve attended and served. I admit that I am a bit of a maverick after having experiences like the one I’ve just related. It is a piece of the institution of church that is obviously very important to certain individuals. I take issue with it, however. Every church institution I’ve ever attended has had a large number of people who jumped through the institutional hoops to become official “members,” but they never come or participate in any way. No one ever complains or has a problem with this. Meanwhile, if I actively participate with my consistent attendance, service, and offerings but don’t jump through the institutional hoops to get a piece of paper telling me that I’m “in,” then certain people get their undies in a bunch.

Thank you for letting me vent.

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah records what amounts to a legal document that records the commitment of the exiles to follow the Law of Moses and to provide prescribed offerings that would be necessary for the carrying out of the sacrificial system of the Temple. This was no small thing. The sacrificial system established through Moses was an intricate, even burdensome, system of sacrifices that required a large population’s offerings to keep it moving as laid out. Their legal contract was signed and sealed. It is obvious that Nehemiah felt it important to make the people’s obedience to the sacrificial system legally binding.

Here’s what I find fascinating as I mull things over in the quiet. The sacrificial system had been in place for roughly a thousand years. Time and time again it fell apart and became given over to various forms of religious and political corruption. That was part of Nehemiah’s “recounting” in yesterday’s chapter. So, Governor Nehemiah decides to try a legally binding agreement to try and keep people in line.

It didn’t work.

Some 400 years later when Jesus arrives on the scene the Temple system had become a corrupt, powerful money-making racket run by Godfather-esque high priests bent on lining their pockets and controlling the system. That’s why Jesus went postal on the Temple’s currency exchange marketplace not just once, but twice. It’s why he brutally denounced and called out the priests and teachers of the law for their corruption (read Matthew 23).

It’s also why Jesus time and time again taught the masses by starting with “You have heard it said…” then “But, I say….” The crux of Jesus’ message was that God’s concern was not about rule keeping and legally binding adherence to prescribed religious practices. God’s concern was for a change of heart that motivates real, tangible change in the way we love, live, give, and relate to others.

As a follower of Jesus, that’s where I want to follow. I want to invest my time, energy, and resources through my local gathering of Jesus followers because the love of Christ compels me, not because I have a piece of paper telling me I’m a “member” of an institution subject to the responsibilities thereof.

For the record, I am an official member of my local church out of loving deference to my brothers and sisters who find such things important. But, that’s not why I serve, give, and support. My motivation for doing my part is a matter of the heart.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

What’s Your Story?

In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.
Nehemiah 9:33 (NIV)

Everyone has a story.

In recent years, I have started asking people a simple question:

“What is your story?”

I find that those I ask are often taken aback by the question. It’s not unusual for a person to sit quietly for a moment and size me up. I imagine that, at times, the person is questioning my motives for asking. I also assume that some individuals are pondering just how much they really want to reveal to me. A person’s story, the revelation of self, is an intimate gift. What an individual chooses to share with me, and how they frame their own story, says way more about the person than his or her mere words.

In today’s chapter, the Hebrew exiles gather on what was known as a “Day of Atonement.” They recounted the story of their people from creation, through Abram, slavery in Egypt, Moses, the giving of the law, the wilderness, conquest, kings, prophets, captivity, and exile. At the end of their story, they summed things up:

“In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.”

Nehemiah 9:33 (NIV)

I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. No one knows my own story, my own journey, as well as I do. Like the returned exiles in today’s chapter, like everyone else, my life journey is a tale that contains both incredible blessing and tragic mistakes. I have witnessed and experienced the miraculous, and I have willfully exhibited misdeeds and immorality.

I find in today’s chapter a good example to follow. It’s a healthy thing to remember and to recount my story warts and all. In all of the joy and pain, the triumphs and trials, the blessings and mistakes of my journey I am reminded of God’s faithfulness, guidance, goodness, and abundant grace despite my many missteps.

In the quiet this morning, I’m recounting my story to myself. It leaves me with feelings of gratitude and humility in light of God’s goodness. It reminds me that the story is still being told. Thanks for being part of it.

So, what’s your story?

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Connect, Disconnect, Reconnect

The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.
Nehemiah 8:17 (NIV)

As a child growing up, I attended a protestant church that practiced what I would call a very “high church” worship. I was part of a children’s choir. We wore robes with embellishments that corresponded to the season of the church calendar, as did the minister. There was a lot of pomp and grand tradition complete with a pipe organ and stained-glass windows. The service contained many prescribed liturgical practices, responsive readings, and the like. As a child, it was at first all I knew and I found meaning in it all. As I got older, however, it all seemed a bit boring and empty. There grew within me a huge disconnect between my spirit and all the rote repetition of those high-church liturgical practices.

I became a follower of Jesus in my teens and quickly left the church of my childhood. I connected with a different church that had what I would characterize as a freer and more laid-back worship style. It felt more personal to me.

The ironic thing is, as I have continued on in my spiritual journey I have found myself reconnecting with some of the types of liturgical tradition I abandoned in my childhood. When I was a child they were empty of meaning for me, but as I have returned to them I have found them to have all sorts of rich meaning for me at this particular waypoint of life.

In today’s chapter, Ezra reads the law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and Deuteronomy) out loud to all of the assembled exiles who had returned to Jerusalem and repaired the walls of the city. This is some 400-500 years before Jesus. The vast majority of the people were illiterate and had lived all or most of their lives in Babylon. Many had likely never heard the law of Moses read before.

In the Hebrew tradition, the law of Moses prescribed various feasts and festivals throughout the seasons of the year. The “Feast of Tabernacles” (a Tabernacle is like a tent or temporary shelter) happened in the fall and commemorated the Hebrew people camping out as they left slavery in Egypt and returned to the land of Canaan. When the Ezra and the people read about this festival, they realized that they should be celebrating it right then. So, they did.

Ezra and the people of Jerusalem reconnected to a tradition that had been lost and forgotten for centuries, and it was filled with all sorts of meaning for them.

Along my life journey, I have observed that this happens to us a lot as human beings. Traditions and rituals get abandoned and fade away as they lose meaning and connection for those of us repeating them. At some point down life’s road, we rediscover them at a point in our spiritual journey when they meaningfully connect and become spiritually filling. What was old becomes new, what was lost to us as meaningless and boring we find to have all sorts of meaning.

In the quiet this morning I am revisiting the many spiritual traditions that I have experienced in my journey. I’ve experienced a plethora of traditions from the liturgical high-church of my childhood to the Evangelical show. I have sat in the silence of a Quaker meeting house, been in the frenzy of a Charismatic revival meeting, and the energetic worship of a black Baptist church. I long ago abandoned any notion of any tradition being “right” or “wrong.” They are all simply different traditions that have something to teach me. Some connect with my spirit in ways others do not, but each tradition and ritual has something to teach me at different waypoints of my spiritual journey if I’m open and willing to learn them.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Part of the Family

“The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they could not show that their families were descended from Israel….”
Nehemiah 7:61 (NIV)

A few years ago, I signed up on a site called WikiTree. It is a free online effort to create one massive family tree. The volunteers at WikiTree are not just trying to find their family, but to connect their family to all other families in the realization that, ultimately, we all came from the same woman.

I’ve dabbled in my family’s history for decades. The reality is that I come from pretty common, everyday people. Carpenters, farmers, and poor immigrants who left for the new world to make a better life for themselves and their descendants. That’s my lineage.

WikiTree, however, has a feature in which you can discover how you are connected to various historical people. It’s not a direct blood relationship, but because it’s one massive global family tree you begin to realize that through marriage connections and sibling connections there aren’t that many degrees of separation between you and royalty. For example, there are only 18 degrees of separation between me and King Henry VIII:

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah goes to great lengths to record the returning exiles. Interestingly, he doesn’t do it by name but by families and genealogical records. In the Hebrew system, your family of record was a huge deal. Your career and your social standing had everything to do with your family tree. You’ll notice that some of the exiles were labeled as descendants of “the servants of King Solomon.” Those who had no genealogical record are found at the bottom of Nehemiah’s list. They were the poor dregs.

One of the paradigms that Jesus came to radically change was this genealogical system. In the system that Jesus established, a person’s standing in this temporal, Level 3 world was of no value at all. In the radically new paradigm, Jesus established “the first will be last and the last will be first.” In the introduction of his Jesus biography, the disciple John writes:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

John 1:12

For those in the entrenched Hebrew family system of genealogical records and social status, this turned the systemic realities of their society upside down. And, from a spiritual perspective, it’s absolutely life-changing. Anyone, anyone, anyone, anyone can be a child of God, a member of the family, and a partaker of the divine inheritance through simple faith in Jesus. No more pecking order. In fact, interestingly enough, if you look at the family records of Jesus listed in Matthew and Luke you’ll find both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, kings and prostitutes. It’s like a word picture of the spiritual family Jesus came to introduce us to.

In the quiet this morning, I am mulling over that which WikiTree regularly reminds me: We’re all connected. I think that Jesus, the Author of Creation, understood that more than anyone. I’m also pondering on the spiritual, systemic paradigms that I so easily forget and am so quick to corrupt:

“Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

Jesus
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!