Each photo below corresponds to the chapter-a-day post for the book of Mark published by Tom Vander Well in April and May of 2021. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post.
And he has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants…
Psalm 148: 14 (NIV)
There is a story in the book of Acts in which Paul and Silas were imprisoned the dungeon of a town called Philippi. About midnight the two of them were singing praises and hymns as they prayed. Suddenly an earthquake struck, loosening their chains and breaking open the prison doors. Talk about dramatic. Sometimes our praise has a miraculous, dramatic effect.
In his book, The Philippian Fragment, Calvin Miller tells the fictional story of a first-century pastor in the same town of Philippi who happened be imprisoned in the same cell along with one of his elders. The pastor sees, scratched on the dungeon wall, the names “Paul and Silas.”
Remembering how Paul and Silas sang at midnight as God sent an earthquake to open the doors of the jail, we took courage. “Do it again, God!” cried Coriolanus near midnight. He began to sing a hymn in monotone, and I joined in. We praised God at full volume with some of the great songs of the faith. Ever and anon we stopped to see if we could hear even the faintest rumblings of a quake. By three in the morning we still had not raised a tremor and decided to give it up. There seemed so little to rejoice about.
Suddenly a jailor who had heard us singing sprang into the cell.
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he asked.
We told him in great joy.
“I can’t do that,” he said. “It’s too risky.”
As he left, he yelled over his shoulder, “Would you cut out the noise. It’s three in the morning.”
Still, I felt better for simply having praised Him. Praise clears the heart and dusts the mind of selfishness. It lifts the spirit and transforms the prison to an altar where we may behold the buoyant love of Christ.
It is not jailors who make convicts. It is the self-pitying mind that makes a man a captive.Praise frees us. The jail cannot contain the heart that turns itself to attend the excellency of Christ. “Gloria in excelsis!” deals with stone walls and iron bars in its own way. When morning finally came, I was elated. I found a flint rock in the cell and scratched our own names above the etching of Paul and Silas: “Eusebius and Coriolanus—We sang at midnight and felt much better the next morning.”
Today’s chapter, Psalm 148, is at the center of the final five songs of praise in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics known as the Psalms. As we’ve discovered on this chapter-a-day journey, ancient Hebrew songs often put the central theme of the song smack-dab in the middle. The central theme was in the center holding the core. When the editors of the compilation put the last five songs of praise together, they placed today’s song smack-dab in the middle. It holds the core of the final theme of praise.
Praise is a central theme throughout the Great Story. When rebuked by the religious leaders for His followers shouting His praise, Jesus replied that even if they were silent the rocks would “cry out.” Today’s psalm speaks of all creation praising God, and in fact all matter does continually resonate at frequencies we can’t hear. The universe itself perpetually resonates at 432hz. When John was given a vision of heaven’s Throne Room in his Revelation, he describes it as a scene of endless praise.
Along my life journey, I have learned that praise sincerely offered whether in word, song, or thought is a spiritual activator. To the ancients, a “horn” was a metaphor of strength, and the lyricist of today’s song made clear that there is strength in praise. When I choose to offer up heart-felt praise from the prison of my own circumstances, there is a shift that occurs. It might be a miraculous shift in the tectonic plates of life as Paul and Silas experienced. It might be simply a shift in my faith and spirit as Eusebius and Coriolanus experienced. I’ve learned not to worry about the results and to simply let my praise hold the core in the moment. Whenever I sing praises in the darkness, I always end up feeling “much better in the morning.”
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
Psalm 114:2 (NIV)
Along my journey, I have experienced discord and division among any number of groups to which I belonged. This includes family, churches, community organizations, and most recently, a nation.
When division happens, no matter the size or scope of that division, it creates so much relational mess in its wake. Suddenly, individuals who love one another find themselves on opposite sides of a topic or circumstance. Mental lines get drawn. Emotional trenches are dug. A relational no man’s land grows between, and neither party feels very much like being the one to crawl out of the trench and initiating the crossing of no man’s land.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 114, is the second in a series of Ancient Hebrew songs known as the Hallel, which is sung each year at the Passover feast which celebrates God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Like yesterday’s psalm, it is sung before the Passover meal. In eight simple verses, the song overviews the major events of their exodus out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the promised land. As yesterday’s chapter was metaphorically the “call to praise” of the Passover feast, today’s chapter is, metaphorically, a prologue that overviews the journey participants will take through the feast.
What struck me the most as I read this morning was the second verse:
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
Casual readers are likely to miss the weight of this verse for the ancient Hebrews who sang it back in the day. Scholars say that the song was penned during a period in Hebrew history known as “the divided monarchy.” The twelve tribes of Israel were divided into two nations. Two tribes, led by Judah, became the southern nation of Judah with Jerusalem as its’ capital. The other ten tribes joined into the northern nation of Israel. There was perpetual discord, division, and civil war between the two.
As with any event of human discord and division, there was the drawing of mental lines, digging of emotional trenches, and the development of relational no-mans-lands.
The Passover feast, to which all good Hebrews were expected to attend and participate in was held in Jerusalem at Solomon’s temple in the capital city of Judah. This meant that the faithful who lived in the northern nation of Israel had to cross no-mans-land. I can only imagine the relational tension that existed in the city on that week each year. A festival that was meant to unite the people in remembrance of the unifying event of their national identity became a political and religious powder keg. I can’t help but feel an acute identification with that reality in light of my own nation’s recent events.
In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking back to those divisions which I have experienced and which dot the timeline of my life as painful waypoints on my journey. Given time, I’m glad to say that I’ve experienced relational healing and reconciliation in certain relationships. In others, the relational division led to separate paths that I don’t expect to converge on this side of eternity. In yet others, I have made attempts to cross the emotional no-mans-land only to be greeted with an emotional fence of barbed wire. I must also confess that there are yet other circumstances in which I would say that I desire there to be reconciliation, but that desire has not led to my willingness to initiate a crossing of no-mans-land. Those are the ones that lay heavy on my spirit this morning.
I find it ironic that my chapter-a-day journey happens upon the Passover Hallel on this week when followers of Jesus begin the annual spiritual pilgrimage with Jesus to Jerusalem, to crucifixion, and to resurrection. The final, climactic events of Jesus’ earthly life happened during the week of Passover. Followers of Jesus see the two events as spiritually akin. Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land. Jesus led any who will follow out of bondage to sin, through the wilderness of this earthly journey, to an eternal promised land.
It’s also ironic that today happens to be known as Ash Wednesday, which it the opening event of the season follower call Lent. It’s the day we are called to Spirit mode to embark on a spiritual journey of remembrance with Jesus to the cross. Just like yesterday’s chapter and today’s chapter called the Hebrews to the spiritual journey of remembrance with Moses to the promised land. (By the way, I didn’t plan this!)
I find myself answering the call to that annual journey this morning in the quiet of my office. I find myself thinking about those relationships on the other side of no-mans-land. Holy Spirit whispers the words of Jesus to my spirit:
“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Psalm 100:1 (NIV)
I have shared over the years that one of the things Wendy and I enjoy doing is being sports fans. We’re not “rabid win-at-all-costs because our lives are ruled by it” fans, which is a good thing since most of the teams we cheer for have long histories of being underdogs and perennial losers. We just enjoy choosing a team, following the team and the players, rooting for them through the season, and generally being loyal fans.
January in Iowa has typically been made even more bleak for Wendy and me because of the lack of sports that we enjoy. Our Vikings season generally ends early in disappointing fashion. Spring training for our Cubs is weeks away. Our son-in-law, Clayton, influenced Wendy and me to find a English Premier League team to cheer for in order to bridge the gap. It just so happens that his team and our team have a big match this weekend. We’re already planning our watch party. It will be something fun in the midst of quarantine.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 100, is the final in a series of ten ancient Hebrew songs of praise. This little ditty is only five verses long and it begins by calling the worshiper to “Shout with joy to the LORD.”
Throughout my spiritual journey, I have heard teachers challenge congregations with the fact that we cheer more for our teams than we do for God. This, in the institutional and denominational churches I’ve attended throughout my journey, is very true. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the Jesus movement became a political empire that was more interested in controlling the masses than it was in sincere worship. The Holy Roman Empire controlled worship in the Western world for 1200 years. When the Protestant Reformation came along, it led into the “age of reason” in which head knowledge of the scriptures and theology was held as utmost in importance. Thus, the Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations were given to quiet, reverent, and generally passive worship styles.
And yet, throughout the Great Story the examples of worship and calls to worship I’ve been reading in the psalms are active, loud, and participatory. Shout, sing, dance, raise your hands, clap your hands, and raise the roof! King David got in trouble with his wife when he was so worked up in dancing and singing to God that he had peeled down like silly shirtless college boys in a December Iowa State football game. I confess that the last time Wendy and I got that excited was the Cubs winning the World Series and the Minneapolis Miracle.
At the same time, the further I’ve gotten in my spiritual journey, the freer I’ve become in worship among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I sing loud. I’ll lift my hands in prayer. Yes, I’ll even shout. And what’s hilarious is that this is not the worship tradition of my local gathering. I once had an elder of the church who was a pious, multi-generational loyalist of the denomination ask me sincerely why I raised my hands when I sang in worship. I pointed him to a number of places in the Great Story where God’s people are called to lift hands in praise and prayer. Funny how individuals who claim to live in devout obedience choose to ignore those things with which they are uncomfortable. Greet anyone with a holy kiss lately?
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. There are times for spiritual quiet, silence, and reverence. Lord knows we need a lot of it right now amidst the 24/7 din of politics and pandemic conflict in the news and on social media. The Sage who wrote Ecclesiastes would tell us that there is a time for quiet reverence, and there’s a time to shout, dance, and blow the roof off. And, I get that there are individuals who will forever be hands-in-your-pockets mouth shut type of followers, and that’s cool too. Whatever.
It’s just that Wendy and I have noticed as we worship that there’s often what feels like a spiritual lid on the room. You can feel people waiting for an excuse, or for someone to give permission to shout, cheer, and let out some God-given, human emotion. Countless times we’ve witnessed that when one person breaks the ice, then the praise really begins to flow.
In the quiet this morning, I’m thinking about all the worship traditions I’ve experienced and enjoyed along my spiritual journey from the silence of the Quakers to the call and response of a black Baptist congregation. From the pomp of a Roman Catholic cathedral in Ireland to the down-home fire-and-brimstone of a back-woods Pentecostal church in Appalachia. I find that so often people put their own spiritual experiences in the box of their traditions. Along the way, I’ve found that it’s not a right-or-wrong either-or thing. Once again, it’s a “yes, and.” I can learn from experiencing and participating in diverse styles and traditions of worship. I take things that are meaningful for me and find ways to weave them into my own spiritual expressions. It’s been good. It’s helped me grow. It’s expanded my spiritual understanding.
I promise that if/when I see you next I won’t greet you with a holy kiss.
Finally, it was a bit of synchronicity that I saw this post this morning of a mother shouting her praise as she finds out her son passed the bar exam. It’s worth the watch!
I will listen to what God the Lord says;
he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants—
Psalm 85:8a (NIV)
Shame can be toxic. It’s that deep sense of being worth-less, and I while I find most seem to perceive me as having all sorts of self-confidence, the truth is that I have quietly battled that nagging, pessimistic self-perception of shame my entire life. I have acknowledged it, processed it, studied it, and have learned to work through it while learning how to have grace with myself even as I open my heart to receiving the amazing grace that God has given me.
The seeds of shame, I have come to learn, are typically sown in childhood. From some individuals I’ve met in the struggle, it was the repeated words of an adult or an older sibling telling them things like, “You’re stupid,” “You’re good for nothing,” or “You should have never been born.” Born into a loving family, that was never my issue. For me, the seeds of shame were misunderstandings of my place in the world and a negative self-perception that was fueled by my Enneagram Four temperament. I grew up being so self-absorbed as to think that any negative circumstance in life stems from something I did, or else it some divine retribution prompted by my worthlessness. The Minnesota Vikings’ loss in four Superbowls was totally my fault for stealing all of the family’s cash envelopes off of Grandma Golly’s Christmas tree in 1972. My apologies to Vikings nation.
As a person who knows the struggle against shame, I totally identify with today’s chapter. It felt a bit like looking into a spiritual mirror. Psalm 85 was written as a song to be used when the Hebrew people gathered to worship. Fourteen lines long, it is a song of two halves. Things had not been going so well for the Hebrew people. Scholars think it may have been written during this historic drought that occurred during the time of the prophet Hosea.
The first half of the song reads like me when I was a kid.
“God, you’re angry with me. I’ve done something wrong. I thought you were over that Christmas cash thing, but obviously I haven’t served my time. How long is this going to take, Lord? How long until you get over your anger with me?”
The song then pivots 180 degrees in the second-half, which kicks off with the songwriter declaring, “I will listen to what the Lord says.”
As the songwriter gets his eyes off of himself, and gets his ears to turn away from the endless loop of negative self-talk being played in his spiritual, noise-cancelling AirPods, he begins to recognize the very different message that God has been perpetually saying. God promises salvation, affirms his faithfulness, peace, generosity, and goodness.
One of the things that I had to learn along my journey of addressing shame was the very same process. I have a well-worn page that I put together ages ago. Like the songwriter of Psalm 85, I turned my ear to the Great Story and wrote down a list of God’s specific messages, including, but not limited to:
fearfully and wonderfully made… (Ps 139)
made in the likeness of God… (James 3:9)
worth more than many sparrows… (Matt 10:31)
God’s workmanship… (Ephesians 2:10)
born again… (1 Peter 1:23)
a son of God… (Galatians 3:26)
and heir of God… (Galatians 4:6, 1 John 3:2, Rom 8:17)
God’s temple… (1 Cor 3:17)
the aroma of Christ… (2 Corinthians 2:15)
You get the idea. I still, on occasion, have to pull this well-worn sheet of divine affirmations out and literally read through the list again. Often, I read all two-pages out-loud to myself. It’s like spiritual chiropractic. When my shame has me bent out of shape and tied up in knots, the affirmations from the Great Story get my head and heart back in alignment.
In the quiet this morning, I find my heart ruminating once again on this difficult year. I think about strained relationships created by differences in world-views. I think about our business which took a sizable hit in 2020. I think about the mental and emotional fatigue from the never-ending conflict in every medium of media about a host of hot-button topics. It’s amazing how silently shame’s whispers can creep back into my head and heart without me realizing it. Like the writer of Psalm 85, I find myself having to consciously stop and listen “to what God the Lord, says.”
FYI: Here are the entire set of affirmations I compiled for anyone who might benefit in both image and document forms. The PDF was a handout from a message series on shame several years ago.
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Psalm 82:3 (NIV)
Earlier this year, as the world grappled with the inescapable footage of George Floyd dying under the knee of a police officer, Wendy called a family Zoom meeting. Each person shared their thoughts and emotions. Each person discussed what he/she felt personally led to do in the wake of the event. During that same time, Wendy and I had similar conversations among different circles of our close friends.
I haven’t forgotten those conversations. I’m not sure I ever will. As I approach the end of this tumultuous year and reflect on all that I’ve experienced, I’m mindful of those conversations about my responsibility, both as a follower of Jesus and as a responsible human being, for acting on my faith to make a difference in the lives of the poor, defenseless, and oppressed.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 82, is another liturgical song that was written to be sung when all of the Hebrew people gathered for worship. It’s fascinating for the fact that Asaph draws on a common religious metaphor found in the cultures of the Near East at that time; It’s the image of a divine assembly in a heavenly hall of justice. God is sitting in judgment of the assembled “gods.” In those days, rulers of both religion and society could be considered “gods” or “sons of god” because they were considered divine agents of their society and religion.
The voice of Asaph’s lyrics is that of a temple prophet. It’s the ancient Hebrew version of a protest song. He calls society’s leaders out for caring about the poor, needy, and oppressed. He reminds them that God, the ultimate, righteous judge, will render verdict on these societal “gods” for what they did for lowest members of society. He ends his short song of protest asking God to rise up and mete out justice.
Asaph’s lyrics make me think about Jesus. I think about Jesus’ teaching and example as He spent most of the time bringing love, healing, and grace to the fringes of society living on the outskirts of His country far away from the halls of societal power and justice. The civic and religious “gods” of Jesus’ day would eventually kill Him for it.
The words of Asaph’s song leave me sitting in the quiet this morning thinking about those conversations with family and friends from earlier this year. I’m pondering some of the things that I have consciously done as a result, as well as those things that I have left undone. My thoughts shift to the road ahead as the New Year approaches. I ask myself, “Do my actions make me more like Jesus, or do they make me more like the “gods” of Asaph’s metaphorical trial?”
I’m uncomfortable with the answer.
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
Psalm 80:8 (NRSVCE)
I have celebrated Christmas as a follower of Jesus for almost forty years, and I can tell you that the most forgotten storyline of the Christmas story is found in the second chapter of Matthew.
King Herod was the regional ruler operating under subservience to the Roman Empire. It was Herod to whom the Zoroastrians (that we call the “Three Kings” or “Magi”) went to find out where the Jewish Messiah was to be born. Herod got the answer for them and sent them on their way to Bethlehem. Herod was a blood-thirsty man, however. A shrewd monarch with boundless ambition, Herod’s successful reign was made possible in part by his ability to assassinate any rival. This included members of his own family.
Matthew shares that Herod, wanting to make sure the newborn Messiah would not grow up to threaten his worldly power, ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and under killed. Warned by an angel in a dream, Joseph and Mary flee with the baby to Egypt. When Herod died a few years later, they returned to Joseph in Nazareth.
In telling this piece of the story, Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea, who said: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1). In my podcast A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story (Part 7) I talked about prophecy and the fact that part of the mystery of the prophetic is that metaphor can be layered with meaning. Hosea was writing about the Hebrew exodus out of Egyptian slavery, but Matthew sees that Jesus, God’s son, was also called out of Egypt.
In today’s chapter, Psalm 80, we have a song of lament written somewhere around 725 BC. The Assyrians were attacking the northern kingdom of Israel. Refugees from the northern tribes were flowing into Jerusalem, and Asaph laments that God brought the nation out of Egypt and planted them in Canaan only to let foreign countries attack them. In this case, Asaph uses the metaphor of God bringing a vine out of Egypt only to let foreign powers like Assyria and Babylon pick “the fruit” of God’s hand.
As a follower of Jesus, I am immediately reminded of Jesus’ words to His most intimate followers the night before His crucifixion:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. John 15:1-5 (NIV)
When Asaph writes his lyric: “You brought a vine out of Egypt” he was being as prophetic as Hosea was when quoted by Matthew, but here’s where I found added meaning in Asaph’s metaphor. Asaph metaphorically envisions that he and the fellow Hebrew tribes were the Vine. When Jesus came, Asaph’s misunderstanding becomes clear. Jesus is the Vine, and his followers are the branches. If you’re not connected to the Vine, then you get pruned back and cut-off.
The Hebrew prophets made it clear that the Hebrew people had disconnected themselves from God. They worshipped foreign gods and were unfaithful to the covenant they made through Moses. The prophets made it clear that the Assyrians and Babylonians were God’s pruning shears, because contrary to Asaph’s lyrics the only fruit left on those branches was rotten.
In the quiet this morning I wondered how often I, like Asaph, lament the fact that life isn’t going so well. I feel empty, depleted, and attacked like someone plucked everything from me when my real problem is the same as the Hebrews: I’m not connected to the Vine. There’s no spiritual nourishment flowing from the Living Water deep in the root structure. There’s no support from the Vine and no protection from the other branches. The fruit my life is bearing small, tasteless, impotent, even rotten.
As another Christmas approaches, I’m thinking about the least discussed event of that first Christmas. The Son of God, emptied of Heaven and dependent on a young mother, goes into exile in Egypt. Out of Egypt God will call His Son, the Vine. If I miss that connection, then I’m missing the Life, not only of the Christmas story, but the entire Great Story itself.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
Psalm 78:2-3 (NIV)
My grandparent’s home in Le Mars, Iowa, was a humble little house with three small bedrooms and one bath. I grew up spending weekends there every few months, and as I got older I had opportunities to spend even more time there. It’s hard to believe it now, but when I was only about ten years old my parents would buy me a bus ticket and put me on the Greyhound bus bound for Le Mars where I would spend my spring break. Mom would tell me to sit right behind the driver so he could keep an eye on me. Wow. How times have changed.
The “west room” at Grandpa and Grandma Vander Well’s house was mostly a storage room that doubled as a guest bed when necessary. The small four-poster double bed, complete with a feather mattress, was from their wedding set and it took most of the room. One entire wall was covered, floor-to-ceiling, with shelves on which my grandparents stored the remnants of their lives. I spent hours in that bedroom exploring all of the strange, old things on those shelves and letting my imagination run free.
I have always had a thing for history. I don’t know why. It presented itself in me when I was very young. I was fascinated by the old stuff that had to be explained to me.
“Hey, Grandpa. What’s this? What does this thing do?”
As I grew, my curiosity led me to explore family history. What was fascinating was what meager little scraps of information were spoken. I have come to believe that there are multiple reasons for this. My grandparents grew up in a time when families tended to bury the family stories that they found shameful. Every family is messy, but my grandparents’ generation was particularly closed when it came to talking about such things. They were also the depression generation. Genealogy and family history are luxuries people could ill-afford when they were desperately trying to survive day-to-day and raise a family. Much of what I eventually learned about both my maternal and paternal families came late in my grandparents’ lives, or after their deaths.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 78, is an epic song in the traditional sense of the word. If you’ve actually been reading the Psalms on this chapter-a-day journey you know that they’re typically quick reads. Much like most of today’s popular music, three verses and a bridge is typically all you get. But then, every once in a while, a song stands out because it is epic. Psalm 78 is a musical epic that was written to teach children and grandchildren the story of their people. Reading was still very rare in the days when Asaph wrote the song, and most of what people learned was through oral history. Stories told by family elders around the fire at night or songs, like today’s chapter, that were sung during seasonal festivals.
Psalm 78 mostly recounts the story of the Hebrew people’s exodus out of slavery in Egypt, the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrew people. Asaph, one of David’s temple choir directors, ends the poem alluding to the civil war between the Hebrew tribes, the fall of the northern tribes to the Assyrians, and God’s blessing of David and the southern kingdom of Judah.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating my love of history on both a large scale as well as the more intimate history of both my paternal and maternal families. I have come to realize that most people don’t care for such things, but it’s through the warts-and-all history of both family and humanity that Wisdom has taught me so much. The shame of my grandparents’ generation led them to keep the past hidden like the little remnants of their lives stuffed on the guest room shelves. I observe the shame of the emerging generation leading to the tearing down of history. I watch history being burned and buried. I imagine both of these extreme approaches to the past have existed throughout the Great Story. They wax and wane with the times.
Nevertheless, my soul aches in both cases. Asaph states quite clearly in Psalm 78 that he wants future generations to learn from the Hebrew past. As I read the chapter, I find that he wrote the epic complete with recollections of the glories and tragedies, the failures and successes, and both victories and defeats. I have met Wisdom in every one of those stories. She is present in every instance. Through each, she helps me see my current stretch of life’s road with more clarity and perspective.
I pray that I pass a little of that Wisdom along, one blog post at a time.
His tent is in Salem,
his dwelling place in Zion.
There he broke the flashing arrows,
the shields and the swords, the weapons of war.
Psalm 76:2-3 (NIV)
M’luv, Wendy, is a living human radar when it comes to parking lots. As we pull into any parking lot, her parking spot radar goes into overdrive as she spies all of the open spots available. She will begin giving me all of my options:
“There’s a spot in the next row back there. I see one a little closer but down another row. I think there might be one behind that giant truck…”
Often, while she’s still regaling me with all of my options, I’ll simply pull into the first spot I see. This is when Wendy says…
In yesterday’s post/podcast, I mentioned that the song of thanksgiving amidst a time of national uncertainty is believed to be connected to a specific historic event. In 701, the Assyrian King Sennacherib laid siege to the walled city of Jerusalem. The events are recorded in both 1 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 18. In what the people of Jerusalem considered a miraculous event, they woke up one morning to find that the entire Assyrian army lay dead and Jerusalem was miraculously spared from destruction.
Many scholars believe that today’s chapter, Psalm 76, is a victory song from the same event. And it does seem to fit. Listen to these lyrics and imagine the citizen’s gazing over the city wall to see the Assyrian army lying dead:
The valiant lie plundered,
they sleep their last sleep;
not one of the warriors
can lift his hands.
At your rebuke, God of Jacob,
both horse and chariot lie still.
By the way, an account of the campaign against Jerusalem from the Assyrian perspective also exists. It admits that the siege of Jerusalem was unsuccessful, but leaves out any details and instead claims a moral victory for the successful subjugation of the other towns in the region. (It sort of reminds me of fans on sports talk shows who try to cushion the blow of a bitter defeat to a rival team by diminishing the loss).
I find it hard to separate the ancient Hebrew song from the seemingly miraculous event believed to have inspired it. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that miracles can and do happen. At the same time, the Great Story makes clear that the miraculous does not always happen. God may have spared the people of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army, but just a hundred years later the Babylonian army would lay waste to the city with horrific destruction. Why one and not the other? Welcome to the mystery.
Similarly, along my life journey, I have experienced miraculous events. I’ve also experienced events which, despite the desperate pleas and prayers of many, ended with lament rather than thanksgiving. There was no miraculous deliverance. Wisdom tells me that the latter does not negate the former, and the former does not assure the latter. Peter was miraculously delivered from prison in Acts 12, but there was no deliverance for him from Roman prison and his subsequent execution. In fact, Jesus told Peter to expect an uncomfortable end to his earthly journey.
This leaves me, as a follower of Jesus, holding the point of tension. It’s the same as Daniel’s friends living in Babylonian captivity and threatened to be thrown alive into a crematorium (see Daniel 3). They made it clear to the Babylonian King that they believed God could miraculously deliver them from the flames, but even God did not it would neither change their faith nor their actions. God broke through with a miracle in that case, but I could cite many examples that didn’t end so well.
Among the examples of those that did not end with miraculous deliverance is a German pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp. In one of his most famous quotes, Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a person, He bids them ‘Come, and die.'” In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that one of the things I’ve learned to which I must die as a follower of Jesus, is any demands I’d like to make on what my story within the Great Story looks like, or how it ends.
Sometimes the miracle is part of the narrative of the Great Story (Peter escaping the Jerusalem prison), and sometimes the suffering is part of the narrative of the Great Story (Peter being executed in Rome).
It’s like being Wendy in a parking lot.
“God, you can work a miracle here. You can deliver me over there.”
The land yields its harvest;
God, our God, blesses us.
Psalm 67:6 (NIV)
Growing up in the city, I had very little personal exposure to the agricultural industry that fuels our region. The news radio my dad had on every morning made a big deal about farming and markets, but it made no sense to me. I have this one memory of riding along with our dad in the family station wagon. I had to have been about five years old. I watched my dad jump a fence into a cow pasture to collect dried piles of cow manure into the back of the station wagon which he used to fertilize the garden in the backyard. That’s pretty much it other than driving through the fields to my grandparent’s house.
As an adult, I’ve spent about twenty years of my life in small rural towns where agriculture is all around me. Behind our back yard is an open field. There are cows on the other side of the golf course that winds through our neighborhood. The building where our local gathering of Jesus followers meets is next door to livestock farm, and when the wind is blowing just right the smell motivates you to high-tail it inside. I don’t have the buffer and insulation I had as a kid. Agriculture surrounds me at all times.
Because of this, and the fact that Wendy grew up on a farm and her dad taught Agriculture, I’ve gained an appreciation for the people, the lives, and the industry that helps feed the world. It’s also helped me understand and appreciate, with greater depth, an important spiritual principle: me, my life, and my circumstances, are of little regard to Creation. The Great Story constantly reminds me to keep my life in perspective:
“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall”
1 Peter 1:24
“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4:14
Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old
The sun comes up and the sun goes down,
then does it again, and again—the same old round.
The wind blows south, the wind blows north.
Around and around and around it blows,
blowing this way, then that—the whirling, erratic wind.
All the rivers flow into the sea,
but the sea never fills up.
The rivers keep flowing to the same old place,
and then start all over and do it again.
What was will be again,
what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth.
Year after year it’s the same old thing.
Does someone call out, “Hey, this is new”?
Don’t get excited—it’s the same old story.
Nobody remembers what happened yesterday.
And the things that will happen tomorrow?
Nobody’ll remember them either.
Don’t count on being remembered.
Ecclesiastes 1 (MSG)
Without faith, these are kind of depressing thoughts. With faith, it becomes essential spiritual perspective. The fields yielded their fruit again with the autumn harvest, things will die in winter and new life will emerge once again in the spring. Just like it did for the The earth continues to spin, the seasons continue to cycle, the planets continue their dance around the sun. The sun continues its dance around the galaxy. The galaxy continues its trek in the universe.
The coronavirus is nothing in the grand scheme of eternity, and neither is a presidential election. I grumble and complain, yet if I incline my ear to the whispers on the wind of history I hear voices, millions of voices, calling out.
200 million voices of those who died in the Black Death in Europe and Asia in the Middle Ages.
56 million voices who died of Smallpox in the 1500s.
40 million voices who died of the Spanish Flu between 1918-1920.
30 million voices who died in the plague of Justinian. In 541, it is estimated that there were 10,000 deaths per day and there were so many bodies they couldn’t keep up with burials so bodies were piled up and stuffed in buildings and left out in the open.
And still, the whole of creation continued its dance. The earth danced around the sun every 365 days or so. The seasons came and went like clockwork. The crops sprouted each spring, they grew each summer, they yielded their fruit each fall before the death of winter prepared for another annual resurrection.
In the quiet this morning, I’m listening to those voices on the whispering wind. My heart grumbles, but it never grumbles with essential spiritual perspective in mind. Grumbling only happens when my momentary circumstances deceive me into putting on my blinders of self-importance.
Thanksgiving is in 10 days. When I finish this post and podcast I’m headed into town for coffee with a friend. I’ll drive past the fields that have, once again, yielded their abundance. Those same fields fed families and provided for those who suffered through three years of the ravages of Spanish Flu. They will still be feeding generations who will have long forgotten my existence when the next pandemic makes its way through humanity.
Essential spiritual perspective that Jesus used the fields he and his followers were sitting in to make this same point.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Indeed. Today, I give thanks.