Devastation, Dinosaurs, and Spiritual Development (CaD Ps 79) –
Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord. Psalm 79:13 (NIV)
It’s Christmas season! Yesterday, Wendy and I had the blessing of hugging our children and our grandson for the first time since last December. Milo got to put the ornaments that celebrate each of the four Christmases he’s been with us on the tree. Around the base of the tree is my father’s Lionel train set, and Milo became the fourth generation to experience the joy that train chugging around the tracks.
As I experience Christmas anew this year through the eyes of a three-year-old, I’m reminded of my own childhood. Each year I would get out the Sears Christmas Wish Book catalog and make my bucket list of all the toys that I wanted. It was usually a big list and included a host of big-ticket items my parents could never afford and probably wouldn’t buy for me even if they could because there’s know way that the giant chemistry set was going to accomplish anything but make a mess, require a lot of parental assistance, and probably blow up the house. I couldn’t manage such mature cognitive reasoning in my little brain. All I knew was it was really cool, it looked really fun, and all my friends at school would be really jealous.
Along this life journey, I’ve come to understand that my finite and circumstantial emotions and desires are often incongruent with the larger picture realities of both reason and Spirit.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 79, is an angry blues rant that was written after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. It is a raw description of the scene of devastation after the Babylonians destroyed the city and razed Solomon’s Temple to the ground in 586 B.C. Blood and death are everywhere. Vultures and wild dogs are feasting on dead bodies because there aren’t enough people alive and well to bury the bodies. The strong, educated, and young have been taken as prisoners to Babylon. The ruins of God’s Temple have been desecrated with profane images and graffiti. The songwriter pours out heartbreak, shock, sorrow, rage, and desperate pleas for God to rise up and unleash holy vengeance in what the ancients described as “an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth.”
As I read the songwriters rant this morning, there are three things that give me layers of added perspective:
First, when God first called Abraham (the patriarch of the Hebrew tribes and nations), He made it clear that the intent of making a nation of Abraham’s descendants was so that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through them, not destroyed.
Second, God had spoken to the Hebrews through the prophet Jeremiah warning them that the natural consequences of their sin and unfaithfulness would be Babylonian captivity through the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, to whom God referred through Jeremiah as “my servant.” It appears that the songwriter may have missed that.
Third, I couldn’t help but read the songwriter’s plea for God to pay back their enemies “seven times” the contempt that their enemies had shown them, and think of the time Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive an enemy who wronged him “seven times.” Peter was trying to show Jesus that he was beginning to understand Jesus’ teaching. To the Hebrews, the number seven spiritually represented “completeness.” When the songwriter asked for “seven times” the vengeance it was a spiritual notion of “eye-for-an-eye” justice would be complete. Peter’s question assumed that forgiving an enemy seven times would be spiritually “complete” forgiveness. Jesus responds to Peter that a more correct equation for forgiveness in the economy of God’s Kingdom would be “seventy-times-seven.”
I come back to the songwriter of Psalm 79 with these three things in mind. The first time I read it, like most 21st century readers, I was taken back by the blood, gore, raw anger, and cries for holy vengeance. Now I see the song with a different perspective. I see a songwriter who is devastated and confused. I hear the crying out of a soul who has witnessed unspeakable things, and whose emotions can’t reasonably see any kind of larger perspective in the moment.
This morning I am reminded of what I discussed in my Wayfarer Weekend podcast, Time (Part 1). Humanity at the time of the ancient Hebrews was still very much in the early childhood stage of development. The songwriter is expressing his thoughts, emotions, and desires like a child desperately asking Santa for a real dinosaur for Christmas. Not just any dinosaur, a real T-Rex to put in the backyard.
Today’s psalm is another example of God honoring the need that we have as human beings of expressing our hearts and emotions in the moment, as we have them, no matter where we find ourselves in our spiritual development. As my spiritual journey has progressed, I’ve gotten better at processing my emotions and having very different conversations with God about circumstances than I did when I was a teenager, a young adult, a young husband, and a young father. It doesn’t invalidate the feelings and conversations I had back then. They were necessary for me to grow, learn, and mature in spirit.
In the quiet this morning, I’m identifying with the songwriter of Psalm 79, not affirming blood vengeance and “eye-for-an-eye-justice,” but affirming that it was where the songwriter was in that moment, just like I have had some rants and prayers along the journey that I’m kind of embarrassed think about now. This is a journey. I’m not who I was, And, I’m not yet who I will ultimately become in eternity. I’m just a wayfarer on the road of life, taking it one-step-at-a-time into a new work week.
For the record, Milo. No, you can’t have a real dinosaur. Sorry, buddy.
If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God… Psalm 55:12-14 (NIV)
Thus far, in my entire life journey, I discovered that the process of releasing my adult children on to their own respective paths of life to be one of the most surprisingly difficult things I’ve ever experienced. It’s not just about the loss of control and the fact that my child may choose paths unfitting my dreams, desires, and expectations. It’s also the experience of catching glimpses of my own weaknesses and shortcomings as a parent, and the useless wonderings of “What if I had only….”
The greatest challenge of David’s life was not the Bathsheba scandal which I talked about in the podcast on Psalm 51. Bathsheba gets top billing and is better known because it has all of the classic plot elements we love in a steamy Harlequin Romance. The greatest challenge of David’s life is lesser known, but I personally find it even more fascinating because it is more intimate and complex. Late in David’s life, he faces a coup de tête finds himself fleeing for his life, and almost loses his throne and his life to his very own son.
The story is found in 2 Samuel 13-19. Let me give you the Reader’s Digest condensed version. The seeds of the rebellion are in David’s own shortcomings as a father. Marriage and family looked very different for a monarch in ancient times. Not only was polygamy regularly practiced, but a monarch had the added layer of nations wanting to marry off daughters to other kings to establish diplomatic ties. David had eight wives, and at least 10 concubines. Which meant the palaces were teaming with princes and princesses who were half-brothers and half-sisters. Long story short, Prince Amnon had the hots for his sister, Princess Tamar. He rapes her, and then in his shame, he shuns Tamar and wants nothing to do with. He treated her like a prostitute. King David is furious according to the record, but he does nothing. He passively seems to ignore the whole thing.
Princess Tamar’s older brother is Prince Absalom, and Absalom bottles up his rage against his half-brother Amnon, who raped his sister, and against his father who did nothing to justly deal with Amnon. The seeds of Prince Absalom’s rage take root and grow into a plot to kill his brother and steal his father’s kingdom. He succeeds at the former, and nearly succeeds with the latter.
In the process of his scheming to steal his father’s throne, the Great Story records that Absalom spent a lot of time establishing allies among the rich, noble, and powerful people in the kingdom. Quietly, slowly he used his position and influence to create both debts and alliances so that when he pulled the trigger on his coup David had virtually no one supporting him.
We can’t be certain, but the lyrics of David’s song that we know as Psalm 55 seem as though they could very well have been penned during the time of Absalom’s rebellion. David expresses that Jerusalem is a boiling cauldron of deceit, treachery, and violence. He feels the sting of an unnamed “companion” who he thought was a friend and ally, but turns out to have sold him out. It is certainly reasonable to think that he’s referring to someone that Absalom convinced to aid in his rebellion.
Like many of David’s songs, Psalm 55 is a personal lament. He is pouring out all of his emotions from despair, hurt, anguish, fear, confusion, and the desire to fly away from all of his troubles. In the pouring out of his deepest emotions he also is reminded of how faithful God had always been and the song ends with a simple proclamation of his unwavering trust.
One of the fascinating threads in the story of Absalom’s rebellion is David’s unwavering love for Absalom. Despite the fratricide, the rebellion, and the attempt to destroy David and take everything that was his, David ordered his men to be gentle with Absalom. When he heard Absalom had been killed, David wept and mourned to the point that his own General called David out for humiliating all of the soldiers who had been loyal to him.
In the quiet this morning I find myself contemplating the complex relationship between parents and children, especially as children mature into their own selves and lives. The whole story of David and his children Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom is a hot mess. There is so much of the story that is not told. Nevertheless, it reminds me of the intense and infinite love a parent feels for a child no matter the differences, conflicts, or chasms that emerge in the relationship.
Once again, there is no concrete evidence to directly correlate Psalm 55 with the story of Absalom’s rebellion, nor is there concrete evidence to the contrary. Some mornings, I find that this is the way the chapter-a-day journey goes. The text connects me to one idea which leads down another path of thought, and I end up in an unintended destination of thought and Spirit. C’est lav ie.
Parenting is one of the grand adventures of this life journey. It has produced the greatest of joys and the deepest of sorrows. It has humbled me to my core, and has equipped Lady Sophia with some of the most powerful practicums for teaching me wisdom.
Our children posted a rather hilarious video of Milo over the weekend. At first, we couldn’t figure out what he was doing shaking his bum towards daddy’s legs. As we listened to the audio it became more clear that Milo was making like the Stegosaurus on his shirt and shaking his spiky “tail” to protect himself from the predator, played by daddy, whom I presume was cast in the role of a T-Rex. Yesterday, on our Father’s Day FaceTime, we got to witness Milo reprise his role for us a shake his little dino-booty for Papa and Yaya’s enjoyment.
It’s a very natural thing for us to make word pictures and games for our children and grandchildren to introduce them to concepts, thoughts, and ideas that are still a little beyond their cognitive reach. Even with spiritual things we do this. Advent calendars with numbered doors help children mark the anticipation of celebrating Jesus’ birth. Christmas gifts remind us of the gifts the Magi brought the Christ child. Wendy often recalls the Nativity play she and her cousins and siblings performed each year with bathrobes and hastily collected props which helped to teach the story behind the season.
In leaving Egypt and striking out for the Promised Land, Moses and the twelve Hebrew tribes are a fledgling nation. Yahweh was introduced to Moses in the burning bush. Moses introduced the Tribes to Yahweh through interceding with Pharaoh on their behalf and delivering them from Egyptian slavery. Yahweh has already provided food in the form of Manna and led them to the mountain. In today’s chapter, God begins the process of providing a system of worship that will continue to develop a relationship of knowing and being known.
As I described in my podcast, Time (Part 1), we are still at the toddler stage of human history and development. The Ark of the Covenant (yes, the one from Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the plan for a giant traveling Tent to house God’s presence, are all tangible word pictures that their cognitive human brains could fathom revealing and expressing intangible spiritual truths about God.
Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that as humanity has matured so has God’s relationship with us. Jesus pushed our spiritual understanding of God. “You have heard it said,” he would begin before adding, “but I say….” I have come to believe that Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were like the “age of accountability” in which we talk about when children become responsible adults. Jesus came to grow us up spiritually and to mature our understanding of what it means to become participants in the divine dance within the circle of love with Father, Son, and Spirit. On a grand scale, God is doing with humanity what Paul experienced in the microcosm of his own life:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
1 Corinthians 13:11
I have also observed, however, that human beings have a way of getting stuck in our development. Many adults I know are living life mired in adolescent patterns of thought and behavior. Many church institutions are, likewise, mired in childish religious practices designed to control human social behavior, but they do very little to fulfill Jesus’ mission of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. Again, Paul was dealing with this same thing when he wrote to Jesus’ followers in Corinth:
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.
1 Corinthians 3:1-3a
There is a great example of this from today’s chapter. God provided the Ark of the Covenant, and a traveling tent called the Tabernacle, as a word picture of His presence and dwelling with the wandering Hebrew people. It was a physical sign that God was with them. Once settled in the Promised land, the temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem became the central physical location of God’s presence. When Jesus came, however, He blew up the childish notion of the God of Creation residing in one place. Jesus matured our understanding of God’s very nature and the nature of God’s presence. With the pouring out of God’s Spirit to indwell every believer, Jesus transformed our understanding of God’s dwelling and presence. “Wherever two or three are gathered,” Jesus said, “I am among them.” The place of worship transitioned from the Temple to the dining room table. After the resurrection, Jesus was revealed during dinner in Emmaus, making shore-lunch for the disciples along the Sea of Galilee, and at the dinner table behind locked doors where the disciples were hiding.
Wendy and I have this quote from Brian Zahnd hanging on the fridge in our kitchen:
“The risen Christ did not appear at the temple but at meal tables. The center of God’s activity had shifted – it was no longer the temple but the table that was the holiest of all. The church would do well to think of itself, not so much as a kind of temple, but as a kind of table. This represents a fundamental shift. Consider the difference between the temple and the table. Temple is exclusive; Table is inclusive. Temple is hierarchical; Table is egalitarian. Temple is authoritarian; Table is affirming. Temple is uptight and status conscious; Table is relaxed and ‘family-style.’ Temple is rigorous enforcement of purity codes that prohibit the unclean; Table is a welcome home party celebrating the return of sinners. The temple was temporal. The table is eternal. We thought God was a diety in a temple. It turns out God is a father at a table.”
In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the ancient Hebrew people struggling to mature their understanding from a polytheistic society with over 1500 dieties to the one God who is trying to introduce Himself to them in ways they can understand. I am reminded of the ways Jesus tried to mature our understanding of God even further. I find myself confessing all of the ways through all of the years of my spiritual journey that I have refused to mature in some of the most basic things Jesus was teaching.
As Wendy and I sit down together to share a meal together this week, my desire is to acknowledge Jesus’ presence. To make our time of conversation, laughter, and daily bread a time of communion with God’s Spirit. I think that’s a good spiritual action step.
Bon a petite, my friend. May you find God’s Spirit at your table this week.
Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Exodus 19:5 (NRSVCE)
Our daughter, Madison, just closed on her first house this past week. We’re so excited for her and her husband, Garrett. What an exciting waypoint in their journey.
As we were discussing home ownership, the subject of paperwork and bureaucracy came up. I told Madison, “Just wait until you close!” There is nothing like sitting there with a stack of paper that requires your signature and initials everywhere for everything. Even if you’re trying to be careful and understand what you’re signing it all becomes a fog. By the end of it my brain was fogged over and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome had permanently settled in my left hand. The closing agent just kept thrusting papers in front of me and I kept signing.
All the paperwork, of course, is part of a complex contract between buyers, sellers, real estate agents, government, and financial agents. It is an agreement between parties.
In ancient times, this type of contract was known as a covenant. It was the ancient form of a binding contract between parties. It’s already come up in the Great Story. God made a covenant with Noah after the flood. God made covenants with Abraham. In today’s chapter, God makes a covenant with the Hebrew people. The concept of a “covenant” between God and people was unlike any other religion of that day. But the Hebrews would have understood the concept because covenants were common in personal, familial, business, and international relationships. Two parties agree to binding terms and obligations. While the “Sinai Covenant” in today’s chapter is like other ancient covenants, scholars point out that it is unique and has no direct parallel in antiquity.
The covenant in today’s chapter is quite simple. God agrees to make the Hebrew people His “treasured” people, a priestly kingdom, and a “holy” nation. In return, the Hebrew people agree to be obedient and keep their obligations as will be set out in the commandments and laws given through Moses.
In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over one of the commentaries I read about this text:
Typically, both parties to a contract, treaty or similar legal agreement could expect to benefit from their commitment. It is not at all clear that the Biblical text wants its readers to believe that Yahweh will receive some benefit from this relationship with the Israelites that he would not otherwise be able to obtain. The text speaks of great benefit awaiting the Israelites for their consistent obedience to their covenantal obligations. For Yahweh’s part, his actions do not appear to be based in self-interest but in a willingness to be gracious and to extend freely his blessing.
What is Yaweh getting out of the covenant? “His actions do not appear to be based in self-interest but in a willingness to be gracious and extend freely his blessing.”
I couldn’t help but think of these words from Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in Philippians:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
God is establishing and foreshadowing the core theme of the Great Story. What was lost in Eden? Relationship. How does the prophesied story end at the end of the book of Revelation? Restoration and relationship. In my podcast Time (Part 1) I talked about the Great Story being like a human life-cycle from birth-to-death-to-rebirth.
What is a parent’s relationship like with a toddler? The parent dictates the rules and asks the child to obey. Rules and obligations. Parents graciously extend protection and provision. They expect obedience. While the child can’t cognitively understand just how graciously his or her parents are being, they simply understand that when they obey things are okay and when they disobey they get in trouble.
At Sinai, I believe that God and humanity are in the toddler stage of relationship.
I’m looking at it, of course, from 2000 years past Jesus’ death and resurrection. We’re much further in the life-cycle of the relationship between God and humanity. There are a couple of things I’ve learned in my parenting journey now that our daughters are grown and have established their own adult lives and families.
First, the desire and willingness to be gracious and extend blessing never ends no matter how old your children are. Second, the desire for relationship with them does not end, but only gets stronger. When they come home, reach out, call, or write it is the best blessing ever.
The bottom-line. God desires relationship with me. The Father graciously sent His Son to suffer on my behalf. The Son willingly did so. The Father and Son sent their Spirit to abide in me. Everything is about inviting me into this relationship, this circle of love, this divine dance.
But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Exodus 17:3 (NRSVCE)
It’s been so much fun over the past six months to watch our grandson, Milo, as he’s made so many developmental leaps. He’s carrying on actual conversations. He’s making discoveries and connections. His vocabulary is growing exponentially. He’s learning all about dinosaurs (and will be happy to share). He’ll even demonstrate a T-Rex roar if you ask.
Of course, with this stage of development also comes the natural human penchant for whining. The repeated wailing at loud decibel levels. Emotions run amok and bereft of any governor of logic or reason. The passionate translation of momentary light affliction into problems of heinous and lethal proportions.
One of my observations along life’s journey is that humans have a penchant for whining at every stage of life, it just looks different in adults than it does in childhood. It transforms from emotional tantrums in children to adults wallowing in grumbling, complaining, and lament. Please don’t read what I’m not writing. I’m not making an editorial comment about current events.
In today’s chapter, the Hebrew nation (remember 1-2 million people and livestock) is camping in the wilderness. There is a lack of readily available water. So they grumble and complain to Moses to the point that Moses is afraid they’re going to stone him to death. What I noticed in this was the pattern that has been emerging:
They grumbled when Moses’ first meeting with Pharaoh resulted in more work and persecution. God miraculously sent the plagues and delivered them from slavery.
They grumbled when they were caught between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. God miraculously parted the Red Sea, swallowed up their oppressors, and delivered them from their enemies.
They grumbled when they feared there wasn’t enough food for everyone as they entered the wilderness. God miraculously sent quail and manna to provide daily sustenance and delivered them from hunger.
Today they grumble because there isn’t enough water…
I see the pattern.
One of the most difficult spiritual lessons I’ve learned along my journey is that spiritual maturity requires that we respond to difficult circumstances with gratitude, praise, and trust:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and don’t lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5)
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! (John 16:33)
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings… (Rom 5:3)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds… (James 1:2)
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials… (1 Peter 1:6)
…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess 5:18)
Earlier in this chapter-a-day journey through Exodus, I was reminded that this entire Exodus epic was about God wanting the Hebrew people to know Him. He heard their cries. He was acting to deliver them. He wanted a relationship with them.
In my own spiritual journey, I’ve learned that my knowledge of God doesn’t increase when things are easy, when everything is going my way, and when I am sitting pretty in life. Paul said in his letter to Jesus’ followers in Rome that in the end there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love.
Faith is only developed when trusting and believing is a necessity because circumstances are uncertain. Like when you’re stuck between a sea and your enemies.
Hope is only developed when the outcome is uncertain. Like when there’s not enough water.
Love is developed when there is an exchange between two parties in which protection, trust, hope, and perseverance through difficulty are experienced.
The evidence of the Hebrews’ repeated whining suggests that there is little spiritual or relational development happening on their end. Get ready. This pattern is going to continue.
In the quiet this morning, I’m left contemplating my own spiritual journey and spiritual development. Do I grumble perpetually, or have I learned to trust? Do I whine about my circumstances, or have I learned to have faith that God has something for me to learn in them? Am I mired in gloom and pessimism thinking that God is going to pull the rug out from underneath me, or am I hope-full that God is leading me to good places on this journey and there is a Promised Land ahead?
I’d like to say that I’m perfectly exemplifying the latter of these, but I confess I’m not. I have made progress, though, if I think back to where I was ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. That’s called development. Hopefully, I have grown out of the spiritual child stage and am gaining some maturity. I’m reminded this morning that this is a journey. A journey is about progress, not perfection.
And so, I’m lacing them up at the beginning of this another day. Time to press on into faith, hope, and love.
May the God of Love bless you where ever you find yourself on life’s road today.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it…When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” Exodus 2:5, 10 (NSRVCE)
There is something we love in stories about a special child, especially when that child is abandoned in order to be saved. The most recent example is, of course, Harry Potter whom Dumbledore leaves with his Muggle aunt and uncle in order to protect the boy from Voldemort and his followers. The theme is recurring, even in the comics. Cal-El is abandoned to Earth in an effort to save him from the destruction of his home planet. He grows up Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas to become Superman.
In the Great Story, this is also a recurring theme. Joseph’s brothers abandon him into slavery and he eventually becomes the savior of the family. Hannah gives up her only child Samuel to the Temple and he becomes a great prophet and leader. With the incarnation, God the Father “gave his one and only Son” to become Savior of the world and to redeem all things.
In today’s chapter, I was struck by how much we are not told. The narrative moves fast and furious. It skips details and provides only the barest of story elements. In one chapter we go from “the child” (sentenced to die by Pharaoh’s birth control program for the Hebrew tribes) abandoned by his mother to become an adopted member of Pharaoh’s family, who commits murder in defense of one of his kinsmen, flees into another land and gets married.
One commentary I read this morning also mentioned this theme of “the child” (present even in ancient literature) and went on to observe that “Moses has ‘hero’ written all over him.”
The other important metaphor lost on many readers is the fact that Moses is so named by Pharaoh’s daughter because she “drew him out of the water.” This is yet another theme throughout the Great Story. Out of the water, Noah and his family are saved and given God’s promise in the rainbow. Out of the water, Jonah arrives in Ninevah to prophetically lead its citizens to repent. Out of the water, Paul arrives at Malta. Out of the water, Elisha miraculously proclaims his arrival as Elijah’s successor, and it is out the water turned to wine that Jesus miraculously signals the beginning of His ministry. Moses will eventually his people out of the water of the Red Sea towards the Promised Land. Out of the water of the Jordan River, Joshua will lead those people into the Promised Land. Out of the water of that same river, John the Baptist will lead people to repentance and proclaim Jesus the Messiah. It is out of the water of baptism that followers of Jesus are metaphorically washed of sin and set on the path of new life in the footsteps of Jesus. It is out of the water of life Jesus promises to give His followers that a thirsty soul is eternally quenched:
“Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”
John 4:19 (MSG)
In the quiet this morning, I find both my mind and my soul spinning as I think about all the themes and meaning present in the few verses of the chapter. I didn’t even mention the theme of fleeing into the wilderness, the fact that the Midianite people to whom Moses flees are also children of Abraham, nor the fact that Moses’ father-in-law is a “priest” even though the “priesthood” of God had yet to be defined through the law of Moses. Evidence suggests that the Midianites tribes were worshipping the God of Abraham but we know nothing about it or what that really meant.
Yet, I find myself coming back to the theme of water. It is something so essential to life, and yet for most of us, it is something we so take for granted that we don’t even give it a second thought. Along the journey, I have often found that the profound things of God are often quite simple, and hidden in plain sight for “those who have eyes to see.” I’m reminded of another thing Jesus said:
“We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”
I have the blessing this weekend of spending time with a friend and his son. It’s a rite-of-passage weekend. It is a time to empower, launch, and let go. Every parent has his or her blind spots, but I am so thankful for those who are willing to confess this, address it, and work to shed Light on the blind spots even after their children are launched. This post about King David’s parenting “blind spots” has had a lot of traffic in the five years since I first published it. I’m sowing it out there again today, and praying for good soil.
When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. 2 Samuel 13:21 (NSRV)
David was a great warrior, a great general, and a great leader of men. Evidence leads me to believe that he was not, however, a great husband or father. As we’ve read David’s story he has slowly been amassing wives like the spoils of war and the result was many children. But, an army of children do not an army make. A family system and the complex relationships between birth order and gender can be difficult enough for a monogamous, nuclear family. I can’t imagine the exponential complexities that emerge when you have eight wives, ten concubines and children with most all of them.
As I read through these chapters I’ve noticed that we never see David telling his children “no” nor do we see him discipline them for their behavior. David appears to have even had a reputation among his offspring of not refusing their requests. David’s daughter, Tamar, tells her half brother Amnon that if he simply asks Dad she’s sure he’ll let them get married. When Amnon rapes Tamar instead and then turns her away we hear of David’s anger, but he doesn’t do anything about disciplining his beloved firstborn son. When Tamar’s full brother Absalom plots to kill their half brother Amnon in revenge, Absalom goes to David and presses good ol’ dad until David relents and sends all the brothers on Absalom’s little fratricidal sheep-shearing retreat.
David has a blind spot. He can lead an army to endless victories but his record as leader of a family is a tragic string of failures and defeats.
I cannot point at David without three fingers pointing back at me. We all have our blind spots. Our greatest strengths have their corollary weaknesses. We cannot escape this reality, but we can escape being enslaved to it. What we can do is be honest about our blind spots. We can choose to shine a light on our time and attention to addressing them. We can surround ourselves with others who will graciously help us see them, work through them, and who will patiently love us as we do.
Today’s chapter seems perfectly timed as I’ve been made painfully aware of a blind spot in my life. If you’re reading this, and are a person who prays, please say a prayer for me as I address it.
I once knew a person who was educated, bright, and quite capable. For a short period of time, we were companions on a stretch of the journey. On occasion, we experienced the normal stresses of life, and I observed that this person could get inordinately out-of-sorts. I could watch anxiety and insecurity take over their entire person. In acute moments, they would blurt: “I’M NOT STUPID!”
The thing was, not once when this blurt made its exclamatory appearance did anyone ever hint that our friend was stupid. In fact, no one I knew in our circle would have even thought such a thing. Whenever it happened it was an awkward, inappropriate moment.
I quickly suspected that somewhere in this person’s impressionable childhood years there was a parent, and older sibling, or an adult of significant influence who had repeatedly, in a derogatory fashion, told them they were stupid. Now, the words played in their head like a tape recording on a ceaseless loop.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of leading various groups of people through creativity workshops and classes. One of the key parts of the class is to identify the negative messages in our heads that create resistance to our creative urges. Almost always, these “blurts” are messages planted in our brains when we were young.
“You’ll never amount to anything.”
“Why do you waste your time with that shit?”
“I wish you were dead.”
I’ve heard so many stories along the way. In some cases, the words were truly evil, and were said with evil intent from a twisted soul. More often, I believe the harmful words were uttered in a moment of parental stress and the adult had no earthly idea that their momentary anger just planted a seed in the soul of a child that would bear rotten fruit in years of self-deprecation and insecurity.
“The tongue has the power of life and death,” says the Sage in today’s chapter.
Never in the history of the world have we, as human beings, had instant access to so many words and voices. Never in the history of the world have we, as human beings, had the ability to broadcast our words from the palm of our hand to the entire world. Never in the history of the world have we, as human beings, had such power, with our words, to be an agent of life or death.
In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about my words. I’m thinking about the words I speak to others. I’m thinking about the words I write and broadcast. I’m thinking about the words and voices I allow, by choice or apathy, to enter my head and heart.
Immediately, God’s ancient words come to mind:
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…”
Earlier this sumer my dad found himself in the hospital for five days after suffering what was eventually diagnosed as a (thankfully) minor stroke. Being in the hospital meant that I had the honor of spending five days and four nights with my mother, who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It was the most uninterrupted time I’ve spent alone with my mother since childhood. I found it a fascinating opportunity to observe her life at this point in her journey through dementia, and to interact with her in her daily realities.
Let me begin by confessing that I am no expert in Alzheimers. Our daughter, Taylor, has had far more experience with, and education in, the tragic disease. I am, however, deeply versed in life with my mother. I began noticing the changes long before her diagnosis. Conversations with her, which have always been pleasant, meandering journeys slowly became stilted and repetitious. I began to realize that there were certain subjects that she clung to like a child hanging safely on to homebase in a neighborhood game. In retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue with her and our family long before it all came to light, as we learned that medications can successfully slow the disease’s progression. C’est la vie.
I also know that Alzheimer’s and Dementia experiences can vary widely depending the patient and his or her own unique circumstances. I am in no way implying that my observations are somehow applicable to every person who suffers from these terrible diseases. For what it is worth, I am merely recording some of the observations and lessons that came from my personal time with my own mother in her current stage of this tragic disease.
First, a few general observations about my mother’s current waypoint in the descent to the cognitive darkness of Alzheimer’s. She has yet to forget any of our family members, though the names and faces of life-long friends have begun to escape her. When talking to me, she now refers to my father as “my husband” as though her relationship with him and her relationship with me have been separated from the mental compartment of “family” into separately labled relationship compartments in her brain. Nevertheless, I am still able to enjoy her recognizing me when she sees me. She has yet to fail in greeting me with the pet name she’s had for me since childhood (“Hello, Tommy Jameses“) and extending her arms for an embrace.
I have heard it said that those with ALZ can sometimes become more childlike, and many become bitter, angry and even violent. Mom has occasionally had momentary flashes of uncharacteristic anger, though more often I’ve experienced that she now lets fly with a blunt honesty about people and things that she’s never exhibited before. To be honest, I tend to find it refreshing. I am thankful that she has mostly exhibited a sweet, childlike humor I’d never seen in her before.
Watching mom now often feels like peering into the little girl she must have been. She is playful and joyous in an almost exhibitionistic way. The woman who who raised me and my siblings was sweet and fun-loving, but she carefully guarded herself, her looks, her words, and her actions. For most of my childhood she wore a partial set of dentures. I can remember her never wanting anyone, even her children, seeing her without her partial in her mouth. The mom I spent five days with this summer could not only care less, but I expect she’d be happy to pull out her dentures and make a funny face to make me laugh. My mother has always been apropriately reserved and “mature” around a camera. Now if I pull out my phone to take a picture she starts hamming it up and making faces. A part of me asks, “Who is this woman who looks like my mother?” Then I realize that I’m probably seeing an entire side of my mother that has always been there. I just never saw it.
I spent my time with mom in quiet observation. Our days together had a certain cadence. We would rise and have breakfast together. We would ready ourselves and drive to the hospital where we sat with dad in his hospital room. Each day I would take mom out for lunch before returning to the hospital to spend the afternoon with dad. In the late afternoon we would return to their apartment at the retirement community, enjoy a bite together, and spend the evening watching television until mom was ready to retire.
I made a conscious effort not to intervene with mom in the time I spent with her. I’ve observed that her flashes of temper often come when she feels as though someone is telling her what to do or treating her like she’s incompetent. It’s much like a child who barks at a nagging parent and exclaims, “I can do it myself!” So, I never told her what to do or tried to control her in any way. I just let her do her thing and quietly paid close attention. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was only occasionally necessary to “suggest” that she might want to see if she’d taken her pills or double-check this-or-that. As long as I kept my voice tone pleasant and helpful, she always responded positively.
I discovered that she had a very specific routine each morning:
Turn on the coffee pot. This is always prepared before bed the night before, another part of her daily ritual.
Sit on the couch and turn on the television. Any morning news channel will do. It seemed to be randomly different each morning.
Drink one cup of coffee while watching television. She doesn’t really watch television or take anything in, but she likes to have it on. I think it allows her the illusion (for others) that she’s doing something while her mind struggles to make sense of her moment. Interestingly, when she watched baseball with me she would regularly comment on things that happened in the moment (e.g. “Boy, hit that ball a long way.”) which is something she didn’t really do with any other kind of program. One night I took her to Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. Surprisingly, she wanted to sit at the bar. She actually found all the television screens interesting. There was so much to look at and steal her attention.
Set the table for breakfast. This included placemats, spoons, and plates. The east and south sides of the table were where the settings went. This seemed important. If I was working on my laptop where the placemat was supposed to be set then I could tell this threw her off a wee bit, but didn’t rattle her.
Eat one yogurt with her second cup of coffee at the table. In the evening her meal was a Boost protein drink and another yogurt.
Wash her cup and spoon along with the coffee maker.
Go into the master bedroom/bathroom to get ready. Putting on make-up and “fixing herself” in front of the mirror is one of the things she gets lost in. One morning I finally had to “suggest” that we get going to the hospital in order to get her out of being lost in her endless loop of putting on and fixing her make-up.
I was pleased to observe that there were things that her routine helped her to remember and how much she still did without me prompting her. I watched her, at times, silently straining her mind to organize her world even if she quickly got lost in the process. If dad’s doctor started to give instructions she would get out a pen and note pad. She knew that she was supposed to do that. She might even pretend to pay attention and write “Dean’s Instructions” at the top of the page. Nothing else would be written as she would then get lost in another moment.
Much of my time spent with mom was me experimenting with, and even catering to, this playful, child-like spirit that has emerged in her as the Alzheimer’s has progressed.
Take chocolate malts for example. Mom’s appetite at this point is almost non-existent. A year-or-so ago her doctor said that she was, medically, at the point of starvation. Her weight was just under 90 lbs. Props to my dad and sister who have worked tirelessly to get her to eat. She’s gained weight and has been doing much better. Nevertheless, she is never hungry and will, like a child, refuse to eat almost anything you put in front of her. The one exception is chocolate malts.
Mom has developed an insatiable appetite for chocolate malts. When I asked her, “What sounds good to you?” it was the only answer she ever gave and she gave it every time. And, if I got her one she would actually eat the whole thing. So, I joyfully indulged her appetite. I mean, the woman’s almost starving and, in the near future, she’s going to forget the joy of tasting anything! Good nutrition, be damned! I decided that I would buy her chocolate malts as often as she’ll eat them. I soon learned that three chocolate malts a day was perfect.
Three times a day I would ask her “How about a chocolate malt?”
Every time I asked she’d look at me wide-eyed like a little little girl and responded, excitedly, “Oh, that sounds good!”
I started going to different places (DQ, Culvers, Bauders, Smokey Row, etc.) to see if she liked certain chocolate malts better than others. Smokey Row was clearly the winner, so that became our usual stop. It was during our thrice daily chocolate malt runs that I had another epiphany.
Mom’s ALZ has a certain repetition to it, but there’s also a routine to the repetition. Driving down I-235 always brought about the observation “I wouldn’t want to live in any of these houses along here.” Driving through the neighborhood around the hospital always brought out the comment, “I just love these big, old houses.” Pulling into a restaurant’s parking lot always brought out the comment, “Oh, I haven’t been to this place in a long time!” This statement was made the first time we pulled into the drive-through at Smokey Row even though I knew my mother had never been there before. And, it came out again four hours later when we returned for the chocolate malt she loved so well.
Two, make that three, observations sitting in the drive-through with mom at Smokey Row.
First, we often wax poetic in our culture about living in the moment:
“Forget the past.”
“Tomorrow is never promised.”
“Enjoy the moment.”
But, I find that we rarely do any of these things. We allow ourselves to be haunted by the past or refuse to deal with resentments, injuries, and relational baggage. We worry incessantly about tomorrow. We crank through our days with little or no introspection, observation, or enjoyment.
For my mother, the present moment is her only constant reality. The past is a fog. The future is cognitively unreachable. There is only this moment. Certain stimuli bring out the same reaction time and time again. I can’t will my mother to remember. I can’t correct her brainwaves to help her conceive of the future. I can only be her companion right now, in this very moment. My brain is the one that functions “normally.” When my mother’s “moment” repeats itself in intervals of five minutes or five hours I am the one who must compassionately choose to forget the last time it happened, let go of the annoyance I feel in the knowledge it will happen again (and again, and again, and again…), and simply be fully present with her in this moment.
There is also, I realized, compassion to be had for my father who is my mother’s constant companion on this journey. That was my second take-away from the moment.
I believe that my father’s Dutch sensibility long-ago convinced him that there is a black-and-white, right-and-wrong aspect to everything in life. Add to this a touch of perfectionism and he’s always been a bit OCD, and vocal, about the correct way to approach everything. My dad was a great accountant. The books always balanced perfectly. He was also a master craftsman with anything he built or made by hand.
Of course, living with a person who forgets almost everything means you’re living with a person who gets almost everything wrong. My father’s compulsion for everything to be right means that whatever is wrong must be corrected just like an incorrect number on the spreadsheet. Alas, correcting a person with ALZ is a fruitless, even counter-productive, exercise. Here I cross-reference the culturally popular definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You can correct my mother all you want, she’s going to make the same mistake when she repeats herself in five minutes. I’ve watched my dad struggle to adapt to these difficult new realities. He’s done remarkably well, considering.
Once again, I found child-like-ness to be a good vehicle to understand that I needed to surrender any compulsion I felt to correct my mother. Life for her, much like a child, is a never-ending game of pretend. Sometimes she doesn’t remember and I watch her make up an answer just like our daughters did when they were toddlers and you asked them a question that was just beyond their comprehension. Sometimes her brain is permanently confused about a fact or a memory, and nothing is going to change that.
Because she can’t remember the past, however, I began to notice that each moment can be a bit of an adventure, a new revelation, and an exploration. When I decided to play pretend with her and to even encourage it, I suddenly found it easier to give up any need I felt for anything she did or said to be right. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s a game, and I am simply playing along. And, I sometimes found it to actually be fun.
Which brings me to my third observation sitting in the Smokey Row drive-through. During our first visit that day I noticed a cemetery across the street. Mom was, as usual, staring out the passenger window trying to make sense of her moment.
“Look at that cemetery over there,” I said.
“Yeah,” she answered as she looked to where I pointed.
“They say people are just dying to get in there,” I dead-panned.
She laughed, and laughed, and laughed. “Oh, Tommy Jameses, you’re so funny!” she giggled.
When we returned a few hours later for her third chocolate malt of the day she experienced her routine “I haven’t been here for a long time” moment. It was then that I realized: If she forgot that she’d been there a few hours ago, then she also forgot my joke. So, like a stand-up comedian working a different audience at a different club on a different night, I used my cemetery joke again just as I had before. She thought it was hilarious again! She thought it was hilarious every time I used it (and, I used it a lot).
Yes, the repetition of my mother’s dementia can be really, really annoying, but it also affords me the opportunity of repeatedly giving her a laugh or a happy moment over and over again with minimal effort. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
As I began to embrace the fun of playing with my mom in her moments, I had other discoveries. I’d read that the Church of England has started to conduct services in which they’ve consciously returned to the hymns and liturgy of 60-80 years ago. They did this because church members with dementia remember and connect with the hymns and ritual in the compartments of long-term memory they could still access. This gave me an idea.
I know some of my mother’s favorite songs from her childhood. She used to tell me stories about playing the song Sh’ Boom by the Crew Cuts so many times that her father yelled at her. So, as we left the apartment to head to the hospital I pulled up Spotify and played Sh’ Boom. My mother came to life. She knew almost every word to the song and began dancing in her seat. I then queued up Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Doris Day. We sang together and danced in our seats together all the way to the hospital.
Then, we did it again the next day and the day after that. The moment was new to her every morning, and I had the joy of singing and dancing and sharing a special moment with my mother each time. I realized that these moments are all I have left with her in this life. Alzheimer’s will eventually steal them, too.
My father and my sister are my mother’s constant care-givers. I recognize that my time with mom is grossly minimal in comparison, and I honor their love and perseverance.
“Thank you for helping take care of me,” my mom, nevertheless, said repeatedly to me in the days I spent with her.
Each time she said it I repeated the same answer. “Are you kidding me? Mom, you gave me life. You and dad have given me so much over the years. Helping you out right now doesn’t even compare. I am so deep in your debt.”
Repeating that answer was somehow therapeutic for me, as was the realization that doing so brought to mind. I’d learned some important life lessons in those five days that I will always carry with me. I also enjoyed some precious moments of laughter and joy with my mother that I will always cherish. Even with Alzheimer’s, she was still giving.
This past weekend was Pella’s annual Tulip Time festival. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Wendy and I spent the weekend volunteering as did most everyone else we know. Our town was packed with thousands of tourists and visitors, and that always brings out all sorts of interesting people and groups. There were news crews from all over, a crew shooting a movie, a counterfeiter trying to pass fake twenties to various street vendors, and street preachers screaming hellfire and brimstone through their little powered speakers.
I was at a meeting last night with several of my fellow Jesus followers from here in town. I found it interesting that no mention was made of the news crews, the movie crew shooting in the crowd, or the man arrested for counterfeiting. It was the street preachers that inspired conversation.
As I listened to people share, I found that others experienced the same frustration I did as I passed by and heard the street preacher’s rhetoric. They were preaching condemnation and judgement. It was all fear and accusation. Someone from my group shared that they had attempted to engage the preacher and ask about his approach. “Everyone knows about Jesus’ love,” he was reported to have replied. “What they don’t know is the fear of judgement.”
Along my life journey I have found just the opposite to be true. While there are exceptions to every general rule, I’ve observed that most people judge and condemn themselves, or else they have acutely experienced the judgement and condemnation of others. Often, they are judged and condemned by individuals who are supposed to love them the most, such as a parent, a sibling, or a close relative.
I’ve also observed that most people don’t know really know and experience Jesus’ love in its gracious, unconditional form. I believe a large number of Jesus’ followers walk the way of religious, transactional merit. Good behavior is rewarded with blessing and bad behavior exacts a curse, and they’re just hoping the scales tip the right way in the end.
Last night’s conversation ended with a story from a friend who shared that they had heard personally of a suicidal adult who was quite literally at the point of deciding one day that instead of ending it all they would visit Tulip Time. That day a sweet, smiling young child in a dutch costume walked up and gave them a tulip. That simple act of kindness set this person on the path of life change (i.e. repentance) which led to the way of love, redemption, and restoration.
As I read this morning’s chapter it struck me that Paul did not say we should walk this life journey on the way of holiness, the way of purity, the way of religion, the way of judgment, the way of condemnation, or the way of fear. To be sure, things like holiness, purity, and obedience are good things asked of all Jesus’ followers. However, Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that it is the activating ingredient of love that makes any of those things worthwhile. Without the activating ingredient of love, those things become spiritually worthless.
I’m also reminded this morning of another thing Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, that it is “kindness that leads to repentance.” The hellfire and brimstone street preachers must have missed that part.
I’m glad to know that a little child in a Dutch costume got it right.