…yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord. Amos 4:11c
Along life’s journey I’ve noticed that we as humans think most about God when times are tough. When life is easy and things are humming along pretty well in our lives, we tend to shove spiritual matters to the back burner. There’s a certain spiritual sobriety that occurs when tragedy strikes and things suddenly get tough. It’s when we’re anxious and afraid that the spiritual becomes important to us.
In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Amos recounts a whole string of tragedies and difficulties that God’s people had experienced in recent years. He names them one by one. It’s a top ten list of fear and anxiety producing events, yet with each recounting Amos ends with the same refrain:
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 6
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 8
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 9
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 10
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 11
This morning I’m recalling a friend back in college whose friendship waxed and waned with the on-again-off-again relationship with his girlfriend. If they broke up and he was feeling lonely then he was my best friend in the world and wanted to hang out all the time. If he and his girlfriend got back together again I wouldn’t hear from him or see him until the next break-up. It only took a few cycles of this before I got really tired of the hot-cold treatment I received as a friend.
I wonder sometimes if that’s the way God feels with us. This morning I’m pondering the spiritual ebb and flow that often accompanies the ebb and flow of life circumstances. If I fall into the pattern of being spiritually connected when times are hard, but ignoring God when times are good, then I’m not really any different from my friend in college.
I want my relationship with God to be rock steady, no matter what I’m going through in life. If times are good then I want to be connected to share my gratitude and share the blessings. If times are bad then I want to be connected to share my fears and anxieties.
God doesn’t have to worry about me returning if I never leave.
The other night Wendy and I were sitting on the couch watching television and working.
“When they market a movie as ‘inspirational’ it makes me not want to see it,” Wendy mused. “If Hollywood would make movies in which things don’t turn out the way you want and call it ‘inspirational’ then I might want to see it.”
I can think of a movie or two that fit the description of what m’love is talking about, but there are precious few. I get where she’s coming from. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control.
In 1998 I was given a great gift when a friend offered to fly me and some other guys to Dublin for a long “guys” weekend. Something awoke in my soul that weekend. Something that had lain dormant sprung to life and my life has never been quite the same. I had long been told by my mother that this little Dutch boy had Scotch-Irish genes, but I didn’t really know how or from whom. It turns out to be quite a story that began with a sixteen year old girl named Malinda Jane Helmick, known as Lenna.
The year was 1881 and Lenna’s father had died four years earlier. Her widowed mother had worked desperately to keep the family farm going. Older siblings had married and moved on. There was just Lenna and her younger sister, Maggie, left at home. Times were hard. Lenna’s mother surprised the teen one day, and it was not a pleasant surprise. She told Lenna that she had hired her out to a family who lived miles away on a farm near Melrose, Iowa. Feeling like an unwanted burden to her mother, Lenna was forced to move what seemed in impossibly long distance to be a servant on the farm of John and Elizabeth McCoy.
The McCoy farm was run by the aging John and his bachelor son, David Thomas McCoy who, at the time, was 34. There were four other sons and a daughter who had all grown and moved on. Lenna’s life with the McCoys was hard. She was up early to cook the family breakfast. She cooked and cleaned throughout the day. She emptied, daily, the family’s commodes and chamber pots. She cleaned up after the evening meal and wasn’t finished with her work until late each evening. Lenna was given one day off every two weeks, and a few hours each Sunday morning to attend church.
On top of the long hours and hard work, Lenna’s life was made miserable by Mrs. McCoy. Elizabeth McCoy was an angry, cantankerous woman, partially invalid, and impossible to please. Lenna had the daily burden of trying to make Mrs. McCoy comfortable and to wait on her hand and foot amidst her regular chores. If Mrs. McCoy was hot Lenna was asked to open all the windows in the house. A short time later Mrs. McCoy would be cold and Lenna would have to close the windows and heat up a water bottle to warm the woman back up.
Lenna’s days off and occasional breaks from work afforded her little pleasure. She was stuck on the farm with no transportation and no place to go. She spent her free time walking in the woods near the McCoy farm. It was during these walks that she began to meet with and enjoy conversation with the McCoy’s bachelor son, David, who was almost 20 years her senior. Over time the man pledged his love to Lenna, promising to marry her and, together, take over the family farm. He simply had to get his mother’s blessing, he said. That blessing would never come. Elizabeth McCoy hated Lenna, looked down on her, and would never allow her son to marry a lowly servant.
Life is messy, and it happened that after one of Lenna and David’s dates in the woods near the farm that Lenna became pregnant. She thought that this would force David to stand up to his mother and claim her has his bride, but instead Elizabeth McCoy flatly forbade her son from marrying Lenna and dismissed the teen from her service before she began to show. David promised to take care of Lenna and the baby, but he would not marry her over his mother’s objections.
Lenna had few options and begged her married sister, Lou, to take her in. Lou and her husband lived in the town of Tracy, Iowa. They took Lenna in out of “Christian charity” but she would no longer be considered a sister. Lenna would, in her fallen state, simply be a household servant relegated to waiting on her sister’s family just as she had waited on the McCoys. Fearing that the community would discover the truth, Lou and her husband forbade Lenna from being seen in public. When guests came to their house they demanded Lenna stay out of sight. It was in that home that Lenna gave birth to a son, and named him David, after his father.
Lenna continued to correspond with David McCoy and he continued to make promises. He pledged to marry her one day and make everything right. The promises, however, remained hollow. McCoy moved from Iowa to Nebraska, then to Missouri, and then back to Iowa. Lenna soon owned up to the realization of just how empty McCoy’s promises had always been and would always be. She met a local farmer of German descent named Jacob Miller Yeater and the two were married. Yeater understood Lenna’s circumstances and agreed to raise Lenna’s son as his own. No legal papers were filed. Lenna simply began to call her son Oscar William Yeater, and the boy grew up completely ignorant of the real story of his birth.
It was many years later that Will, now an adult and newly married, discovered his parents marriage certificate as he was going through some papers. He did the math and saw that they were married two years after his birth. Despite nagging misgivings about his true identity, Will chose to deny the dates as a simple typographical error. Years later it was his father, Jacob Yeater, in a temperamental rage because Will’s young wife rebuffed his sexual advances, who revealed to Will the scandalous story of his illegitimate birth.
Will would eventually meet and confront David McCoy about being his father. McCoy did not deny it, but told Will that he would never confess to it in public and he would never accept Will as his son. McCoy’s brothers, however, knowing the true story, showed kindness to the young man. When David McCoy passed away as a confirmed bachelor, he left his estate to two of his siblings. Will sued for his rightful share of the estate, publicly revealing that he had been the illegitimate son of David Thomas McCoy. The scandalous story was front page news in the Chariton, Iowa newspapers, and Will’s family was humiliated. In the end, the paternity was established when the court forced an aging Lenna Yeater to travel to Chariton from Missouri and confess the truth of her early transgressions in open court. The court awarded Will one half of the McCoy estate, then promptly took it away to cover unpaid child support to his estranged wife.
William Oscar Yeater was my great-grandfather. He had a rough life, and I have merely scratched the surface of the full tragedy in this post. Will was haunted by a past that seemed to resist any kind of redemption or reconciliation. Will was a broken man, and he made many foolish choices. He was not fondly remembered by family members. Stories about him were rare and always spoken in hushed, hurried words. Will’s wife, Daisy, struggled to love him well and suffered deeply from his many failings. She married him, twice. All that Will put her through would help to transform her into the hallowed martyr and matriarch she became to her many descendants.
I did not know this story until I was well into adulthood with children of my own. I was, perhaps, near the same age as Will when he discovered the truth about himself. I was given a great gift to visit Dublin and it was there my dormant Irish genes woke within me. When I returned home I began to investigate my Irish roots and my exploration led me to meet Lenna Helmick and her son, Will Yeater, the bastard son of an Irishman named David Thomas McCoy. I am the heir of illegitimate Irish genes. Somehow, that makes them feel legitimately more Irish.
Lenna Helmick’s Cinderella story did not have a happy ending, neither would her son’s. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control. Few of us get an ending that Hollywood would market as “inspirational.” That does not, however, make them bad stories. It does not mean that we cannot find inspiration in the midst of their tragedy. Joy is not always a natural by-product of circumstance. Sometimes joy emerges only from careful and deliberate consideration. That was Wendy’s point the other night on the couch. She was right, as she so often is. Wendy knows the truth of it.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the heir of illegitimate Irish genes.
I have a pipe dream of someday starting an Irish folk band. We will be “The Bastard Sons of McCoy.”
(Note for regular readers: I’ve been taking a little time off for spring break this week. Regular posts will resume next week)
…after having heard that Lazarus was ill, [Jesus] stayed two days longer in the place where he was. John 11:6 (NRSV)
One of the things that has always fascinated me about Jesus’ story, is the way in which Jesus is aware of the bigger picture of all that is happening in and around Him. There is a master plan that is being carried out. The conflict between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be has been growing for some time, but it is all part of the Great Story narrative that God has been authoring since Genesis. Jesus continually speaks and acts in a way to move the narrative toward its prescribed conclusion.
Life and death, death and resurrection are the grand themes of the Great Story. Jesus knows that events are falling into place. Characters are in their places and the cues are being called. Jesus will soon play His part in the grand climax of the story. He will die and then rise again to life in three days. For those who had ears to hear it, Jesus has been saying it all along…
“I will destroy this temple and raise it in three days.”
“Just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so for three days the Son of Man will lie in the earth.”
In today’s chapter, Jesus hears of Lazarus’ illness and chooses to stay right where He is. He is waiting for Lazarus to die. This is part of the story, though for Mary and Martha their brothers sudden illness and Jesus’ subsequent refusal to act must be both unexpected and frustrating. Jesus must allow Mary and Martha to suffer the grief and sorrow of their brother’s death, knowing the eucatastrophe that will ultimately allow them to experience the power of Life. The author of creation is a master artist and writer, and He is calling the shots. One dramatic miracle, the resurrection of Lazarus, will accomplish multiple layers of purpose:
Lazarus’ resurrection will foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus’ miracle will up the ante. He has revealed power of sickness and nature, but now He raises the stakes and will publicly reveal His power over death itself.
In upping the ante, He will force the hand of His enemies. They will feel compelled to go all in.
Over this past week, Wendy and I have experienced a small handful of unexpected life events that have us scratching our heads. We can’t see clearly where circumstance is leading for us or our loved ones, nor do we have focus regarding how these small events fit in the bigger narrative of our stories. This morning I am reminded, and encouraged, that the author of creation is a master story-teller, and I can trust that He is writing our own stories to fit perfectly into the Great Story narrative.
If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt…. Deuteronomy 7:17-18 (NRSV)
There is a technical term used in movie making called “shift focus.” It’s when the camera is focused on one object while another object in the shot is blurry, then then camera shifts the focus so that the other object is in focus and the first object blurs out. Filmmakers use this technique to transition the audience’s attention and to move the story along.
When things in life go wrong and times are tough, it’s easy to get myopically focused on our present circumstances. Our brains zero in on what’s happening in the moment and, as a result, our hearts can drive all sorts of negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, doubt and depression. These emotions can be spiritually crippling and paralyzing.
In today’s chapter, Moses anticipates that his people may find themselves in such circumstances. He instructs them to do a mental and spiritual shift focus as an antidote to their fears: remember.
Remember when you were slaves in Egypt and God delivered you.
Remember when the plagues hit and you remained safe.
Remember when the Egyptian army was chasing you and God miraculously saved you and gave you victory.
He could have gone on:
Remember when you thirsty and God provided water from a rock.
Remember when you were hungry and God sent bread from heaven.
Remember when you wandered and God sent both cloud and fire to lead you.
The shift focus from our present circumstances to past situations reminds us that God has been faithful in the past (So why shouldn’t I believe He will be faithful in my current situation?), that we survived in the past (So why shouldn’t I believe I’ll get through this), and that things eventually worked out (So why shouldn’t I trust that my current situation will work out, too?). The result is that our faith begins to counter our fear and our paralysis gives way to us moving forward.
Today, I’m reminded of the many times God has provided and protected me through the years. Why then, should I fear present troubles?
David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, timbrels, cymbals and trumpets. 1 Chronicles 13:8 (NIV)
For the better part of this year, we’ve been journeying through the story of David and before that the psalms which are ancient song lyrics attributed largely to David. In a bit of synchronicity, the group of believers with whom Wendy and I worship on Sunday mornings are starting a series of messages on the life of David next week. It flows out of a five week series in which we’ve been looking at the “chain reaction of praise,” and I’ve been asked to give the lead off message of the series.
The connection between the two series is the fact that, no matter the circumstances, David was a man of praise and faith. David the hero, David the warrior, David the outlaw, David the sinner, David the King, David the victim — no matter which part of David’s life you study you find him seeking God, praising God, crying to God, and consulting God. You can almost always find a psalm that corresponds to a particular episode in David’s life. Throughout his long journey David was always translating his daily life experiences into songs, poems, and prayers of faith and praise.
I thought about that as I read this morning of David the King who was not embarrassed nor ashamed to worship and dance “with all his might” before God and the ark of the covenant. He was not concerned with what it might look like to others. He was not worried about looking cool, kingly, and above it all. He was not one to order others to do his praising for him. For David, his relationship with God was not just “a part of the job.” David’s relationship with God was personal from the time he was a boy until he was uttering his last words on his death bed.
Today, I’m thinking about my own life and David’s example. I don’t want my faith and praise to be a compartment of my life which I take out on Sunday morning and sundry, appropriate occasions. I don’t want my faith to fit neatly into others sense of propriety. I want my praise to be with “all my might” and my relationship to be intensely personal each and every day of my life.
When I was a young man, I couldn’t wait to grow up. There is a natural progression of time and life, but there was something in me that wanted desperately to push everything forward. My restless, extroverted nature was always pushing the clock. I wanted to got. I wanted to move. I wanted to push things forward. Perhaps this was the result of being the youngest or perhaps there was a spiritual restlessness in me. In any event, I was always pushing the timeline to get to adulthood as quickly as possible. I graduated from high school early. I went to college early. I got married early, and I had chidren early.
Looking back on my life journey (from just over the hill), I can see the natural consequences and difficult life lessons that resulted in me trying to constantly push time and circumstances to acheive my own personal will and desires. As I’ve progressed in my journey I’ve come to a deep appreciation of God’s divine timing. I have increasingly learned the contentment required to wait for to be at peace in the moment and to wait for God to move.
In the story of David and Saul we see another stark contrast between the two men in this regard. David was anointed king as a child, but has patiently refused to push God’s hand by taking Saul’s life and stepping up the timeline to his ascension as monarch. I’m sure it couldn’t have been easy, especially since it resulted in years of being an outlaw and living in exile. Saul, however, was always pushing his own will. It was what got him into hot water in the first place and in today’s chapter we see that he has still not learned the lesson. His decision to consult a medium and conjure up Samuel’s spirit is just another illustration of Saul’s refusal to be content with God’s will and timing.
Today, I’m taking stock of the circumstances of my life in which I feel impatience. There are a number of them. Naming them one by one, I am choosing to let go of my will and timing. Instead, I am handing them over once more to God and entrusting them to His perfect will and divine schedule.
As surely as the Lord lives,” [David] said, “the Lord himself will strike [Saul], or his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed. 1 Samuel 26:10-11a (NIV)
Last week I shared a sliver of the story of how I began working for the company of which I am now a partner owner. It happened in the summer of 1994. I had been working for a parachurch ministry for a year, and had been raising financial support from friends and family to do so. The agreement I had with my employer had been that I would raise financial support for one year. It had been a good year in many regards and I enjoyed what I was doing, but as the end of that year drew closer my employer remained silent regarding the plan for what was going to happen next.
Months before the end of our one year agreement I began to ask my employer for a plan. I even offered to continue raising support if we could sketch out an agreement to reduce the amount I had to raise over a period of time. The answer I received multiple times was “I’ll put it on the board agenda for next month.” After the board meeting I would hear “We didn’t get to it. We’ll talk about it next month.” Finally, my year ended and I still had no answer from my employer. I felt a responsibility to my financial supporters who had faithfully sent me money that year to support me and the ministry I worked for. Many supporters had asked me about it, but I had nothing to tell them because my employer refused to talk to me about a compensation plan.
Suddenly, I felt a stirring inside me. While I wasn’t unhappy with my job and hadn’t really considered another job change, I realized that I could not trust my employer. There was a principle involved here that I needed to heed as it wasn’t just about my employers integrity, but also about my own. I had asked my supporters for a year commitment and the year was over. I felt dishonest asking them to continue their support. The problem was, I had a family with two small children and no earthly idea what I was going to do. I had no job prospects. I didn’t even have a resume put together.
Nevertheless, I knew in my heart that I had to make a move. One morning just after the one year anniversary passed, I began calling my financial supporters and telling them not to bother sending another check. On the list of supporters was my old employer and mentor.
“What are you going to do?” he asked me on the phone.
“I don’t know,” I answered, then explained my reasoning. I shared that I felt I couldn’t in good conscience ask my supporters to extend their commitment when my current employer wouldn’t even talk to me about extending his. I admitted that I had no plan and no job prospects.
“Are you really going to leave? Have you told your employer?” my friend and mentor asked.
“I haven’t said anything yet, but I really think I’m going to leave,” I answered.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Make a firm decision by noon and call me back,” he said abruptly. When I called him back an hour later to let him know I had decided to leave he said, “Meet me at 2:00 at Village Inn.”
We met that afternoon and he offered me a job. Within a few hours of deciding to leave, I had another job. Of course, my old mentor made a step of faith in asking me to join his consulting firm, but he also felt the divine timing of events. He did not have enough work to pay me much and had to trust that there would be new projects coming that he couldn’t see. The new opportunity was not a slam dunk or a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination. I was leaving a tenuous position to an even more tenuous position, but it was the right timing and I knew it in my soul. As I drove home that day, and I pulled into the driveway I heard Holy Spirit whisper clearly in my soul:
“Take this job and stick with it. You will be blessed.”
I took the job, stuck with it, and have been immensely blessed. That was 20 years ago next summer.
Along life’s road I have found a mysterious tension between taking personal initiative and waiting on divine timing. I even struggle to define it well, yet I can look back and see how certain circumstances and life decisions happened at what I know to be a divinely appointed moment in time. Had I attempted to make something happen by force of personal will it would not have worked out the way it was supposed to happen. Yet, it was important for me to be sensitive to God’s hand moving in my circumstances and listening for Holy Spirit’s whisper in my soul.
Today we read about the second of three opportunities that David had to take the life of the man who was hunting him: King Saul. His men even encouraged David to take personal initiative when the opportunity to do so presented itself. David, however, was sensitive to the tension between personal initiative and divine timing. David understood that Saul, despite his flaws, had been God’s choice to be King and God alone should end Saul’s reign.
Today, I’m grateful for God’s perfect timing which I see in many different experiences along life’s road. I want to continue holding that mysterious tension between personal initiative and divine timing, as elusive and ill defined as it seems.