Wendy and I were blessed to have the family together for a summer celebration at the lake. Taylor is our firecracker, born on the 4th of July. Taylor, Clayton, and Milo joined us on a trip to the lake on July 2nd. Madison and Garrett, along with Bertha, drove from South Carolina to join us on the Fourth. We had such an enjoyable time together.
We enjoyed time at the beach at Captain Ron’s. We swam off the dock and got lots of sun. We took the boat to Bear Bottom. Milo had his first experience driving the boat with Papa and going down the Water Slide. We had enjoyable family meals. We watched “Men in Kilts.” The SC crew headed back south after lunch at the Branding Iron. A good time was had by all.
Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. Mark 3:6 (NIV)
As a student of history, I’ve observed that much of history is about those in power, how they came to power, how their power was threatened or taken away. It always makes for a good story, as Shakespeare well knew. The Bard mined a lot of historical leaders and events to write plays that are still being ceaselessly produced today.
One of the themes that runs through both history and our classic literature is that of holding on to power. I find it to be a very human thing. Once I have power, I don’t want to let go of it. This is not just true of politicians who rig the system to ensure they remain in control, or business leaders who cling to their corner office, but it’s also true of parenting. For almost two decades I am essentially ruler and lord with total authority over this child. Then I’m suddenly supposed to just “let go” of my power and authority and let her run her own life when she might make some crazy life decision? Yikes!
As I read today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but see the continued development of conflict that Mark is revealing in the text. Those representatives of the powerful religious institution who were indignant with Jesus’ teaching in yesterday’s chapter, are finding Jesus to be a growing threat to their power in today’s chapter.
Jesus’ popularity is rising off of the charts. His name is trending throughout the region, even in Jerusalem where the earthly powers of politics, commerce, and religion reign. Crowds are traveling to Galilee to see this rising star. And the people who are flocking to Him are the crowds, the masses, commoners, the sick, the poor, the simpletons in fly-over country, the deplorables.
The stakes have grown. The power brokers and their minions are no longer just watching, they are plotting:
“Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus…” (vs. 2)
Once again, Jesus thwarts their monopolistic, religious control by healing someone on the Sabbath. The crowds are cheering. This Nazarene upstart could turn the crowds against them. Mobs, protests, and violence in the streets could be the result, and that’s a threat to our power. Something must be done, and Mark tells us that something interesting happens:
“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (vs. 6)
The Pharisees were religious power brokers who publicly condemned the Roman Empire who was in control of the region. The Herodians (followers of local King Herod) were local political power brokers who did business with Rome in order to get lucrative Roman contracts and Roman authority to wield local political control. These two groups publicly hated one another, and in the media they had nothing good to say about one another. However, history reveals time and time again that in the playbook of the Kingdoms of this World “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Welcome to the smoke-filled back room. Have a seat. We’re just getting started. What are we to do with this “Jesus problem?”
Jesus, meanwhile, has other problems. The crowds are pressing in to the point of almost being out of control. The line of people wanting to be healed is endless. They’re coming from all over. Where are all these people going to stay? What are they going to eat? The locals are complaining about their quiet little towns being overrun with foreigners. The markets are sold out of everything!
And then Jesus’ own mother and brothers show up. They’re scared. Jesus is making powerful enemies. They are feeling the pressure themselves. Is it possible that an elder from the local synagogue was urged by higher-ups to pay Mary a friendly visit? I can imagine it…
“Mary, this isn’t good. Your boy has a good heart. I know he means well, but he’s going to get himself in big trouble with the Sanhedrin, with Herodians, and you don’t want the Romans to get involved. This could look really bad for your family. You’re a widow. Jesus is your oldest boy. He’s responsible to take care of you and instead he’s running around creating trouble for you and your family. We think it best that you talk to him. Be a good mother. Talk some sense into your boy.”
When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (vs. 21)
Next comes the spin campaign, and those in power know how to spin a narrative. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to come from a seemingly “reliable” and authoritative source. It has be sensational, it has to be easily repeatable, and it has to create fear and doubt in the minds of the public.
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (vs. 22)
In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking that the more things change, the more they stay the same in the Kingdoms of this World and their playbook.
And Jesus’ response to all this? He sticks to His core message: “The Kingdom of God is here, and it’s not like the Kingdoms of this world”. He continues to heal, He feeds, He tells stories, and He escapes the crowds to be alone for periods of time. He refuses to bow to pressure from the envoys of worldly power. He even refuses to bow to pressure from his own mother.
Poor Mary. It’s hard to let go of authority of your adult child when He can make crazy life decisions that affect the whole family. I think it’s lovely that as Jesus hung on the cross one of the last things He did was to see to it that His friend John would care for His earthly mother.
The further I get on my own life journey, I find myself seeing the Kingdoms of this World with greater clarity on all levels. As that happens, I hear the Spirit calling me to understand that being an Ambassador of the Kingdom of God on earth means living in the World, but following a different playbook.
Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. Psalm 146:3 (NIV)
Many years ago, our little town had a local Shakespeare Company that would produce a play each summer in the local park. Wendy and I were cast in Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy about a man and woman who despise one another and how this couple falls in love. Wendy was cast as the female lead, Beatrice, who in the beginning of the play waxes cynical about romance. When asked if she will every marry, she replies, “Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth.”
That line came to mind this morning as I meditated on today’s chapter, Psalm 146, in which the lyrics warn those listening to the song to avoid putting trust in human beings.
Along my life journey, I have observed that human systems almost always end up serving those who control them, unless those who control them have the rare quality of being both humble enough to eschew personal gain in order to serve everyone in the system and having the authority to ensure it stays that way.
Thus Beatrice waxes cynical to find a man who will serve her, honor her, and treat her as an equal partner rather than as a possession and chattel as human systems treated wives through most of human history.
Thus families become dysfunctional and unhealthy systems that end up hurting the ones they are supposed to protect and prepare for perpetuating healthy marriages and families for the next generation.
Thus organizations intended to serve the good of many become rackets that line the pride and pockets of the few in power at the top of the org chart.
Thus businesses established with eloquent vision and mission statements about valuing employees and exceptional service to customers end up cutting jobs and providing the least acceptable levels of service in order to eek out a few more pennies of dividend for shareholders.
Thus governments (of every type and “ism”) end up with those at the top offices rigging the system for themselves and their cronies while paying lip service to helping those living hand-to-mouth on a day-by-day basis.
I know this sounds cynical, yet I feel for where Beatrice is coming from. And, I have to confess that as a follower of Jesus I find myself in the quiet this morning hearing the words of Jesus and the teachings that call me to act against the grain of the systems of this world:
“Whoever wants to be ‘great’ and lead others but become the servant of all.”
“Husbands, love your wives sacrificially, even as Jesus showed us what love is by sacrificing Himself to save us.”
“Fathers, don’t exasperate your children.”
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone.”
“Do you have individuals who work for you? Then treat them the way you want to be treated, the way that Jesus has treated you, and the way Jesus has called you to do. From a sincere heart, respect them, treat them honorably, and compensate them for the good they do.”
In find it fascinating that Jesus arguably never directly addressed those who were in control of systems of human power. The only one He did address was the Hebrew religious system who were supposed to recognize Him, but killed Him to protect their power, privilege, and profits. When given the opportunity to address the political powers of His day, King Herod and the Roman Empire, he largely kept His mouth shut.
In the quiet this morning, my mind wanders back to Beatrice and her mail foil, Benedict. Through the course of the play they have a change of heart, and you can guess where that leads. All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and therein I see a reflection of what Jesus was about. Jesus was not about creating or changing humans systems of power in order to, top-down, force God’s will over individuals. That’s nothing more than using the world’s playbook against itself, and I only have to look at the headlines to see how that’s working out. Jesus’ taught that the Kingdom of God paradigm is to change the hearts of individuals in order to motivate love and service to others, that in turn creates change within human systems of power from the bottom-up. It’s what He demonstrated on the cross, when the sacrifice of One served to effect change in the many, who effected change in many more.
I hear Wendy in the kitchen making my blueberry spinach smoothie, and it’s time to wrap-up my time of quiet this morning. As I do, I find myself taking a personal inventory of life and spirit. As a husband, as a father, as a grandfather, as an employer, and as a organizational leader in my community, am I reflecting the character of humility, servant-heartedness, honor, respect, and generosity to which Jesus has called me? Immediately, things come to mind to which I need to add to my task list. I better get started.
Have a great day, my friend.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Wendy and I are almost through the first season of Poldark, originally a 2015 Masterpiece Theater production. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable. The series is set in the late 18th century and tells the story of a headstrong and struggling English nobleman who returns from the American Revolution to find his father dead, his family estate in shambles, the love of his life engaged to his cousin, and the family business on the edge of bankruptcy.
The themes of the show include the clash between nobility and peasant, the long-held tradition of the entitlement of the first-born son, and the legacy of both family systems and family names.
Over the past year of Covid-19 with all its tension over masks, mandates, and lockdowns, one of the conversations I found fascinating was the individualistic spirit in Americans. From our break from mother England to today, we don’t like being told what to do. Along my life journey, I’ve come to believe that we don’t have a full realization of, nor appreciation for, just how deep the “rugged individualism” that fueled our country runs in our veins. In the entire history of human civilization, human rights and the freedom of self-determination are relatively new concepts. For thousands of years, an individual’s lot-in-life was pretty much fully established the moment they were born. It was completely dependent on your family, your gender, and your birth order.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 132, is a case-in-point. This ancient Hebrew song was used at the coronation of monarchs ascending to the throne of King David. Some scholars believe it was initially written to honor King David at the dedication ceremony of the Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. David’s family line was firmly established as the royal line of Judah, the prophets also pointed to the coming Messiah being from the same lineage, and the lyrics of today’s chapter would have been a clear reminder to the people not to forget it.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on the concept of determination. Growing up, I and my peers were told that we could be anything we wanted to be in life if we were willing to work hard, study hard, and pursue our dreams. Once again, I’m reminded that this very notion would have been ludicrous for the vast majority of human beings who ever lived. And yet, while I would argue that there are, in general, greater opportunities for self-determination than in any other time in human history, there are still those determining influences of life that I don’t control.
Among the teachings of Jesus that fueled the Jesus Movement of the first century was that everyone was welcome at the dining table where believers sat, listened, prayed, feasted, and “communed.” Men, women, slaves, slave owners, rich, poor, societies’ big shots, and social lepers. As Paul put it in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Galatia:
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the things in this life that I can control, and the things that I can’t. When Jesus said to those seated around Him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” I believe that He was telling his followers that I don’t have to be enslaved to systems that formed me. When Paul said that for the believer “old things pass away” I believe that among the things that pass away are beliefs, patterns of thought, and behaviors that were instilled in me by the systems into which I was born and in which I was raised. I observe that the spiritual transformation I’ve experienced on my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus has not only changed me, but it has led me to leverage the fruit of God’s Spirit to help transform the human systems I’m a part of for the better.
This month marks our sixth anniversary here at “Vander Well Manor,” the house Wendy and I built here in the most awesome little town in America. Wendy, working alongside our contractor, did a lot of the designing of our house and she did an amazing job.
One of the rooms that got special attention in the design of our home was the dining room. In fact, the original designs had the dining room that you usually see in homes today. It was a tight little space large enough to comfortably fit a standard table for six. We quickly decided that this just wouldn’t do. We ended up creating an entire addition to the house just for our dining room in which we placed a table that comfortably seats eight (but we’ve squeezed 10-12 people around it).
One of our good friends once commented, “You’re the only people I know who actually use your dining room on a regular basis.” Meals are an important piece of life to Wendy and me. It’s where we gather with family and friends. It’s where conversation flows like wine and where community is formed. Even when our girls were teenagers and lives were hectic, we attempted to have at least one evening meal per week in which we were sitting together at the table and engaged one another. Now, the nest is empty, but even Wendy and I frequent the dining room, just the two of us.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 128, is akin to yesterday’s. It’s hard not to understand why the editors who compiled this collection of ancient Hebrew song lyrics put the two side-by-side in the compilation. They are both celebrations of hearth, home, and family.
The words “your children will be like olive shoots around your table” leaped off the page when I read it. Olive shoots were a common metaphor to the ancient Hebrews. An olive shoot is young, green, full of life and possibility. Olive trees have amazingly long and productive lives. One olive tree in Portugal is estimated to be 3,350 years old. That means it was already over 1,000 years old when the writer of Psalm 128 penned the lyrics of today’s chapter. When I visited the olive “garden” outside of Jerusalem where tradition says Jesus went to pray the night of His arrest, I learned that there were trees in that garden today that were alive and present that fateful night.
Wendy and I were so blessed this past Christmas to have the kids and Milo home. As always, meals were an important part of the family agenda from cocktails through dessert. Christmas Day began with a brunch feast and continued in the afternoon with the most amazing charcuterie spread that Wendy and the girls worked together to create. I cherish the experience, and the Life present and celebrated around the table. As the Hebrews say as a toast, “L’chaim!” (“to life!”).
In the quiet this morning, I remember a former colleague who told me that their family ate the entire traditional Thanksgiving feast in ten minutes. She then swore that she wasn’t exaggerating. The family gathered, ate, and were done at the table in ten minutes. I’m not criticizing. That might just be how they roll, and that’s cool for them. As for me, and my house, we’re going to be at the table a little longer than that, enjoying good food, good drink, good conversations, and the good company of one another which happens far too seldom.
When I was a young man, I embarked on a fact-finding mission to better understand my families of origin. What I discovered was that underneath the veneer of stories that I’d been told (the good, polite, and acceptable ones) there was a whole lot of mess.
The Great Story is full of wisdom that reads like simple binary formulas. A+B=C.
Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.
The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short.
I like simple formulas, and I’ve observed that most other human beings do too. That’s why name-it-and-claim-it televangelists get people to send them millions (“Give and you will receive!“). It’s how we get suckered into all sorts of things (“Just five minutes a day with the Ab Monster and you’ll have a six-pack like this dude!“). I’ve also observed and experienced that it’s how many institutional churches approach life. “Do this and you’ll experience God’s blessings; Don’t do that or you’ll suffer God’s punishment.” It’s no wonder the world is rejecting the church and screaming “It doesn’t work!”
Along my spiritual journey, I’ve come to the realization that the spiritual path, the path of wisdom, and following Jesus is not a simple math equation as it may appear on the surface and/or how it’s often presented. It’s more like actuarial science based on general rules, complex principles, earthly probabilities, percentages, and exceptions. Simple formulas are fubar’d when imperfect human beings enter the equation with our emotions, pride, passions, appetites, desires, fears, and free will.
Train up a child in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it.
It seems so simple that I want to name it and claim it. It appears so simple that when I witness someone’s child making poor choices it must be that his parents missed an ingredient in the good Christian, Focus-on-the-Family formula, or her behavior must reveal the proof I need that mom and dad are blowing it in the parental department. The simple train-up-a-child formula sounded so easy when my daughters were babes who were completely dependent on my absolute provision and authority. Then an adult child strikes out on her own path, making her own choices, and finding her own way. It looks nothing like the paternal expectations I anticipated as part of that simple formula when my head and heart were intoxicated with absolute authority over her life. It’s easy for me to feel cheated by what appeared to be simple math.
In my own life journey and experiences with messy family, Lady Wisdom has taught me a few things:
The path Jesus prescribed for His followers was never about moral perfection, an easy-life, and earthly abundance; It’s about selflessness, sacrifice, and love-in-action.
The only things I really control are my own thoughts, words, actions, and choices. The notion I control anything else is an illusion.
My family members are on their own spiritual journeys, just like me. If I want them to have grace and understanding with my shit, I have to have grace with theirs. If I want them to have patience and understanding as I navigate this stretch of life in my 50s, which I’ve never experienced before, then I have to let them navigate their 20s and 30s, which they’ve never experienced, with that same patience and understanding.
If I believe God is faithful and can be trusted, and I believe He is, then I can entrust others to God while I choose to let go of my personal expectations of them.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 127, is a song that the liner notes ascribe to Solomon, the son of King David. It is another one of the songs that ancient Hebrew pilgrims sang on their trek to Jerusalem. It is both a celebration of family and a reminder that all of life’s blessings and securities are gifts from God, not the In the quiet this morning, I’m making a little mental inventory of the family stories embedded in the Great Story:
Lot was incestuous with his daughters.
Abraham slept with his concubine at his wife’s insistence and the consequences are still being felt today.
Jacob (and his mother) deceived his father and stole his brother’s birthright.
Joseph was beaten and sold into slavery by his own brothers.
David committed adultery and refused to deal with the incestuous rape his own son committed against his half-sister.
David’s son, Solomon, was the offspring of his scandalous, adulterous, conspiratorial marriage to Bathsheba and murder of her husband.
And its Solomon who the wrote the lyrics of today’s Psalm. For me, reading the lyrics of today’s chapter knowing the unvarnished truth of Solomon’s family story strips away the notion of simple spiritual formulas with it comes to family.
Family is messy. It just is.
There are many spiritual principles that influence the outcomes I generally experience on this life journey, both positively and negatively. But it’s not always a simple equation. I can build a home and family, but it still won’t cure the mess. Solomon knew that as well as anyone. He reminds me this morning that life’s blessings and securities are gifts, not rewards.
Wendy and I read a fascinating interview in the last week of an expert in race and culture. In the loud cacophony of voices lecturing about race and culture with stark in-group and out-group labels and distinctions, this academic stands as a proverbial “voice in the wilderness.” He has been studying trends for 50 years and pointed out facts that no one else is talking about or acknowledging.
The number of bi-racial and bi-cultural couples getting married and having children has increased significantly in the last 50 years and continues to rise. Both Wendy’s and my family are classic examples. Between our siblings, nieces, nephews, their spouses and children, we have the following races and cultures represented in just two generations: Dutch-American, Anglo-American, African-American, Korean-American, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican.
In other words, the simple, binary labels on the census list are increasingly obsolete. For this, I am increasingly joyful.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 117, is most known for being the answer to trivial pursuit questions. As just two verses long, it is the shortest psalm and the shortest chapter in the Bible. (If anyone is starting this chapter-a-day journey with me today, you’re getting off to an easy start. Just a warning, the longest psalm is just two chapters away, so you might want to get a head-start! 🙂
In its brief content, however, this ancient Hebrew song of praise has a significant purpose in the Great Story. This short song, traditionally sung each year as part of the Hebrew Passover, calls all nations and all peoples to worship and praise. This fits in context with the calling of Abraham, father of the Hebrew people when God promises Abraham that through his descendants all nations and peoples will be blessed.
If we fast forward to the Jesus story, we find Jesus breaking down the racial and cultural walls that His tribe had erected to keep those they considered spiritual and racial riff-raff out. Jesus followers went even further to take the message of Jesus to the Greek, African, and Roman worlds and beyond. This created upheaval and conflict among Jesus followers of strictly Hebrew descent. It was Paul (who called himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews”) who used today’s “trivial” psalm when writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome to argue that from the very beginning the Great Story has been about all nations, all races, all cultures, and all peoples.
When John was given a glimpse of heaven’s throne room, this is what he saw and heard:
And when [the Lamb who had been slain] had taken [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:8-10 (NIV) emphasis added
In the quiet this morning, I am reminded of texting our daughters of Suzanna’s engagement to Chino in Mexico a couple of years ago. The response to the news was, “Yay for more beautiful brown babies in the family!” (by the way, the first of those arrives this summer and we can’t wait to meet our newest nephew).
Along my life journey, I have observed that we humans like to reduce very complex questions into simple binary boxes and choices. As a follower of Jesus, I found that the journey seemingly began that way. I could choose to follow, or not (though my theologian friends will be happy to turn that into a very complex question for you). After that, things get exponentially personal and complex. Just yesterday, I gave a message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and I made the same argument about the season of Lent. Religious institutions want to make things top-down prescriptive when Jesus was always about things being intimately and spiritually bottom-up personal.
I find myself this morning meditating on the contrast between the voices of culture and the experiences of family. There are such complex questions we face today of race, gender, and culture. I don’t want to diminish or dismiss them. At the same time, I find myself encouraged by a profound truth simply stated in today’s chapter.
Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples.
Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced… Psalm 105:5 (NIV)
I have a couple of short stories in my possession that were written by my great-aunt. They tell the stories of her father and her paternal grandmother, which would make them my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandmother. They are pretty amazing stories that would be lost to history were it not for them having been researched, written, and handed down.
In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Wendy and I are asking questions about the distraction of having more information at our fingertips at any moment of our day than was available in all the libraries in all the world when we were children.
As I read through the ancient Hebrew song lyrics, that we know as the Psalms, one thing it’s easy to lose sight of was the fact that the very act of having a written record of the lyrics was an arduous task. Very few people could read or write, and very few people had the means with which to have the materials necessary to write things down and archive them. In that world, information was shared in stories around the fire at night which had been passed down through story-telling for generations. In that culture, songs became an important medium for sharing important stories of family and history.
The historic ballad is a well-established genre within music. When I was a kid, Gordon Lightfoot’s moody ballad The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald became an oddly popular song. I haven’t heard that song for years, but I remember the tune, a bunch of the lyrics, and the story it tells of a doomed freighter sinking in Lake Superior. I’ll link to it for those who’ve never heard it. Warning: It’s an earworm.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 105, is the same genre of song. It was written as a retelling of the story of the Hebrew people from a nomadic tribe, to slaves in Egypt, and their miraculous exodus out of slavery to become a nation. Songs can be sung and pondered while one works, by families and communities in social gatherings, by parents and children at bedtimes. It was a critical way of telling and re-telling the important stories of a person, a family, events, tribes and nations. To know and remember the song is to have the story always on the tip of your tongue waiting to be shared and passed along to others.
If you’ve been following along on this chapter-a-day journey, you know that Wendy and I have spent much of the past month in quarantine with our children and grandson. As most families do, we regularly find ourselves wandering down memory lane, sharing stories, and reliving events of our familial journey together. I’ve watched Milo and thought about the fact that he’ll be one (among others, I hope!) who will one day be sharing the stories of our tribe.
As I’ve been meditating on how technology is forming us, I’ve thought about the difference between information and knowledge, between data and understanding. In a world in which all the information of our lives can be digitally stored and accessed, I wonder if we’re at risk for losing out on the intimacy of generational storytelling, the experience of a tribe singing their shared story in song, and the understanding that comes from the weaving of both the data and relationship with the deliverer.
My mind wanders back to those short stories written by my great-aunt. I hear her voice as I read those words. While I never met my great-grandfather or my great-great-grandmother, I knew Aunt Nita. She was a living, breathing, loving conduit connecting me to the stories of my tribe, and that layers the stories with added emotion and understanding. I hope that those stories get passed along, not just through bytes of information consumed conveniently on a screen at will, but through love and relationship.
I guess if that’s my desire, then it’s also my responsibility.
Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord… Psalm 102:18 (NIV)
One of the silver linings of our family’s COVID plague has been the extended amount of time we’ve had with our grandson. This includes both moments of three-year-old hilarity and DEFCON FIVE toddler tantrums.
One of the more endearing developments has been Milo’s insistence on praying for our meal every night. Some nights he insists that we hold hands and pray two or three random times during the meal as he prays:
“God is grape. God is good. And we thank Him for the food.”
The sweetness melts this grandparent’s heart, of course. But for me it’s also witnessing the innocent openness and sensitivity of Spirit in the wee one.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 102, is another ancient Hebrew song lyric that was written during a time of intense illness. In fact, the songwriter was not sure that he was going to make it. The song begins with the writer calling out to God to hear and quickly respond, then he pours out the angst-filled description of his medical and emotional symptoms.
As the song proceeds, the tone of the lyric makes an abrupt switch. The writer stops focusing on his momentary circumstance and, instead, focuses on God’s eternal nature and the perpetuity of life. It’s as though the writer is saying “Even if this is it for me, and my number is up, life will go on. That which is eternal perseveres. The universe continues to expand. The next generation will emerge, then the next, and then the next.”
One of the oft-forgotten themes of the Great Story is that of descendence.
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28 “God said to Noah and his sons with him: ‘I now establish my covenant with you and your descendants.’” Genesis 9:8-9 To Abram: “I will make you into a great nation.” Genesis 12:2 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth. Deuteronomy 11:18-21 (NIV)
The Great Story is a story because it continues, it goes on even when my role is over and I make my final exit. Even in the most tragic and bleak dystopian imaginings, the premise is that Life endures and the story continues.
In the quiet this morning I feel the lingering effects of the virus on my body and realize that at this point in this life journey I don’t bounce back the way I once did. I listen to the unbridled energy of my grandson whose body felt none of the viral effects and who will live his earthly journey without remembering these weeks shut-in with Papa and Yaya.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t important, for him or for me. No matter the narrative of my story, life will continue in his story. Life gets handed off, a little bit each day, as we sit around the dinner table, holding hands and listening to that little voice say “God is grape.”
Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy. Psalm 99:9 (NIV)
While being in quarantine has frustrated my extroverted need for interpersonal interaction over the past ten days, I have also been mindful each day to appreciate the opportunity it has afforded Wendy and me to spend lots of time with our grandson, Milo, who normally resides across the pond in Scotland. Yesterday, my exercise monitor informed me that I’d set a new personal record for exercise in one day. If you’re having a hard time getting into that New Year’s workout routine, I suggest finding someone to loan you their three-year-old for a few days.
One of the more endearing developments during our extended time together has been Milo’s desire to go to sleep at night in Papa and Yaya’s bed. Last night, Wendy and I climbed onto the bed with Milo between us. We read three books together, then turned out the light. We sang softly in the darkness. Wendy reached over Milo and held my hand as we lay and sang with Milo nestled between us. Even with my hearing impairment, I could hear Milo’s deep breaths as he drifted to sleep. We then whispered a prayer over him before slipping out of the room.
That, my friend, was a special moment. I wanted to just stay in that moment forever. If only I could bottle it up and hold onto it. I immediately knew that it was a memory I will remember and cherish always.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 99, continues in this section of ancient Hebrew praise songs. They were likely used for liturgical purposes to call the Hebrews to worship in the temple. The lyricist of Psalm 99 layered this call to praise with metaphorical meaning that casual readers in English would never pick up.
Remember in yesterday’s post/podcast I shared that “everything is connected?” The Hebrews found spiritual connections with numbers. Each number had meaning. Seven was a number that meant “completeness.” Three was a number spiritually connected to the divine. There are three stanzas, each with four verses (4+3=7). Seven times the songwriter uses the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh. Seven times he uses Hebrew independent personal pronouns. Three times he refers to God as “holy” (Hebrew: qadosh).
I confess that “holy” is a word, and a spiritual concept, that I failed to fully understand, or flat out got wrong, for most of my journey. The concept of holiness as communicated by the institutional churches I’ve been involved in my whole life made holiness out to be simple moral purity in the utmost sense. The equation was “no sin” plus “going to church” equaled “holiness” (x + y = z). Which meant that holiness, unless you were Mother Theresa, was pretty much unattainable.
I have come to understand, however, that qadosh has a much larger meaning. There are moments in life in which everyone in the room knows there is something meaningful, something special, something larger that is happening in the moment.
Our daughter, Taylor, has an audiotape of the moment she entered the world in the delivery room. You hear her squeaky cries. You hear Dr. Shaw announce it‘s a girl. You hear me talking to her on the warming table. That moment is qadosh.
Last October I stood with our daughter, Madison, in a courtyard. We watched the congregation stand and turn toward us. The beautiful bride, whom I taught to walk, I now walked down the aisle to “give her away” to the man she loves. People smiled and wept. That moment was qadosh.
I sat in the dark room of the nursing home as my grandmother’s life ebbed away with each strained breath. Through the wee hours I kept watch over her. I held her hand. I sang her favorite hymn. I read the final chapter of the Great Story to her and I realized in the moment that it was like reading a travel brochure for the trip she was about to take. That moment was qadosh.
Last night as Wendy and I held hands and hovered over our peaceful, sleeping grandson lying in our bed. We sang. We prayed blessings over him. It was a holy moment. That’s qadosh.
Throughout the Great Story, when God made a special appearance (theologians call that a theophany) the person to whom God appears is mesmerized, speechless, dumbfounded, or overwhelmed. To be in the presence of God, described by lyricist of Psalm 99 as the royal King of Kings. That moment is qadosh.
When the psalmist calls me to worship, he’s not religiously demanding that I dutifully “go to church” in an effort to attain some pinnacle of moral purity. In fact, when I meditate on the fullness of all the qadosh moments I’ve recalled, then all my old notions of what it means to be “holy” are silly in their triteness. The psalmist is calling me into the mysterious, beautiful, meaningful moment of qadosh.