Tag Archives: Hebrew

Beneath the Text

Beneath the Text (CaD Gen 5) Wayfarer

Enoch walked faithfully with God.
Genesis 5:24

I’ve always been interested in family history. Over the years I’ve learned a great deal, but there’s a point at which the scant evidence of names and dates leave a lot to be desired from a story perspective. My “van der Wel” surname seems to spring from one particular neighborhood in Rotterdam, while the Bloem genes trace back to Gronigen. I have McCoy genes that likely lead back to the McKay clan in Scotland. My Hamblen genes trace back to Virginia during the American Revolution, and then back to England where there’s a knight entombed in effigy in eastern England. Informational clues that leave a lot to the mystery of history.

In the same way, the first 11 chapters of the Great Story are considered “primeval” history. They provide a broad brush sketch of creation and God’s relationship with all of humanity with scant information and a lot of mystery, but there’s plenty of good stuff to mine in the mystery.

For example, numbers and patterns play a role in the telling. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet do double-duty as numbers, and the authors of ancient Hebrew often hide numerical patterns in the writing. The number 10 is associated with harmony and completeness, especially related to humanity. The book of Genesis is divided into ten sections. Ten times in Genesis the phrase “God said…” is used. The genealogies in today’s chapter and again in chapter 11 both list ten generations. God will later deliver the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt through ten plagues, and subsequently provide humanity with ten commandments.

Yesterday’s chapter told of the sin and curse of Cain and then traced his family line to the 7th generation after Adam. Seven is also a number associated with “completeness” but it is more associated with the divine, as in the seven days of Creation. The seven generations of Cain’s line hint at the completeness of God’s divine judgement on the family which remained rebellious toward God in the 7th generation. The 10 generations listed in today’s chapter hint at the complete human family line of Adam that will perpetuate humanity to, and after, the flood.

Then there are the patterns that emerge in the telling. The seventh generation in the line of Cain was Lamech who continued his ancestor’s murderous and rebellious ways. The seventh generation on Seth’s line is Enoch who “walked faithfully with God.” There’s also the fact that Cain, the first born son, was cursed and it was through a younger son, Seth, that humanity was blessed and perpetuated. In human terms, the blessing, power, and position always go to the first-born son, but God’s blessing through the younger son is a pattern repeated through Genesis as well as the Great Story:

Seth over Cain.
Shem over Japheth
Isaac over Ishmael
Jacob over Esau
Judah and Joseph over their brothers
Ephraim over Manasseh
David over his brothers
Solomon over his brothers

The pattern of going against human tradition is a continuous reminder of what God would later say plainly through the prophet Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

As I always say, God’s base language is metaphor. Today’s chapter is more than a genealogy. It is layered with numbers and patterns that metaphorically speak to the moral contrast between Cain’s family line and Seth’s family, the contrast of divine judgement and blessing, and the contrast of death and life.

On Sunday, I’m giving a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers from Ecclesiastes 3, the passage made familiar to millions by the Byrds: “To everything there is a time and season.” One of the things I plan to discuss is that my own life contains patterns that lead to deeper understanding of self, of family, of life, if I’m willing to search under the surface of simple dates and memories.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Brewing Interpretation

Brewing Interpretation (CaD Ecc 11) Wayfarer

Ship your grain across the sea;
    after many days you may receive a return.
Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
    you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 (NIV)

A couple of chapters ago, I discussed the challenges and mysteries that accompany the translation of ancient Hebrew text into modern English. As I spent some time in today’s chapter, I encountered another mysterious challenge that has spawned a very interesting interpretation.

The translators of the NIV have given the interpretation of the first two verses of today’s chapter a decidedly commerce-driven slant. The Hebrew does not so much allude to shipping grain across the sea, but more simply says to throw/cast ones bread/grain on water. The interpretation of invest is also a choice for a Hebrew word that is more simply translated as give. Here are a couple of other ways other translations or paraphrases say these same verses:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
(KJV)

Don’t be afraid to release your bread upon the waters,
        for in due time you will find it.
    Divide your portion—put seven here, maybe eight there—
        for you can never be sure when or where disaster will strike.
(Voice)

Cast your bread upon the waters,
    for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even eight,
    for you do not know what calamity may happen on the earth.
(CEV)

Over the past couple of decades, the craft of brewing beer has exploded into a 22 billion dollar industry with about 9,000 different breweries. I know several individuals who enjoy making their own home brews to share, and I always enjoy sampling when I’m invited to do so. Along with this heightened interest, some craft brewers have delved into investigating the ancient brewing practices of different cultures. For example, there’s an ancient Akkadian text that describes the process of brewing beer in which dates and bread are “thrown into water” as part of the mix of ingredients.

This has led a few scholars (whom I suspect might be craft beer lovers themselves) to consider that the interpretation of these verses of Ecclesiastes may mean that when you throw your bread into the water and it comes back to you in a barrel of beer, be sure to share it with seven or eight others, so that when tough times come they will share their beer with you.

As I consider these translations and interpretations in the quiet this morning, I humbly conclude that I can’t be certain either way. Both the NIV’s decidedly pointed interpretation in favor of commerce and the beer-lovers decidedly pointed interpretation in favor of sharing your beer could be what the Sage of Ecclesiastes intended.

What is clear to me is the general spiritual principle the Sage was getting at, to which all the various translations and paraphrases point: invest, produce, and generously share the profitable returns with many. In doing so, I’m insuring myself for lean times which may certainly come.

I never know where this chapter-a-day journey is going to lead me each morning, and sometimes I’m genuinely surprised at where I end up. Today, I not only have a good spiritual principle on which to meditate and apply to my life, but I also have a pleasant bit of trivia about Akkadian brewing and Hebrew wisdom to share with some unsuspecting new friend over a pint. Cheers!

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

What in the “Hebel?”

What in the Hebel? (CaD Ecc 9) Wayfarer

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days.
Ecclesiastes 9:9 (NIV)

Earlier this year Wendy and I were working from the lake. Often we’ll work from a table where we can look out three large windows at the lake. It was a particularly calm, overcast day, and we watched as fog rolled into the bay and descended like a cloud. In a matter of minutes we went from a crystal clear view to impenetrable mist. It was so fascinating to watch. Then, a short time later, it faded as quickly as it. One minute it was there. Then next it was gone.

This past Saturday I was reading a book review in which the writer spoke of the difficulties of translating certain American ideas into other languages. He cited the example of a team being an “underdog” which he saw translated into French as literally the “belly of a dog.” Welcome to the challenge of translation. One of the struggles a modern reader has with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is also that of translation. Hebrew is an ancient language and there are Hebrew words that can’t be defined with certainty. This adds a certain level of mystery on top of the challenge.

The challenge and mystery is front-and-center in Ecclesiastes because the Hebrew word translated as “meaningless” (or “vanity” in traditional translations like the King James Version) is hebel, and it’s a tough one to translate like translating “underdog” into French. The root of the word hebel is that of vapor, mist, wind, or breath. One can think of futility, insubstantial, or empty. One source I found discussing this same subject landed on the word fleeting like the fog that rolled in and out of our bay at the lake. I like it. I think it gets nearer the mark:

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting mist of a life that God has given you under the sun—all your fleeting days.

It brings me right back to the subject of numbering my days. Suddenly the Sage is not so much as saying that everything is nihilistically void, but more like reminding me to seize the day, to be fully present, and to find joy even in things redundant. Before I know it, perhaps sooner than I think, life will roll out like the fog. Enjoy the moment.

In the quiet this morning I find that to be a good thought as the weekend was a vapor. Where did it go? A new work week has rolled in.

In a few hours I will be muttering to myself, “Where did the day go?”

Today will be fleeting, gone like the mist.

Be present.

Be mindful.

En-joy each moment.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Judicial Realizations

Judicial Realizations (CaD Ps 139) Wayfarer

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24 (NIV)

Yesterday, I spent some time with a friend who is a bit further down life’s road than I am. He sees the finish line of his vocational journey fast approaching. The fact that his days are numbered and there are fewer days ahead than behind is not lost on him. We talked honestly.

“I just want to finish well,” he said to me.

We then quickly recounted the names of those we know who did not finished life well. It was a sobering thought.

If you ask me to share my individual, unvarnished story with you, I’m going to share things that are pretty unseemly. Along my life journey I have been guilty of both pretty sins and ugly sins. For about the first 15-20 years of my 40 years as a Jesus follower, I did my best to hide these things under a well-polished veneer of goodness. Eventually, things caught up with me. As I hit bottom and could no longer keep up appearances, I had a fellow believer and therapist tell me, “I’ve been watching the slow deconstruction of the image of Tom.”

I’ve learned along this journey that sometimes old things must be razed before new, fruitful things can begin growing.

The 23rd Psalm undoubtedly tops the Billboard Chart for all-time favorite ancient Hebrew songs. Today’s chapter, Psalm 139, is definitely makes the Top Ten. It might even be number two. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to do so. The liner notes ascribe it to David, which adds an intriguing layer of meaning to the lyrics.

It’s easy to read Psalm 139 in the mind frame of the devotional and theological. But in the context of David’s day, the lyrics are judicial. Christian theology holds that God is omnipresent, meaning that God is present in all places at all times. While the lyrics of David’s song support this idea, the ancients of David’s world had no such notion. Rather, they considered that both gods and kings had access to all places and all knowledge. Therefore, no one could run and hide from justice. No matter how high, low, near, or far I try to hide, the Divine Judge has full access, even to see and know the person I am beneath the well-polished veneer of goodness.

Much like the 51st Psalm, David’s song is an honest and intimate confession. David is laying open his life, his heart, and his soul before God, who is the Divine Judge. In doing so, David is exposing and owning his own sins, both pretty and ugly. A man of violence and bloodshed, an adulterer, a murderer, a failed father, a failed husband, and a less-than-perfect king, David stands before God knowing that God doesn’t need the Freedom of Information Act to see it all. David asks God to search his very heart, which ironically is the thing that led God to choose David in the first place.

Which leads me back to my story, and my life, which is every bit as polluted with sins both pretty and ugly. There came a point in my journey that I had my own Psalm 139 moment. I could continue running, hiding, and polishing, but that never got me anywhere healthy. So, I owned my own shit. I processed my feelings, my failings, and my indulgent human appetites. Ironically, it was at that point in my journey that a number of really good things began to spiritually sprout within me.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about the fact that I’m writing these words on Good Friday. As I remember that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for me, so that in him I might become the righteousness of God,” I am reminded that it’s not about the things that I have done, but the thing that Christ did for me. The more honest I am about the things I have done, the more potent the thing that Christ did for me becomes. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, it is that kindness of Christ that leads me to genuine repentance, not judgement, condemnation, nor religious rigor.

This morning, I find myself thinking that if I want to finish well then I have to keep this spiritual truth before me this day, each day, until I reach the journey’s end.

Every Tribe and Tongue

Every Tribe and Tongue (CaD Ps 129) Wayfarer

“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
    but they have not gained the victory over me.”

Psalm 129:2 (NIV)

Wendy and I watched Godfather: Coda a few weeks ago. For those who aren’t familiar, it is the recent re-edit of the final film in the Godfather trilogy by the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Originally released as The Godfather III back in 1990, the film has always been largely criticized for not living up to the first two films. Coppola claimed that he was at odds with the movie Studio on how the story should be told and was forced to rush the film to market. He was finally allowed, 30 years later, to recut it and tell the story as he and Mario Puzo imagined it.

The trilogy is really the story of Michael Corleone. Raised in a mafia family, he swears early on in the first film that he’ll never be part of the family business. The overarching story is how Michael descends into the underworld with the intent to save his family and then can’t escape, as his family is slowly torn apart.

One of the subtle storylines in the third film is that of Michael Corleone’s son, Anthony. Anthony, like his father, wants nothing to do with the family business. “I’ll never be part of the family business,” Anthony states. He then adds, “I have bad memories.”

“Every family has bad memories,” his father replies.

That line has always resonated in my soul because I find it to be true. Just the other day I wrote about my journey of discovery and uncovering some of my families’ bad memories when I was a young man. But there is also the larger reality that we are the product of the systems into which we were born. We are a product of our people. Michael wanted to escape, yet he chose in and tragically couldn’t find the exit.

Wendy and I are both products of a Dutch American tribe who risked everything to come to America, settled as a tribe on the plains of Iowa, and prospered. That prosperity was fueled by our tribe’s deeply rooted values of faith, frugality, and hard work. Wendy and I often acknowledge that we are products of our people with both the blessings and curses that come with every human system.

For the Hebrew tribes, history and identity as a people is one of constant struggle against other tribes and nations and their subjugation by human empires. That is what the writer of today’s chapter, Psalm 129, is pressing into with his lyrics as he describes being enslaved and beaten:

Plowmen have plowed my back
    and made their furrows long.

Psalm 129 was likely written after the return of exiles from captivity in Babylon. The sting of the experience would have still been fresh in the memories of those singing this song on their pilgrimage. It is the cry of a people that first acknowledges that God has blessed them and they have not been overcome, then asks God to justly deal with their oppressors.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself confessing that there are a host of human experiences that I can’t completely fathom because I haven’t experienced them myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t seek to understand, to empathize, and to learn lessons from the experience of others. Our Dutch American town holds an annual festival of our Dutch heritage. The motto of the festival is “Everyone’s Dutch for a day!” and visitors are encouraged to learn the history, try on a pair of wooden shoes, learn a Dutch dance, and eat lots of pastries. When invited in to learn and embrace the knowledge of other cultures and people groups, I observe that everyone benefits. When excluded from doing so, I observe that the walls of prejudice are fortified to the detriment of all.

One of the sins of the institutional churches and the abuse of their power in history is the perpetuation of prejudice, injustice, violence, and indifference for the sake of power and empire in the kingdom of this world. The Jesus Movement that was about tearing down walls of prejudice and spreading love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness to every human tribe became a human empire. In the black-and-white binary choices to which the world likes to reduce everything, Christianity has been summarily dismissed by many.

I have found, however, that the heart of the Jesus Movement has always continued in the hearts and lives of individuals who embrace it and seek to carry out the original mission. A mission in which every human being of every people group can experience love, forgiveness, and redemption. When given a vision of eternity, John described the crowd as persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. When U2 described it in their psalm they sang, “I believe in the Kingdom come, when all the colors bleed into one.”

My heart this morning is crying out with the prayer of St. Francis. Perhaps it expresses more succinctly what my heart is trying to say in this post:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

Simple Songs of a Child

Simple Songs of a Child (CaD Ps 111) Wayfarer

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
    To him belongs eternal praise.

Psalm 111:10 (NIV)

It was a fairly warm day in early December this past year when Wendy and I got to spend the day with our grandson Milo for the firs time in almost a year. Wendy had some things she had to accomplish in town, so I took Milo to the park to keep him occupied. As we played on the swings, I made up a silly little song. It was simple:

Papa and Yaya love Milo.
Papa and Yaya love Milo.
Papa and Yaya love Milo.
Oh, yes we do.

After singing it a couple of times, I began again. This time I paused each time after the word love and Milo giggled and belted out his own name. Within a day, Milo himself sang it and he chose to alter the words…

Papa and Milo love Yaya.

then

Yaya and Milo love Papa.

The simple little ditty became a staple during their visit and it was so cute to hear him sing it. He always loved to sing all three verses to ensure the declaration of mutual love among the three of us was complete.

Instructional songs are as old as humanity itself. Music has always been a powerful way to learn and remember things. A quick memory job in the quiet this morning I recalled a number of songs I still remember by heart from shows I watched when I was a child; Shows like Sesame Street, Electric Company, Mister Rogers, Zoom, and Schoolhouse Rock. In seventh grade Social Studies class we had to memorize the preamble of the Constitution and, when tested, we had to write it word-for-word from memory. I guarantee you every one of us was singing the Schoolhouse Rock version in our heads as we wrote.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 111, along with its twin, Psalm 112, are written much like an ancient Hebrew form of Schoolhouse Rock, though this fact is essentially lost in translation to English. They are acrostic songs, with each Hebrew half-line starting with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. When I read today’s psalm this morning it reminded me of some of the other wisdom texts in the Great Story like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The phrase “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” in verse 10 is used twice in Proverbs. And, the songwriter twice references God’s covenant being forever.

Short song.
Alphabet acrostic.
Simple instructional concepts.
Repeated phrasing.

It’s got all the marks of an instructional song intended for children (or adults) to quickly memorize and remember so as to learn simple spiritual truths.

In the quiet this morning as I ponder these things, it has me thinking about Jesus’ rather simple spiritual concept:

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

and

“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

When Yaya and I would tuck Milo into bed I sang the same song I sang to his mother when she was his age…

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others, and let others do for you,
May you build a ladder to the stars, and climb on every rung,
And may you stay
forever young.

What could be more simple and essential than teaching a three-year-old like Milo that he and Papa and Yaya form a circle of love. And what could be more simple and essential for this adult to remember always?

Papa Tom & Milo. January 2021.

Tribal Stories & Ballads

Tribal Stories & Ballads (CaD Ps 105) Wayfarer

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.

A Rocky Start

A Rocky Start (CaD Ps 95) Wayfarer

Today, if only you would hear his voice, “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness…”
Psalm 95:7-8 (NIV)

Greetings from quarantine. It’s official that COVID has entered our home. I’m happy to report that symptoms are very mild and it’s only one person. That said, the lockdown at Vander Well Manor has begun.

Some days simply get off to a rocky start, and the past couple of days have been that way. Routines get thrown out of whack when you’re quarantined with the three-year-old and a pandemic throws life into a perpetual state of questions.

Some months get off to a rocky start, and this month has been that way. I won’t bore you with the details, but unexpected issues with work have kept the stress level consistently higher than normal since New Year’s.

Some years simply get off to a rocky start, and the past couple of days have been that way. The political tensions of the past four years, once again, spill over into the streets, through mainstream media, and all over social media.

I can’t say I’ve experienced much quiet this morning. It’s mostly been activity, swapping kid duties so others can work, and trying to sneak in a perusal of today’s chapter. That said, one of the great things about this chapter-a-day journey is that it always meets me right where I am, in this moment, and at this waypoint on life’s road.

The ancient Hebrew song lyrics of Psalm 95 begin with a call to praise. The songwriters calls the listener to sing, shout, and bow down in worship of the Creator and sustainer of life. He then makes a sudden shift and presents a warning that is a mystery to most casual readers. He warns his listeners to learn from the past and refuse to “harden your hearts” as happened “at Meribah and Massah.”

Anyone can read about the event that inspired the lyrics in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20. It happened as the Hebrews tribes escaped slavery in Egypt and struck out through the wilderness to the land God had promised. Even though God had repeatedly revealed His power in getting the Egyptians to let them go, to save them from the Egyptian army, and provide for their “daily bread,” they grumbled and complained.

I have written multiple times in these chapter-a-day posts about the Chain Reaction of Praise which begins with my decision to praise God in every circumstance which leads to activated faith which then leads to praying powerful prayers, which leads to overcoming evil with good, which leads to increasing spiritual life and maturity.

It struck me that what the songwriter of Psalm 95 is doing is calling me to the Chain Reaction of Praise. No matter what the circumstance, lead with praise. Choose to shout, sing, and bow down rather than grumble and complain. It goes against the grain of my human emotions, but that is the way of Jesus.

It’s been a rocky start to the day, the month, and the year. Life is not settling back into a peaceful, happy routine. I can grumble, complain and sink into despair. Or, I can follow the path of Jesus. I can follow the Spirit. I can choose to praise, to have faith, to pray, and to keep doing what is good and right in the moment despite my circumstances.

That’s what I’m endeavoring to do in this moment, on this day.

BTW: My daily posts and podcasts might be published sporadically, or not at all, for the next few weeks. Just sayin’. I’ll just be here praising and doing what’s good and right in each moment of quarantine.

Unraveling

Unraveling (CaD Ps 64) Wayfarer

Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint;
    protect my life from the threat of the enemy.

Psalm 64:1 (NIV)

Stepping up and into the spotlight of leadership always makes one an easy target. In virtually every position of leadership I’ve ever held, I’ve heard the sharp words of detractors. Typically, they come in the form of second-hand whispers or passive-aggressive remarks. The higher the position of leadership, the worse it gets. The positions of leadership I’ve held along my life journey are incredibly minor in the grand scheme of things. I may have faced challenges leading a small-town Iowa community theatre and a rural gathering of Jesus followers, but I can’t imagine how bad it gets leading a nation.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 64, is a lament of King David as he feels the sharp threats of conspiracy and the plots of his political enemies. One lesson every good leader knows is that you can’t control the thoughts, words, or actions of others. Trying to chase down and confront every critic or perceived antagonist is a recipe for disaster on several levels. David appears to have understood this well. The lyrics of this song stand as a testament to the fact that when it came to the twisted plots and the conspiratorial attacks of his enemies, David went to God.

Knowing that he had no control over his critics or their schemes, David gave them over to the only one he could count on in the situation.

Lying beneath the surface of the lyrics, David hid a creative, poetic image. Most of it survives the translation into English, but it’s seen with clarity in Hebrew, David’s native language. David uses specific words to metaphorically describe those twisted plots of his enemy:

evildoers (vs. 2)
tongues (vs. 3)
shoot (vs. 4)
suddenly (vs. 4)

In the second half of the song, as his lyrics describe God defending him and unraveling those twisted plots, he uses the same words in reverse order:

suddenly (vs. 7)
shoot (vs. 7)
tongues (vs. 8)
works of God (vs. 9)

The same words used in reverse order are a hidden metaphor. David is entrusting God to unravel the conspiracy, untwist the plots, and protect David from those enemies he can’t control.

In the quiet this morning I find myself, in a small way, identifying with David’s plight. I’ve learned in this life journey that all I can do is to keep pressing on, asking for God’s guidance, seeking God’s purposes for me, and knocking on the door of every opportunity I have to grow in love, grace, and mercy. There will be obstacles, burdens, critics, detractors, and attacks. Those are all part of the journey. I will never be able to completely avoid, nor control them.

So every time those obstacles, burdens, critics, detractors, and attacks have my heart and mind twisted up in anxious knots, I have Psalm 64 to remind me what David did. He gave them over to God like Wendy handing me a necklace that’s hopelessly knotted up.

“Here, unravel this.”

I Smell.

I Smell (CaD Ex 30) Wayfarer

“You shall make an altar on which to offer incense…”
Exodus 30:1 (NRSVCE)

I typically keep a fragrant candle on the desk in my office. I like scents of vanilla the best. Right now I’ve been trying out a candle labeled as “tobacco and vanilla.” I thought it might remind me of the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Not so much. I do, however, like the scent.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that smell is the physical sense to which we give the least attention. Sight, hearing, taste, and touch get the most of our attention. Our olfactory senses aren’t as necessary for human survival as they once were. Nevertheless, a scent can create a powerful response with me. Some experts say that smells plays more of a role in attracting a mate than we even realize. More consciously, it can bring back a memory like the smell of a rose reminding me of my Grandma Vander Well’s perfume. It can create a sense of peace and security like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting up from the kitchen. It also works in negative terms. Some smells give me a headache or can make me feel physically ill.

Incense played a large part in ancient religious ceremonies. In today’s chapter, God continues to prescribe to Moses how the Hebrew tribes will worship. The chapter begins with designs for an altar on which incense is to be perpetually burned and it ends with a unique recipe for the fragrant ingredients a perfumer is to blend the incense. Because the fragrant oil used to anoint Aaron and the priests, and the incense burned in the traveling temple was unique, the smell would become associated in the hearts and minds of the Hebrews with being present at God’s place and giving their sacrifices and offerings. The smoke of the burning incense also became a metaphor for the prayers of God’s people wafting up to heaven.

Incense once again became part of worship in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions in Christianity, though I have head it argued that it was primarily a practical way for the priest to overcome the powerful pungency of body odor emanating from the poor, unbathed masses packing into the church on Sunday. It was never a formally prescribed practice of the early followers of Jesus. In the New Testament, the only references to incense point to either the practice in the Hebrew ritual or else to John’s visions of heaven in Revelation.

The use of incense in Hebrew worship was, however, linked to an important metaphor understood by early believers. In his second letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul writes:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
2 Cor 2:14-16 (NIV)

Once again, I find that the physical bricks-and-mortar (or in this case oil-and-incense) of the Hebrew system matures through Jesus and shifts into a flesh-and-blood understanding of what God is doing. In the former, people came to a central location where the fragrance of the priests and the burning incense reminded them of God’s presence. In the latter, every follower of Jesus becomes part of a “royal priesthood” taking the fragrance of Jesus with us wherever we go and among any and all people with whom we interact in our circles of relationship and community.

I have spent twenty-five years in a career in which I travel and regularly visit our clients in their places of business around the country. I am always praying that I will be the fragrance of Christ while I am there conducting training sessions, making executive presentations, and coaching or mentoring individuals.. What’s fascinating to me is that I have on several occasions had someone literally ask me if I’m a Christian. When I confess that I am, the response is typically, “I knew it. I could just tell.” Equally fascinating to me is that in almost every long-term engagement with a client there is an individual or two who react to my presence with intense animosity. In those instances, I get to practice returning curses with blessings and showing (often unreciprocated) kindness.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think of the message I gave yesterday among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Today’s chapter so beautifully illustrates a point I was making. I observe that many are stuck in the old paradigm of a religious institution founded on the notion of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. People gather to do the regularly scheduled religious bit, then forget about it until my next scheduled appearance on Sunday, or Christmas, or Easter.

Jesus changed all that in practice. He started with getting the Kingdom of God into the individual, transforming the human being into the Temple in whom God’s Spirit dwells. It is the individual who takes God’s Kingdom wherever they go and impacts people in every relationship and circles of influence. I don’t burn incense at the temple, I am the temple from which God’s fragrance seeps out in my love, kindness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness and self-control. Some are attracted. Some are repelled. That’s something I don’t control, though how I respond to it is.

Monday. Another week. Holiday coming up. I have appointments, a little travel, and a weekend full of friends. Hope I’m fragrant in all the good ways.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.