Tag Archives: History

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 Time to Shout!

A Time to Shout! (CaD Ps 100) Wayfarer

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Psalm 100:1 (NIV)

I have shared over the years that one of the things Wendy and I enjoy doing is being sports fans. We’re not “rabid win-at-all-costs because our lives are ruled by it” fans, which is a good thing since most of the teams we cheer for have long histories of being underdogs and perennial losers. We just enjoy choosing a team, following the team and the players, rooting for them through the season, and generally being loyal fans.

January in Iowa has typically been made even more bleak for Wendy and me because of the lack of sports that we enjoy. Our Vikings season generally ends early in disappointing fashion. Spring training for our Cubs is weeks away. Our son-in-law, Clayton, influenced Wendy and me to find a English Premier League team to cheer for in order to bridge the gap. It just so happens that his team and our team have a big match this weekend. We’re already planning our watch party. It will be something fun in the midst of quarantine.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 100, is the final in a series of ten ancient Hebrew songs of praise. This little ditty is only five verses long and it begins by calling the worshiper to “Shout with joy to the LORD.”

Throughout my spiritual journey, I have heard teachers challenge congregations with the fact that we cheer more for our teams than we do for God. This, in the institutional and denominational churches I’ve attended throughout my journey, is very true. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the Jesus movement became a political empire that was more interested in controlling the masses than it was in sincere worship. The Holy Roman Empire controlled worship in the Western world for 1200 years. When the Protestant Reformation came along, it led into the “age of reason” in which head knowledge of the scriptures and theology was held as utmost in importance. Thus, the Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations were given to quiet, reverent, and generally passive worship styles.

And yet, throughout the Great Story the examples of worship and calls to worship I’ve been reading in the psalms are active, loud, and participatory. Shout, sing, dance, raise your hands, clap your hands, and raise the roof! King David got in trouble with his wife when he was so worked up in dancing and singing to God that he had peeled down like silly shirtless college boys in a December Iowa State football game. I confess that the last time Wendy and I got that excited was the Cubs winning the World Series and the Minneapolis Miracle.

At the same time, the further I’ve gotten in my spiritual journey, the freer I’ve become in worship among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I sing loud. I’ll lift my hands in prayer. Yes, I’ll even shout. And what’s hilarious is that this is not the worship tradition of my local gathering. I once had an elder of the church who was a pious, multi-generational loyalist of the denomination ask me sincerely why I raised my hands when I sang in worship. I pointed him to a number of places in the Great Story where God’s people are called to lift hands in praise and prayer. Funny how individuals who claim to live in devout obedience choose to ignore those things with which they are uncomfortable. Greet anyone with a holy kiss lately?

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. There are times for spiritual quiet, silence, and reverence. Lord knows we need a lot of it right now amidst the 24/7 din of politics and pandemic conflict in the news and on social media. The Sage who wrote Ecclesiastes would tell us that there is a time for quiet reverence, and there’s a time to shout, dance, and blow the roof off. And, I get that there are individuals who will forever be hands-in-your-pockets mouth shut type of followers, and that’s cool too. Whatever.

It’s just that Wendy and I have noticed as we worship that there’s often what feels like a spiritual lid on the room. You can feel people waiting for an excuse, or for someone to give permission to shout, cheer, and let out some God-given, human emotion. Countless times we’ve witnessed that when one person breaks the ice, then the praise really begins to flow.

In the quiet this morning, I’m thinking about all the worship traditions I’ve experienced and enjoyed along my spiritual journey from the silence of the Quakers to the call and response of a black Baptist congregation. From the pomp of a Roman Catholic cathedral in Ireland to the down-home fire-and-brimstone of a back-woods Pentecostal church in Appalachia. I find that so often people put their own spiritual experiences in the box of their traditions. Along the way, I’ve found that it’s not a right-or-wrong either-or thing. Once again, it’s a “yes, and.” I can learn from experiencing and participating in diverse styles and traditions of worship. I take things that are meaningful for me and find ways to weave them into my own spiritual expressions. It’s been good. It’s helped me grow. It’s expanded my spiritual understanding.

I promise that if/when I see you next I won’t greet you with a holy kiss.

Finally, it was a bit of synchronicity that I saw this post this morning of a mother shouting her praise as she finds out her son passed the bar exam. It’s worth the watch!

Fight Song

Fight Song (CaD Ps 83) Wayfarer

Cover their faces with shame, Lord,
    so that they will seek your name.

Psalm 83:16 (NIV)

I consider it virtually impossible for a person in 21st century America to comprehend what life was like for the ancients, such as the songwriters of the Psalms. As evidence, I submit today’s chapter, Psalm 83, as Exhibit A for your consideration.

Psalm 83 is a song of national lament. It’s a plea to God to protect them from and destroy their enemies. A quick side note as I’m thinking bout it: One thing that has become really clear to me as I journey through the psalms the past few months is that David, who wrote most of the songs compiled in the first half of the anthology we call the Psalms, wrote personal songs expressing emotions he felt in his own circumstances. The songs attributed to Asaph, like today’s, were more about tribal and national issues. It’s the difference between me blogging about the stress I’m feeling in my own personal life and blogging about the issues surrounding the recent national election.

Asaph’s song was written at a time of national crisis when all of the people groups surrounding them were allied against them and bent on wiping them out. Here in North America, the nations that we see as a threat are an ocean away. For Asaph and the people of Judah, the enemies were less than 50 miles away. The map below is a scale of 50 miles and pinpoints all but one of the people groups mentioned in Psalm 83. Jerusalem is pretty much right in the middle. They were literally surrounded by 10 neighboring nations bent on ending their existence.

I try to imagine it. I live in Pella, a small town in rural Iowa. I try to envision being at war with every other sizeable town in a 30-mile radius. The Newtonians, the Knoxvillites, Oskaloosans, the not-so-Pleasantvillians, the New Sharonians, the Albians, the Monrovians, the Prairie Citians, the Montezumians, and the big empirical threat the Des Moinesiacs. If all these people groups immediately surrounding my town were banded together in an alliance to come and kill everyone in Pella and take everything we have and own as plunder, I would be feeling an incredible amount of stress. Welcome to the daily “kill-or-be-killed” realities of Asaph and his people.

So, Asaph writes a spiritual fight-song asking God to protect them and fight for their existence. It’s a very human thing to do. We just commemorated Pearl Harbor Day on December 7 which was the last time America was seriously attacked and threatened back in World War II. It took me ten seconds to find a playlist on YouTube of American fight songs from that era including Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ in 1943, Hot Time in the Town of Berlin (When the Yanks Go Marchin’ In). And who can forget Spike Jones’ famous lyrics:

When the Fuhrer says, “We is the master race,”
We sing:
“Heil” (blow a raspberry)
“Heil” (blow a raspberry)
“Heil” (blow a raspberry)
Right in the Fuhrer’s face.

How much life has changed in just two generations. I can hardly comprehend the realities of 80 years ago. How can I really comprehend Asaph’s realities over 2500 years ago?

The fact that I can’t comprehend Asaph’s realities leads me to extend him some grace as I try to wrap my head around the context of asking God to destroy my enemy. Which leaves me asking, “What am I supposed to take away from Psalm 83?”

That brings me to the lyric that stuck out at me this morning:

Cover their faces with shame, Lord,
    so that they will seek your name.

Underneath the cries for God to help them successfully defeat the enemy was a desire for their enemies to ultimately know God. When Jesus arrived on the scene hundreds of years later the situation was very different. The known world was ruled by the Roman Empire and while Jesus said that humanity can expect wars to continue right up until the end of the Great Story, He set the expectation that I, as His follower, would take a different approach to getting my enemy to “seek His name.”

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I understand that there is a difference between international relationships and personal ones. All I know is that today, in my circles of influence, Jesus asks me to follow His instruction to love my enemy, bless my enemy, and pray for my enemy.

So, “Praise the Lord, and pass…” a little more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Epic Wisdom

Epic Wisdom (CaD Ps 78) Wayfarer

I will open my mouth with a parable;
    I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
    things our ancestors have told us.

Psalm 78:2-3 (NIV)

My grandparent’s home in Le Mars, Iowa, was a humble little house with three small bedrooms and one bath. I grew up spending weekends there every few months, and as I got older I had opportunities to spend even more time there. It’s hard to believe it now, but when I was only about ten years old my parents would buy me a bus ticket and put me on the Greyhound bus bound for Le Mars where I would spend my spring break. Mom would tell me to sit right behind the driver so he could keep an eye on me. Wow. How times have changed.

The “west room” at Grandpa and Grandma Vander Well’s house was mostly a storage room that doubled as a guest bed when necessary. The small four-poster double bed, complete with a feather mattress, was from their wedding set and it took most of the room. One entire wall was covered, floor-to-ceiling, with shelves on which my grandparents stored the remnants of their lives. I spent hours in that bedroom exploring all of the strange, old things on those shelves and letting my imagination run free.

I have always had a thing for history. I don’t know why. It presented itself in me when I was very young. I was fascinated by the old stuff that had to be explained to me.

“Hey, Grandpa. What’s this? What does this thing do?”

As I grew, my curiosity led me to explore family history. What was fascinating was what meager little scraps of information were spoken. I have come to believe that there are multiple reasons for this. My grandparents grew up in a time when families tended to bury the family stories that they found shameful. Every family is messy, but my grandparents’ generation was particularly closed when it came to talking about such things. They were also the depression generation. Genealogy and family history are luxuries people could ill-afford when they were desperately trying to survive day-to-day and raise a family. Much of what I eventually learned about both my maternal and paternal families came late in my grandparents’ lives, or after their deaths.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 78, is an epic song in the traditional sense of the word. If you’ve actually been reading the Psalms on this chapter-a-day journey you know that they’re typically quick reads. Much like most of today’s popular music, three verses and a bridge is typically all you get. But then, every once in a while, a song stands out because it is epic. Psalm 78 is a musical epic that was written to teach children and grandchildren the story of their people. Reading was still very rare in the days when Asaph wrote the song, and most of what people learned was through oral history. Stories told by family elders around the fire at night or songs, like today’s chapter, that were sung during seasonal festivals.

Psalm 78 mostly recounts the story of the Hebrew people’s exodus out of slavery in Egypt, the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrew people. Asaph, one of David’s temple choir directors, ends the poem alluding to the civil war between the Hebrew tribes, the fall of the northern tribes to the Assyrians, and God’s blessing of David and the southern kingdom of Judah.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating my love of history on both a large scale as well as the more intimate history of both my paternal and maternal families. I have come to realize that most people don’t care for such things, but it’s through the warts-and-all history of both family and humanity that Wisdom has taught me so much. The shame of my grandparents’ generation led them to keep the past hidden like the little remnants of their lives stuffed on the guest room shelves. I observe the shame of the emerging generation leading to the tearing down of history. I watch history being burned and buried. I imagine both of these extreme approaches to the past have existed throughout the Great Story. They wax and wane with the times.

Nevertheless, my soul aches in both cases. Asaph states quite clearly in Psalm 78 that he wants future generations to learn from the Hebrew past. As I read the chapter, I find that he wrote the epic complete with recollections of the glories and tragedies, the failures and successes, and both victories and defeats. I have met Wisdom in every one of those stories. She is present in every instance. Through each, she helps me see my current stretch of life’s road with more clarity and perspective.

I pray that I pass a little of that Wisdom along, one blog post at a time.

Beginning the End of a Shaky Year

Beginning the End of a Shaky Year (CaD Ps 175) Wayfarer

When the earth and all its people quake,
    it is I who hold its pillars firm.

Psalm 75:3 (NIV)

It is the first day of December, and the end of the year approaches. This is the month when news and media outlets release lists of the best-and-worst, highs-and-lows, and the top stories from the past year. This is the month we collectively reminisce about the year that has been, hit the reset button for a new trip around the sun, and make resolutions for the year to come. I have a feeling that most of the collective conversation this year will be a giant good-riddance to 2020 and desperate, hopeful pleas for better times ahead.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 75, was a liturgical song of thanksgiving, likely used as part of worship in Solomon’s Temple. You can tell by the fact that the four stanzas have different voices. It’s possible that different individuals, choirs, or groups were appointed to sing the different voices of the song:

The congregation proclaims corporate thanks to God in the first verse.

God’s voice then speaks from heaven in verses 2-5, proclaiming that He will bring equity and judgment at the appointed time.

The voices of the people then faith-fully affirm God’s authority in verses 6-8, proclaiming that the wicked will ultimately be brought low and made to drink the dregs of God’s judgment.

The song ends with a personal pledge to praise God forever, trusting that He will bring down the wicked and raise up the righteous.

The tone of the song suggests that it is a time when the Hebrew people felt particularly insecure. Scholars believe that it may have been written when the Assyrian empire was threatening to lay siege to Jerusalem. Ironically, the Assyrian army was mysteriously wiped out over night. One of the explanations scholars suggest for this historical event is a sudden and deadly viral pandemic within the Assyrian camp.

Ancient Mesopotamian cultures envisioned the earth as flat and held up by giant pillars in the underworld. In times of trouble and threat, they metaphorically spoke of the world “shaking” as in an earthquake. The pillars holding the world up were unstable. When Asaph, who is attributed in the liner notes with writing the song, gave voice to God saying, “I hold the pillars firm” it had tremendous meaning for the Hebrew people singing it and hearing it. When their entire world was threatened, they were trusting that God would be their stability, just as David called God his “rock” and “fortress.”

Which brings me back to 2020 with all of its uncertainty and chaos. I certainly feel like the world has been shaken up in multiple ways. And while it has undoubtedly been the most tumultuous year of my lifetime, history and today’s song remind me that it’s one of a number of “shaky” moments that routinely dot the Earth’s timeline. Or, as Motown psalmists the Shirelles put it: “Momma said there’d be days like this.”

In the quiet this morning, I find my heart welcoming December and, with it, the annual reset button that comes with New Year’s Day. No matter where I’ve been on this life journey and no matter where God leads me, I will echo Asaph’s ending refrain: “As for me, I will declare this forever. I will sing praise to God.”

Voices on the Whispering WInd

Voices on the Whispering Wind (CaD Ps 67) Wayfarer

The land yields its harvest;
    God, our God, blesses us.

Psalm 67:6 (NIV)

Growing up in the city, I had very little personal exposure to the agricultural industry that fuels our region. The news radio my dad had on every morning made a big deal about farming and markets, but it made no sense to me. I have this one memory of riding along with our dad in the family station wagon. I had to have been about five years old. I watched my dad jump a fence into a cow pasture to collect dried piles of cow manure into the back of the station wagon which he used to fertilize the garden in the backyard. That’s pretty much it other than driving through the fields to my grandparent’s house.

As an adult, I’ve spent about twenty years of my life in small rural towns where agriculture is all around me. Behind our back yard is an open field. There are cows on the other side of the golf course that winds through our neighborhood. The building where our local gathering of Jesus followers meets is next door to livestock farm, and when the wind is blowing just right the smell motivates you to high-tail it inside. I don’t have the buffer and insulation I had as a kid. Agriculture surrounds me at all times.

Because of this, and the fact that Wendy grew up on a farm and her dad taught Agriculture, I’ve gained an appreciation for the people, the lives, and the industry that helps feed the world. It’s also helped me understand and appreciate, with greater depth, an important spiritual principle: me, my life, and my circumstances, are of little regard to Creation. The Great Story constantly reminds me to keep my life in perspective:

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall”

1 Peter 1:24

“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4:14

Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
    There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
    but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old
        planet earth.
The sun comes up and the sun goes down,
    then does it again, and again—the same old round.
The wind blows south, the wind blows north.
    Around and around and around it blows,
    blowing this way, then that—the whirling, erratic wind.
All the rivers flow into the sea,
    but the sea never fills up.
The rivers keep flowing to the same old place,
    and then start all over and do it again.
What was will be again,
    what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth.
    Year after year it’s the same old thing.
Does someone call out, “Hey, this is new”?
    Don’t get excited—it’s the same old story.
Nobody remembers what happened yesterday.
    And the things that will happen tomorrow?
Nobody’ll remember them either.
    Don’t count on being remembered.

Ecclesiastes 1 (MSG)

Without faith, these are kind of depressing thoughts. With faith, it becomes essential spiritual perspective. The fields yielded their fruit again with the autumn harvest, things will die in winter and new life will emerge once again in the spring. Just like it did for the The earth continues to spin, the seasons continue to cycle, the planets continue their dance around the sun. The sun continues its dance around the galaxy. The galaxy continues its trek in the universe.

The coronavirus is nothing in the grand scheme of eternity, and neither is a presidential election. I grumble and complain, yet if I incline my ear to the whispers on the wind of history I hear voices, millions of voices, calling out.

200 million voices of those who died in the Black Death in Europe and Asia in the Middle Ages.

56 million voices who died of Smallpox in the 1500s.

40 million voices who died of the Spanish Flu between 1918-1920.

30 million voices who died in the plague of Justinian. In 541, it is estimated that there were 10,000 deaths per day and there were so many bodies they couldn’t keep up with burials so bodies were piled up and stuffed in buildings and left out in the open.

And still, the whole of creation continued its dance. The earth danced around the sun every 365 days or so. The seasons came and went like clockwork. The crops sprouted each spring, they grew each summer, they yielded their fruit each fall before the death of winter prepared for another annual resurrection.

In the quiet this morning, I’m listening to those voices on the whispering wind. My heart grumbles, but it never grumbles with essential spiritual perspective in mind. Grumbling only happens when my momentary circumstances deceive me into putting on my blinders of self-importance.

Thanksgiving is in 10 days. When I finish this post and podcast I’m headed into town for coffee with a friend. I’ll drive past the fields that have, once again, yielded their abundance. Those same fields fed families and provided for those who suffered through three years of the ravages of Spanish Flu. They will still be feeding generations who will have long forgotten my existence when the next pandemic makes its way through humanity.

Essential spiritual perspective that Jesus used the fields he and his followers were sitting in to make this same point.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Indeed. Today, I give thanks.

Love Song

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The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
in many-colored robes she is led to the king;
    behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.

Psalm 45:14 (NRSVCE)

How on earth could you put together an anthology of the lyrics of 150 songs and not have at least one love song in it?

Today’s chapter, Psalm 45, is the lone love song in the book of Psalms. It was penned for the wedding celebration between the King and the princess of another nation who was being married as part of a political alliance between the two countries. The thought was that one king wouldn’t attack another king if that king was a son-in-law. It also meant that you had a family member who had eyes and ears on what was going on within a rival’s palace. This was a common diplomatic practice throughout history even into the last century. If you look at a chart of European royal families it looks like a spider’s web with all the crossing and intersecting lines. Even Queen Elizabeth married her own cousin.

The song is written from the perspective of the bride looking at her groom and singing of how handsome, strong, and powerful he is. The song’s climax is the bride and her virgin bridesmaids walking into the king’s palace and the very next verse is a promise to bear the king many sons (which was a sign of strength and succession), and also a little racy because it alludes to what’s going to happen once she enters the king’s chambers.

The chapter is also interesting from how it was used in history. After the Hebrews returned from exile in Babylon, psalm 45 was considered a messianic psalm pointing to the messiah who would come and ascend the throne of David. That is interesting because marriage was used by Jesus repeatedly as a metaphor when discussing His second coming and the climactic apocalyptic event known as “the Day of the Lord.” The metaphor is that Jesus will come back like a bridegroom to be united with all believers, collectively and metaphorically referenced as the bride.

In my podcast series The Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story (I know, I know. I have two episodes left, and I will get a Wayfarer Weekend podcast done this weekend I promise!), I mention that God’s language is metaphor precisely because it can be layered with meaning. When I was a young man attending a fundamentalist Bible college I told to interpret passages like today’s psalm only in terms of its spiritual, prophetic meaning. I mean, we wouldn’t want young people in hormonal overdrive thinking about what’s going on in the king’s bed chamber.

Along my journey, I came to realize that this is not a case of “either or” but “both and.” Yes, there is messianic metaphorical imagery in the song, but that’s not why it was written. It was written as a love song to celebrate a beautiful princess entering the palace and the bed chamber of the king. Man, woman, wedding, love, expression of love, life, pro-creation. That’s beautiful. That’s holy.

[cue: Barry White]

An Accomplice to Change

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When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.
Exodus 21:2 (NRSVCE)

Slavery has always been a part of the human social equation though it has taken various forms in different periods of history. If you think that slavery is a thing of the past, then you need to get to know organizations like International Justice Mission, an amazing outfit that Wendy and I have supported financially for many years.

I find it ironic (or perhaps it’s God’s synchronicity) that I happen to be reading through Exodus and grappling with these texts at the same time that we are having a massive social conversation about America’s history with slavery and the continued repercussions of the race issues it created which continue to plague us. Wendy and I have been having on-going, daily conversations about our roles and responsibilities to make a positive difference. Over coffee this morning, Wendy shared that she’d heard someone mention being an “accomplice” to positive change, which we differentiated from being an “ally.” We want to more than just agree. We want to act, to be part of the solution; We want to be “accomplices” to change.

How do I, as a 21st century follower of Jesus, relate to today’s chapter? It’s an ancient Hebrew text that is basically a code of law dealing with specific instances of slavery around 3,500 years ago. How can this possibly relate to my life today?

I have a couple of thoughts.

First, it provides me with context. Slavery was not invented by Dutch traders kidnapping and sailing Africans to the America’s to be sold. As I mentioned in the outset of this post, slavery has always been a part of the human societal equation. What the European, American, Indian and Arab slave trade did with Africans was particularly heinous compared to the slavery we read about in today’s text.

Throughout the Near East in the time of the Exodus, life was particularly harsh and human existence was largely a fight for mere survival. The clan, the tribe, the community were essential for safety, protection, and provision. It’s hard for me as a “rugged individualist” in America to even relate to a world in which the tribe was more important than me as an individual, and a world in which human life was viewed as economic capital. Producing children, especially sons who could work, fight, and protect was among the most critical components to the survival of your family and community. The more men you had, the better your odds were of surviving against other tribes bent on killing you and taking everything you had (including your children to become slaves and your women to produce more men for their tribe).

Because humans were capital in the economy, debts could be paid and collected (within your own tribe or people group) by using your own life or the lives of your family members. You worked off your debt by becoming a slave to the person you owed money. Life (more particularly work and service) was a form of currency. Working for my creditor or giving a family member over to work for the creditor was part of the economy of that day.

Another important piece of context for me is that, through much of history, forms of slavery were legitimate forms of life-long protection and provision that some individuals chose into. In today’s chapter, the Hebrew code of law allowed for individuals who said, “I love my master,” and chose to remain in service. The individual chose to remain in service to his master and in return he received provision, protection, security, and sometimes kept his family together.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. I’m not making excuses for, nor am I saying that slavery’s history makes it okay or acceptable. I’m simply saying that I believe I must understand and accept that slavery was part of daily Hebrew life and survival in 1500 B.C. It’s all that they knew.

The second lesson for me from today’s chapter is that God called His people to do better, and to do more. If you had a person in your service because they owed you a debt, you were expected to free that the person and forgive the debt in the seventh year no matter the size of the debt. The number here is significant. Seven in the Great Story always relates to completion as in seven days of creation, and the series of seven plagues prophesied in Revelation. This code went further than any other legal code we know about from that time. God expected His people to do better than those around them, to forgive debt, and to free people who owed you. This is the root of what Jesus brought to fruition when He called on me, as His follower, to look beyond the letter of God’s law. Murder isn’t just about killing a body, it’s also about murdering a person’s esteem and soul. Adultery isn’t just about sexual intercourse with someone who isn’t your spouse, it’s about letting your appetite for lust see another person as an object on which to indulge your sexual cravings.

Finally, I find that there’s a piece of what theologians call “free will” in all of this. God allowed for Hebrew society to operate like all the human societies who were living and surviving “East of Eden” during that time. What God instructed from His people was that they could do better than those around them. They were called to a higher standard. I can’t help but think of the Abolitionist movement in Britain and the United States that was motivated by Christ followers who refused to accept slavery as part of the human societal equation and instilled in their day that we have to do better. We have to change. In Jesus words, we have to do more than what’s expected and walk the extra-mile, love our enemy, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us, and show by our love-motivated actions that there is a better Way.

In the quiet this morning, this takes me full-circle back to Wendy’s comments over coffee. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to be more than an ally for justice. I am to be an accomplice in showing others, by love in action, that we can do better in this community, this state, this country, and this world.

God Revealing, Then and Now

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them…”
Exodus 10:1 (NRSVCE)

Wendy and I have some connections to east Africa. We have, for years, supported a Compassion child in Kenya named Joyce. Taylor and Clayton spent time working in Uganda, and Clayton’s doctoral research has taken him repeatedly to Tanzania where we also support another Compassion child, Michael, who is slightly older than Milo and they share the same birthday.

Because of these connections, we tend to pay a little more attention to the situation there. In case you didn’t know it, they have been battling locust swarms this year. Massive locust swarms that I would tag as being of “biblical proportions.” A second wave of swarms hit the region just as they began fighting COVID.

In my recent series of podcasts, A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story, I talk a lot about context. An adult can’t reason with a two-year-old by getting him or her to sit and listen to you read a psychology textbook that explains his or her need to modify behavior. In the same way, understanding ancient stories require me, a 21st-century reader, to think outside the box of my 21st-century thought and sensitivities. They require me to think about how God is meeting with and interacting with humanity in the context of the way they lived, thought, believed, and interpreted their world. Today’s chapter is a great example.

Locust swarms have been part of the ecosystem forever. They happen on occasion just like floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornados, and viral outbreaks. Our post-enlightenment, educated minds turn to science to understand these things, deal with them appropriately, and lessen the negative effects.

In Moses’ day, no one thought in such a way. In Moses day, natural phenomena were always considered to be a manifestation of the gods. If something bad happens, the gods must be angry. If something good happens, the gods must be pleased.

In today’s chapter, God tells Moses that the plagues had a purpose. The purpose was to reveal Himself and His power to Pharaoh and his officials. What is lost on a 21st-century reader is the fact that the types of plagues being visited upon the Egyptians had connections to various deities they worshiped across the pantheon of more than 1500 gods they worshiped. Because many, if not most, of the plagues were natural occurring phenomena, the Egyptians may have historically associated them with other deities. Now, the God of Moses turns them on-and-off at will, which is a direct challenge to Egypt’s religious system. Each time a plague is turned on or off by “stretching out” their hand and staff, it is a direct challenge to Pharaoh’s claim of being a god who rules by “my mighty hand.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about God revealing Himself. The story of Moses is an early chapter in the Great Story. There has been no described system of worship. There is no Bible or sacred text. There is no institution or organization. God has simply revealed Himself to Abraham and his descendants in mysterious ways. The plagues we’ve been reading about are the first recorded time in the Great Story that God attempts to reveal Himself to another people group in contrast to their own gods. This is a major shift in the narrative, and this theme will continue.

Interestingly, Jesus also made it clear that His mission was one of revelation:

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”.

God has always been in the process of revealing Himself, and does so in multiple ways, including the very act of creation:

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.

Along my earthly journey, I have been ever-grateful to live in our current period of human history. Despite the doom and gloom peddled in the media, we live in a period of human history that is unprecedented with regard to low levels of extreme poverty, disease, starvation, war, violence, and high levels of education and safety across the globe compared with any other period of history. Humanity is in a very different chapter of the Great Story, and I believe God is revealed very differently in our world than in Moses’ day.

The basic dance remains the same. God revealing, inviting, drawing in. Me asking, seeking, knocking, humbly accepting, and receiving.

I’m glad it no longer requires a plague of locusts. In my quiet time this morning I’m praying for those who are actively trying to help the people of Africa to minimize the damage and for those who are suffering because of it.

Of Tribe and Time

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
Exodus 1:8-10 (NRSVCE)

When it comes to a film, the first shot the director gives you is always an important one. In movie terms it’s called the “establishing shot” and most casual viewers don’t realize how important it is to provide you with the setting, the environment, and the emotion. In many cases, the establishing shot will foreshadow the entire theme of the movie with one quick visual. For those interested, here’s a quick look at some of the best of all time…

Likewise, great authors provide readers with a literary version of an establishing shot. The opening prologue or chapter lay out the scene for the reader.

In today’s chapter, the author of Exodus establishes the scene for the story and the journey on which I am about to embark. At the end of Genesis, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) and his 70 descendants and their families, flocks, and herds had migrated and settled in the area of Egypt to escape a famine. His long-lost-son, Joseph was Pharaoh’s right-hand and had welcomed them and provided for them.

Exodus now picks up the story, and in the establishing shot, we find that Israel’s descendants have settled in Egypt and have been fruitful in multiple ways. His sons and grandsons are growing their families, having lots of babies, and each is becoming his own tribe. Between Genesis chapter 50 and Exodus chapter 1 we’ve gone from one Hebrew tribe to twelve growing tribes. The problem is, political winds have shifted.

In ancient cultures (we’re talking about 3500 years ago) the world was a harsh, violent, lawless and brutal place. It was tribal. You were born into a tribe, your tribe protected you, and life was about surviving against other tribes. Some tribes, like Egypt, had successfully become nations but every nation and every tribe was focused on protecting themselves against the threat of other tribes bent on conquest.

In Egypt, the new Pharaoh (that is, Egyptian ruler) and his administration take stock of the fact that Israel’s tribe has become tribes, and they have slowly proliferated within Egypt’s kingdom and territory. That is a threat. Remember, it’s a tribe vs. tribe world. Having that many people from a foreign tribe living in their kingdom was scary. It’s one thing to protect yourself from an attack from the outside. It’s another thing if a tribe living among you goes rogue. From a political perspective, Pharaoh had to address the threat. So, he moves to persecute the Hebrew people living among them and to limit their population growth.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself mulling over both the differences and similarities in our world. It’s that point of tension between two extremes. On one hand, the world has changed drastically in 3500 years and that’s the reason many 21st century readers struggle mightily with the brutality and violence of the ancient stories of the Great Story. If I want to understand the Great Story, I have to be willing to embrace that I will never fully understand ancient history yet embrace the understanding that it has value in the context of a larger eternal narrative.

On the other hand, I also find myself muttering that there is “nothing is new under the sun,” and the more things change the more they stay the same. In China, the government is persecuting people groups and religious groups within their population to try and stop their proliferation. They also have, over recent decades, infamously adopted birth control measures eerily similar to Pharaoh (e.g. allow the girls to live, but not the boys) in an effort to control the political and economic threat they feel from population growth. It also strikes me, as I mull things over, that the same tribalism at the root of the Egypt/Hebrew conflict presented in today’s chapter is at the root of everything from benign sports rivalries to toxic racial, social, nationalist, and religious prejudice. I also think of gangs, cartels, crime organizations, religious denominations, and political parties. Humans are still tribal in a myriad of ways.

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, told the story of the Good Samaritan, healed the child of a Roman Centurion, and sent His apostles to “ends of the earth” He was pushing His followers beyond their tribe. He prescribed a different type of conquest in which tribal boundaries are breached with love and proliferate generosity, understanding, forgiveness, repentance, and redemption. That’s the tribe with whom I ultimately wish to be associated.