I have the Don McLean classic American Pie going through my head in the quiet this morning. It’s funny how songs connect to so many thoughts and feelings. The first verse stirs so many memories of being a paperboy at the age of 12. Frigid Iowa mornings being the first person to see the headlines, and trudging in the dark before dawn hand-delivering newspapers to the doorsteps up and down the block.
McLean’s lyrics go like this…
A long, long time ago I can still remember how that music used to make me smile And I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance And maybe they’d be happy for a while But February made me shiver With every paper I’d deliver Bad news on the doorstep I couldn’t take one more step I can’t remember if I cried When I read about his widowed bride But something touched me deep inside The day the music died
I think the inspiration for those words has already been lost to most people. As Mclean’s lyric reveals, it was an event that became known as “The Day the Music Died.” A small plane crashed in an Iowa field and tragically took the lives of three of the most popular rock-and-roll musicians of their day: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 72, isn’t as meaningful to the causal reader without understanding the context of both the song and its placement in the larger work we know as the book of Psalms. As I’ve mentioned before, this anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics was compiled by unknown editors. They’ve been lost in the fog of history, but they probably did their compilation sometime around the time the Hebrews were in Exile in Babylon about 500-600 B.C.
The editors didn’t just throw the songs together willy-nilly. There was tremendous thought put into themes, authorship, chronology, and how the individual songs fit into the larger whole. The Psalms are actually broken up into five sections we call “Books.” As I mentioned in yesterday’s post/podcast, we’ve come to the end of Book II with Psalm 72. Most all of the songs lyrics in the anthology, thus far, have been penned by King David. Yesterday’s lyrics revealed David’s thoughts and expressions near the end of his life.
The final song of Book II is an abrupt transition. The liner notes reveal that it is “of” Solomon or “for” Solomon (perhaps both/and), the youngest son of David and the offspring of Bethsheba (yep, the woman with whom he had a scandalous affair). Psalm 72 is a coronation song, meant to be used during the public rituals when a new king is crowned. As if the meaning of this song coming immediately after David’s aged reflections in Psalm 71, and the fact that we’re at the end of Book II, wasn’t clear enough, the anonymous editors of the anthology added a line at the end of the lyrics:
This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.
Old things pass away. New things come.
David, the warrior-king, God’s minstrel, has passed on.
It was “the day the music died” for the Hebrew people.
Psalm 72 reads like an idyllic vision of monarchy. Like an inauguration speech from a new President, it is full of hope for a new leader who will rule with justice, end poverty, end violence, provide for those in need, be esteemed by world leaders, and be forever established as God’s person for the job. The vision is so idyllic that both Hebrew scholars and early followers of Jesus viewed the metaphors as layered with meaning both as a national anthem for the newly crowned Solomon, and a prophetic vision of the coming and reigning Messiah.
In the quiet this morning, my Enneagram Four-ness can’t shake the melancholy (go figure). A little boy delivering newspapers in the cold, inspired in the grief of a terrible tragedy. In tragics deaths of an Iowa winter, a seed is planted in that little boy which will one day creatively spring to life in a new song that will mesmerize the music world for generations.
What a beautiful image of creation, of life, death, and new life. That’s the theme. That’s the theme of the Great Story.
Creation, Garden, Fall, Salvation.
Birth, life, death, new life.
A time and a season for all things under the sun.
Old things pass away. New things come.
As the Mandalorians in Star Wars would say: “This is the way.”
So, no matter where the journey finds you today, in joy or grief, in melancholy or happiness, take courage, my friend. The best is yet to come.
This past weekend I enjoyed watching the full moon rising through our window on All Hallow’s Eve. It’s a rare occurrence. It was fun to have trick-or-treaters dressed up and ringing the doorbell on Saturday evening, though the numbers were certainly down in this year of COVID. On Saturday morning Wendy and I enjoyed FaceTime with our grandson, Milo, in his costume. We loved watching him do his rendition of a monster while mom and dad sang The Monster Mash.
For some, of course, Halloween is a time of celebrating fear. And, to be honest, I have never been into scary movies and stories when the intent is to create a false sense of fear in me. No, thank you. I’m happy to avoid fear when at all possible. I have enough experiences in life that create the real emotion of fear!
Today’s chapter, Psalm 56, is the second song David penned out of one very real and fearful moment in his life (the first song was Psalm 34). David found himself alone in the middle of his enemy’s walled city and gated city, surrounded by the enemy’s army. He went there to try to convince them to make an alliance with him as a mercenary, but then he suddenly realized that the enemy wanted to capture him and turn him over to King Saul and collect the bounty Saul had placed on his head. He was out-numbered, out-gunned, and seemingly out of options. He had every reason to be really, truly afraid.
Confession: Compared to David’s dire circumstances, any fearful moment in my life seems relatively silly. Sometimes comparison is good for a healthy dose of perspective, isn’t it?
Along life’s journey, I’ve found fear to be a debilitating emotion and acting out of fear to be spiritually counter-productive. I’ve observed that I can’t really walk in faith and fear at the same time. They cancel each other out. I’m either allowing one to control my thoughts, words, and actions, or the other.
What struck me in the lyrics of David’s song this morning is that he speaks of trusting God as a willful, conscious, intentional act:
When I am afraid I put my trust in you.
What does that look like? For me, it requires a conscious verbal commitment in which I acknowledge my fear and then tell God that I am choosing to trust Him. That might initially be a period of time in which I have a heart-to-heart conversation with God detailing my fears, anxieties, and worries. I might also spend some time meditating on past situations in which I felt afraid and God was faithful in getting me through. At some point I specifically verbalize it: “God, I’m choosing to put my trust in you.” I’ll also focus on a verse or verses of scripture like David’s prayer in Psalm 56:3 and memorize it.
Then as I’m going through my day and recognize the fear welling up inside me, I quietly restate that verse like a popcorn prayer.
I’ll think it. “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“
I’ll whisper it to myself as I’m sitting at my desk. “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“
If I’m alone I’ll even say it out loud: “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“
I might repeat it incessantly as a mantra:
“When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“ “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“ “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“
In the quiet this morning I find my thoughts swirling around the most contentious American presidential election in my lifetime. I have loved ones camped on both sides of the aisle. I long ago observed that politicians use fear of the other side as the core of their campaign playbook because they have long known that fear is the easiest tool to motivate humans to act. With that in mind, I enter this work week with the realization that my country is divided down the middle and the one thing we most have in common is fear of each others’ candidates.
Fear is spiritually counter-productive. I can’t walk in faith and fear at the same time. If I really believe what I say I believe, then, whatever happens, it will be part of this Great Story that is playing out across history.
And so I enter into this week acknowledging my fears and consciously choosing to trust the Author of Life. So, if you see me the next few days and I seem to be mumbling to myself, now you know what I’m mumbling
“When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“ “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“ “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“
You’re welcome to join me.
“When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“ “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“ “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.“
Earlier this sumer my dad found himself in the hospital for five days after suffering what was eventually diagnosed as a (thankfully) minor stroke. Being in the hospital meant that I had the honor of spending five days and four nights with my mother, who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It was the most uninterrupted time I’ve spent alone with my mother since childhood. I found it a fascinating opportunity to observe her life at this point in her journey through dementia, and to interact with her in her daily realities.
Let me begin by confessing that I am no expert in Alzheimers. Our daughter, Taylor, has had far more experience with, and education in, the tragic disease. I am, however, deeply versed in life with my mother. I began noticing the changes long before her diagnosis. Conversations with her, which have always been pleasant, meandering journeys slowly became stilted and repetitious. I began to realize that there were certain subjects that she clung to like a child hanging safely on to homebase in a neighborhood game. In retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue with her and our family long before it all came to light, as we learned that medications can successfully slow the disease’s progression. C’est la vie.
I also know that Alzheimer’s and Dementia experiences can vary widely depending the patient and his or her own unique circumstances. I am in no way implying that my observations are somehow applicable to every person who suffers from these terrible diseases. For what it is worth, I am merely recording some of the observations and lessons that came from my personal time with my own mother in her current stage of this tragic disease.
First, a few general observations about my mother’s current waypoint in the descent to the cognitive darkness of Alzheimer’s. She has yet to forget any of our family members, though the names and faces of life-long friends have begun to escape her. When talking to me, she now refers to my father as “my husband” as though her relationship with him and her relationship with me have been separated from the mental compartment of “family” into separately labled relationship compartments in her brain. Nevertheless, I am still able to enjoy her recognizing me when she sees me. She has yet to fail in greeting me with the pet name she’s had for me since childhood (“Hello, Tommy Jameses“) and extending her arms for an embrace.
I have heard it said that those with ALZ can sometimes become more childlike, and many become bitter, angry and even violent. Mom has occasionally had momentary flashes of uncharacteristic anger, though more often I’ve experienced that she now lets fly with a blunt honesty about people and things that she’s never exhibited before. To be honest, I tend to find it refreshing. I am thankful that she has mostly exhibited a sweet, childlike humor I’d never seen in her before.
Watching mom now often feels like peering into the little girl she must have been. She is playful and joyous in an almost exhibitionistic way. The woman who who raised me and my siblings was sweet and fun-loving, but she carefully guarded herself, her looks, her words, and her actions. For most of my childhood she wore a partial set of dentures. I can remember her never wanting anyone, even her children, seeing her without her partial in her mouth. The mom I spent five days with this summer could not only care less, but I expect she’d be happy to pull out her dentures and make a funny face to make me laugh. My mother has always been apropriately reserved and “mature” around a camera. Now if I pull out my phone to take a picture she starts hamming it up and making faces. A part of me asks, “Who is this woman who looks like my mother?” Then I realize that I’m probably seeing an entire side of my mother that has always been there. I just never saw it.
I spent my time with mom in quiet observation. Our days together had a certain cadence. We would rise and have breakfast together. We would ready ourselves and drive to the hospital where we sat with dad in his hospital room. Each day I would take mom out for lunch before returning to the hospital to spend the afternoon with dad. In the late afternoon we would return to their apartment at the retirement community, enjoy a bite together, and spend the evening watching television until mom was ready to retire.
I made a conscious effort not to intervene with mom in the time I spent with her. I’ve observed that her flashes of temper often come when she feels as though someone is telling her what to do or treating her like she’s incompetent. It’s much like a child who barks at a nagging parent and exclaims, “I can do it myself!” So, I never told her what to do or tried to control her in any way. I just let her do her thing and quietly paid close attention. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was only occasionally necessary to “suggest” that she might want to see if she’d taken her pills or double-check this-or-that. As long as I kept my voice tone pleasant and helpful, she always responded positively.
I discovered that she had a very specific routine each morning:
Turn on the coffee pot. This is always prepared before bed the night before, another part of her daily ritual.
Sit on the couch and turn on the television. Any morning news channel will do. It seemed to be randomly different each morning.
Drink one cup of coffee while watching television. She doesn’t really watch television or take anything in, but she likes to have it on. I think it allows her the illusion (for others) that she’s doing something while her mind struggles to make sense of her moment. Interestingly, when she watched baseball with me she would regularly comment on things that happened in the moment (e.g. “Boy, hit that ball a long way.”) which is something she didn’t really do with any other kind of program. One night I took her to Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. Surprisingly, she wanted to sit at the bar. She actually found all the television screens interesting. There was so much to look at and steal her attention.
Set the table for breakfast. This included placemats, spoons, and plates. The east and south sides of the table were where the settings went. This seemed important. If I was working on my laptop where the placemat was supposed to be set then I could tell this threw her off a wee bit, but didn’t rattle her.
Eat one yogurt with her second cup of coffee at the table. In the evening her meal was a Boost protein drink and another yogurt.
Wash her cup and spoon along with the coffee maker.
Go into the master bedroom/bathroom to get ready. Putting on make-up and “fixing herself” in front of the mirror is one of the things she gets lost in. One morning I finally had to “suggest” that we get going to the hospital in order to get her out of being lost in her endless loop of putting on and fixing her make-up.
I was pleased to observe that there were things that her routine helped her to remember and how much she still did without me prompting her. I watched her, at times, silently straining her mind to organize her world even if she quickly got lost in the process. If dad’s doctor started to give instructions she would get out a pen and note pad. She knew that she was supposed to do that. She might even pretend to pay attention and write “Dean’s Instructions” at the top of the page. Nothing else would be written as she would then get lost in another moment.
Much of my time spent with mom was me experimenting with, and even catering to, this playful, child-like spirit that has emerged in her as the Alzheimer’s has progressed.
Take chocolate malts for example. Mom’s appetite at this point is almost non-existent. A year-or-so ago her doctor said that she was, medically, at the point of starvation. Her weight was just under 90 lbs. Props to my dad and sister who have worked tirelessly to get her to eat. She’s gained weight and has been doing much better. Nevertheless, she is never hungry and will, like a child, refuse to eat almost anything you put in front of her. The one exception is chocolate malts.
Mom has developed an insatiable appetite for chocolate malts. When I asked her, “What sounds good to you?” it was the only answer she ever gave and she gave it every time. And, if I got her one she would actually eat the whole thing. So, I joyfully indulged her appetite. I mean, the woman’s almost starving and, in the near future, she’s going to forget the joy of tasting anything! Good nutrition, be damned! I decided that I would buy her chocolate malts as often as she’ll eat them. I soon learned that three chocolate malts a day was perfect.
Three times a day I would ask her “How about a chocolate malt?”
Every time I asked she’d look at me wide-eyed like a little little girl and responded, excitedly, “Oh, that sounds good!”
I started going to different places (DQ, Culvers, Bauders, Smokey Row, etc.) to see if she liked certain chocolate malts better than others. Smokey Row was clearly the winner, so that became our usual stop. It was during our thrice daily chocolate malt runs that I had another epiphany.
Mom’s ALZ has a certain repetition to it, but there’s also a routine to the repetition. Driving down I-235 always brought about the observation “I wouldn’t want to live in any of these houses along here.” Driving through the neighborhood around the hospital always brought out the comment, “I just love these big, old houses.” Pulling into a restaurant’s parking lot always brought out the comment, “Oh, I haven’t been to this place in a long time!” This statement was made the first time we pulled into the drive-through at Smokey Row even though I knew my mother had never been there before. And, it came out again four hours later when we returned for the chocolate malt she loved so well.
Two, make that three, observations sitting in the drive-through with mom at Smokey Row.
First, we often wax poetic in our culture about living in the moment:
“Forget the past.”
“Tomorrow is never promised.”
“Enjoy the moment.”
But, I find that we rarely do any of these things. We allow ourselves to be haunted by the past or refuse to deal with resentments, injuries, and relational baggage. We worry incessantly about tomorrow. We crank through our days with little or no introspection, observation, or enjoyment.
For my mother, the present moment is her only constant reality. The past is a fog. The future is cognitively unreachable. There is only this moment. Certain stimuli bring out the same reaction time and time again. I can’t will my mother to remember. I can’t correct her brainwaves to help her conceive of the future. I can only be her companion right now, in this very moment. My brain is the one that functions “normally.” When my mother’s “moment” repeats itself in intervals of five minutes or five hours I am the one who must compassionately choose to forget the last time it happened, let go of the annoyance I feel in the knowledge it will happen again (and again, and again, and again…), and simply be fully present with her in this moment.
There is also, I realized, compassion to be had for my father who is my mother’s constant companion on this journey. That was my second take-away from the moment.
I believe that my father’s Dutch sensibility long-ago convinced him that there is a black-and-white, right-and-wrong aspect to everything in life. Add to this a touch of perfectionism and he’s always been a bit OCD, and vocal, about the correct way to approach everything. My dad was a great accountant. The books always balanced perfectly. He was also a master craftsman with anything he built or made by hand.
Of course, living with a person who forgets almost everything means you’re living with a person who gets almost everything wrong. My father’s compulsion for everything to be right means that whatever is wrong must be corrected just like an incorrect number on the spreadsheet. Alas, correcting a person with ALZ is a fruitless, even counter-productive, exercise. Here I cross-reference the culturally popular definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You can correct my mother all you want, she’s going to make the same mistake when she repeats herself in five minutes. I’ve watched my dad struggle to adapt to these difficult new realities. He’s done remarkably well, considering.
Once again, I found child-like-ness to be a good vehicle to understand that I needed to surrender any compulsion I felt to correct my mother. Life for her, much like a child, is a never-ending game of pretend. Sometimes she doesn’t remember and I watch her make up an answer just like our daughters did when they were toddlers and you asked them a question that was just beyond their comprehension. Sometimes her brain is permanently confused about a fact or a memory, and nothing is going to change that.
Because she can’t remember the past, however, I began to notice that each moment can be a bit of an adventure, a new revelation, and an exploration. When I decided to play pretend with her and to even encourage it, I suddenly found it easier to give up any need I felt for anything she did or said to be right. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s a game, and I am simply playing along. And, I sometimes found it to actually be fun.
Which brings me to my third observation sitting in the Smokey Row drive-through. During our first visit that day I noticed a cemetery across the street. Mom was, as usual, staring out the passenger window trying to make sense of her moment.
“Look at that cemetery over there,” I said.
“Yeah,” she answered as she looked to where I pointed.
“They say people are just dying to get in there,” I dead-panned.
She laughed, and laughed, and laughed. “Oh, Tommy Jameses, you’re so funny!” she giggled.
When we returned a few hours later for her third chocolate malt of the day she experienced her routine “I haven’t been here for a long time” moment. It was then that I realized: If she forgot that she’d been there a few hours ago, then she also forgot my joke. So, like a stand-up comedian working a different audience at a different club on a different night, I used my cemetery joke again just as I had before. She thought it was hilarious again! She thought it was hilarious every time I used it (and, I used it a lot).
Yes, the repetition of my mother’s dementia can be really, really annoying, but it also affords me the opportunity of repeatedly giving her a laugh or a happy moment over and over again with minimal effort. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
As I began to embrace the fun of playing with my mom in her moments, I had other discoveries. I’d read that the Church of England has started to conduct services in which they’ve consciously returned to the hymns and liturgy of 60-80 years ago. They did this because church members with dementia remember and connect with the hymns and ritual in the compartments of long-term memory they could still access. This gave me an idea.
I know some of my mother’s favorite songs from her childhood. She used to tell me stories about playing the song Sh’ Boom by the Crew Cuts so many times that her father yelled at her. So, as we left the apartment to head to the hospital I pulled up Spotify and played Sh’ Boom. My mother came to life. She knew almost every word to the song and began dancing in her seat. I then queued up Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Doris Day. We sang together and danced in our seats together all the way to the hospital.
Then, we did it again the next day and the day after that. The moment was new to her every morning, and I had the joy of singing and dancing and sharing a special moment with my mother each time. I realized that these moments are all I have left with her in this life. Alzheimer’s will eventually steal them, too.
My father and my sister are my mother’s constant care-givers. I recognize that my time with mom is grossly minimal in comparison, and I honor their love and perseverance.
“Thank you for helping take care of me,” my mom, nevertheless, said repeatedly to me in the days I spent with her.
Each time she said it I repeated the same answer. “Are you kidding me? Mom, you gave me life. You and dad have given me so much over the years. Helping you out right now doesn’t even compare. I am so deep in your debt.”
Repeating that answer was somehow therapeutic for me, as was the realization that doing so brought to mind. I’d learned some important life lessons in those five days that I will always carry with me. I also enjoyed some precious moments of laughter and joy with my mother that I will always cherish. Even with Alzheimer’s, she was still giving.
All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a custom in Israel; they are recorded in the Laments. 2 Chronicles 35:24-25 (NRSVCE)
We don’t talk much about lament anymore which is a reality that I, well, lament. Lament is a great word that can either be used as a noun or a verb. When used in its verb form, it means to grieve and feel sorrow or loss. When used in its noun form, it points to a particular expression of grief. In history a lament was typically a song or a poetic lyric used during periods of grief. It’s the ancient ancestor of the blues.
In today’s chapter, the Chronicler adds a curious detail to the death of Josiah that he has used with no other King in all the biographical accounts he’s provided in the previous 34 chapters. He explains that the prophet Jeremiah (an all-star prophet) had uttered a lament for Josiah and that the choirs of Judah had sung laments for Josiah even to the Chronicler’s day. Generations later, they felt Josiah’s loss and continued to sing the blues.
This morning in the quiet the Chroniclers detail brought to mind an old-timey bluegrass ballad called Who Will Sing for Me? It’s got me thinking and meditating on the idea that how we live our daily lives in the present will affect how others will feel our loss when this earthly journey is over. How interesting that Josiah was lamented, but the Chronicler didn’t say that of Asa, or Manasseh, or Hezekiah. Josiah was lamented for generations.
As I begin this week I’m enter into the task list asking myself how I’m living this journey and what kind of difference I’m making. It has me mulling over a simple question in the back of my head: Who Will Sing for Me?
While they were bringing out the money that had been brought into the house of the Lord, the priest Hilkiah found the book of the law of the Lord given through Moses. 2 Chronicles 34:14 (NRSVCE)
I was just 14 years old when I decided to become a follower of Jesus. The first thing I did after making that decision was to begin reading the Living Bible that I’d received for my confirmation a few years before with it’s puke green, imitation leather cover. I’d learned about the Bible all my life. I’d read verses from it, but I’d never really read it. Somehow I knew as I launched out on my faith journey that I had to read the Book for real.
A short time later I had an after school job and my boss asked if I’d like to do a Bible study together. I jumped at the chance. Every Tuesday morning at 6:00 a.m. we met together in his office. One of the first things he had me do was memorize Joshua 1:8:
This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. (FYI, I typed this from memory. It’s still in there!)
That first memorized verse set the course for me spiritually. I have been journeying through God’s Message ever since. The Book is the source material of faith. I have read it through in a year. I’ve read it in different translations and paraphrases. I have studied it academically. I have studied it alone and in groups. I have memorized parts of it. I keep plumbing the depths, discovering new layers, and finding new meaning as I make my way through it again and again from altogether different waypoints in my own Life journey. (And, I continue to read it with those few brave souls who follow along here a chapter a day!)
In today’s chapter we are nearing the end of the Chronicler’s historical summary of the Kings of Judah. Mannaseh had reigned for fifty-five years and the nation had fallen back into its idolatrous ways. Now young Josiah becomes King and leads the people in a revival back to the God of their ancestors. First, he gets rid of all the idols in the land, then he begins a restoration campaign of the Temple of Solomon. This was not a quick process. The restoration of the Temple began 18 years into Josiah’s reign. During the restoration they discovered the Book of the Law (what we would know today as Genesis through Deuteronomy). In other words, the source material of the Hebrew faith had been lost and forgotten for years. They didn’t even know where it was, let alone did they remember what was in it!
How long had they been stumbling along without the source material of their faith? What were they relying on to inform them, encourage them, and instruct them? Oral tradition? The memory of old priests? How did they know they were living in accordance with God’s Law if they didn’t even have a copy of the Law to reference? The discovery of the Book of the Law was huge, as we’ll find out in the final few chapters of Chronicles.
This morning I’m thinking about my never-ending journey through the Book and the Great Story. How different my journey would be without this Source of wisdom, history, instruction, inspiration, encouragement, admonishment, and insight. I’m so thankful I took Joshua 1:8 to heart. I’m so grateful that I’ve not had to fly blind in my faith journey, that I’ve had the Book as my Source material.
The Lord said to Moses,“These are the names of the men who are to assign the land for you as an inheritance….” Numbers 34:16-17a (NIV)
I called my parents yesterday afternoon as I journeyed home from some afternoon meetings. My dad was at his weekly poker game with the boys but mother picked up the phone. This was a pleasant surprise. As mom’s Alzheimer’s progresses she is less and less apt to pick up the phone if my dad is not around. We enjoyed a pleasant conversation and a few laughs together, though I knew with near certainty that within a few minutes she would forget that I had called and all that had been said between us. Mom’s journey with Alzheimer’s continually reminds me to fully enjoy the moment. I am equally reminded that the opportunity for even these passing moments will soon be gone.
Yesterday I wrote about the new stage of life into which Wendy and I are about to embark. We are being ushered into this new stage, in part, by the impending arrival of our grandson (get ready for grandpa’s photo barrage next week!).
One generation fading. Another generation arriving.
We are almost at the end of our chapter-a-day journey through the book of Numbers. In this morning’s chapter God provides Moses with a list of tribal leaders who will assist in the division and establishing of tribal boundaries in the Promised Land. If you remember, the very first chapter of Numbers had a list of tribal leaders who were to help Moses with a census of the tribes. The names in today’s list are different. They are different because an entire generation has passed between chapters 1 and 34. A new generation of leaders has taken over.
Welcome to life’s realities. One generation passes, another generation emerges. Life goes on.
Along my personal journey I’ve interacted with many, many people. In my personal life I’ve had the privilege of blessing babies, officiating weddings, baptizing people, and presiding over funerals. In my professional vocation I’ve had the opportunity of working with businesses, owners, leaders, and employees as they transition through organizational changes, leadership changes, and ownership changes. It’s fascinating to walk with people through life’s transitions.
I have experienced that the fear and anxiety I talked about in yesterday’s post (you can read it here) is common to all of us. It’s intrinsically human to have fears and anxieties when transition occurs. Fear is what God created within us as a survival instinct.
I observe, however, that we respond differently to that fear and anxiety churning within us by:
shrugging off the changes and going with the flow
leveraging the transition for personal advantage
embracing the transition, even assisting it
I’d like to think that my experiences have led me to a better understanding of how to manage my own fears and anxieties. I can’t stop change and transitions any more than I can give my mom her memory back. Acknowledging my fears, naming them, and sharing them with a capable confidant is my first step in managing change and transition well. That helps me embrace the changes and frees my spirit to be able to find the good things within it.
One generation passes. Another generation arrives. Life moves on.
Just yesterday, in a Facebook post, I was reminded of my college days and my dear group of friends from Judson Theatre. It’s funny how one thought leads to another. I went to bed thinking about my friends and my college days. Perhaps that’s why this morning I was reminded in my quiet time of a word picture one of my profs shared in a chapel service. It’s a word picture I’ve never truly forgotten, though I have to dust it off once in a while on a day like today.
Picture a person walking across the platform facing backward, but with his/her hand stretched out behind their back as if being led. This, my prof argued, was what God continually asks us to do. Hold out our hand to be led by Him, but perpetually face backward. Look back across the journey and remember all of the ways God proved faithful: providing needs, guiding, leading, fulfilling promises, healing, restoring, and filling.
This is what the Hebrews did. This is why their exodus from slavery in Egypt is referenced time and time again. It’s referenced by the prophets Haggai, Micah, Amos, Hosea, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. It’s referenced again and again throughout the Psalms. As they progressed on their journey through history they have continually looked backwards and remembered all that God has done to faithfully guide, lead, and preserve.
Why? Because remembering all that God has done before reminds me that I can have faith and be confident that God will see me through whatever I might be going through today.
This all came to mind while reading today’s chapter. The author of Hebrews perpetuates the walking backwards word picture by urging his/her readers “Remember those earlier days…” and references a particular period in which the early Christians were persecuted severely. God had brought them faithfully through the persecution. The author then ends the paragraph with “So do not throw away your confidence.” There it is. Turn backwards. Remember. Then have faith. Press on confidently with your hand outstretched to be led.
This morning I’m thinking about the road lying before me on this life journey. I have many questions about where the path is leading. I also confess to more than occasional bouts with fear, doubt and anxiety. I’ve been reminded this morning by a memory and a word picture from college. I’m taking a little time in the quiet to glance backward instead of ahead. I’ve been following Jesus on this life journey for over 36 years. I’ve experienced many things from God’s miraculous power to God’s presence and peace amidst tough times to God’s quiet faithfulness in the everyday mundane. In the remembering I’m reminded that I can trust God’s power, presence, peace and faithfulness for the road ahead, as well.
Hand outstretched, I’m going to keep walking backwards…confidently.
“The following are the kings of the land whom Joshua and the Israelites defeated….” Joshua 12:7a (NRSV)
In the fall of this year, Wendy is scheduled to direct a musical for our local community theatre called The Christmas Post. She’s directed it twice before. It’s been ten years since the last time. Yesterday Wendy was putting together some of the required paperwork and she handed me a list of all the shows she’s been involved in over the past 11 years. It filled the better part of a page, single-spaced.
“Oh my gosh,” she exclaimed as she held up the list for me to look at. “This is a lot of shows! You don’t think about it until you really write it all down and see the whole list!”
She is right, of course. Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that it’s good to recount things. Just think about the word: re-count. Count it again. Make a list. Go over the list. Think about it. I have always had a bent towards history and nostalgia, so perhaps it comes a bit more naturally to me. Nevertheless, I’ve found it worthwhile. Recounting things reminds you of where you’ve been, which gives you perspective of where you are, which then helps you make informed decisions about where you’re going, which helps you choose the next step.
Recounting can also remind you of what God has done in the past, which strengthens the faith you need in the moment, so that you can press on in the journey to which He has called you. It is a repetitive theme throughout God’s Message: Remember these things. Teach them to your children. Don’t forget this story. Feast each year and recount what happened. Count your blessings and name them one-by-one. “As often as you do this, remember me.”
Today’s chapter is not exactly full of inspiration. It’s simply a recounting of the kings who Josh and the 12 Tribes defeated. But it serves as a reminder that sometimes it’s good to re-count. Recount the good times. Recount the times God answered a prayer. Recount what got me to this place. Recount the lessons I’ve learned.
I grew up in a middle class family in Des Moines with my parents and three siblings. It was a great childhood, and my folks provided for our every need. At the same time, there were not a lot of extras in life.
As the youngest of the four, I was used to hand-me-downs. I got my big sib’s clothes, toys, books, and games. As much as I’d like to whine about this in retrospect, I don’t remember feeling cheated as a kid. This was simply the reality. I knew no different. Times were tough and you do the best you can with what you have.
There was a period of years in my childhood in which my parents decided that each Christmas they would do a little something extra for one of the kids. As the youngest, the fact that one of us got a little more than the others was not something I noticed. I must have been so enamored by my G.I. Joe with kung fu grip that I didn’t notice the extra presents in Jody’s pile.
Then it happened to be my year to get a little extra. I distinctly remember being shocked and amazed that everyone had unwrapped all their gifts but there were still more gifts for me! That was the year I got a train set and this, to me, was a genuine Christmas miracle. You see, we had this dog eared copy of the Sears Wish Book catalog that sat on the edge of the bath tub for bathroom reading. There were toys in the catalog that I knew from experience Santa might bring me. Then there were toys that I’d come to realize, in the economy of the North Pole, my good deeds could never afford. Train sets were definitely on the latter list.
Years later I still have fond memories of that special Christmas when there were a few extra presents under the tree for me. Besides the train set, I have no recollection what the gifts were. I’ve come to realize that the greatest gift that year was my parents making me feel loved in a special way. I unwrap that gift every year when my memories take me back to The Big Christmas.
If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt…. Deuteronomy 7:17-18 (NRSV)
There is a technical term used in movie making called “shift focus.” It’s when the camera is focused on one object while another object in the shot is blurry, then then camera shifts the focus so that the other object is in focus and the first object blurs out. Filmmakers use this technique to transition the audience’s attention and to move the story along.
When things in life go wrong and times are tough, it’s easy to get myopically focused on our present circumstances. Our brains zero in on what’s happening in the moment and, as a result, our hearts can drive all sorts of negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, doubt and depression. These emotions can be spiritually crippling and paralyzing.
In today’s chapter, Moses anticipates that his people may find themselves in such circumstances. He instructs them to do a mental and spiritual shift focus as an antidote to their fears: remember.
Remember when you were slaves in Egypt and God delivered you.
Remember when the plagues hit and you remained safe.
Remember when the Egyptian army was chasing you and God miraculously saved you and gave you victory.
He could have gone on:
Remember when you thirsty and God provided water from a rock.
Remember when you were hungry and God sent bread from heaven.
Remember when you wandered and God sent both cloud and fire to lead you.
The shift focus from our present circumstances to past situations reminds us that God has been faithful in the past (So why shouldn’t I believe He will be faithful in my current situation?), that we survived in the past (So why shouldn’t I believe I’ll get through this), and that things eventually worked out (So why shouldn’t I trust that my current situation will work out, too?). The result is that our faith begins to counter our fear and our paralysis gives way to us moving forward.
Today, I’m reminded of the many times God has provided and protected me through the years. Why then, should I fear present troubles?