Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. Genesis 26:3 (NIV)
When I was a kid growing up in Des Moines, one of the local television stations showed a movie every weekday afternoon. There would be a fifteen-minute news segment at noon, followed by the Floppy Show which would show two Looney Tunes cartoons, followed by a movie. I rarely watched the movies because they didn’t appeal to me, but every once in a while they would show a Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movie and it was like hitting the jackpot.
For those who are unaware, Jerry Lews and Dean Martin were a blockbuster comedy duo back in the fifties during the early days of Las Vegas and the Rat Pack. Jerry Lewis was the geeky, manic, physical comedian and Dean Martin was the gorgeous hunk who could croon and make the ladies swoon. Between 1949 and 1956 they made sixteen successful movies together. Together with their Vegas act, they were the biggest thing in show business for about ten years. Then the dynamic duo suddenly split forever.
One of the reasons for the split was that Dean Martin got tired of playing the “straight man” to Jerry’s kinetic comedic talent and energy. Every great story has characters who could be labeled the “straight person.” They hold the story together, they are the conduit through which the story flows, but they aren’t the star and don’t get the good bits. Show business is full of actors who have successfully appeared in countless films and television shows. You know the faces but you don’t know the names.
This came to mind this morning as I mulled over the person of Isaac. I noticed in yesterday’s chapter that while Abraham’s story took 13 chapters, and Isaac didn’t show up until the ninth chapter. Isaac only has a couple of chapters as the patriarch before he’s old and weak in the eyes. From the perspective of story-telling, Issac is a “straight man.” He almost gets sacrificed by his dad. He gets married. He fathers twins. He wanders around Canaan digging wells. Suddenly he’s old and the story has completely shifted to his sons.
This resonates with me because as an Enneagram Four, my core motivation is to feel a special sense of purpose and significance. That lends itself to desiring the starring roles, and I confess to enjoying those opportunities. It also lends itself to a core pain in which any purpose or significance is “never enough.” Along my life journey, however, I’ve struggled to embrace the truth about human systems. Every one has a role to play to make the system healthy and successful. There are nine Enneagram Types and we need everything that every Type brings to the table of life. Followers of Jesus are considered “the body of Christ” and Paul makes it clear that every member of the body is necessary whether you’re a vital organ or a nail on the little toe.
Isaac’s part in the Great Story is minor compared to his father and his son. He’s a straight man. He’s the conduit through which the story flows from Abraham to Jacob. But to this day, God is regularly named “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Isaac nailed his part in the greatest story ever told.
So, in the quiet this morning, I find myself with what is a much-needed reminder given the core motivations of my heart. “There are no small parts,” they say, “only small actors.” It’s true. Some of my favorite roles have been the smallest of roles. Nevertheless, I confess that it’s good for me to be reminded of this on a regular basis.
By the way, the end of today’s chapter states that Esau married two Hittite women who “were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.” Ironically, another reason for the split between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis is that their wives didn’t get along.
There’s nothing new under the sun.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
In my mind’s eye, I can vividly see my Grandpa Spec sitting at the head of his dining room table during a family meal, smoking his Dutch Masters cigar. There was a humor with which he approached life that always endeared me to him. I loved being his little shadow. It was only as an adult, as I learned his story, that I fully appreciated his humble and quiet joy.
On Spec’s 10th birthday he came home from school to find the remains of his father’s suicide. His mother sent him to be raised by his grandparents, while she kept his little brother and sister. He came of age during the Great Depression, got married nevertheless, almost lost his wife to childbirth, and scratched out a living in the tire business. He had so much to be bitter about. He had so many reasons to play the victim card, but he didn’t.
From the head of the table, cigar in hand, Grandpa would often smile, pound his fist on the table, and with a gleam in his eye insist, “I’m the king of this castle!” It was part of a never ending dance of teasing between he and Grandma Golly. They needled one another mercilessly whether they were competing at cards or betting on the World Series. In response to Grandpa’s claim to the throne, grandma hung a decorative plaque above the kitchen sink (Grandpa always did the dishes) which read, “I’m the boss of this house, and I have my wife’s permission to say so.”
As I read today’s chapter, Psalm 145, anew this morning, it was the first verse that leapt off the page at me. King David, the greatest King in Hebrew history, sings an exaltation to God whom he refers to as “my king.” The King has a King.
It’s hard for a modern reader to understand how this sentiment ran against the grain of the popular monarchy playbook of his times. Kings wanted the masses under control. Kings wanted an air of undisputed authority. Kings wanted people to fear them. To achieve these ends, Kings claimed to be gods. They might worship other deities for good measure, but they demanded that their people view them as a god themselves.
David always saw himself as a servant of the One True King of heaven. Having read all of his lyrics in the Psalms about enemies within his own kingdom seeking to slander and supplant him, I begin to wonder how much easier his reign might have been had he followed the playbook. But that’s what made David different, and God saw it in him when David was a shepherd-boy, the runt of Jesse’s litter of sons. Samuel balked. God assured the prophet. “He’s a man after my own heart.” David is humble. He acknowledges his role in the Great Story. He fully embraces position and place as God’s partner in the Divine Dance.
“I’m king of the Hebrews! And, I have God, my King’s, permission to say so.”
In my mind’s eye, I now distinctly see Grandpa Spec sitting on his glider rocker. He’s shirtless and wearing an old pair of shorts. (He might have central air-conditioning, but one doesn’t want to resort to that unless one has to. The Great Depression taught him many things. Frugality was at the top of the list). He is smoking his pipe now. It’s a summer afternoon and he is listening to the baseball game on the transistor radio. He survived many tragedies and trials on his life journey, but he humbly pressed on with simple faith and determination to do the right. He is king of his castle, and like David, eternally grateful to the King of Heaven for the blessing of his little three-bedroom, quarter-acre kingdom on the east side of Des Moines. He is the servant of his wife, and his family.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself reviewing my own “place and position.” Over the past year, I’ve observed that it’s easy, even fashionable, to feel the heady satisfaction of pious self-rule, then proudly take to the no-man’s-land of social media to stake one’s claim of divine-rightness and lord one’s opinions and world-view upon others, demanding submission upon threat of being sentenced to relational exile.
I don’t want to do that.
I want to try and follow David’s example, and Grandpa Spec’s example. I want the last song in my life’s anthology to be like Psalm 145, ascribing anything I’ve gained and every blessing I’ve been afforded to my King. In fact, when it comes right down to being the person Jesus asks me to be I must accept that I am Lord of no one. I am a servant of all.
God, help me to fully embrace that role today in thought, word, and deed.
I have heard it said that there are three things that most commonly lie at the root of marital discord: money, sex, and the division of labor. Based on my own experience, I can believe it to be true. Each of them requires the negotiation of power and responsibility within the relationship. With the division of labor within a relationship and household, my experience is that it can take time to understand one another’s strengths, abilities, interests, disinterests, and quirks in order to get into a good groove.
Within any human system, there is a structure of power and responsibility. In some cases, that structure is well-defined and ordered like a community organization with by-laws run by Robert’s Rules of Order. Companies have organizational charts to define who answers to whom. My observation is that the more intimate and small the system, the more difficult things can get. And I’m not even talking about the passive-aggressive ways power can be manipulated within a system.
One of the fascinating things I find about the Exodus epic is that we get to observe the organization of a nation. From Genesis 12 through today’s chapter the narrative moves from one man, Abram, who becomes the father of Isaac and the grandfather of Jacob. Jacob then has 10 sons and two grandsons settled in Egypt during a famine. They are eventually enslaved but over hundreds of years grow exponentially into the 12 tribes who leave Egypt. They are now officially a large people group, a small nation, and they’ve got to figure out how they are going live and govern.
In today’s chapter, we find that the org chart for this emerging nation has just one box on it. Moses is a one-man show, and he’s handling everything. Now, along my journey, I’ve led small teams, a small church, a small community organization, and a small business. They have all been incredibly challenging experiences. I can’t even imagine the headaches Moses had trying to lead a million people and their livestock through the wilderness. That’s, like, a form of slow, painful suicide.
Moses’ wise father-in-law immediately sees that, too. He helps Moses get organized. There are capable leaders all around. Every human system is an organism with lots of individual parts with individual gifts and abilities to contribute to the good of the whole. So, Moses essentially adds four management levels to the org chart and appoints leaders for every five, ten, hundred, and thousand people complete with a multi-layered process of appeal. It works.
I’m reminded this morning of the early Jesus’ movement who organized in a similar fashion. The word picture given was that of a body. Each member is a part of that body and serves in an indispensable role in the healthy function of that body. No one person can do it all. Every person contributes to the whole just like every cell in my body plays a part in my health and life.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back at various leadership roles I’ve had along the way. As a capable individual, there have been plenty of times in which I took on way more organizational responsibility than I should have. While it may have worked for a while, I eventually burned out and others missed out on using their gifts and the fulfillment that accompanies being a part. Of course, there are always issues and struggles that come along with any human system. They’re always messy. But, like Moses found out, a system always runs better when every part of that system knows its part, is in the right functional role, and knows that it is contributing to the life and health of something greater.
How am I doing in the various systems in my life? My marriage, my family, my job, my local gathering of Jesus’ followers? Am I in the right roles? Do I know where I best contribute? Am I contributing to the health and life of each system? Am I taking on responsibilities for which I’m not really suited? Am I finding purpose and goodness in them?
All good questions to reflect on as I enter back into another day in the journey.
Have a great day, my friend!
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Those who are even occasional readers of my posts know that I often make reference to the Enneagram. We were first introduced the Nine Types by our daughter many years ago. As it’s grown in popularity, we have been asked to introduce it and discuss it with various groups. We are, by no means, experts. We have simply shared our personal experiences of understanding and how the Enneagram has helped our relationship as we have come to understand and appreciate one another in deeper ways.
Over the years we’ve had many, many conversations with individuals, couples, and groups about the Enneagram. Of course, one of the first questions that is asked is, “Do you know what type you are?” Wendy and I quickly began noticing a certain pattern among women who are card-carrying followers of Jesus living primarily in Christian community.
They almost all say they are Type Twos (a.k.a. “The Helper”). Here’s the summary description of Type Two from the Enneagram Institute:
Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing. They are well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs. At their Best: unselfish and altruistic, they have unconditional love for others.
The problem, of course, is that it’s not possible for 80-90% of Christian women to be Twos. Either only females who are Twos follow Jesus, or those who do follow Jesus are miraculously transformed into Twos by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As Wendy and I pondered and contemplated this phenomenon, we came to the realization that “Twos” sound eerily similar to the ideal wife and mother described in the epilogue of Proverbs; She is otherwise known as “The Proverbs 31 Woman.” Motherhood, in and of itself, requires the actions of self-sacrifice and unselfishness that come naturally to Twos. Yet, a person’s Enneagram Type is not rooted in actions, but motivations. I have come to believe that many individuals fall prey to this confusion. They may project themselves to be, or truly desire themselves to be, that idealized version of womanhood that both the church and Christian community have relentlessly told them they should be.
In today’s chapter, the book of ancient wisdom ends with a rather eloquent description of a “wife of noble character.” She’s the picture-perfect supportive spouse who is an asset to her husband’s public image and career. She’s the super-charged industrial homemaker and the perfect mix of Joanna Gaines and Martha Stewart. Her clothes, decor, and children are all Pinterest-worthy. She’s tireless and shrewd. She’s the undisputed CEO of the home which always runs with efficiency, organization, productivity, timeliness, and keeps the household budget always in the black. She is intelligent, spiritual, and practically wise; a combination of Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker. Her children think she’s the coolest mom in the world, and they all dutifully reflect her Proverbs-Thirty-One-ness in dress, appearance, and behavior. Her husband would never look twice at any of the “wayward” and “adulterous” women that Proverbs has been incessantly mentioning for thirty chapters, and this is because…well…while charm may be deceptive and beauty fleeting, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” actually has those, too! She’s the whole package.
Except, no woman is all these things. In my almost 40 year journey of being an adolescent-to-adult male and a follower of Jesus, I’ve never met a Proverbs 31 Woman. I’ve met women who seem to look like her. They project her image, but it’s never real. She’s just an air-brushed model on a magazine cover painted and lit to look like the ideals of maternal, marital, and spiritual virtue.
I’m probably going to get into trouble writing this, but let me share with you the observation of an old dude who’s spent his entire life surrounded by and in relationships with amazing girls and women.
Unintentionally, the book of Proverbs can easily do a disservice to the women in my life. The ancient sages Solomon, Agur, and Lemuel lived in a brutal, patriarchal society that developed out of a need for a strict social order (as I explored yesterday) to ensure survival. Women are presented in Proverbs in a binary fashion: bad (wayward, adulterous, contentious, quarrelsome) or ideal (The Proverbs 31 Woman). So, lady, what’s it going to be? Do you want to be good or bad? And, if you want to be good, then you must be ideal.
I’ve observed along my journey that the women in my life often allow themselves to fall into these binary mental traps: fat or skinny, beautiful or ugly, sexy or lonely, smart or dumb, popular or not, trendy or so-not-with-it, and etc. So, what I’ve observed happening are perpetual cycles of pressure, hopelessness, despair, striving, depression, and never-ending comparison to others hoping (and/or judging) “If I’m not ideal then at least I’m better than….”
So, I’m going to wade into dangerous territory this morning and I beg your grace and forgiveness upfront. If this old husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, employer, mentor, colleague, neighbor, and friend were to re-define what Proverbs calls a “woman of noble character” for all the amazing women in my life it would go something like this:
A Becoming Woman
If you find a becoming woman, you are blessed.
She is learning to embrace the individual, in mind, body (all of it), and spirit just as her loving Creator intentionally and uniquely knit her DNA together.
She has made an honest inventory of both her personal strengths and her intimate struggles; She is persevering in her efforts to build on the former while diminishing the latter.
She seeks roles and positions that make the most of her unique gifts and abilities, though they may not fit the dreams she once had, the norms of her community, or the expectations that others have placed on her.
She is learning how to accept God’s grace and forgiveness for all of the mistakes, faults, imperfections, and sins that she knows so well, even when others have not forgiven her; She is learning how to be gracious with herself, letting go of her own desires for perfection. She embraces the knowledge that she’ll still be learning all of these things when she reaches the end of this earthly journey.
She loves her husband and children genuinely, sometimes passionately, though often deficiently. She embraces the journey of becoming that is being a friend, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She presses on, neither denying the many faults and mistakes of her past nor becoming complacent in the onward journey of becoming that is always leading her further up and further in.
She is doing her best for her family even though it feels like a thankless task most days. She is struggling constantly against the lie that she is a hopeless failure in her role and responsibilities. She is learning to let it go when all that she has already done is summarily ignored while the incessant demands for more keep building up, seemingly with every moment.
She is realizing that the Creator has lovingly made each of her children as unique as she, herself, is unique. She desires that each of them becomes the individual God has made them to be. She desires that each child discover the unique purposes God has for them, even as she’s learning in fits and starts to let go of her own personal desires and expectations which can feel so instinctual and can be so strong at times.
She is learning to care more about the emotional and spiritual needs of her child than she cares about how her child’s appearance, actions, achievements, failures, words, and/or behaviors might influence how others, especially other women, in the community perceive her and her mothering skills.
She is purposefully mindful of her own needs and is learning that taking care of herself in mind, body, and spirit is necessary to manage every other role and relationship in her life.
She is purposefully mindful of her husband’s needs. She is learning to meet the unique needs that fill his love tank (though it may not fill hers), speak his unique love language (though she may not be fluent), and to be gracious with his unique shortcomings as she needs him to be gracious with hers. She is learning to encourage his own unique gifts, strengths, and purposes even when she realizes that they aren’t what she once thought they were or what she wants them to be.
She has surrounded herself with other good women who know her faults and love her anyway and who speak truth into her even when she doesn’t want to hear it. They are present even when time and/or miles create physical separation. They pick her up when she is down. They cheer her on in her endeavors and celebrate her in her accomplishments. They struggle through and survive relational strife with one another, learn to forgive one another, and graciously walk life’s journey together all the days of their lives.
She is learning, persevering, seeking, letting go, embracing, pressing on, realizing, desiring, purposeful, struggling, endeavoring, loving, giving, caring, forgiving, and she is surrounded.
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Luke 24:9-11 (NIV)
Of the three authors of Jesus’ biographies (aka “the Gospels”), Dr. Luke is known for his attention to details not found in the other three. One of these details that stands out for me is the attention he gives to the women among Jesus’ entourage and inner circle.
Much earlier in his accounts, Luke shares with us that a group of women were traveling with Jesus and the Twelve. They were also financially supporting His miraculous mystery tour around the shores of Galilee:
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Luke 8:1-3 (NIV)
Contemporary followers of Jesus don’t give enough attention and credit to Jesus for radically shifting the status of women in Hebrew and Roman society. The status of women in those days was as poor as it has been throughout most of history. Women were perceived and treated as inferior to men. One of the daily prayers that a good Hebrew man would recite thanked God that he was not born a woman, a dog, or a Gentile. It was socially unacceptable for a man to speak to a woman in public. Freeborn women in the Roman Empire fared somewhat better than women in Hebrew world of Judea, but not much.
Jesus was a game-changer. He broke with convention. He spoke to women publicly. He touched them, healed them, and treated them with love and grace. It is no wonder then, that women would be among his most staunch supporters. I also find it fascinating that among the inner circle of female advocates is Joanna, the wife of the head of King Herod’s household. Another fact comes to my mind this morning that among all the accounts of Jesus’ kangaroo court trials before the Jewish High Priest, the Jewish religious authorities, the Roman Governor Pilate, and the Judean King Herod, there is only one person who speaks up on Jesus’ behalf. The wife of Pontius Pilate sent her husband a private message urging him not have anything to do with Jesus and all of the turmoil being stirred up against Him.
In the years to follow, the spread of the Jesus movement was, in part, fueled by the fact that the status of women within the movement broke with social convention. “In Christ,” Paul wrote, “there is neither male or female.” When Jesus followers gathered for their love feasts women were welcome at the table with men. It may seem like a baby step in contrast to modern society, but in the day it was a major game-changer. It should also be noted that once the Jesus Movement became an institution called the Holy Roman Empire, women were quickly stripped of what gains in status that they had been enjoying.
In the quiet this morning I find it, therefore, worth pondering that in yesterday’s chapter Luke makes it clear that it was the women of Jesus’ inner circle who followed Jesus to the cross and witnessed the entire bloody affair while the men were hiding in fear for their lives. In today’s chapter it was the women to whom word of the resurrection was first given, and the men who concluded that the silly women were being non-sensical.
“According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.” Esther 1:15 (NIV)
In the days after the end of Game of Thrones, I have suffered a bit of withdrawal. I know I am not alone in this. While nothing in the current entertainment market is going to really compare to the epic series, of late I have been catching up on the series, The Last Kingdom, (on Netflix) which has enjoyably filled the void. It follows the life of a young English noble who is captured and raised by Vikings while his uncle claims the title and land rightfully his by birth. The series is set in a period of actual history when Vikings threatened to conquer all the kingdoms of the British isle while Alfred the Great sought to join the disparate Kingdoms of the isle into one united England.
One of the interesting themes that I have noticed of late in multiple series and movies set in medieval times is how the role of women is handled. Certainly, the dark ages and middle ages were a time in which women had little or no social standing. Daughters of nobility were married off to create political alliances. Writers seem to enjoy creating female characters of strength and courage who challenge and undermine the status quo of that time. I laughed a lot as I watched the character of Brida (played expertly by Emily Cox) in The Last Kingdom (who, like the male protagonist was a young Brit captured and raised as a pagan Viking) who re-enters English society and all of the male priests and nobles have no idea how to handle this strong, fiery, female warrior. Earl the Bruce’s wife in the movie Outlaw King (also on Netflix) is another recent example.
Today we begin another chapter-a-day journey through the book of Esther. Along with the stories of Daniel and Jonah, which we just blogged through in the past few months, Esther is set in the period of exile when many of the Hebrew people were living in exiled captivity to a successive series of foreign empires (Babylonian, Mede, and Persian). Esther is one of the most enjoyable and unique reads in the entirety of God’s Message.
The first chapter sets the scene as the Persian Queen, Vashti, refuses her intoxicated husband’s demand that she present herself to him and the drunken, seven-day binge of a frat-boy party that he and his court were having. King Xerxes wanted to serve his wife up to be sexually ogled by his “noble” entourage. When Vashti has the self-respect and courage to refuse her husband’s demand, the boys decide that she must be punished so that all women would know their place and all men could cement their power over their wives and households.
Today’s chapter sets the scene for the story on which we are about to embark. It establishes the setting in an ancient culture in which men systemically dominated politics, society, and culture. Women had little or no power, and to challenge the system – even for the best of reasons – could lead to very negative consequences. The Hebrews, as a people living in exile, understood this position of powerlessness.
As I think about the historical setting of the story of Esther, of the courage of Vashti to stand up to her drunken husband, and the examples of strong women in weak social positions that I’ve been watching of late, I can’t help but think of my wife and my daughters. God has surrounded me with strong women whom I greatly respect. I am partnered with a fiery, Enneagram 8 of a wife, who compliments and challenges me in all sorts of healthy ways. I also know, however, that most of human history would not have treated her and her God-given temperament kindly, despite what Hollywood writers portray as they try to bring 9th-century realities to 21st-century audiences.
In the quiet this morning I find myself excited to once again wade through the amazing story of Esther. It reminds me of the spiritual paradoxes that lie at the heart of being a follower of Jesus: that strength is found in weakness, that spiritual power is often unleashed in temporal impotence, and that the power of Life is found on the other side of death.
The very first role I had in a main stage production was my freshman year in high school. I played the role of Junior Babcock in the musical Mame. Remember that one? Didn’t think so. I still remember the day scripts were handed out. My script had one page in it which contained both of my monumental lines along with the last few words of the “cue line” or the line just before mine. That was it. I had no idea what the context of my lines or where it fit into the storyline of the musical.
I had a great experience in Mame. Along with my walk on, walk off part as Junior Babcock I got to sing and dance in the chorus. I learned the jazz square. I dressed in a tuxedo for the first time. I met a ton of new friends, including some Juniors and Seniors who actually treated me like a real person. I even got invited to cast parties. My unremarkable role was such a great experience that I decided that being involved in theatre was something I wanted to explore.
Today’s chapter is a short one. The Chronicler slips in one paragraph (only nine verses) summarizing the sixteen year reign of Judah’s King Jotham. Poor Jotham gets the Chroniclers thumb’s up rating for being a good king and following the ways of the Lord. Yet even with that Jotham only gets one paragraph, and two of the sentences in the paragraph are basically repeated word-for-word!
Jotham’s reign appears to have been unremarkable in the mind of the Chronicler. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players.” Jotham appears to have been cast as Junior Babcock.
This morning I find one of my life verses welling up in my spirit:
“…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you,so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12
As I’ve shared in the past, I’m a Type Four on the Enneagram. Type Fours are all about having purpose and significance. It’s easy for types like me to equate purpose and significance with greatness, the spotlight, and starring roles. Yet along my life journey I’ve learned and have been continually reminded that there is both purpose and significance to bit parts and roles in the chorus. My unremarkable role as Junior Babcock had all sorts of purpose and significance for me and my journey. In fact, I’ve had a few “lead” roles which were not nearly as significant or purposeful.
Most all of us are part of the Chorus in this grand production of Life. Like Jotham we will play our unremarkable part and get a paragraph (maybe two) in the Obituary section of our town’s newspaper. Today’s chapter is a good reminder. I want to make sure I nail my couple of lines, hit my cues, support the production, build great relationships with other members of the Chorus, and play my part well.
…for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether human or animal. They are to be mine. I am the Lord.” Numbers 3:13 (NIV)
A lot has been made of birth order through the ages. In modern society psychologists have famously argued that certain traits seem to commonly accompany children born in a particular place within their family’s birth order. Some of it is attributed to how parents commonly respond to children in each place of the order, while some is attributed to the unique psychological development that happens for children in each place within the order. An only child typically has their own distinctive traits, as does the youngest child in the family (I’m one of those) no matter the number in the order.
In the ancient days of Moses the firstborn was set apart (e.g. “hallowed” or “sanctified”) for God. This is why Mary and Joseph took Jesus, as the first born, to be dedicated according to the law when Simeon and Anna prophesied over Him (Luke 2:22-38). The practice goes back to the events of the Exodus and the Law of Moses, as we read in today’s chapter. Throughout history, the firstborn male has been afforded special significance in many societies, especially when it comes to matters of inheritance.
The differences in birth order are fascinating to observe and discuss. Any parent can tell you stories about how different children are in different places in the birth order, and groups of parents will find that there is commonality in certain traits. Along life’s journey, however, I’ve found that it’s foolish to make too much of such things, just as it’s foolish to dismiss them entirely.
Through the Great Story there are significant characters from different birth orders. Jacob/Israel was the second born and usurped the birthright of his firstborn brother. Joseph and David were both the babies of their respective broods. And, so on.
Ha! I want to embrace a few of the traits on the list and deny the others, though I have to own up to the fact that an argument can be made for every one describing me in some way, especially as a child. It doesn’t make me better or worse then my eldest sibling, just different, and perhaps suited for very different roles in life.
C’est la vie.
While God set the first born apart in ancient days for a particular significance, it doesn’t diminish the unique role each person plays in the story. Psalm 139 says each one of us are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Our place in the birth order doesn’t make us better or worse, though it may uniquely develop us for a particular role. I’ve learned in theatre that a key lesson in life is to fully give myself to, and enjoy the role I’m given, no matter the size of the part. Embracing this is the pathway to a tremendous amount of joy and contentment.
Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ Matthew 20:15 (NASB)
During my lifetime I have observed that fairness and equality have increasingly become societal expectations. There are certainly worthwhile issues to be addressed and ills to be confronted, but I have observed that expectations of fairness and equality can easily expand to encompass almost every area of life. It seems at time as though we want same-ness. Everyone should have the same, make the same, look the same, enjoy the same.
On my spiritual journey I have come to accept that the overarching fairness I observe us striving for does not exist in God’s economy. Everyone has access to the Life, love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness which Jesus purchased through His death and resurrection. Once on the path of following Jesus, however, I discover that God never promised that all followers would all enjoy the same lot in life, be called to the same path, or have the same purpose. In fact, God’s self-revelation gives evidence to infinite and creative diversity in being, calling, giftedness, purpose, and experience. The Trinity itself reveals unity in diversity; Three distinct persons – One God.
In today’s chapter Jesus tells a simple parable that addresses this very issue. A vineyard owner hires workers throughout the day. Some in early morning, late morning, noon, afternoon, and some more for the last hour of the work day. The owners agreed to pay them each the same wage. At the end of the day the laborers who worked all day are indignant that the workers who only worked one-hour received the same amount of money.
Hire a lawyer! Call the Labor Board! Organize a union!
That’s not fair!
But, Jesus points out that each laborer readily agreed to the wage when they began. The issue, then, was not the fairness of the employer but the envy of the workers.
In find it ironic that Matthew follows this parable with the story of Jesus’ own disciples having conflict over who among them were Jesus’ favorites and who would get positions of honor in God’s Kingdom. Jesus response matched the parable He’d just told: “Don’t worry about each other’s rewards; Focus on the job you’ve each been called to do.”
This morning I am reminded once again that my job is not to concern myself with comparisons to everyone else. My focus is to be on my personal relationship with God, existing in the flow of God’s Spirit, faithfully walking the path God places before me, and fulfilling my role to the best of my ability. When I embrace and embody my unique person and purpose, I contribute to the unity of God’s Kingdom.
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal. Isaiah 26:3-4 (NIV)
In the late evening of November 2nd, when the Cleveland Indians had inexplicably rallied with two outs in the bottom of the 8th to tie game seven of the World Series, there was a high degree of angst in the family room here at Vander Well Manor. It seemed like it was all going to fall apart like it had done so many times before. Then came the rain delay that has already gained legendary status. Wendy and I had a chance to catch our collective breath along with the rest of the nation.
“You seem incredibly zen about this,” Wendy said to me, observing the lack of emotional angst in my affect. I have written ad nauseam about our devotion to the Chicago Cubs over the years, so no need to expound on how momentous of a moment this was, nor how nervous I should have been.
The truth is, I was feeling an inexplicable sense of peace in that moment that I’m not sure I would have been feeling a year ago. I certainly would not have been feeling a sense of peace in this moment five, ten, or 20 years ago. That night, I was.
When I was a young man, I memorized the words the ancient prophet Isaiah penned, pasted at the top of this post. At this waypoint in my life’s journey I’ve come to realize that peace is a relatively rare human experience on life’s road. This is especially true in the extra innings of World Series game 7, an unforeseen tragedy, an unexpected election result, or a painfully blank ultrasound reading.
On the night that Jesus was arrested, submitted to kangaroo court, beaten, scourged, nailed to a cross and mocked by the on looking crowd He looked at his followers and said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
The testimony and stories of Jesus followers in the following hours and days were not stories of peace. They scattered and fled to avoid arrest and gathered clandestinely behind locked doors. The betrayer committed suicide. Their leader, Peter, followed Jesus at a distance, but three times fearfully denied any knowledge of the Man he’d earlier hailed as Christ. While the female followers of Jesus risked going to the tomb to anoint the body after the sabbath, the men remained fearfully hidden. Not exactly a picture of peace.
Tradition and history tell us, however, that something happened in the days and years that followed the tragic events of that fateful night. Something had been transformed in these same fearful, peace-less followers. They encountered a resurrected Christ. Forty days later they fearlessly proclaimed the risen Jesus to public crowds. They peacefully accepted arrest, imprisonment and trial. They scattered once more, not in fear but with a mission to share the Message with the known world. With the exception of John, who died of old age, the rest peacefully accepted the brutal death of martyrs.
This morning I am reminded that the peace that Jesus promised His followers did not come instantly. It budded, it took root, and it grew to fruition. God’s creation is a growing, expanding, organic cosmos. Miracles happen, but most of the time things take time to grow before you experience the fruit.
So it was on the evening of November 2nd Wendy noticed my zen-like peace during the rain delay. I think I’m finally hitting a stage of the journey in which I’m enjoying the fruit of peace after many years of steadfast seeking. Peace in the knowledge of a Divine Dance that is so much bigger, deeper, and greater than I’ve ever fathomed. Peace that comes with faith in the Great Story being told by the Author of Life. Peace with my place and role in that Story. Peace in the knowledge that our journeys are all full of bitter defeats and disappointments, but also include rare moments of satisfying victory. I’m increasingly at peace with the knowledge that I will certainly endure the former as I always have before, and might even gain a little wisdom in the experience. I will also enjoy the latter when it comes, even more fully in proportion to the measure of defeat that preceded it.