Tag Archives: Tom Vander Well

Stop, and Listen

Stop, and Listen (CaD Ps 85) Wayfarer

I will listen to what God the Lord says;
    he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants—

Psalm 85:8a (NIV)

Shame can be toxic. It’s that deep sense of being worth-less, and I while I find most seem to perceive me as having all sorts of self-confidence, the truth is that I have quietly battled that nagging, pessimistic self-perception of shame my entire life. I have acknowledged it, processed it, studied it, and have learned to work through it while learning how to have grace with myself even as I open my heart to receiving the amazing grace that God has given me.

The seeds of shame, I have come to learn, are typically sown in childhood. From some individuals I’ve met in the struggle, it was the repeated words of an adult or an older sibling telling them things like, “You’re stupid,” “You’re good for nothing,” or “You should have never been born.” Born into a loving family, that was never my issue. For me, the seeds of shame were misunderstandings of my place in the world and a negative self-perception that was fueled by my Enneagram Four temperament. I grew up being so self-absorbed as to think that any negative circumstance in life stems from something I did, or else it some divine retribution prompted by my worthlessness. The Minnesota Vikings’ loss in four Superbowls was totally my fault for stealing all of the family’s cash envelopes off of Grandma Golly’s Christmas tree in 1972. My apologies to Vikings nation.

As a person who knows the struggle against shame, I totally identify with today’s chapter. It felt a bit like looking into a spiritual mirror. Psalm 85 was written as a song to be used when the Hebrew people gathered to worship. Fourteen lines long, it is a song of two halves. Things had not been going so well for the Hebrew people. Scholars think it may have been written during this historic drought that occurred during the time of the prophet Hosea.

The first half of the song reads like me when I was a kid.

“God, you’re angry with me. I’ve done something wrong. I thought you were over that Christmas cash thing, but obviously I haven’t served my time. How long is this going to take, Lord? How long until you get over your anger with me?”

The song then pivots 180 degrees in the second-half, which kicks off with the songwriter declaring, “I will listen to what the Lord says.”

As the songwriter gets his eyes off of himself, and gets his ears to turn away from the endless loop of negative self-talk being played in his spiritual, noise-cancelling AirPods, he begins to recognize the very different message that God has been perpetually saying. God promises salvation, affirms his faithfulness, peace, generosity, and goodness.

One of the things that I had to learn along my journey of addressing shame was the very same process. I have a well-worn page that I put together ages ago. Like the songwriter of Psalm 85, I turned my ear to the Great Story and wrote down a list of God’s specific messages, including, but not limited to:

I am…
fearfully and wonderfully made… (Ps 139)
made in the likeness of God… (James 3:9)
worth more than many sparrows… (Matt 10:31)
God’s workmanship… (Ephesians 2:10)
born again… (1 Peter 1:23)
a son of God… (Galatians 3:26)
and heir of God… (Galatians 4:6, 1 John 3:2, Rom 8:17)
God’s temple… (1 Cor 3:17)
the aroma of Christ… (2 Corinthians 2:15)

You get the idea. I still, on occasion, have to pull this well-worn sheet of divine affirmations out and literally read through the list again. Often, I read all two-pages out-loud to myself. It’s like spiritual chiropractic. When my shame has me bent out of shape and tied up in knots, the affirmations from the Great Story get my head and heart back in alignment.

In the quiet this morning, I find my heart ruminating once again on this difficult year. I think about strained relationships created by differences in world-views. I think about our business which took a sizable hit in 2020. I think about the mental and emotional fatigue from the never-ending conflict in every medium of media about a host of hot-button topics. It’s amazing how silently shame’s whispers can creep back into my head and heart without me realizing it. Like the writer of Psalm 85, I find myself having to consciously stop and listen “to what God the Lord, says.”

FYI: Here are the entire set of affirmations I compiled for anyone who might benefit in both image and document forms. The PDF was a handout from a message series on shame several years ago.

My Heart’s Highway

My Heart's Highway (CaD Ps 84) Wayfarer

Happy are those whose strength is in you,
    in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

Psalm 84:5 (NRSVCE)

This past week, Wendy and I have been blessed beyond measure to have our kids and grandson home from Scotland. On Saturday night we took Taylor and Clayton out for dinner and enjoyed a leisurely dinner. Milo was being watched that night by Clayton’s mom, so the four of us got to enjoy uninterrupted adult conversation, in person, for hours.

One of the paths of conversation led to a discussion about one’s direction in life. The kids are about the age I was when I settled into what would become my career after having five different jobs in the first six years after college. It is a time of life filled with both opportunity and uncertainty. We talked about the difficult (some might even call it impossible) task of finding a career in life that offers both financial security and a sense of purpose.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that this is a fascinating on-going conversation. It doesn’t end once a young adult settles on a career path. There are a number of waypoints on life’s road in which this subject of direction, security, and purpose comes up again. A new job opportunity arises that offers both greater risk and the potential for greater reward. A person hits the proverbial glass ceiling in a corporation and suddenly has to grapple with considering a career change they never expected or wanted, or learning to embrace that his or her vocation is nothing more than a means to providing for a purpose that is found outside of work hours. I’ve also observed individuals and couples who have left positions of relative security to embrace faith in choosing a purpose-full path to which they have been called. Still, there are others I’ve observed who find themselves in unexpected places of tragedy in which there was no choice of direction and, like Job, they find themselves reeling in a struggle to understand the purpose of it all.

Our direction on this road of Life continues to require asking, seeking, knocking, and faith.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 84, is the first of a subset of six songs that wrap up Book III of the larger anthology of Hebrew song lyrics we call the Psalms. The song appears to have been penned by someone from the tribe of Levi. The Levites were the Hebrew tribe responsible for Temple worship. As the tribe grew over time, the Temple duties were divided into “shifts.” One might make a pilgrimage to God’s Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem one or more times a year to serve for a short period of time before returning home. The songwriter laments not being in the temple where he finds joy and purpose in God’s presence.

I couldn’t help but notice verse 5 as I read it in the St. John’s Bible this morning. Happy are those “in whose heart are highways to Zion.” The songwriter found tremendous purpose in being present in God’s Temple, even if it was only periodically. I love the metaphor of a “heart’s highway.” It’s got my mind spinning this morning and my heart ruminating.

I find myself thinking about the highways of my heart, Wendy’s heart, and the hearts of our children. Where do those highways lead? On this Monday morning and the beginning of another work week, is the highway of my heart and the highway to my vocation the same path? Parallel paths? Divergent paths? Obviously, the stimulating dinner conversation from Saturday night is still resonating within me.

I also couldn’t help but notice that a rather well-known, modern worship song is pulled directly from Psalm 84 and my heart hears the familiar melody to the lyric: “Better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.” Yet this takes me straight back to the “one thing I always fail to see” from a post a couple of weeks ago.

Unlike the songwriter of Psalm 84, followers of Jesus are not limited to a physical location for worship. The concept of a church building is nowhere to be found in the Great Story. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension it the flesh-and-blood followers who are God’s Temple. I am the temple, therefore “one day in your courts” is not about me going to church on Sunday. For followers of Jesus, it is a spiritual pilgrimage of the heart to seek commune with God’s Spirit within my heart, soul, and mind in each day, each hour, each moment.

In the quiet this morning, Psalm 84 has me meditating on the “heart’s highway.” Where is headed? Where is it leading? Is my heart, soul, and mind heading in the right direction?

Good questions for a Monday morning.

Have a great week, my friend.

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.

Questions of Justice

Questions of Justice (CaD Ps 82) Wayfarer

Defend the weak and the fatherless;
    uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

Psalm 82:3 (NIV)

Earlier this year, as the world grappled with the inescapable footage of George Floyd dying under the knee of a police officer, Wendy called a family Zoom meeting. Each person shared their thoughts and emotions. Each person discussed what he/she felt personally led to do in the wake of the event. During that same time, Wendy and I had similar conversations among different circles of our close friends.

I haven’t forgotten those conversations. I’m not sure I ever will. As I approach the end of this tumultuous year and reflect on all that I’ve experienced, I’m mindful of those conversations about my responsibility, both as a follower of Jesus and as a responsible human being, for acting on my faith to make a difference in the lives of the poor, defenseless, and oppressed.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 82, is another liturgical song that was written to be sung when all of the Hebrew people gathered for worship. It’s fascinating for the fact that Asaph draws on a common religious metaphor found in the cultures of the Near East at that time; It’s the image of a divine assembly in a heavenly hall of justice. God is sitting in judgment of the assembled “gods.” In those days, rulers of both religion and society could be considered “gods” or “sons of god” because they were considered divine agents of their society and religion.

The voice of Asaph’s lyrics is that of a temple prophet. It’s the ancient Hebrew version of a protest song. He calls society’s leaders out for caring about the poor, needy, and oppressed. He reminds them that God, the ultimate, righteous judge, will render verdict on these societal “gods” for what they did for lowest members of society. He ends his short song of protest asking God to rise up and mete out justice.

Asaph’s lyrics make me think about Jesus. I think about Jesus’ teaching and example as He spent most of the time bringing love, healing, and grace to the fringes of society living on the outskirts of His country far away from the halls of societal power and justice. The civic and religious “gods” of Jesus’ day would eventually kill Him for it.

The words of Asaph’s song leave me sitting in the quiet this morning thinking about those conversations with family and friends from earlier this year. I’m pondering some of the things that I have consciously done as a result, as well as those things that I have left undone. My thoughts shift to the road ahead as the New Year approaches. I ask myself, “Do my actions make me more like Jesus, or do they make me more like the “gods” of Asaph’s metaphorical trial?”

I’m uncomfortable with the answer.

The Mystery of the Voice

The Mystery of the Voice (CaD Ps 81) Wayfarer

“I hear a voice I had not known:”
Psalm 81:5c (NRSVCE)

One of the mysteries of the Great Story is that individuals in the story hear God’s voice. God speaks to individuals at various times in various ways throughout the story. In the story of a young prophet Samuel, he first hears God’s voice while a boy living with the High Priest of that time, a man name Eli. The story in 1 Samuel 3 states that it was a time when “the word of the Lord was rare” (This is another part of the mystery, that God would be silent for long periods of time).

The boy, Samuel, hears a voice call his name in the night. He repeatedly runs to the old priest saying, “Here I am!” The third time it happened, Eli begins to understand what his happening. He tells the boy, “If this happens again, respond ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening!'”

My own experience with the mystery of hearing God’s voice is multi-dimensional. Four times in 40 years I have heard a very clear and distinct message spoken directly into my spirit. The first time was at the very beginning of my journey as a follower of Jesus. The next came thirteen years later. Then ten years later, and four months after that. These four experiences stand out from any others in my spiritual journey. Someday, when I’m ready to tell my story, I’ll share the experiences in full. It’s not the right time.

How do I know it’s not the right time?

I’ve learned that it is another dimension of how God’s “voice” works. As I perpetually read and study the Great Story, as I have conscious conversations with God, as I journal, and as I continuously keep myself spiritually aware and “listening,” there are things that come to me in a very different way. It has been described as “the flow.” The Hebrew and Greek words for “Spirit” both suggest a word picture of wind or breath. I have found no human word or phrase that adequately describes it. It’s a hearing and knowing of Spirit. There’s a knowing in my being that there will come a time for me to tell the story of the four experiences I described of distinctly hearing the Voice. Maybe there will be more experiences by the time comes to tell the story. I just know that it’s not now.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 81, is a liturgical song that would have been sung when the entire nation of Hebrews gathered for specific festivals scheduled at specific times of the year. The people are “called to worship” in the first five verses, then the rest of the song reminds them of God leading them out slavery in Egypt and what has historically happened when they shut their ears and hearts from listening to God.

It was the phrase “I hear a voice I had not known” that leapt off the page at me as I read the lyrics. I thought of Moses hearing God’s voice for the first time (Exodus 3). I thought of the boy, Samuel, hearing the voice for the first time. I thought of Peter, James, John, and Matthew hearing the voice of Jesus telling them “Follow me.” I thought of a cold February night when I first heard the voice. In every case, there was a process for the individual of learning to spiritually listen, learning to spiritually hear, and learning to spiritually discern.

In John’s revelation, Jesus tells John to write a letter to the followers of Jesus in a town called Laodicea. He writes:

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in….”

In each story I’ve cited today there was both the voice calling and the individual responding. That’s where theologians will tell me that I have “free will.” I can hear and dismiss. I can hear and choose to not to respond. I can even plug the ears of my spirit and choose not to hear at all.

I chose to open myself to the mystery. I chose to respond. I struck out on this journey of learning to know that voice, asking to know more, and seeking to hear more. I’ve never regretted it. Here I am, forty years later. I’m still listening, hearing, asking, and seeking in the mystery of God’s voice.

Meaning in the Metaphor

Meaning in the Metaphor (CaD Ps 80) Wayfarer

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
Psalm 80:8 (NRSVCE)

I have celebrated Christmas as a follower of Jesus for almost forty years, and I can tell you that the most forgotten storyline of the Christmas story is found in the second chapter of Matthew.

King Herod was the regional ruler operating under subservience to the Roman Empire. It was Herod to whom the Zoroastrians (that we call the “Three Kings” or “Magi”) went to find out where the Jewish Messiah was to be born. Herod got the answer for them and sent them on their way to Bethlehem. Herod was a blood-thirsty man, however. A shrewd monarch with boundless ambition, Herod’s successful reign was made possible in part by his ability to assassinate any rival. This included members of his own family.

Matthew shares that Herod, wanting to make sure the newborn Messiah would not grow up to threaten his worldly power, ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and under killed. Warned by an angel in a dream, Joseph and Mary flee with the baby to Egypt. When Herod died a few years later, they returned to Joseph in Nazareth.

In telling this piece of the story, Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea, who said: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1). In my podcast A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story (Part 7) I talked about prophecy and the fact that part of the mystery of the prophetic is that metaphor can be layered with meaning. Hosea was writing about the Hebrew exodus out of Egyptian slavery, but Matthew sees that Jesus, God’s son, was also called out of Egypt.

In today’s chapter, Psalm 80, we have a song of lament written somewhere around 725 BC. The Assyrians were attacking the northern kingdom of Israel. Refugees from the northern tribes were flowing into Jerusalem, and Asaph laments that God brought the nation out of Egypt and planted them in Canaan only to let foreign countries attack them. In this case, Asaph uses the metaphor of God bringing a vine out of Egypt only to let foreign powers like Assyria and Babylon pick “the fruit” of God’s hand.

As a follower of Jesus, I am immediately reminded of Jesus’ words to His most intimate followers the night before His crucifixion:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. John 15:1-5 (NIV)

When Asaph writes his lyric: “You brought a vine out of Egypt” he was being as prophetic as Hosea was when quoted by Matthew, but here’s where I found added meaning in Asaph’s metaphor. Asaph metaphorically envisions that he and the fellow Hebrew tribes were the Vine. When Jesus came, Asaph’s misunderstanding becomes clear. Jesus is the Vine, and his followers are the branches. If you’re not connected to the Vine, then you get pruned back and cut-off.

The Hebrew prophets made it clear that the Hebrew people had disconnected themselves from God. They worshipped foreign gods and were unfaithful to the covenant they made through Moses. The prophets made it clear that the Assyrians and Babylonians were God’s pruning shears, because contrary to Asaph’s lyrics the only fruit left on those branches was rotten.

In the quiet this morning I wondered how often I, like Asaph, lament the fact that life isn’t going so well. I feel empty, depleted, and attacked like someone plucked everything from me when my real problem is the same as the Hebrews: I’m not connected to the Vine. There’s no spiritual nourishment flowing from the Living Water deep in the root structure. There’s no support from the Vine and no protection from the other branches. The fruit my life is bearing small, tasteless, impotent, even rotten.

As another Christmas approaches, I’m thinking about the least discussed event of that first Christmas. The Son of God, emptied of Heaven and dependent on a young mother, goes into exile in Egypt. Out of Egypt God will call His Son, the Vine. If I miss that connection, then I’m missing the Life, not only of the Christmas story, but the entire Great Story itself.

Devastation, Dinosaurs, and Spiritual Development

Devastation, Dinosaurs, and Spiritual Development (CaD Ps 79) Wayfarer

Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times
    the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord.

Psalm 79:13 (NIV)

It’s Christmas season! Yesterday, Wendy and I had the blessing of hugging our children and our grandson for the first time since last December. Milo got to put the ornaments that celebrate each of the four Christmases he’s been with us on the tree. Around the base of the tree is my father’s Lionel train set, and Milo became the fourth generation to experience the joy that train chugging around the tracks.

As I experience Christmas anew this year through the eyes of a three-year-old, I’m reminded of my own childhood. Each year I would get out the Sears Christmas Wish Book catalog and make my bucket list of all the toys that I wanted. It was usually a big list and included a host of big-ticket items my parents could never afford and probably wouldn’t buy for me even if they could because there’s know way that the giant chemistry set was going to accomplish anything but make a mess, require a lot of parental assistance, and probably blow up the house. I couldn’t manage such mature cognitive reasoning in my little brain. All I knew was it was really cool, it looked really fun, and all my friends at school would be really jealous.

Along this life journey, I’ve come to understand that my finite and circumstantial emotions and desires are often incongruent with the larger picture realities of both reason and Spirit.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 79, is an angry blues rant that was written after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. It is a raw description of the scene of devastation after the Babylonians destroyed the city and razed Solomon’s Temple to the ground in 586 B.C. Blood and death are everywhere. Vultures and wild dogs are feasting on dead bodies because there aren’t enough people alive and well to bury the bodies. The strong, educated, and young have been taken as prisoners to Babylon. The ruins of God’s Temple have been desecrated with profane images and graffiti. The songwriter pours out heartbreak, shock, sorrow, rage, and desperate pleas for God to rise up and unleash holy vengeance in what the ancients described as “an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth.”

As I read the songwriters rant this morning, there are three things that give me layers of added perspective:

First, when God first called Abraham (the patriarch of the Hebrew tribes and nations), He made it clear that the intent of making a nation of Abraham’s descendants was so that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through them, not destroyed.

Second, God had spoken to the Hebrews through the prophet Jeremiah warning them that the natural consequences of their sin and unfaithfulness would be Babylonian captivity through the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, to whom God referred through Jeremiah as “my servant.” It appears that the songwriter may have missed that.

Third, I couldn’t help but read the songwriter’s plea for God to pay back their enemies “seven times” the contempt that their enemies had shown them, and think of the time Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive an enemy who wronged him “seven times.” Peter was trying to show Jesus that he was beginning to understand Jesus’ teaching. To the Hebrews, the number seven spiritually represented “completeness.” When the songwriter asked for “seven times” the vengeance it was a spiritual notion of “eye-for-an-eye” justice would be complete. Peter’s question assumed that forgiving an enemy seven times would be spiritually “complete” forgiveness. Jesus responds to Peter that a more correct equation for forgiveness in the economy of God’s Kingdom would be “seventy-times-seven.”

I come back to the songwriter of Psalm 79 with these three things in mind. The first time I read it, like most 21st century readers, I was taken back by the blood, gore, raw anger, and cries for holy vengeance. Now I see the song with a different perspective. I see a songwriter who is devastated and confused. I hear the crying out of a soul who has witnessed unspeakable things, and whose emotions can’t reasonably see any kind of larger perspective in the moment.

This morning I am reminded of what I discussed in my Wayfarer Weekend podcast, Time (Part 1). Humanity at the time of the ancient Hebrews was still very much in the early childhood stage of development. The songwriter is expressing his thoughts, emotions, and desires like a child desperately asking Santa for a real dinosaur for Christmas. Not just any dinosaur, a real T-Rex to put in the backyard.

Today’s psalm is another example of God honoring the need that we have as human beings of expressing our hearts and emotions in the moment, as we have them, no matter where we find ourselves in our spiritual development. As my spiritual journey has progressed, I’ve gotten better at processing my emotions and having very different conversations with God about circumstances than I did when I was a teenager, a young adult, a young husband, and a young father. It doesn’t invalidate the feelings and conversations I had back then. They were necessary for me to grow, learn, and mature in spirit.

In the quiet this morning, I’m identifying with the songwriter of Psalm 79, not affirming blood vengeance and “eye-for-an-eye-justice,” but affirming that it was where the songwriter was in that moment, just like I have had some rants and prayers along the journey that I’m kind of embarrassed think about now. This is a journey. I’m not who I was, And, I’m not yet who I will ultimately become in eternity. I’m just a wayfarer on the road of life, taking it one-step-at-a-time into a new work week.

For the record, Milo. No, you can’t have a real dinosaur. Sorry, buddy.

One Thing I Always Fail to See

One Thing I Always Fail to See (CaD Ps 77) Wayfarer

Your path led through the sea,
    your way through the mighty waters,
    though your footprints were not seen.

Psalm 77:19 (NIV)

Do you ever have an idea that just sort of sits there begging for your attention, but you’re not sure what to do with it? It just sits there. You might forget it’s there for a time, but then every once in a while it reminds you that it is sitting there. “Hey, Tom! I haven’t gone away. I’m still here!”

I try to keep track of those things. I write them down. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing and it’s waiting for its time. It’s like this commercial I remember from my childhood. Orson Welles (a famous old actor) is sitting there holding a glass of wine and he said, “We will sell no wine before its time.” The idea is sitting there fermenting, aging, preparing for the right time. Other times it’s a matter of pursuit. I have to go after the idea, work it, play with it, throw it on the potter’s wheel to see what it becomes.

For a while now, I’ve had an idea for a series of messages, maybe Wayfarer Weekend podcasts, or a book. The theme is the most common notions we have about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the church that are completely wrong based on evidence in the Great Story. It’s about asking the question “Why do we keep saying this, believing this, praying this, acting this way when the Great Story clearly says….”

As I read today’s chapter, Psalm 77, that idea reared its head from my mental hard drive and said, “Hey Tom! I’m still here!” Here’s why:

Psalm 77 is a song of Asaph. It’s a great one to read and meditate on if-and-when you find yourself depressed, lost, drowning in grief, despairing, feeling abandoned, and convinced that God is completely absent. The song itself is Asaph’s journey. The first half is all about his feeling alone in the pit of despair. The middle stanza (verses 13-15) is the hinge or the inflection point in which Asaph consciously chooses to think back to all the things God has done in all of the stories in the Great Story. In the second half of the song Asaph finds himself walking with the Hebrew people out of captivity in Egypt as God parted the waters of the Red Sea and the people walked through. It’s at that point that Asaph makes an important realization: “Our path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.

One of the things that I hear people praying every week when our local gathering of Jesus followers meets, and I catch myself praying from time-to-time, is for God to be present:

“God, be with us…”

“I pray for your presence…”

“Jesus, be near…”

“Holy Spirit, come.”

As Asaph mentally walks with the Hebrews through the Red Sea he looks down at the dry sea floor. Then he looks up at the head of the line where God is leading the procession as a pillar of fire, and this meant that God made no footprints. So what? Asaph makes the same realization that I constantly have to make myself. I’m looking for a footprint, a sign, a feeling, some tangible evidence that God is here and has not abandoned me but the truth is that God is omnipresent.

Paul writes to Jesus’ followers in Colossae that “in [Jesus] all things hold together.” Jesus is the dark matter, the gluon, the thing that holds all matter in the universe together. He is knit into the very fiber of my being, the chair I’m sitting on, the desk I’m writing this on, and the keyboard I’m tapping. The problem is not that God is absent, the problem is that I’m blind to the obvious. I’m oblivious to the elephant in the room. I’m standing in the middle of troubled waters looking down at my feet for signs of God’s footprints ignoring the fact that God is there holding back the waters from falling down on me.

Why am I asking for the very things that I say I already believe? Oh, me of little faith!

I don’t need to pray for God’s presence. I need to pray that God will heal my spiritual blindness. I need to pray for the eyes of my heart to be open. Like Asaph, I need to take a little spiritual trek through the Great Story where I’m reminded time-and-time again:

“I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.”

“I am with you always.”

“I am always present. I’m the very thing holding everything together.”

I need to stop looking for footprints and pull out my spiritual electron microscope. If I really believe what I say I believe, then Jesus is here in-and-between every atom of my very body. In every moment, He’s holding me together.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself praying for the spiritual sight I need to comprehend just how powerfully present God really is in each and every moment of this day.

“It’s a Miracle!” (or Not)

"It's a Miracle!" (or Not) [CaD Ps 76] Wayfarer

His tent is in Salem,
    his dwelling place in Zion.
There he broke the flashing arrows,
    the shields and the swords, the weapons of war.

Psalm 76:2-3 (NIV)

M’luv, Wendy, is a living human radar when it comes to parking lots. As we pull into any parking lot, her parking spot radar goes into overdrive as she spies all of the open spots available. She will begin giving me all of my options:

“There’s a spot in the next row back there. I see one a little closer but down another row. I think there might be one behind that giant truck…”

Often, while she’s still regaling me with all of my options, I’ll simply pull into the first spot I see. This is when Wendy says…

Or, not.”

In yesterday’s post/podcast, I mentioned that the song of thanksgiving amidst a time of national uncertainty is believed to be connected to a specific historic event. In 701, the Assyrian King Sennacherib laid siege to the walled city of Jerusalem. The events are recorded in both 1 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 18. In what the people of Jerusalem considered a miraculous event, they woke up one morning to find that the entire Assyrian army lay dead and Jerusalem was miraculously spared from destruction.

Many scholars believe that today’s chapter, Psalm 76, is a victory song from the same event. And it does seem to fit. Listen to these lyrics and imagine the citizen’s gazing over the city wall to see the Assyrian army lying dead:

The valiant lie plundered,
    they sleep their last sleep;
not one of the warriors
    can lift his hands.
At your rebuke, God of Jacob,
    both horse and chariot lie still.

By the way, an account of the campaign against Jerusalem from the Assyrian perspective also exists. It admits that the siege of Jerusalem was unsuccessful, but leaves out any details and instead claims a moral victory for the successful subjugation of the other towns in the region. (It sort of reminds me of fans on sports talk shows who try to cushion the blow of a bitter defeat to a rival team by diminishing the loss).

I find it hard to separate the ancient Hebrew song from the seemingly miraculous event believed to have inspired it. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that miracles can and do happen. At the same time, the Great Story makes clear that the miraculous does not always happen. God may have spared the people of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army, but just a hundred years later the Babylonian army would lay waste to the city with horrific destruction. Why one and not the other? Welcome to the mystery.

Similarly, along my life journey, I have experienced miraculous events. I’ve also experienced events which, despite the desperate pleas and prayers of many, ended with lament rather than thanksgiving. There was no miraculous deliverance. Wisdom tells me that the latter does not negate the former, and the former does not assure the latter. Peter was miraculously delivered from prison in Acts 12, but there was no deliverance for him from Roman prison and his subsequent execution. In fact, Jesus told Peter to expect an uncomfortable end to his earthly journey.

This leaves me, as a follower of Jesus, holding the point of tension. It’s the same as Daniel’s friends living in Babylonian captivity and threatened to be thrown alive into a crematorium (see Daniel 3). They made it clear to the Babylonian King that they believed God could miraculously deliver them from the flames, but even God did not it would neither change their faith nor their actions. God broke through with a miracle in that case, but I could cite many examples that didn’t end so well.

Among the examples of those that did not end with miraculous deliverance is a German pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp. In one of his most famous quotes, Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a person, He bids them ‘Come, and die.'” In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that one of the things I’ve learned to which I must die as a follower of Jesus, is any demands I’d like to make on what my story within the Great Story looks like, or how it ends.

Sometimes the miracle is part of the narrative of the Great Story (Peter escaping the Jerusalem prison), and sometimes the suffering is part of the narrative of the Great Story (Peter being executed in Rome).

It’s like being Wendy in a parking lot.

“God, you can work a miracle here. You can deliver me over there.”

“Or, not.”

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.”