“For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war.” 2 Chronicles 16:9 (NIV)
A friend dropped by for coffee yesterday and we enjoyed a long discussion. One of the slivers of conversation was around a class that is being offered in our community in the near future. The premise of the class is that some of history’s most influential people had their most productive and years after the age of 70. The class is intended to encourage adults in the back stretch of life’s journey to consider shunning the traditional view of retirement. Instead of moving somewhere warm and sitting by a pool, the class encourages people to consider how their final stretch of life’s journey might be their most productive and influential.
I thought about that this morning as I read today’s chapter and contemplated the story of King Asa. In yesterday’s post, the prophet Azariah encouraged Asa to “be strong and not give up” but the stretch of life journey that Asa was entering was not one of struggle. Asa’s major challenge and climactic fight was behind him. He was entering a time of extended peace. Thirty-five years of peace and rest. And that’s when he blew it.
Thirty-five years of relatively easy sledding finds King Asa has changed, but not in a good way. He forgot the lesson he learned in his war with the Cushites. He forgot how his faith had led to good things. He forgot Azariah’s admonishment. Thirty-five years of peace and comfort turned Asa into a hard-hearted, self-centric old man. It was the good times and life of relative ease that revealed the true nature of Asa’s heart. A seer named Hanani confronts Asa, but it only confirms and seals Asa’s bitterness (and lands Hanani in the stocks).
This morning I’m thinking about my current waypoint on this life journey. I often think that it’s the tough stretches of pain, tragedy, and difficulty that reveal the true nature of our hearts. Perhaps it is the stretches of comfort and ease that are a better barometer of my spirit.
“I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind. This is your lot, the portion I have decreed for you,” Jeremiah 13:24-25a (NIV)
The community where Wendy and I live, and our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, is experiencing a season of acute grief. This past week a young man, the youngest son of our senior pastor and his wife, passed away unexpectedly. He should have been experiencing the prime of his life. It is unnerving when tragedy strikes like this. There are so many unanswerable questions.
In Sunday morning’s message the teacher gave us a word picture of a man who initiated a controlled burn of his lawn. The teacher watched as the fire spread across the grass turning the lawn into a field of scorched and blackened death. Confused, the teacher stopped and spoke to the man. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You’re killing your lawn.”
“Oh no,” said the man. “The seed’s already in the ground. Come back in a few months and you will see how lush and green it is with new life.”
I couldn’t help but think of that parable as I read Jeremiah’s prophetic poem this morning. He foresaw that God’s people would experience unspeakable tragedy. They would be conquered. Their city and their Temple would be destroyed. They would be “scattered like chaff driven by the desert wind.” This was their lot in life.
Why me? Why him? Why us? Why now?
So many unanswerable questions.
Then in the quiet this morning I pictured and watched the chaff driven and scattered by the wind. What Jeremiah did not see in his vision is that there is seed mixed in with the chaff. Jeremiah does not see Daniel raised to a position of unbelievable authority and honor within the Babylonian palace. Jeremiah does not see Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego standing with God in the flames of the fiery furnace without getting one hair of their head singed. Jeremiah does not see the repentance of Nebuchadnezzar, doesn’t read the handwriting on Beltshazzar’s wall, does not hear the beautiful lyrics of the psalmists’ lament from exile, and does not see the incredible ministry and visions the prophet Ezekiel will have in that land. Jeremiah does not see the return of the remnant under Nehemiah or the miraculous work of his people rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city. The prophet’s does not foresee Jesus entering the walls of rebuilt Jerusalem, God’s Son sacrificed for sin once for all, and then resurrected to new and eternal Life.
We all experience tragedy along our our life journeys; We all will have times when we are shaken to the core of our souls. In such times our eyes become intensely focused on our lot in life and we ask unanswerable questions. In the moment, Jeremiah just sees himself, his people, and their lot in life; Their lot in life that cannot be changed any more than a leopard can change his spots. He stands and looks out and all he can see is dry chaff scattered on the scorching desert wind.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance…. Hebrews 11:13 (NIV)
Yesterday morning a woman came up to me amidst our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and shared with me some things that God has been teaching her of late. These things dove-tailed with some of the very insights God has been revealing to me in my contemplation.
“I just wonder why it’s taken me 35 years to see these things,” I laughed, shaking my head.
“Because we didn’t need to see them until now,” she answered matter-of-factly. “They are for this time and place.”
I find it equally fascinating that I can read God’s Message over and over and over again, but there are certain things which leap off the page as if I’ve never seen them before. That’s what happened as I read this morning’s chapter, which is a very famous chapter about faith. The author of this letter to early Hebrew followers of Jesus is a Hall of Fame walk through of the ancient heroes of faith. From Cain and Abel through Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho (I love that Rahab was included in the list), the writer shows how each of these ancients embraced faith.
What I had never seen clearly until this morning was that twice the author acknowledges that in many cases these heroes of faith did not receive what was promised during their earthly journey. First it’s mentioned (vs. 13) that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob believed that their tribes would become a great nation and have their own “promised land” to call home. The “promised land” was never established during their lifetimes. They lived in pursuit of a promise that they would not realize in their lifetimes.
At the very end of the chapter, the writer reiterates [emphasis added]:
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised,since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
I have learned in my own journey, particularly as Wendy and I have walked through the long valley of infertility, that there is a certain depth of faith that one only realizes when what is promised is not received (or not received as expected) in this lifetime. I have never understood why God answers the prayers of some and not others. I don’t know why some are healed and some are not. I don’t know why some get pregnant and we did not.
There are answers out there. My spirit sees them “from a distance” as the author of Hebrews wrote.
…yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord. Amos 4:11c
Along life’s journey I’ve noticed that we as humans think most about God when times are tough. When life is easy and things are humming along pretty well in our lives, we tend to shove spiritual matters to the back burner. There’s a certain spiritual sobriety that occurs when tragedy strikes and things suddenly get tough. It’s when we’re anxious and afraid that the spiritual becomes important to us.
In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Amos recounts a whole string of tragedies and difficulties that God’s people had experienced in recent years. He names them one by one. It’s a top ten list of fear and anxiety producing events, yet with each recounting Amos ends with the same refrain:
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 6
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 8
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 9
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 10
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 11
This morning I’m recalling a friend back in college whose friendship waxed and waned with the on-again-off-again relationship with his girlfriend. If they broke up and he was feeling lonely then he was my best friend in the world and wanted to hang out all the time. If he and his girlfriend got back together again I wouldn’t hear from him or see him until the next break-up. It only took a few cycles of this before I got really tired of the hot-cold treatment I received as a friend.
I wonder sometimes if that’s the way God feels with us. This morning I’m pondering the spiritual ebb and flow that often accompanies the ebb and flow of life circumstances. If I fall into the pattern of being spiritually connected when times are hard, but ignoring God when times are good, then I’m not really any different from my friend in college.
I want my relationship with God to be rock steady, no matter what I’m going through in life. If times are good then I want to be connected to share my gratitude and share the blessings. If times are bad then I want to be connected to share my fears and anxieties.
God doesn’t have to worry about me returning if I never leave.
The Lord Almighty planned it, to bring down her pride in all her splendor and to humble all who are renowned on the earth. Isaiah 23:9 (NIV)
The autumn season it a busy time for my business. We begin looking the coming year, preparing proposals for clients, and forecasting what the coming year will look like for us. Over a quarter century I have experienced both the highs and lows of business. For a long time it seemed that our company’s business would continue to grow at a fast pace. I can remember a number of years of continuous expansion when it seemed nothing could stop us.
I’ve learned, however, that things can change in a hurry. It’s amazing how quickly a person can go from dreaming big to scrambling to make ends meet. It’s a humbling experience.
In today’s chapter, Isaiah turns his prophetic eye on the city of Tyre which was a powerful port of trade on the Mediterranean. The trading ships of Tyre did a lot of business, and they had been on a good run for a long period of time. Isaiah prophetically warned them to get ready for a devastating change in the business forecast.
Isaiah points out that the coming devastation was intended by God to teach humility. It was another one of the ancient prophets, Micah, who said that what God really requires of us is to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.” I like the image of walking humbly. Humility is not momentary. It’s not like a coat we put on for a chilly day. It’s an everyday mindset for every stretch of life’s journey, both the bears and the bulls, the peaks and the valleys, the good times and the bad.
This morning I’m thinking again of our nation. Some are feeling smug and assured in victory. Some are feeling devastated in the sting of defeat. Days like these bring out the absolute worst that pride produces in us, both in triumph and tragedy. I am thinking about Tyre in its booming heyday, and impending decline. I am remembering my own pride when I believed nothing could go wrong, and the painful days when it actually did. I am reminded this morning of walking humbly every step of this journey.
“Yet there shall be a space between you and [the ark of the covenant], a distance of about two thousand cubits; do not come any nearer to it.” Joshua 3:4b (NRSV)
Last weekend Wendy and I watched the recent film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is a fascinating story set in the dark ages in Scotland. Macbeth is a warrior with relatively low rank among the nobility of the Scottish clans. On his way back from a successful battle he encounters three witches, also known as The Weird Sisters, who utter a prophecy that Macbeth will be named Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.
Macbeth writes his wife a letter and tells her of this news. Then, while still traveling home, he is advised that King Duncan has named him Thane of Cawdor, just as the sisters prophesied. Upon arriving home, the Lady Macbeth urges her husband to man up and take hold of the second part of the prophesy. King Duncan makes a surprise visit to the Macbeth’s household and Lady Macbeth sees this as her husband’s chance to make the prophecy come true. Macbeth, at his wife’s urging and insistence, murders King Duncan in his bed. The second part of the prophecy is thus fulfilled, but a madness of blood-guilt and paranoia is also unleashed that will ultimately doom Macbeth and his wife.
The story of Macbeth raises an interesting spiritual dilemma. Do you step up and try to make a prophecy come true, or do you sit back and wait to see if the prophecy is fulfilled of its own accord? Wendy and I spent some time after the movie exploring the question. We recalled an experience from recent years in which we watched a person strive, in Macbeth like fashion, to make what they believed had been prophesied happen. The results were similarly tragic, though certainly not as tragic as the bloody carnage of Macbeth!
In today’s chapter, Joshua is told by God to send the ark of the covenant out in front of the people into the Jordan River. No one is to get within 2000 cubits (e.g. approximately 3000 feet/900 meters) of the ark. When the ark enters the river, the waters are miraculously stopped (just like Moses and the Red Sea) so that the people can cross.
I found this to be an interesting word picture and an unexpected continuation of our Macbeth conversation. In murdering Duncan, I would argue that Macbeth tried to get out in front of the prophesy. He may have crossed the proverbial river into the promise, but the result was ultimately tragic as he refused to wait for the natural course of events to take place, if they ever would. Macbeth and his Lady were short on faith. Instead of trusting that the prophesy would be fulfilled at the right time in the right way, they were compelled to make it happen. In contrast, Joshua tells the people to stand back, make way, and give God room to get out ahead and clear the way. Only then shall they cross.
Today I’m reminded of the messy balance between doing what I’m called to do and, at the same time, waiting on the Lord. I don’t want to get out ahead of God or presume to stand beside. I also don’t want to lag behind and get off course. I want to follow at an appropriate distance and attentively follow where we are led on Life’s path.
The other night Wendy and I were sitting on the couch watching television and working.
“When they market a movie as ‘inspirational’ it makes me not want to see it,” Wendy mused. “If Hollywood would make movies in which things don’t turn out the way you want and call it ‘inspirational’ then I might want to see it.”
I can think of a movie or two that fit the description of what m’love is talking about, but there are precious few. I get where she’s coming from. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control.
In 1998 I was given a great gift when a friend offered to fly me and some other guys to Dublin for a long “guys” weekend. Something awoke in my soul that weekend. Something that had lain dormant sprung to life and my life has never been quite the same. I had long been told by my mother that this little Dutch boy had Scotch-Irish genes, but I didn’t really know how or from whom. It turns out to be quite a story that began with a sixteen year old girl named Malinda Jane Helmick, known as Lenna.
The year was 1881 and Lenna’s father had died four years earlier. Her widowed mother had worked desperately to keep the family farm going. Older siblings had married and moved on. There was just Lenna and her younger sister, Maggie, left at home. Times were hard. Lenna’s mother surprised the teen one day, and it was not a pleasant surprise. She told Lenna that she had hired her out to a family who lived miles away on a farm near Melrose, Iowa. Feeling like an unwanted burden to her mother, Lenna was forced to move what seemed in impossibly long distance to be a servant on the farm of John and Elizabeth McCoy.
The McCoy farm was run by the aging John and his bachelor son, David Thomas McCoy who, at the time, was 34. There were four other sons and a daughter who had all grown and moved on. Lenna’s life with the McCoys was hard. She was up early to cook the family breakfast. She cooked and cleaned throughout the day. She emptied, daily, the family’s commodes and chamber pots. She cleaned up after the evening meal and wasn’t finished with her work until late each evening. Lenna was given one day off every two weeks, and a few hours each Sunday morning to attend church.
On top of the long hours and hard work, Lenna’s life was made miserable by Mrs. McCoy. Elizabeth McCoy was an angry, cantankerous woman, partially invalid, and impossible to please. Lenna had the daily burden of trying to make Mrs. McCoy comfortable and to wait on her hand and foot amidst her regular chores. If Mrs. McCoy was hot Lenna was asked to open all the windows in the house. A short time later Mrs. McCoy would be cold and Lenna would have to close the windows and heat up a water bottle to warm the woman back up.
Lenna’s days off and occasional breaks from work afforded her little pleasure. She was stuck on the farm with no transportation and no place to go. She spent her free time walking in the woods near the McCoy farm. It was during these walks that she began to meet with and enjoy conversation with the McCoy’s bachelor son, David, who was almost 20 years her senior. Over time the man pledged his love to Lenna, promising to marry her and, together, take over the family farm. He simply had to get his mother’s blessing, he said. That blessing would never come. Elizabeth McCoy hated Lenna, looked down on her, and would never allow her son to marry a lowly servant.
Life is messy, and it happened that after one of Lenna and David’s dates in the woods near the farm that Lenna became pregnant. She thought that this would force David to stand up to his mother and claim her has his bride, but instead Elizabeth McCoy flatly forbade her son from marrying Lenna and dismissed the teen from her service before she began to show. David promised to take care of Lenna and the baby, but he would not marry her over his mother’s objections.
Lenna had few options and begged her married sister, Lou, to take her in. Lou and her husband lived in the town of Tracy, Iowa. They took Lenna in out of “Christian charity” but she would no longer be considered a sister. Lenna would, in her fallen state, simply be a household servant relegated to waiting on her sister’s family just as she had waited on the McCoys. Fearing that the community would discover the truth, Lou and her husband forbade Lenna from being seen in public. When guests came to their house they demanded Lenna stay out of sight. It was in that home that Lenna gave birth to a son, and named him David, after his father.
Lenna continued to correspond with David McCoy and he continued to make promises. He pledged to marry her one day and make everything right. The promises, however, remained hollow. McCoy moved from Iowa to Nebraska, then to Missouri, and then back to Iowa. Lenna soon owned up to the realization of just how empty McCoy’s promises had always been and would always be. She met a local farmer of German descent named Jacob Miller Yeater and the two were married. Yeater understood Lenna’s circumstances and agreed to raise Lenna’s son as his own. No legal papers were filed. Lenna simply began to call her son Oscar William Yeater, and the boy grew up completely ignorant of the real story of his birth.
It was many years later that Will, now an adult and newly married, discovered his parents marriage certificate as he was going through some papers. He did the math and saw that they were married two years after his birth. Despite nagging misgivings about his true identity, Will chose to deny the dates as a simple typographical error. Years later it was his father, Jacob Yeater, in a temperamental rage because Will’s young wife rebuffed his sexual advances, who revealed to Will the scandalous story of his illegitimate birth.
Will would eventually meet and confront David McCoy about being his father. McCoy did not deny it, but told Will that he would never confess to it in public and he would never accept Will as his son. McCoy’s brothers, however, knowing the true story, showed kindness to the young man. When David McCoy passed away as a confirmed bachelor, he left his estate to two of his siblings. Will sued for his rightful share of the estate, publicly revealing that he had been the illegitimate son of David Thomas McCoy. The scandalous story was front page news in the Chariton, Iowa newspapers, and Will’s family was humiliated. In the end, the paternity was established when the court forced an aging Lenna Yeater to travel to Chariton from Missouri and confess the truth of her early transgressions in open court. The court awarded Will one half of the McCoy estate, then promptly took it away to cover unpaid child support to his estranged wife.
William Oscar Yeater was my great-grandfather. He had a rough life, and I have merely scratched the surface of the full tragedy in this post. Will was haunted by a past that seemed to resist any kind of redemption or reconciliation. Will was a broken man, and he made many foolish choices. He was not fondly remembered by family members. Stories about him were rare and always spoken in hushed, hurried words. Will’s wife, Daisy, struggled to love him well and suffered deeply from his many failings. She married him, twice. All that Will put her through would help to transform her into the hallowed martyr and matriarch she became to her many descendants.
I did not know this story until I was well into adulthood with children of my own. I was, perhaps, near the same age as Will when he discovered the truth about himself. I was given a great gift to visit Dublin and it was there my dormant Irish genes woke within me. When I returned home I began to investigate my Irish roots and my exploration led me to meet Lenna Helmick and her son, Will Yeater, the bastard son of an Irishman named David Thomas McCoy. I am the heir of illegitimate Irish genes. Somehow, that makes them feel legitimately more Irish.
Lenna Helmick’s Cinderella story did not have a happy ending, neither would her son’s. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control. Few of us get an ending that Hollywood would market as “inspirational.” That does not, however, make them bad stories. It does not mean that we cannot find inspiration in the midst of their tragedy. Joy is not always a natural by-product of circumstance. Sometimes joy emerges only from careful and deliberate consideration. That was Wendy’s point the other night on the couch. She was right, as she so often is. Wendy knows the truth of it.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the heir of illegitimate Irish genes.
I have a pipe dream of someday starting an Irish folk band. We will be “The Bastard Sons of McCoy.”
(Note for regular readers: I’ve been taking a little time off for spring break this week. Regular posts will resume next week)