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Sing a New Song

I don’t have any trouble singing in church. In fact, in general I love choral singing as well. I’m not the best singer by far, but in a group setting, I feel bolstered by the voices around me and feel I can sing with the best of them. I am always a little sad when people around me don’t sing at all. My daughter rarely sings in church but she will sing along with the radio all the time. She says it’s the music she doesn’t particularly like, not her style and all that. But my real question is to God: why are we told to sing or even commanded? What is it about singing that is different from speaking?

Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre!
    Sing praises to him with the ten-stringed harp!
Sing to him a new song!
    Play your best with joyful shouts! [Psalm 33:2-3; CEB]

Some results from a cursory Internet search include:

  • Singing is the act of producing musical sounds with the voice, and augments regular speech by the use of both tonality and rhythm. Singing expresses emotion and united communities.
  • Back in 1588, William Byrd wrote that singing is delightful to Nature and preserves our health.
  • In a book entitled Music and the the Brain, there is evidence that singing is therapeutic.
  • There are even studies out there that claim people who sing live longer.
  • People who stutter often lose their stutter completely while singing the words (Anyone remember the film, The King’s Speech?)
  • A song can also help people to learn something or remember concepts.
  • Singing is a part of cultural identity.
  • Singing helps people understand who they are.
  • Singing helps people experience worship.
  • But it is also a way to bring people together for a cause, for a right, a touchpoint.

There are songs in the church that have the same power but it’s rarely embraced with the furor of social change, which is too bad. If our passion for God could be as rich as our passion for justice, lives would be changed.

And so I say: sing. Sing unto God. Sing together. Sing alone. Sing.

Three and Thirty

Art by Kelly Watts

Art by Kelly Watts

Apparently, there were several concentric circles of influence, courage, and power around King David. In I Chronicles 11, there are several references to both the three and the thirty. Unfortunately, they don’t exactly match up with sister references in II Samuel 23. (See Wikipedia article for details.) And yet, they are provocative in their specificity:

Jashobeam, a Hacmonite, was commander of the Thirty . . . Next in command came Eleazar, Dodo’s son the Ahohite, who was one of the three warriors. . . . Abishai, Joab’s brother, was chief of the Thirty. He raised his spear against the three hundred men he had slain, but he wasn’t considered one of the Three. He was the most famous of the Thirty. He became their commander, but he wasn’t among the Three. . . .  He [Benaiah] was famous among the Thirty, but didn’t become one of the Three. [I Chronicles 10b; 12; 20-21; 25]

These groups represent spheres of influence as well as strategies of leadership.They were predominately known to be mighty warriors.

Jesus also had spheres: the three closest disciples [Peter, James & John, so referenced in Mark 9:2] and of course, the twelve who became the core group, “first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him” [Matthew 10:2-4] and lastly, the seventy or seventy-two, “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go [Luke 10:1].

In each case, these groups had particular assignments. In David’s case, they were warriors and commanders, built for strength, battle, and protection. They displayed courage and often risked their lives for their beloved King. They came to David gifted in these areas.

On the other hand, the disciples that Jesus selected seemed less than qualified. They came from different walks of life except for a sub-group of them who were identified as fisherman and one a tax collector. We don’t know much about the rest, but we do know they were not the normal supplicants who would follow a rabbi. Many stories, in fact, show some frustration on Jesus’s part at their ability to grasp his teachings and what his teachings meant. Essentially, the disciples did not really come into their own until Jesus commissioned them upon his resurrection.

In recent years, the phrase, “God doesn’t call the qualified, but qualifies the called” has become quite popular. And although that is true in some cases, like the New Testament disciples who learned by doing and following their Teacher, we also have the example of the Three and the Thirty who were already gifted and committed their gifts to the King. They gave what they had.

Both are needed: those who have talents can surrender them to God and those who don’t know what their talents might be can surrender their will to God and their use will evolve.

Everyone Forever, painting by Minako Abe

Everyone Forever, painting by Minako Abe

I am reading through the Bible in a year. I’ve done it before. Sometimes, it feels a bit of a drudgery, particularly I Chronicles. But in this chronological plan, I get to mix up some of those dry passages with the Psalms, thoughts that always move me, either to my knees or to gratitude. Today, these words resounded deeply:

But the Lord’s faithful love is from forever ago to forever from nowfor those who honor him. . . . [Psalm 103, 17a, CEB]

Forever — endless — infinite — eternal. These are God words. In fact, it is only God who can calmly say, “always,” and mean it. And because I am devoted to this forever God, I can surrender my irregularities and my sometimes and my good intentions. I can trip and fall and rise again. I can start over again–and again–if I have to. I can claim a grace that only an infinite God can give freely. I can fail and I can succeed.. I can weep or laugh. I have been loved since the beginning and I will be loved until the end. I am a child of God and beloved.

Both Psalm 103 and 104 begin this way: “Let my whole being [soul] bless the Lord! . . . ” [CEB] That is my prayer today.

On My Right Hand

right handThe most common reference to “right hand” placement is the right hand of God and the One on this side, that is the Son of Man, the Messiah, Christ Jesus. This is a place of shared power and signifies authority. This norm has carried down through the ages to the point that most “guests of honor” at a dinner table are seated to the right of the host. It is a place of And yet, in Psalm 16, there is a new take on this idea:

I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. [Psalm 16:8, NIV]

I am moved by this proclamation and realize it should be mine each day. With it, I could give authority to God to move on my behalf and with it I could count on God’s presence to protect me, to guide me, and to support me. In addition to giving God authority, if I could practice keeping my eyes on God, symbolically speaking of course, I could focus my energy and direction, cast off distractions and, potentially, move forward without fear. Oh, what prevents me?

I remember back in acting school when we were introduced to a variety of circus skills, my favorite was tightrope walking because of the visual concentration required, to keep the eyes looking ahead at a single destination point.

But I also remember the story of Peter who walked on water, albeit briefly, as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. Did he try it again? I always wondered. Did he remember the experience as a success or a failure? He defied, for just a few steps, the laws of gravity and science. He stepped outside the known dimensions of reality. But was it enough to believe?

spiralBut here’s a conundrum:
“You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy, at Your right hand there are pleasures forevermore. [Psalm 16:11, Amplified]

And here, in the same psalm, I am now at God’s right hand, receiving the benefits thereof. An interesting circle: God at my right hand and me at God’s right hand: Oneness. That is the point. Fueling and being fueled, loving and being loved, giving and receiving, all at the same time. Strength to strength [Psalm 84:7].

 

 

Honor Code

HonorI don’t pretend to understand the honor codes of Old Testament times. The stories that surround the lives of Saul and David are most complicated of all. Saul wants to kill David and chases him all of the country and despite opportunity, David refuses to kill “God’s anointed.” And even later, after Saul’s death, an Amalekite takes responsibility for a mercy killing of Saul but dies for it:

David asked him, “Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?”Then David called one of his men and said, “Go, strike him down!” So he struck him down, and he died. For David had said to him, “Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, ‘I killed the Lord’s anointed.’” [2 Samuel 1:14-16, NIV]

The first four chapters of 2nd Samuel are filled with revenge and death and killings in the name of honor. It is outside the norms of our culture in general, although certain societies and gangs still practice the eye for an eye practice. But, in no way do I see the anointing of God prevent or protect a leader. We have cast aside any idea that a leader, whether in that position by force or vote, could be a designee of God.

There are some basic honor codes that humans seem to try to abide by: the fair treatment of prisoners of war, the military “code of conduct,” dealings with the Red Cross and other first responders, and perhaps some locally created codes within companies or organizations, often watered down into “value statements.”

In the end, people codify behaviors based on what often appears to be a moving target: what is right, what is good, what is fair? Eventually, these determinations may become laws but often, they are simply, agreed upon or understood. Unless a person is a sociopath or in some other way, without conscience. For it is, in the end, the inner voice that agrees and supports the code. Or not.

anointedAnd yet, in David’s time, this code could be trumped by God or in the name of God’s anointed.

The one thing that came out of this reading and meandering thoughts was that our modern society puts little respect into the roles of our leaders. Perhaps it’s the democratic process that seems to somehow cheapen their position. After all, the voters could have been deluded or simply wrong and therefore, we do not need to honor this man or woman. And besides, we can count the days, eventually, they’ll be voted out (or in again) soon.

I’m just wondering if things would go differently if we all rallied behind our leaders. If we simply accepted that this person, in this now, as God’s anointed, would things go better? Oh, pie in the sky, I know. But so much energy is spent derailing leaders, from presidents to local mayors, it’s a wonder anything gets done at all.

 

Naomi’s Bitterness

bitternessOnce again, I am visiting the book of Ruth. I know this story well, having performed a one woman show for several years as the character of Ruth. But now, as I approach the latter part of my own life, I am more drawn to Naomi’s role.

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara,because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” [Ruth 1:20-21a, NIV]

I have many besetting sins, as we all do, but one of the most tenacious sins is disappointment. That’s right, I call it a sin. It is my warning bell, for out of it I have seen full blown bitterness grow. Disappointment fans the flames of bitterness.

NaomiNaomi had a good life. She had the security of a husband and two sons who would care for her in her old age. When famine struck their land, the family traveled to a neighboring country to start over. Even though they had lost much in the famine, they were still a family. She could endure as long as they were together. But of course, that was not how it turned out at all. Instead, her husband died. And although she had her boys and their new wives, within ten years, the sons died as well. How could this be? All of her dreams and hopes were crushed. There were not even grandchildren to hold the family together. There was no family at all. She sent the widowed daughters away.

Despite the loyalty of Ruth, who traveled with her, Naomi lost hope. (In fact, I could imagine Naomi considered Ruth, a Moabitess after all–a foreigner, nothing but another stone around her neck.) Naomi’s deep disappointment in the outcomes of her life drove her into sorrow, grief, even despair and from those, she blundered into a growing bitterness and resentment toward God who she believed took everything away.

I can’t say my life ever hit such a deep abyss. Besides, I live in a country and in an era where women can be resilient, self-sufficient even. I am not at the complete mercy of a patriarchal society as Middle Eastern women were of that day (and some still).

And yet I have battled with my God. As a long-time believer, I imagined my life would turn out differently. I thought my aspirations had the power of God behind them. But, as the road branched and turned and twisted, I found myself continually looking back, wondering what would have been if I had chosen the other way, had I not married at eighteen or divorced five years later, if I had graduated from college in Indiana instead of Illinois, if I had not gone to New York, if I had not returned home to Indianapolis with my tail between my legs, if I had not married again and moved to Atlanta, if I had not been barren, and so on and on and on.

Oh foolish woman I know. To bemoan the loss of what could have been and not revel in what is.

disappointmentToday and tomorrow are still a wonder if I allow them to be. I am ashamed of my bouts of disappointment for they are nothing but unproductive. Disappointment prevents growth in a good way. It interferes with gratitude. And worst of all, disappointment presumes I know the better way, that my ideas of who I was to become or what I was meant to do or how my life should have unfolded were mine alone. But I surrendered that right the day I accepted the Christ spirit. In theory at least.

But surrender to the little life I have rather than the bigger life I aspired to is not always easy. Most of those dreams were self-aggrandizing. In those dreams, I was still the center of the universe.

Naomi could only see her crumbling world, she could could not see the bigger picture. We all have a bigger picture which is why it is so important to trust God in every turn of life, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is the believer’s vow to Christ. This mantra can stave off disappointment.

Through Naomi’s daughter-in-law, a child was conceived by Boaz, and the line was preserved. One of the greatest leaders was born as a result, King David, who set in motion the fulfillment of long-time prophecies of a Messiah for the world. That was Naomi’s big picture.

 

Samson’s Secret

Painting by Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927)

Painting by Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927)

Samson had everything he needed to serve and lead. He was called from childhood, from the day he was born. He was a Nazirite: dedicated to God. But these gifts made him prideful. He lost sight of the true source of his strength.

“Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah. The rulers of the Philistines confronted her and said to her, ‘Seduce him and find out what gives him such great strength and what we can do to overpower him.’ . . . “ [CEB, Judges 16:4-7a]

Did Samson make a mistake falling in love with the “wrong” woman? Apparently women were his weakness even more than his hair.

Delilah wasn’t the first time a woman betrayed him. Read Judges 14 where his Philistine wife [unnamed] beguiled him for the answer to a wedding riddle and told her relatives. That treachery ended badly with Samson taking revenge both in killing thirty random Philistine men and later destroying a number of his enemies’ fields and crops. The Philistines feared and hated Samson. And yet for the next twenty years, he continued to win victories with his strength alone.

Then Delilah, yet another Philistine woman, came into the picture. Her village elders offered her great sums of money for the secret of Samson’s strength. And so she double crossed Samson. Why couldn’t he see what she was doing? Why couldn’t he remember how it went the first time? Did he actually trust Delilah? I don’t think so. Pride consumed him. He could not imagine that God would allow him to be defeated. That lesson came hard when he was taken, blinded, and put to labor in prison, reduced to a stock animal grinding grain. He told Delilah the “secret” of his strength. But really, the secret was the hand of God. The hair was a symbol of the covenant.

Do I know the real secret? Or I have I fallen into Samson’s folly?

God has given us all gifts, strengths, and abilities. Certainly, God has given much to me but I take most of it for granted: my comfortable life, my health, my stage presence, my writing, my adopted children, my energy, my passion and enthusiasm, my long-standing marriage, my home, my job, my church; the list goes on and on. I am too comfortable I think. My gifts have become a norm like Samson’s long hair. As a result, I have lost my vision and gratitude for them and their purpose in my life.

Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” [Luke 12:48b]

Art by Cheryl Ward

Art by Cheryl Ward

Forgive me O God, for I have sinned in my plenty, fearful of less, but holding on too tightly to the cornucopia.

I remember, back in the high days of the Toronto Blessing (1994) when people were “catching the fire” and manifesting all kinds of strange behaviors (of course, lives were changed as well – I have no bone to pick with that revival experience), one of the popular phrases/prayers was to say, “more” Lord. They were asking for more of God, I know, but looking back, it also feels a bit narcissistic: give “me” more, touch my life, etc.  I suppose the ideal would be that God would give me more so that I might give others more. But I don’t see myself following through on such an arrangement. At least, not so far. There was a time I longed to be used of God in some miraculous way, as a conduit for healing or prophesying or wisdom . But I’m thinking, for the few who gained great popularity in those arenas, most of them went the way of Samson. With great power comes great temptation.

No, I don’t want that either.

I just want to be true to the Presence of God in me, to hold my hands and heart open, to speak truth, to forgive freely, to look and listen without comparing people to myself or to one another, to accept now with gratitude and pray for tomorrow with confident anticipation because God is sovereign. I don’t need to wait for my hair to grow long or my days to number into the seventies or eighties. Samson didn’t need to wait either. It just took him that long to figure it out.

Let this reveal have legs, Lord, and roots. Nourish my soul with your Breath. Today and always.

 

 

 

 

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