Tag: Faith

Falling From Grace

falling_man

I sat across from Jacob[1] as he stared into his coffee. We spoke a few days earlier on the phone and arranged to meet. He shared little with me on the phone except that Trish, his wife, had urged him to call. Trish is the friend of a friend who thought Jacob and I should talk. Though we were strangers we had attended the same seminary a few years apart and we were both pastors. Perhaps I would understand. We sat in a coffee shop in St. Louis Jacob trying to frame his thoughts and me wondering how on earth I could be any use to him.

“A few days ago,” he started, “I gave serious thought to ending my life. Schindler’s List and a picture of my family stopped me.” The clatter of the coffee shop with its ironic, retro-music was a strange but oddly comforting backdrop. “I can’t believe I am in this situation – can’t believe it. The church thing sucks but to make it worse…it turns out that Jesus hasn’t shown up like I thought he would.”

He took a sip and hid half his face behind the cup. “I knew being a pastor would be tough – I’m not naïve. But I didn’t expect to be picked apart by a church that I had given so much of my life to. The worst part is that I felt my faith slip away – in the church and in Jesus. Through no fault of my own I’ve fallen from grace.”

I knew he needed someone who understood, but I wasn’t sure how I could really help him. The story he told was too familiar. He longed for Jesus to show up in a real way, to comfort and assure him in the midst of a dark time, his wounds were deep and perpetrated by the bride of Christ. As painful as it was to be wounded by those he had shepherded for years it was far more severe to feel abandoned by God. “For decades,” he said, “I’ve been telling people Jesus always shows up, brings comfort, healing and hope. But I’ve got to tell you I’m not sure any longer and that terrifies me.”

Sometimes – but not always – the church while preaching grace, mercy, love, and gospel actually embodies judgment and exclusion[2]; it is painful to experience that, especially as a pastor. Jacob dipped a cookie in his cup and bits of it loosened from the whole and floated around the surface. I said little, letting Jacob talk. As he looked up from his polluted cup I hoped he would find the look of a friend who understood.

“It’s hard not to dwell on the past when the future is uncertain – in every way. I mentally replay every conversation, every event to see what went wrong. I confess every sin I can think of. Still there is no relief. I sat in my living room praying, crying out to God. I was wrestling with what it would be like to give up on faith, on the church – on Jesus. I was staring at this picture of my family and I at the beach. We are all laughing. I remember when we took that picture. Then I thought of the scene in Schindler’s List where a woman stops someone from ending her life by saying something like, ‘this is not how your story ends.’ Was God in that for me? Was he in that moment saving me? Or was that just me trying to make God fit into something?”

Jacob’s voice trailed off as he looked out the window of the nearly empty shop. He gathered himself and carefully laid out all that had happened to him. I listened to him for the next several hours. I wondered how to help Jacob – wondered if I could do more than suggest counseling and quietly praying for Jesus to show up.

I have been where Jacob is – felt as if God disappeared – felt the ground give way beneath my feet and all that I thought I knew to be true vanish. Imagine that happening; imagine something that was seemingly solid giving way – only to return stronger than before.

Jacob’s gaze returned from the street. He asked, “What now?” The heart and soul of this pastor had been laid bare; nothing trite was going to bring him peace; no promise to pray for him was going to bring healing. Telling him my story wouldn’t help either. God was going to have to show up or not (though I believe he would). I encouraged him to do as a friend of mine had encouraged me. I said, “Let everything else fall away that can fall away and speak the same words to God that Jesus spoke when he felt God turn away: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV).

 

[1] This is a work of fiction…

[2] Allan Gurganus – http://williamgiraldi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/gurganus.2.pdf

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Steps to Perfect Kids

parenting-classes-300X300I came across another article the other day that promised steps to the perfect party for kids. That was on the heels of flipping through a magazine, which highlighted the perfect bedroom for a kid, and an article on the perfect kid friendly vacation spots. There was even an ad for school, which offered the perfect environment for a child’s education. I immediately felt a rise in my anxiety levels because, given the nature of our lives, I can’t possibly provide perfection.

Parents, if you don’t already know it, are some of the most fearful, anxious people on anxietythe planet. We spend tons of resources (time, money, etc.,) on trying to assure that our children have all they can ever need so that they have the perfect childhood – which will in turn lead to a perfect life. Books and articles that promise pathways to perfection get bounced around social media like celebrity gossip.

At one point I had over fifteen parenting books on my bookshelf most from a Christian perspective. Many of them promised to deliver a parenting strategy that would lead to great, well-adjusted kids. The trouble was that they were all different in their approaches – some even contradictory to the other.

Parenting5tipsIt was confusing and overwhelming and at times alarming. I am smart enough to realize that there is little chance that I can perfectly put any of these “tips” into practice. However, these articles and books come with an implicit warning. Failure, on my part, according to the purveyors and peddlers of parenting advice, is certain to cause my kids to plummet into nothingness. What pressure!

On the one hand, I know parents who are so resigned that they are “messing their kids up” that they jokingly say they aren’t saving for their kid’s education but rather for their therapy bill. On the other hand, a dad actually said to me, “Mark if you do these five Biblical things you will have great kids – I can guarantee it. If you don’t, well I’ll pray for you and your kids.” While on opposite ends of the spectrum both parents have something in common – they are both anxious about parental perfection.

For the last twenty years I have worked with parents and students in one capacity or another. I have yet to meet the perfect parent with the perfect parenting strategy and the resulting perfect kids. And yet somehow I fell into the quagmire of attempting parental perfection when my sons came along. I found myself rummaging through books and articles, trying to find some morsel that would help me as a dad. I actually tried to make things perfect and I failed, miserably. It is nearly impossible to rise above the pressure from our culture’s pursuit of parenting perfectionism.

I learned something, in the midst of my anxious rush to find the pathway to perfection; I don’t want perfect kids – or even perfect parties. I want kids of character. Character comes from the ways we handle imperfection in ourselves and in others. The world isn’t a perfect place. Parental anxiety comes from trying to create perfection in a world that is full of flaws and broken-ness.

I don’t want perfect kids – or even perfect parties. I want kids of character. Character comes from the ways we handle imperfection in ourselves and in others.

Because we are prone to messing up we need to be patient with others and ourselves. Sure, we want to become better people but a better person doesn’t mean perfect. Better may mean being self-aware enough to know and admit my faults, failures and quirks so that I can overlook/forgive others their faults, failures and quirks. Perhaps that is the thing we can give our kids to shape their character.

There is a passage in the Bible that, while talking to people in Christian community, says a lot about seeing others and ourselves as we are and doing something about it. Parenting is about shaping the character of our children and that comes from interacting with our mess and the mess of other people. This text from the Bible speaks to that. It is in a letter from a man named Paul to people he loved. He wanted them to know the blessing of living in community, so he wrote that they ought to put on,

beatitudes in stained glass

compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15, ESV) 

Our kids live in a world where they are going to have to bear with other people – because people are going to have to bear with them. Parents need to break away from the lie of perfectionism and embrace reality. We do not live in a perfect world with perfect people. Our kids are not perfect. They like all of us have stuff in their hearts that they need to be aware of. We live in a real world where people and circumstances are not always fun, nice and easy. Character comes when as we navigate through the tough things both in our hearts and in our world. It starts with parents being real about their stuff – and allowing their children to witness the way they go through things – faults and all. It brings relief from the lie of perfectionism as parents allow their kids to see them growing in character, too.

Telling my kids I love them is something I try to do all the time. The truth is sometimes my “I love you” is overshadowed by the fact that I wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying. Or worse, as I drive them to school, blasting them for something they did or did not do. Then saying, “Love you” as they get out of the car – as if saying I love you will cover a multitude of sins.

It is clear in those moments to my kids and to me that I am not perfect. I need to own that and preëmpt the conversation and say, “I’m sorry. I blew it with you. Will you forgive me for that? I’ll try to do a better job next time” and then really work on doing better. After all, parenting is all about shaping the character of our kids but how can I give shape to their character if I’m not working on mine – in front of them.

growing-up

Trying to achieve perfection in parenting is bound to create anxiety – especially since we are not perfect people and do not live in a perfect world. It is far better to help our children learn the ways of character by helping them to deal with the good parts and the not so good parts of life. We are all a work in progress and the progress is life-long and not merely through childhood and adolescents. Perhaps we can let our children know that they are not the only ones growing up and getting better – their parents are, too.

Being and Calling

comedian-on-stage

This week all three of my sons, separate from one another, have told me what they want to do with their lives. Our oldest announced that he’d like to be a director – and make great movies. Our twelve-year-old said he wants to be a doctor – a surgeon perhaps. Our youngest said, “Would you let me be one of those guys who stands on a stage and tells jokes. I think I’d like to do that.”

What’s amazing to me about these conversations is how clearly I could see each one of my sons doing those jobs. Those callings fit them. In a way it is who they are. Yes, I know, I’ve heard it too, “we are not defined by what we do – we are more than our vocations.” I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure that there isn’t a very close connection to being and calling. I could be wrong but…

Knowing my sons the way I do, I believe there are vocations they are better suited for than others. I also believe that not helping them to understand who they are, how they are hard-wired, and telling them they can do anything is not all that helpful to them in the long run.

In fact, the Psalmist wrote, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! (Psalm 127:4-5 ESV).” Imagine this warrior, he knows his arrows well. He knows the warp and woof of each one. He knows how the arrow will be impacted by wind and perhaps rain. He knows the arrows well enough to know how to help it hit the target. Oh, and the target is defined.

234722-13-flying-arrow

In other words, know your child. Study them. Understand how God made them and help them to see how God made them. Give them a vision for the target that God has laid out for them and help them to move toward it.  Telling our arrows they can fly in a lot of different directions, any direction they want, and expecting them to hit a target is perhaps an exercise in futility.

I believe that who my sons are (being), how God has put them together, gives shape to their vocation (calling). How God made them will give shape to how God intends to use them, His target so to speak. I think that shaping continues their entire lives. However, when I fail to take into account how God put them together and fail to give them a vision for God’s target for their lives, I am setting them up for frustration.

I know a number of parents who want to make sure that they give their child every opportunity and experiences. It is as if the opportunities and experiences will somehow give shape to their children – and it does – but not always in the way that we had hoped. In other words, we send kids to science camps, sports camps, literary camp, (to see if they are going to be a scientist, athlete, or writer or all three). Sometimes it is just for fun but most of the time it is because we believe they can do anything they want to or put their minds to and we just need to give them opportunity and experience to figure it out.

Fortunately, kids sometimes know themselves better than parents do (and it may be frustrating to them to hear us say ‘you are awesome and can do anything you want’ they know that isn’t true for them – it wasn’t true when our parents said it either). What’s more is that some parents have forgotten opportunity and experience are not all that makes a person a person. We work extra hard to give those opportunities and experiences for our kids in hope. All we have to do, really, is spend the time to get to know who they are – really. How they are hard-wired plays a part. In other words, being and calling go hand in hand.

14710915-film-industry-directors-chair-with-film-strip-and-movie-clappersurgeons-at-workWho knows if one day Sherry and I will one day watch a major motion picture that our son directed, or ask our son for medical advice, or laugh in a crowd at the jokes of our youngest (I’ve given him a lot of material to work with). But, at least at this point, I can see that what they say they want to do is consistent with who they are.

Somehow in the midst of all the mistakes and messes I make of being a dad, God is still directing the being and calling of our sons. My prayer is that I don’t muddle things up too much and I am able to help point these young men toward THE target for their lives. Of course, THE target is that they advance God’s purposes in the world (as agents of shalom) for God’s glory. My job as dad is to help them understand who they are and to give them a vision for THE target so that no matter the specific calling they are finding their purposes wrapped up in God’s. I believe that is how these young men will flourish and those around them will flourish as well.

quiverarrows

Oh God – Please Help Me – I Have a Terrible Case of the Adolescents

C.S. Lewis was a man of letters.  Not only did he write books and articles – he wrote letters, lots of them. Lewis was also a man of prayer. He not only cultivated his own prayer life but he encouraged others to do the same. In 1951 he wrote a letter to an American man for whom he had prayed. The man, a veteran of WW II, had come to faith in Christ – which was THE answer to Lewis’ prayer. Not long after that Lewis wrote him a letter, urging him “to be ‘busy learning to pray.’”

I came across that account from Lewis’ life in a book by Lyle Dorsett (one of my profs from Beeson Divinity School). It has stayed with me since. I’ve often turned that phrase over in my mind  – recognizing the simple wisdom in that advice.

At the same time, though I have busied myself in trying to learn to pray, to be honest, I haven’t felt the urgency that is often needed to become a full-fledged man of prayer. In other words, though I have prayed earnestly, with frequency (daily), with faith, hope, assurance and a times out of desperation, I can’t say that my first instinct always is to pray. That is until recently.

It happened rather suddenly. One day I woke up and realized I had a severe case of adolescents – two in fact. Talk about being “busy learning to pray!”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Sherry and I have great sons and I am not complaining. I am so grateful to be their Dad I can’t even put it to words. I’m simply stating a fact. As great as our guys are – well – they are teenagers and with that comes a whole new set of challenges.

Since the early nineties I have worked with students in one capacity or another. I’ve met with parents and heard all sorts of stories. All of that has taught me at least two things. First, it semi-prepared me for being the parent to teenagers. Second, it taught me that nothing could fully prepare me for being a parent to teenagers.

If sharing a home with teenagers doesn’t make a person want to learn how to pray, I don’t know what will. In fact, of late I’ve felt more and more compelled to be busy learning to pray. That’s the funny thing about prayer. Sometimes it takes discovering how much we really need God to be at work before we can actually learn how to pray. When our kids our young we may have a tendency to pray huge, broad winged prayers.

However, when they are on the cusp of adulthood, when they are engaged in the wonderful yet strange mid-term years of adolescents we may begin to pray much more specifically. It is during adolescents that kids begin to exert more independence and we have to let them, sometimes holding our breath. That’s when we may actually learn to pray – and pray we must – because the truth of the matter is every parents only hope is God.

Moving Kids Toward Wisdom

Last week the school where my sons attend held their first poetry festival. I must say that I was impressed. Students from Pre-K (that’s four-year olds) thru sixth grade recited poems of varying length. They did an incredible job. What stood out to me was how well the students had memorized poetry (including the Pre-K class) and that they stood in front of tons of folks and recited it. It was great!

That festival – and festivals like that – are important. Not just because it exposes children to poetry (that can be good or bad) nor just because it connects them to the arts (although that’s significant). It is important because it can give shape to their moral imagination, which hopefully will move them towards wisdom.

I haven’t heard that sort of language  – especially at it relates to children – all that much. I have heard a lot about character formation and I’ve heard a lot about preparing kids academically for their future. But what about wisdom (can you separate character and wisdom? Is it wise to separate knowledge and wisdom?) What is shaping the way a child makes decisions? How are they becoming not only smarter but wiser? Where are they learning to navigate the gray areas of their own hearts and the hearts of others?

Vigen Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination suggests classic stories go a long way to shape a child’s imagination and move them toward wisdom. He cites the original classics (do not confuse with the Disney-ed versions) like Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen.

The “real” stories do not hide the fact that life is tough and our actions have consequences. Not everything ends in “happily ever after.” These stories make us aware of good and evil, right and wrong, and the fact that human beings and life in general can be gray and not merely black and white. In these stories the reader becomes part of the action because they are so compelling and honest about what it means to be a real person. Thus they awaken a sense and desire to move toward the good (especially when the main character is not so inclined or acting – well – foolish).

That thought jumped out at me during the poetry festival. So many of the poems that these children had learned moved toward wisdom. They used images and story, carefully crafted metaphor to offer insights into life. Not all the poems did that – but a lot of them did (some where just great, fun poems from Shel Silverstein). But one poem that three young women recited at the festival has stayed with me. It is a somewhat familiar poem. It is a poem called “Three Gates.”

THREE GATES
If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold

These narrow gates: First “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?”
In your mind give truthful answer,
And the next is last and narrowest,
“Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

From the Arabian (Tapestries of Life)

It is easy to see how this poem sparks the imagination and could move a child (or an adult) toward wisdom. My hope as I sat there and listened to these students was that the words they were saying – ones they had memorized – would find their way into their imagination – that they would move beyond words on a page – and move them toward wisdom.

Perhaps there is no better source of poems to give shape to moral imagination and move people toward wisdom than The Psalms. Tucked within that book of verse are poems of all kinds and various genres. The great thing about a lot of the poems is that we know a lot about the poet: David, Israel’s great king. Many of his poems tell the stories of his life in verse and, the best part, David is not the hero of his poetry.

That’s why they are perfect for giving shape and moving a child toward wisdom – because they point to the fact that David was like every other human being: broken and in need of help that only God could give. How can a poem like Psalm 3:1-4 not give shape to a child’s imagination – how could it not move a person toward wisdom?

O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God. Selah
But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
(Psalm 3:1-4 ESV)

The great hero of this poem – the poet tells us – is God. The poet cried out and God answered him. One great thing about this poem – as it shapes the imagination is that it points out that God delivers – He has done that once and for all in Christ. Think of how poems like this – given to memory – can give shape to moral imagination and move a child toward wisdom.

Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike

Weyden Descent of Christ from Cross

Seven Stanzas At Easter

By John Updike
1964

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike, “Seven Stanzas At Easter,” 1964

John Updike - Boston Public Library

A Son of the South: Raw Cotton & Hope

Not long ago I signed up for something on Facebook. The reason – the name. Bourbon & Boots. Today I got an email – an ad no less for Raw Cotton.

Get your lb of cotton at http://www.bourbonandboots.com/

For $25 you can buy a pound of cotton from North Carolina – The Cottonman. I think that’s awesome and I’m thinking of buying some but not just because I like cotton. Rather, it is because the first time I saw cotton fields they captured my imagination and led to an experience that I’m not likely to forget.

I was driving in rural Alabama. It was the time of the cotton harvest. It was a beautiful day – which is mostly the case in the Deep South (even when it is so hot it feels like someone wrapped you in a wool blanket and poured hot water over it). The sun was out – but there was something white blowing across the road. I had seen white stuff blowing across the road before – but that was when it was gray and cold and the sky full of clouds. This wasn’t snow.

It was cotton. Some bits and pieces pulled free from huge cotton bundles on trailers as trucks took them down the road. Other bits and pieces blew from the once white fields made mostly brown/black stalks by enormous, green harvesters. The fields were a jumble of sticks and dirt and bits of left behind cotton.

Harvesting Cotton John-Deere-7760

Cotton and cotton fields have long-held a place in my imagination. As a little boy I was drawn to Civil War history, to Mark Twain, and pretty much anything to do with the south, her history and culture. Cotton and plantations were always somewhere in the background of my imagination. The reason, I think, was quite simple. I could not make sense of it.

What I mean is that I have always loved the south but as young boy I couldn’t make sense of the painful, sad parts of her history – which was most often represented in my minds eye by cotton fields. I can close my eyes and see them – the white fields – plucked clean now by machines – where once they were filled with men, women and children – stooping, pulling, and filling sacks. It is hard not to connect the full white fields to days when Americans “lawfully” enslaved people. In the land born of liberty and freedom there was slavery, injustice, and oppression; all for money. That painful, sad history extended beyond the fields, entering into city ordinances, state laws, churches, and schools and my imagination.

Black people picking cotton while their white overseer rides a horse (Photographer unknown, ca. 1895)

It took the law of love to bring change. It was encouraged by pastors and extended by children, some as young as six. The children went from churches – marching to pray, singing hymns and spirituals as they went, all the while suffering abuse and jail from their fire-hose and dog wielding oppressors. This history is not lost on me as a Christian, a student of history, and a southerner who hates racism while loving the south (and one who for love of union and abolition is glad “we” lost the war).

Birmingham Children's Crusade 1963
Young boys on their way to jail

And yet – now the image of cotton fields reaches into my imagination and memory reminding me that even out of pain and sadness there is hope. God’s children are not without suffering. We are not without pain and sadness. And yet there is hope – God can bring good out of the worst possible places, out of slavery, out of racism, and out of the cotton fields of Alabama.

My family and I were living in Alabama – a state filled with places that look like a scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird. A friend, Mark, invited me, to attend an unusual gathering of folks. Mark ran a farm of sorts near the campus of Alabama A & M. All the work Mark and others put into raising food was so that poor people could eat. Mark believed that God wanted him to farm (despite not knowing anything about farming) and give the food to the poor. Turns out the Bible supports that notion – and Christians are to care about folks flourishing – it has something to do with shalom.

It also turns out that many folks really needed the help (that’s true everywhere but AL is the third poorest state in the US – “23.4 percent of households said they were unable to afford enough food, which is the second highest rate in the country“). It also turns out that folks wanted to help. That included Alabama A&M – which provided the land as well as a canning facility. It also included local farmers who brought crates of fruits and veggies to give. Whether they knew it or not they were living out of an Old Testament practice of leaving enough food in the field for the poor to glean. When it came time to harvest, men, women, children stooped, pulled, and filled sacks stooped, buckets and crates; poor people, white, black – just people.

When all the work was done folks didn’t leave. Instead they started to gather in a large, hanger like building that had once been A&M’s cannery. This was what Mark had invited me to witness; it was an experience I will not easily forget. Folks began to gather at one end of the building, in a close semi-circle. They sat on buckets, chairs, and the concrete floor. An elderly, African-American gentlemen sat down and the shuffle of feet subsided. Mark looked at me with a big smile as the gentlemen began to sing.

I did not know the song. I had never heard it before and at first I thought he was making it up – beautiful, soulful as it was. Then, just as he finished the first chorus – folks around me joined him. They filled the room with their voices, with their songs, and they were tied to the fields painful, sad history.

There was no way for me to know the words to the songs. These were not my songs because these were songs born out of the pain and sadness of slavery, of injustice, of oppression. They were songs born in the fields and tied to the cotton field’s history of pain and sorrow songs BUT not left there. These slave songs were born out of pain but written and sung and passed down with hope that God by His Son and through His Spirit would redeem his people. 

What I saw that day was truly one of the most amazing worship services I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know the first song. I could only stand back and listen. Mark couldn’t help smiling at me. “It’s like this every week,” he said.

That worship experience was more than fourteen years ago. I’m not even sure if Mark is still farming – we moved away from AL six years ago. Yet I can close my eyes and just about hear them sing. They sang songs that had been passed down to them by their parents and grandparents, slave songs – which, though born out of something terrible, connected them to the same hope and joy which has lifted God’s people up since Adam. They knew the same God who sets the captives free in the Bible is the same God who set their great grandparents free, set them and their children free from injustice and  sets them free in Jesus.

So they sang the same songs their ancestors sang. They sang as the Psalms teach God’s people to sing and to pray; fully, holding nothing back.  The Spirit filled their songs, reminding them (and teaching me) that God does bring good from the painful, broken, sad, places of our lives.

In the Old Testament book of Psalms – David (the Psalmist) wrote, “For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. (Psalm 37:28 ESV). It is an extraordinary claim – isn’t it? It is if you believe it (which I do). When we are in the midst of painful, sad places we often have trouble believing this about God – especially when it seems like nothing will change or God is taking a very long time. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, has a book of poetry the title of which captures this feeling: Swift, Lord, You Are Not.

If you haven’t spent much time in the Bible you might be surprised to find that it isn’t all “puppy dogs and rainbows.” In fact, it is true to life – telling humanities story and God’s intervention in sometimes graphic terms. Some folks struggle with that aspect but I think it is quite helpful because most folks I know struggle with one thing or another. I don’t have much capacity for the pushers of Pollyanna theology, the “God just wants you to be happy and healthy and rich” – you know the big ego, big stadium, big hair kind of folks. I’m not sure what version of the Bible they are reading – if they are at all.

The Old Testament doesn’t skip over the bad parts. Those slaves songs, like the Scriptures, were passed down from parents to children (Deut 6). They were meant to prepare people for life in a fallen world and point them in a Godward direction. Sometimes I think we do kids a bad turn when, in an effort to protect them, we insulate them from reality. They are bound to have troubles because, until Jesus comes, that’s the way of the world. There are things beyond our control and we’d do better by our kids to prepare them – shape their character and their moral imagination.

The Psalms, in particular, give shape to the way God’s children learn to pray and sing and live. Reading them gives a person the full scope of life. The people who sang  and prayed these Psalms had once been slaves in Egypt, and they sang of God’s deliverance.  They knew pain and sorrow – a great deal of which was their own fault (which sound familiar to me). They also tasted injustice and hatred – and they cried out to God. Psalm 137 is one of those Psalms; it is written from anguish and heartbreak: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Psalm 137:1-6 ESV)”

These were God’s people – they had been carried away in exile. They knew pain and sadness well. Their lives were ripped open. They were mocked, abused, forced to leave their home. They knew hardship and pain in ways that I don’t even want to imagine. But they wrote about it – as prayer to God. 

What stands out to me is the fact that this text still remains. It is a painful Psalm to read because of the anguish, the anger, the pain. It was a dark time in the lives of God’s people, a terrible time. And yet, this Psalm, marked this time and it was passed on from one generation to another – down to this very day. 

I think I know why – at least I can speculate. The Babylonian Empire hasn’t existed for – well a very long time but God’s people still do. Apparently, God really does love justice and he does keep His saints. I also think what is expressed in this Psalm gives shape to the way God’s people pray and sing. Because sometimes we feel the way they did and because God delivered His people – and still does.

That’s not to say that the bad times we go through aren’t bad. Sometimes all we have to hold onto is a stubborn resolve that God will do as He has said. That’s when Psalms like “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5 ESV) and “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” (Psalm 30:11-12 ESV) give shape to the way we think and pray. I think Psalms like these are most beneficial when things stink – really stink. They may help us to rejoice when the time is right but they also form our lips to sing, to pray, to hope for the day when we will be dancing, clothed with gladness and singing forever. They point to the fact that one day this will be true of God’s people.

The New Testament shapes our hearts for the tough parts as well – and it gives shape to hope. In the New Testament book of Romans – chapter 8 – Paul wrote, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father!” A bit later in the same chapter it says  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Romans 8:15, 28).

Verses like these giving shape to our hopes by telling us that we are God’s children. We have been adopted by God (and I love adoption); we are His sons and daughters. Of course, our adoption is made possible through Christ – that’s what Paul is trying to tell us – our place is sure in Christ.

But something else gives shape to our hope – its phrase cry Abba or Father. When does a child “cry out” for their dad? In times of pain and trouble, of course. And – since we know we are his sons and daughters we know that we can do that – approach God as Father in the midst of troubles.

But how does we hope a father will respond? Well, in all honesty I don’t alway respond with the sort of kindness and compassion that I should. Sometimes when my sons cry out I’m busy and I don’t want to be bothered. Well – that’s my way but not God’s way.

Children also cry out in moments of joy and surprise. That’s always a good sound – when your kids are glad to see you – when they say, “I love you.” When they thank you for the good things you’ve done for them.

But this “crying out” in times of pain and joy both have an element, an expectation of hope linked to them. Hope that the one who hears the cry will care respond and step toward us – make things good and right. That’s where Romans 8:28 fits into this: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Romans 8:28).

Isn’t this a nagging verse? Is the Bible giving an assurance that things will turn out for good for God’s people? It sure seems so…But isn’t this the hope we long for? 

I think it is. Even though we may not understand why it is that we go through things and they may be terrible – in the midst of them we want and need hope that things will work for good. God gives this hope to His children which is part of the way we can  persevere. In fact, I believe the story of the Bible is wrapped up in this hope – that Christ by His life, death and resurrection makes new lives out of broken ones (something I can personally attest), sets captives free (and we are captive to something), restores human beings to God, brings peace (shalom) to fractured relationships, and brings light into dark places. The essence of the Biblical story is that God, through Christ, redeems the painful, sad parts of life and makes them good as only God can.

I think this hope has carried God’s people from the time of Adam until now – ultimately God will restore all things and make things right and good. I think it was this hope that shaped the slave songs. Their assurance was bound up in Jesus in ways I could only image. Jesus turned their mourning into gladness – even as they worked those fields. The foundation of their songs wasn’t sorrow, nor self-pity – it was hope, a hope in Christ, a hope that all their suffering and hardship was going to turn out for good. It is a hope that all God’s children can sing about.

I may buy a pound after all…

Links and Resources:

  • Learn to sing the Psalms: http://psalter.org/
  • Want to know more about Civil Rights & The Children’s Crusade – Birmingham 1963 http://library.thinkquest.org/  http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/interviews/clayborne-carson.html http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Home.jsp  http://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement   http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders                                      See King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
  • Check out the history of Negro Spirituals, Cabin Music and Slave Songs http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/             http://www.negrospirituals.com/news-song/index.htm           http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/                                                                               Honey in the Rock: The Ruby Pickens Tartt Collection of Religious Folk Songs By Olivia Solomon, Jack Solomon
  • Check out the ad for Raw Cotton here: Raw Cotton | Cotton Man | Bourbon & Boots.
  • Want to learn more about the South and the Civil War – Professor David Blight’s course from Yale on The Civil War and Reconstruction – Lecture 2 is all about King Cotton. They are free and worth the listen.