Make a Joyful Noise

In my journey through the Psalms, I am presently spending time in Psalm 95. The English Standard translation (ESV) entitles Psalm 95 as Let Us Sing Songs of Praise. A.A. Anderson suggests No Worship without Obedience. The first two verses beseech the Jewish community to make joyful noises in worship of Yahweh, their God…

1 Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

Making a joyful noise to the Lord is a common thread throughout the Psalms (c.f. Psalms 66, 98, and 100). As I was reading this, I begin to wonder how noise can be joyful, especially to the hearer. By definition, noise is loud, obnoxious, and unpleasant. The etymology of noise is Latin nausea (“seasickness”) – interesting. For me, not only can noise be obnoxious, it actually hurts my ears (might be an age thing)!

So how can noise be joyful to the hearer? It might have everything to do with the source. Our youngest grandson, Elend, spent the last several days with us awaiting a flight to Arizona to join up with his family who drove to Scottsdale for a lengthy stay at their condo. (They literally didn’t have room for him in their vehicle, so Elend’s aunt flew with him to join up with his family. 🙂)

During his stay with us, Elend got a fair amount of time with his cousin, Grant. Grant and Elend enjoy life and know how to have fun – a lot of fun. And they make noise – a lot of noise. Loud, obnoxious, and unpleasant (ear hurting) noise…

One afternoon, as I was trying to work at my desk, the two boys took their enjoyment of each other to a new level – in both glee and decibels. It was deafening. And I loved it. To a grandpa it was truly a joyful noise! I wonder what it sounded like to God?

What made their noise so joyful? Much of it was the way the enjoyed each other. And I enjoyed watching them enjoy each other. It did my heart good. Since we were created in God’s image, I have to believe that He enjoys watching us enjoy each other. I have to believe it does his heart good as well. (I wonder what it does to his heart when we don’t enjoy each other?) I also suspect that God enjoys it when we enjoy the rest of his creation.

Joyful noise is about glee and decibels

I am beginning to understand that the operative word in the phrase joyful noise is indeed joyful. As much as we love harmony, I suspect the Psalmist wasn’t necessarily suggesting joyful harmony.* Instead, I’m beginning to realize the focus is on the joyfulness of the noise-maker. I wonder if the making of joyful noise is about doing right things. Harmony might be focused on doing things right (see Doing Right Things). Joyful noise is about glee and decibels. With that it mind…

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! (Psalm 100)

* By the way, this is very good news to those of us that struggle to carry a tune.

Let the Juices Flow!

When facilitating a leadership development/training session, I will often have the group read and ponder something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the topic at hand. The purpose? To get the juices going. Google “get the juices going” and you’ll see close to 50,000 hits. Getting the juices going is synonymous to jump-starting one’s thinking, maybe even waking up the mind (caffeine for the brain?). Artists and writers often refer to getting their “creative juices” going.

I’ve been writing this blog for 2 1/2 years now. I find I cannot just sit down and write a post without something first sparking those creative juices. Sometimes the juices are a result of a conversation with someone, but more often related to something from scripture that I’ve read and pondered. Like this post…

I am slowly working my way through the book of Psalms. With the help of A.A. Anderson’s Commentary, I park on a Psalm for a time, then move on when I feel like I’m done gleaning from it for the present. I just wrapped up Psalm 92 yesterday. From the Voice translation, Psalm 92 concludes with…

12 Those who are devoted to God will flourish like budding date-palm trees;
    they will grow strong and tall like cedars in Lebanon.
13 Those planted in the house of the Lord
    will thrive in the courts of our God.
14 They will bear fruit into old age;
    even in winter, they will be green and full of sap.

They will bear fruit into old age!

Living in my 8th decade, this got my attention. Poking around in Anderson and other resources, I discovered that a better rendering of the Hebrew for this might be “They will still be full of juice in old age.” My interest was completely piqued!

Still pondering this “full of juice” thought, I read John 15 today (Jesus’ “I am the vine and you are the branches” narrative). In this discourse we read…

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.

Here we have fruit-bearing again! I have read this passage many times. This time I found myself hearing it differently. Could the “full of juice” concept fit this? I think absolutely so!

In past readings, I think my focus has been on “you will bear much fruit.” I suspect I am not alone – who doesn’t want to bear much fruit? A lofty objective. So American and Western of us! We easily find ourselves focused on the outcome. But focusing on bearing fruit will not bear more fruit. Think about that! In fact, it might be a deterrent. In this statement, I don’t think Jesus was telling his disciples to focus on bearing fruit. Jesus was reminding them to dwell, remain, and abide in Him. Jesus wants our focus to be him, not fruit-bearing. Why?

I suspect that when we remain in him, the juices will flow from Him through us which results, organically, in fruit-bearing. We can’t stop it from happening. We will be green and full of sap! We will bear fruit! We don’t want to miss that fruit-bearing isn’t primarily numerical (again, Western thinking). More likely, we should be thinking of the fruit (not fruits) of the Spirit as described by the Apostle Paul…

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… (Galatians 5:22-23).

Well, my juices are certainly flowing. Hopefully this gets your juices going, too!

WYSIWYG

I have seen a lot of technological advances throughout my 50+ years of work experience, which started in the drafting department of the Cretex Companies between my junior and senior years of high school. One of the roles I played was the drafting of preliminary drawings of concrete manholes so we could mail blueprint copies (not Xerox) to the customer for approval prior to releasing the drawing to the factory for fabrication. The process added a week or two to the lead-time of delivering product – a BIG deal in the world of construction.

Then an amazing piece of technology showed up in our drafting department. It was a cylindrical fax machine. An 8-1/2 x 11 drawing was wrapped on the cylinder, a phone number dialed, and the phone headset placed in a rubber modem. Pressing “start,” the cylinder rotated with a needle slowly scanning across the drawing and voila, a copy emerged on the other end. The transfer took about 20 minutes, cutting days off the approval process. We were all amazed.

About 20 years later, I was introduced to (now discontinued) Lotus 1-2-3, IBM’s precursor to Microsoft’s Excel. It ran on the IBM System/34 that the company I worked for used to support engineering and manufacturing. I was amazed. I could set up repeat calculations on the green on black monitor. What a time-saver. The output wasn’t very pretty, though. There was no formatting available, just standard IBM Green Bar print-outs. In time the System/34 monitors were replaced by IBM PCs which opened up a whole new world with the potential of software add-ons.

One of the first add-ons that I got to experience was WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). We, for the first time, were able to format our spreadsheets into formatted documents, impressing ourselves and our customers. We would complete the technical part of the spreadsheet then hit the F2 key to for a format-able view. We couldn’t calculate inside the WYSIWYG view, we could only format and get a glimpse of the final printout. The official definition of WYSIWYG: denoting the representation of text on screen in a form exactly corresponding to its appearance on a printout. By pressing the F2 key, what we saw on the screen, was a visible expression of the (now invisible).

In the last couple posts (Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney and The Rest of the Story), I alluded to the fact that involvement with Young Life in the early days of my faith development has had a most significant affect on my theology and my journey to becoming a “practical theologian.” Immersed in an outreach ministry such as Young Life not only helped the development of my theology, it helped me develop a working philosophy of ministry, nay a philosophy of life (for which I will be forever grateful!).

Much of my early training in Young Life was “on the job.” Young Life had developed effective methods of ministering to high schoolers who were far from and disinterested in God. As I learned the “what and how” of the ministry, I was also taught the corresponding “why” (again, for which I will be forever grateful!). Early on I was pointed toward Colossians 1:15, which in the J.B. Phillips New Testament reads:

Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God.

Jesus – the Christ, the Messiah – is the visible expression, the exact representation of the invisible God. After discovering Colossians 1:15 and pondering its significance, I came to the realization that I didn’t know God. I knew about him and I knew how I was supposed to act. I knew what I was supposed to do (and more importantly) what I wasn’t supposed to do, but I didn’t really know God.

I remember thinking, “How can I possibly tell disinterested kids about a God that I don’t know very well?” This caused me to embark on a year-long, turned into a life-long journey of discovery. I wanted to know God so that I could help disinterested kids to know him as well. This why I am continuously immersed in the Gospels. This is why, as a start-point of my ministry training and development of others, I help them get immersed in the Gospels.

The timing of all this was absolutely perfect. At just the right time, God showed me a different way. Through Young Life, God caused me to rethink my understanding of the Christian faith. As an engineer I was ripe for a Christianity that focused on how one should live. I was ripe for deductive learning, focused on application and not discovery. In short, I was ripe for moralism.

At just the right time my focus began to shift away from simply figuring out how to live the Christian life to Jesus himself. I discovered why Jesus was absolutely central to our talks at Young Life. We wouldn’t tell kids about God. Instead we would show them Jesus – God in the flesh, the visible expression of God – allowing them to get a glimpse into the character of the true God.

In time I began to understand that it would be good to help ALL people see Jesus, not simply confront them with the tenets of the Christian faith. Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, used to say that if kids could see the real Jesus, they would fall in love with him. If any person could see the real Jesus, wouldn’t they likely fall in love with him? Thus my philosophy of life: To know him and make him known. And it all started by taking 10 kids to Frontier Ranch in 1973.

The Rest of the Story

This is a continuation of the previous post, Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney, written at the suggestion by a young friend (Björk) who encouraged me to capture the story of the beginning of my journey with Young Life. Interestingly, I was visiting Björk’s company offices earlier this week. I looked at the office building across the street – it’s where I was formally introduced to Young Life.

In the last posting I mentioned that a couple from my community had providentially stumbled onto Frontier Ranch, suggesting that I check out Young Life as a solution to a vision that was evolving to better care for the kids in our community – kids of various and/or no church backgrounds. This is the rest of the story…

Wanting to find out more about the ministry, I looked up “Young Life” in the Yellow Pages (yes, Yellow Pages) and placed a call with what turned out to be the regional office. They connected me with a Young Life office located closer to my community. Calling that office, I had a 5 minute conversation with the Area Director, Jim Green. He gave me an “elevator speech” of the mission of Young Life. It was only a five minute conversation because Jim was literally headed out the door to serve at a Young Life camp for a month. He said we should reconnect in a month to explore this further.

A month? Patience was a virtue that I lacked. Somehow I ended up with a book written in 1963 by philosopher Emile Cailliet about the Young Life Mission. I spent the month waiting by reading the book – twice. Everything I read drew me in. I couldn’t wait for Jim to return from his month at camp to find out more.

Upon his return, Jim suggested I come to his office (across the street from Björk’s present-day office) for a bag lunch together. He wanted to show me a couple movies (movies, not videos) about Young Life. I took a long lunch and drove 40 minutes to meet with him. He had a couple reel-to-reel movies tee’d up for me to watch. The first one was a general, very well done, informational movie about the mission of Young Life.

The second movie blew me away. It was called A Time for Living, an award-winning film featuring Young Life camps across the United States and Canada. I was hooked! I had never seen anything like it in my life. I went to Bible camp once as a kid but it was nothing like this!

I was 23 and wondered how I might get to attend a Young Life Camp.

Asking what next steps might be, Jim suggested I round up a handful of adults from our community for an informational meeting about Young Life and the possibility of starting the ministry. A week later 20 adults crowed into my living room to listen to Jim and his committee chair describe what Young Life could look like in a community like ours. We were all spellbound. Why had we never heard of such a thing?

At meeting’s end Jim told us that a group of kids and leaders were headed to Frontier Ranch in a couple weeks and I should try to round up a few kids and tag along. Long story short, two weeks later I was accompanying 10 high school kids on a trip that would turn out to be the “best week of their lives.” And it turned out to be the best week of my life, too. What I witnessed that week was transformative for me…

I witnessed unconditional acceptance. To my utter surprise, Frontier Ranch had a smoking pit. Since the ministry drew kids that were far from God, as one can imagine some might have been smokers. The kids were invited to camp to discover Jesus, not to expereince behavior modification. In a world where American Christendom was moving toward what Christian Smith described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, this was extremely good news to those expecting religious people to tell them what they should not be doing. As an early Christ-follower, I found it quite intriguing.

I witnessed high adventure. The movie A Time for Living showed high adventure and it wasn’t just a marketing ploy. The kids (and I) experienced things few of us had ever dreamed of doing. For example, one day we took buses up to St. Elmo, CO, a mining ghost town, then proceeded to climb 12,822′ Chrysolite Mountain. Not many have experienced hiking close to 3000′ above treeline!

I witnessed excellence. In 1950, Young Life had the opportunity to purchase a resort in British Columbia that was originally designed to attract Hollywood-types. As they considered the purchase Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, took the board of directors to visit Malibu Club. As I understand it, a board member asked what would need to be changed to turn it into a youth camp. Rayburn’s response was something like, this: “We want to bring kids to camp to meet the King of Kings. If this place is good enough for Hollywood folks, then wouldn’t it be good enough for the King’s kids the way it is?” I witnessed the attitude of excellence for the King’s kids that week at Frontier Ranch.

I witnessed leaders engaged with kids. My prior observation of adults involved in youth ministry was them primarily playing the role of crowd control. They often stood off to the side while the kids participated in the program. During “chapel,” they stood or sat around the perimeter, shushing kids as needed. That week I saw leaders fully engaged, participating, hanging out with, and sitting among the kids they brought to camp. Years later Guy Doud, 1987 national teacher of the year, referred to Young Life leaders as “Jesus with skin on.” At Frontier, I witnessed kids fully engaged with everything going on, including the talks about Jesus. Leaders engaged with kids and kids engaged with Jesus! Wow!

And I witnessed Jesus in a new way. I heard Jesus talked about in new and fresh ways. The speaker, Mal McSwain, talked about Jesus in a manner different than I had ever experience. He was a story-teller, helping us picture Jesus in a way that brought him to life. Jim Rayburn always said that if kids could meet the real Jesus, they would fall in love with him. And kids did.

Upon returning home from Frontier Ranch, I started a Campaigner group with the 10 kids that I accompanied to camp. In Young Life, “Campaigners” is the name of the small groups focused on helping kids grow in their [newfound] faith. Through Campaigners, leaders continue to walk with kids as they learn how to follow Jesus. That group of Campaigner kids, their friends, and I ended up starting Young Life in our community – introducing kids to Jesus and helping them grow in their faith for over 20 years. And it all started with a broken down station wagon on the road to Buena Vista, CO.

(In the previous post, I suggested that my involvement with Young Life over the past five decades has had a most significant affect on my theology and my journey to becoming a “practical theologian.” That’s the next post.)

Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney

Over time, several people have asked me about significant events that have shaped my journey and theology as a Christ-follower over the past 50ish years. Some of those events are scattered throughout this blog. One, however, is not – the story of how I got involved with Young Life back in the summer of 1973. As I have alluded previously, my involvement with Young Life over the past five decades has had a most significant affect on my theology and my journey to becoming a “practical theologian.”

In a recent conversation with a friend, I shared the providential story that led to my involvement with Young Life. He encouraged me to write a blog post, sharing the story. Key to the story (and totally unbeknownst to him) was a gentleman named Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney. Let me tell you a bit about Goldbrick…

Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney (circa 1960s)

As the story goes, in May 1951 the founder of Young Life, Jim Rayburn, met Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney and his wife, Jerry, in Harvey Cedars, New Jersey while speaking at a camp. Goldbrick and his wife worked for a Philadelphia catering company. “Next thing you know,” Jerry said, “he’s asking us if we’d come work for him at a big kids’ camp out in Colorado. We said ‘no,’ so he said he was going to put us on his prayer list.”

“Andy and I looked at each other, both knowing what the other was thinking. ‘This guy is crazy. Put us on a prayer list?'”

The Delaneys didn’t know what it was like to be in Jim’s prayers! Within a month the they were working at Frontier Ranch in Colorado! In an early conversation between Rayburn and his new cook, Jim said, “Camp travels on its stomach. You can have the best program in the world, but if you don’t have good food, the program isn’t going to be any good.” Goldbrick looked at him and said, “Boss, it’ll be good.” And it was. And still is. Today Young Life camps are known for the quality of their meals.

Fast forward a couple decades. In my early twenties, I began attending a church plant in our community. A couple, Dave and Donna, invited me to consider helping start the youth group at the church. I said I would be interested, but it would have to be significantly different than my youth group experiences as a kid. I was bored to death by adult leaders who didn’t seem all that interested in getting to know us kids or discovering what interested us. They took a risk with me, giving me free reign to do what seemed right to me and God’s prompting. (I think of the early church leaders saying It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us… Acts 15:28).

So, Dave, Donna, and I got all the young people from our church together (6th-12th grade, all TWELVE of them!) to talk about kicking off our youth group. Though I had no idea how to do it, I told the kids I wanted us to create something that any kid in our community would feel safe attending and want to come back. The kids (as well as Dave and Donna) bought into the vision and we brainstormed what it could look like.

We kicked things off in February 1973. 40-50 kids came to everything we did – for a while. By the end of the semester we were back to the original twelve kids.

After the obligatory period of beating myself up for a failed experiment, I began to connect with some of the high school kids with whom I had built a relationship. I was interested in knowing why they quit coming. My goal wasn’t to get them to come back, but to discover what we might have been missing so we could make it better. Looking back, it was a form of Design Thinking before it became a thing.

Each of the kids I “interviewed” said basically the same thing. They liked coming to our stuff but it wasn’t their church and their parents wouldn’t let them attend. “But you don’t go to church,” I retorted. “No, but our parents don’t want us to go to your church,” was the common response. (People were much more parochial in the 70s.)

I went back to Dave and Donna with my findings. I told them we needed to start something non-denominational. They asked me if I had ever heard of Young Life. I said, “No,” asking them what it was. They had observed Young Life at a weekend ski camp at Frontier Ranch a few years prior. This is their story, a very providential encounter…

Dave and Donna were on a ski vacation, driving somewhere between Colorado Springs and Buena Vista, CO, on a Friday afternoon. They came upon a man with a broken-down station wagon. It was Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney. He was on his way to cook for a weekend ski camp at Frontier Ranch. He was running late and didn’t even have time to deal with his car. So Dave and Donna offered to take him to Frontier Ranch so he could get started on the weekend meals.

As a “Thank You” to Dave and Donna, Goldbrick invited them to stay the weekend in the adult guest lodge. They got to participate in all the activities, enjoy the meals, and witness Club (like chapel, they said, but nothing like chapel). They couldn’t believe the camp facilities. They couldn’t believe the food. They couldn’t believe how obviously far from God many of the kids seemed. They couldn’t believe how engaged the leaders were with the kids.

And they couldn’t believe Club. They told me that 300 kids were fully engaged – singing up a storm, roaring with laughter at the goofy program humor. But what really struck Dave and Donna was the attentiveness of the 300 kids when the speaker took the stage to talk about Jesus and his deep interest in them. “You could hear a pin drop,” was Donna’s description.

I was hooked and wanted to know more. In the words of John Wesley, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” I needed to find out about this Young Life thing, which is yet another story. That will be the next blog post. So, stay tuned.

Dust

One of my go-to sources for a small group discussion starter is Garry Poole’s The Complete Book of Questions: 1001 Conversation Starters for Any Occasion. One of my educator friends put me onto the book shortly after its publication. A perusal of the table of contents reveals several types of questions ranging from Light and Easy to Personal Preferences & Viewpoints to Spiritually Speaking. If my memory serves me well, the book contains several questions related to whom we would like to spend time with, past or present, and why. In responding to the “why?” question, people usually indicate that they would like to learn from the person, asking lots of questions.

There is an old Jewish maxim that goes something like this: “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.” The idea behind the saying is that a rabbi’s disciples were to follow him so closely that as they walked with him, their own feet would become caked with the dust from his sandals.

Sometimes we tend to forget that Jesus was seen primarily as a rabbi by his contemporaries. If you have spent time watching The Chosen, his role as a rabbi is quite evident. In the first century rabbinical system, students asked learned rabbis if they could become a disciple (learner), as we discussed in the post He Picked Me! A rabbi would then invite the students that he thought worthy of his investment to become his disciples. In first century terminology, a disciple was invited take on the yoke (teachings) of the rabbi. There were several expectations of the disciple when he took on the yoke of a rabbi…

The first expectation of the disciple was to be with the rabbi. In the first century that implied that the disciple would live in the proximity of the rabbi, possibly requiring him to physically relocate to his town. It also implied that being a disciple was a full-time endeavor. Jesus, as an itinerant rabbi, invited his disciples to literally become followers (cf Matt. 4:19, Mark 2:14, John 1:43). They left their day jobs to travel with him for three years. In a quick read through the Gospels one realizes that for them, following Jesus translated into a three-year road trip. They often journeyed into territories they never expected. Come be with me no matter where I go.

Secondly, the rabbi’s disciples expected to learn from him. Rabbis were the first century theological teachers/professors. Imagine getting to spend extended time with one of your favorite college professors. Imagine what you could glean from his/her knowledge. I spoke of one such experience in the post, Hesed and Emet – a transformative experience. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… (Matt. 11:29).

We know full-well that we become like the people with whom we spend time. We become like our parents. Spouses become like each other. Disciples became like their rabbi – it was expected, anticipated, and frankly couldn’t be averted. When Jesus invited people to follow him, he assumed they would be transformed, imitating and taking on his character. The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher (Luke 6:40).

And finally, rabbis expected their disciples to put their learning to practical use by joining them in their mission – likely to also become rabbis, teaching people to know and obey the 613 Jewish laws (or, at least, the laws the rabbi deemed most pertinent). Jesus invited his first disciples to follow him and become fishers of people (Matt. 4:19, Mark 1:17), not keepers of the Law. After his death and resurrection, Jesus clarified their mission: go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19-20). Replicate the process. How were they to do this? Just like he did: As the Father has sent me, I am sending you (John 20:21).

Fast forward a couple thousand years. What does this mean for us? Actually, I think this tells us how simple (I didn’t say easy) following Jesus really is. We be with him (reading the Gospels regularly). We learn from him (he really was a great teacher, story-teller, and question-asker). The more time we spend with him and learn from him, we can’t help but become like him. This sets us up to naturally join him in his mission of helping others be with him, learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission. And he modeled it all for us. I wonder if we haven’t made this all too complicated?

May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.

95 Years, 262 Days

That’s how long my mom, Gloria Hinkle, lived on this earth before passing into Eternity on June 9, 2021. I was privileged to give the Meditation at her Memorial Service. This is what I shared with friends and family…


What does one say when privileged to speak at his 95-year-old mom’s memorial service?  Frankly, it’s something I’ve pondered over the past several years, knowing such an opportunity might present itself.  Every time I would think about it, I honestly came up blank.  Knowing that our creative juices get going under deadline, I posed a question to my mom.  Shortly after she turned 95, I asked her what her target completion date was.  Mom just grinned and said emphatically, “well, not 100!”  Turns out that her target completion date was 95 years, 262 days.

There was one theme that kept running through the minds of my siblings, spouses, and me as we shared with friends and extended family the events of the last week of mom’s life.  It was present again last night at the visitation.  That theme was an overwhelming sense of blessing.

More than wondering what I might say at my mom’s memorial service, I wondered what the last days of her long-lived life might look like.  It was an absolute blessing that mom’s mind was sharp to the very end.  It was an absolute blessing that she did not suffer or linger in a vegetative state.  She died peacefully, a week after a minor stroke – truly a blessing.

Last Friday, a week ago yesterday, mom was able to leave the hospital to return to Guardian Angels Care Center, which has been her home for the past four years.  When she left Mercy, there was a sense that, with some therapy, she might be able to live for quite some time and be able to communicate adequately.  But mom’s target completion date wasn’t 100.

Looking back, we suspect she used all of her remaining energy to get back home to the Care Center, to be among those who had cared for her these past years, to be with those who were an absolute blessing to her.  To any Guardian Angels representatives among us today, please know what a blessing you have been to her and to us, her family – especially during a pandemic.

The concept of blessing is foundational to our faith and is dispersed throughout the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  Many Psalms include phrases like, “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”  We are quite familiar with the benediction that begins with, “May the Lord bless you and keep you…”  In his Sermon on the Mount, in the part we know as The Beatitudes, Jesus described those who are blessed in God’s economy – the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, etc.  In that same Sermon he also told his followers to bless those who curse them.

Several years ago I was contemplating the fact that in the Old Testament, blessings seemed to be a two-way affair – God blessing humanity and people blessing God.  As I started to look at occurrences of the word “bless” in the Old Testament, I discovered that God was the original “blesser”…

  • After the creation, God blessed Adam and Eve
  • After the creation, God also blessed the Sabbath
  • After the flood, God blessed Noah in a similar fashion as he blessed Adam and Eve
  • Noah, then in turn, responded with, “Blessed be the Lord,” the first example of humanity blessing God

On the surface, it kinda sounds like a mutual admiration society – God and humans blessing each other.  I figured there must be more to it than mutual admiration.  Being a dabbler in Hebrew (the operative word is “dabbler”), I decided to see what I could uncover about this word bless. This is what I discovered – the basic Hebrew word for bless is barak. Barak is the word for “knee” and implies kneeling.

This makes some sense. Throughout history, one approached royalty on bended knee – out of reverence, out of respect, out of humility. In Philippians 2, we read “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” – bended knee. So we bless God with great reverence, literally and figuratively, on bended knee.

So, blessing God makes sense but what of God blessing us? What does that look like?  What immediately comes to my mind is the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. During his last Passover meal with his disciples (which we know as the Last Supper) we read…

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist…and began to wash his disciples’ feet.”

Picture this! Jesus knew full well who he was as God incarnate – that all power and authority had been given to him.  This Jesus showed the full extent of his love and began to wash his disciples’ feet, presumably on his knees. Picture it!  The God of the universe, the Lord of lords, the King of kings on his knees, serving his own creation!  What a picture of blessing!  And what a picture of servitude!

Jesus was simply fulfilling and living out God’s vocational call of  Abraham a few thousand years before.  God told Abraham he would bless him and his descendants so they, in turn, could be a blessing to the rest of the world.  The task of the Israelites in God’s kingdom project was to simply bless those around them as they were blessed by God.  Pretty simple, pretty straight forward, and pretty clear.  They were blessed to be a blessing

When he washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus modeled for his followers what he wanted them to be about – blessing others by serving them.  Makes me think of the two great commandments – Love God, love (or bless?) others. How can we love others?  By blessing them, by serving them.

Looking back, I think that our mom understood the “blessed to be a blessing” concept more than we may have realized.  Over the years, she quietly served those around her – often from her kitchen.  On dairy farms in the mid-20th century, the role of the housewife was to serve the workers of the farm, which involved more than just meals.  Clean clothes miraculously showed up in our drawers. As did patched jeans.  Mom’s quiet servitude was a blessing to all of us.

That blessing, that quiet servitude, spilled over to those around her – to her neighbors, to her church, to her community (I believe mom was a charter member of the CAER board, the Elk River, MN, food shelf).  And it spilled into Guardian Angels Care Center four years ago.  We know she was a blessing to many there because the staff told us as much.  One small example of mom blessing the staff at the Care Center:  She weekly served the activities staff, setting up for Thursday Bingo.  (It was important for us to plan our visits with her as to not conflict with her weekly job.)

Blessed to be a blessing.  What a amazing concept! God ordained the idea with Abraham.  Jesus fulfilled it and passed it onto his followers.  As a follower, Gloria Hinkle quietly lived it out.  What might our world look like of we all took to heart our God-given vocation to simply be a blessing to those around us?  God, help us do exactly that!  Amen.

Surprise!

I like surprises. I suspect we all do. Actually, truth be told, I like surprises that aren’t too surprising. I suspect I’m not alone in that, either. One surprise I remember occurred about 25-30 years ago, when I discovered that I had been spelling surprise incorrectly the first half of my life. The spell-check in WordPerfect pointed that out to me. To my horror, I had been spelling it suprise, neglecting the first “r.” That means many letters, memos, and presentations contained my creative spelling of surprise. To this day, I cannot get my fingers to type surprise correctly, so I’ve had to set up an auto-correct option in the various apps on my computer.

When our children were young, we would read to them from the book, Theirs is the Kingdom. It was a wonderfully written story of Jesus and the early church. It is not a children’s bible, per se, especially related to the life of Jesus. It is more a aggregate narrative of all the gospel writings. The title of one of the sections of the book particularly captured my attention: The Surprise of the Kingdom. I remember thinking the title was apropos of God’s character displayed through the centuries and especially through Jesus. Everything Jesus did and said was a complete surprise to all witnesses. Thus the statement, “Get used to different?

A surprising story in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, can be found in Joshua 5:13-15. The context of the story was Joshua’s preparation of the Israelites to enter the land God had promised them centuries before. It wasn’t to be an easy task because others had occupied the land and weren’t about to give it up without a fight. The fortified city of Jericho was a major obstacle to their entrance. As the story begins:

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

The first thing that catches our attention is that fact that Joshua engaged in a conversation with a guy who had his sword drawn. Earlier God told Joshua to be strong and courageous, but I don’t recall that God told him to be strong and reckless. The surprise, however, was the guy’s response to Joshua’s question, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

Neither? That answer certainly must have surprised Joshua! I suspect he was anticipating one of only two possible responses – our side or their side. For either of those two anticipated responses, I suspect Joshua knew how to react. But “Neither?” Not what Joshua anticipated. God’s messenger surprised Joshua with a response that was completely outside the scope of possibilities, likely shattering Joshua’s expectations and even his self-confidence. God does that ALL the time! Any reading of the scriptures reveals such, thus “The Surprise of the Kingdom.” God continually surprises us with outcome different than we anticipate.

I am reminded of a statement by David Hubbard (Fuller Seminary) in the introduction of his book, The Communicators Commentary: Proverbs:

“Another limit of Proverbs is even more important:  the mystery of Yahweh’s sovereignty... Our fear of the Lord ought to place major restrictions on our self-confidence.  We cannot use Proverbs like subway tokens to open the turnstile every time.  They are guidelines, not mechanical formulas.  They are procedures to follow, not promises we claim.  We heed them the best we can, try to gain the wisdom that experience can teach, and then leave large amounts of room for God to surprise us with outcomes different from what our plans prescribe.”  (My emphasis)

Joshua, when confronted with an outcome outside the scope of his thinking, responded rather appropriately. Recognizing God’s sovereignty, he hit the dirt:

Then Joshua fell face-down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

As we discover how to follow Jesus, may we learn from him, gain wisdom along the way from our experiences with him, and then leave large amounts of room for God to surprise us with outcomes different from what our plans prescribe. After all, he is sovereign!

Parables

I started the previous post with a story about Paula Deen’s restaurant. My wife, Barb, wondered what that story had to do with the rest of the posting. I said, “Not much, except for the word ‘heartburn’.” It was the only story that came to mind to lead off the post. I’ve learned from great communicators to start a talk or writing with a (hopefully) good story that draws people in. Are communicators manipulative? I don’t think so. I suspect they speak to our hearts. We always like a good story, whether in a book, movie, or sermon. Good stories draw us in and engage us.

I have been working my way through the Gospel of Mark as of late. I recently arrived at chapter four and The Parable of the Sower, as the heading in my Bible indicates. It was the first parable that Mark chose to include in his account of Jesus’ life and ministry. The realization that this was the first parable in Mark caused me to pause and think about parables a bit. It’s my understanding that nearly one-third of the teachings of Jesus’ recorded in the Gospels are in the form of parables or parabolic statements – upwards of 60. So some pondering might be of value…

It seems that parables were Jesus’ preferred way of teaching, especially in public venues. Jesus was a good story-teller. Actually, Jesus was a great story-teller. We might be well aware of many of his stories – The Sower, Good Samaritan, Mustard Seed, Hidden Treasure and Pearl, to name a few. Primarily, Jesus’ parables, his stories, point to God – his character and the nature of his kingdom. Parables help bring clarification to the reader or hearer.

I don’t know about you, but as I have read the parables over the years, they have not been especially clarifying regarding the nature of God and his kingdom. In fact they have often left me scratching my head in confusion. In addition, Jesus regularly concluded parables/teachings with a statement like, Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear – further adding to the confusion. I have ears but am not always understanding!

I know I am not alone in this – I suspect you might be in the same camp. As apparently were his disciples – even the Twelve, his inner circle. They indicated as such. In the Parable of the Sower they pressed Jesus to help them understand. Further confusing the issue, Jesus seemed to indicate that understanding was primarily reserved for the insiders.

Assisting me in my journey through the Gospel of Mark is Jim Edward’s commentary. Edwards agrees that Jesus’ parables, though reflective of real life, are not simple or easy to understand. I have always wondered how the first century hearers dealt with the open-endedness of Jesus’ parables. I suspect they went away saying something like, “Huh. That was new. I’ve never heard that before or, at least, not that way.” They probably went away pondering and discussing with their friends the meaning of the story – which I suspect was Jesus’ intent. He was helping them develop ears to hear!

Parables are often considered allegories, but Edwards suggests otherwise:

An allegory can be understood from the “outside,” but parables can be understood only from within, by allowing oneself to be taken into the story and hearing who God is and what humans may become.

Please take a moment and re-read the quote from Edwards. This may be why Jesus intimated that parables might be more understandable to the insiders – to those who were beginning to “get it.”* And who, in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, were beginning to get it (the operative word being beginning)? Those who had spent the most time with Jesus!

There we have it! As we spend more time with Jesus, the parables will begin to become more clear and make more sense to us. How do we spend more time with Jesus? Continuously reading the Gospels and pondering what we read – alone (with the help of the Holy Spirit) and with others (again, with the help of the Holy Spirit). As time goes on, we develop ears to hear. We might find ourselves saying, “Huh. That was new. I’ve never heard that before or, at least, not that way” – in other words, Aha! Moments.

* Over the years, I have pondered and discussed with others how to define “get it.” My best shot do far: If we “get it,” no definition is necessary. If we don’t “get it,” no definition will suffice.

Aha! Moments

A few weeks ago, my wife and I spent some time in Nashville. Looking for a place to grab dinner one night, we decided to try Paula Deen’s Family Restaurant – Southern-style cooking. If you aren’t familiar with Paula Deen’s recipes, people joke that she uses a stick of butter in everything. Wonderful, rich food that resulted in, unfortunately, heartburn!


During our time in Nashville, I was reflecting on Easter, circling back to one of my all-time favorite stories related to that first Easter. It’s often referred to as the Road to Emmaus story. If you have never read this story or haven’t read it recently, you ought to.  It can be found in Luke 24:13-35.  It’s a most fascinating story and well worth pondering.

It’s the story of two of Jesus’ followers (not part of the Twelve) as they traveled from Jerusalem to Emmaus on “that very day” – the day Jesus was resurrected, Anastasis.  As they walked the seven-mile trip, they had all kinds of time to talk through the events of the previous three days. As they walked, Jesus, whom they didn’t recognize (“their eyes kept from recognizing him”) came alongside them (it seemed like he just appeared) and asked a great question: “So, what were you guys talking about?”  As I write this, I have an episode of The Chosen playing in the background. I can picture Jesus asking the question with a twinkle in his eye…

“Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who certainly was a prophet, mighty in what he said and did before God and all the people.  Our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.  And besides all this, some of the women among us amazed us – they went to the tomb early this morning and found no body!  They claimed they saw angels or a vision of angels who said he was alive.  Others went to the tomb and they were right – there was no body.  And we don’t know what to think of all this.”  (My paraphrase and I added the last line because you know that’s likely what they were talking about as they walked!)

Then one of them, Cleopas, asked Jesus if he was the only person that hadn’t heard what went on in Jerusalem over the previous several days.  Jesus then asked the mother of all questions: “What things?”  Again, with a twinkle in his eye? 

Jesus followed with another question: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  And beginning with Moses [Genesis through Deuteronomy] and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 

I wonder what he told them?  He might have reminded them that when God created the universe and all the things in it he said, “It is good.”  And after he created the first humans, he said, “It is VERY good.”

Then Adam and Eve ate the apple.

I suspect Jesus reminded them of God’s call on Abraham – that he and his descendants would become human agents to help Him restore creation, after the apple incident, to its right condition.  God’s words to Abraham: “I will bless you so that you can be a blessing to ALL the peoples of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3).  The inauguration of God’s creation rescue mission.

And surely Jesus must have helped them understand, through the scriptures, that the one to redeem Israel, the Christ, would in fact be a suffering servant not a conquering hero.  And the redemption was not to re-establish Israel as a sovereign nation again, but to jump-start their original mission of being blessed to be a blessing for all peoples.

Whatever Jesus told them, they wanted more.  So they invited him to stay with them.  During supper, Jesus blessed and broke bread, their eyes were opened and they recognized him.  And Jesus vanished.

They said to each other “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” An “aha!” moment!!

We wish for those heartwarming moments when we sense Jesus’ presence that result in “aha!” moments, when something previously fuzzy comes into focus. Experience tells me that such encounters tend to happen when we least expect. For me, they seem to take place when I am in conversations with others as we figure out together how to follow Jesus well.

It was “while they were talking and discussing together” that Jesus showed up for Cleopas and his friend – an encouragement for us as we learn to follow Jesus. An encouragement to not forsake gathering with other pilgrims when “we don’t know what to think of all this,” whatever this happens to be. Who knows, Jesus just might show up and provide us with a sacred “aha!” moment.