Come when you can; stay as long as you like

Last night, at our formal social event called the Green Dragon Ball, where my wife and I celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps with 700 of my closest friends, we got better acquainted with the Fort Leonard Wood chaplain and his wife.  They are a few years younger, with a son in college and a daughter still at home.  I mentioned that I had done some writing several years ago on the subject of parenting young adults.

This article below was originally published on September 9, 2010.  It was the second one I had written and posted on a personal blog I had created called The Spark is Still There.  Although it is not steeped in biblical references like the articles I normally post on this forum, it is indeed practical theology.  My reflections are based solidly on my understanding that our children are a gift from the Lord, that it is our job to raise them up as He has taught us, and then we are to set them free to live out their own faith and relationship with God.  It is about honoring the biblical principle of “leaving and cleaving”.  I think that there may be some wisdom here in this article and a few others I will post later on that parents of young adults may find helpful.

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Parenting Transitions

Here I am, three weeks into the “Empty Nest” syndrome once again.  I took our youngest child, Andrew, back to college on August 20th.  Time to reflect a little on that event and others related to it.

It wasn’t nearly as emotional of an event as it was this time last year.  It was pretty routine for both he and I.  Sure, we had a good summer together, and I was definitely going to miss him, but I honestly wasn’t feeling sad to go home all by myself.  I really enjoyed our three-hour drive together, and I was actually quite happy for him.  He was where he belonged and was now reunited with his sweetie that he had missed terribly all summer long.

We’ve done this taking our kids back to college thing more than a few times now.  Linda took Melissa to Wheaton College, near Chicago, all the way from Utah for the first time in August of 2003, while I was doing my second unaccompanied tour in the Republic of Korea.  I can only imagine how hard that was on Linda, doing it all by herself.  It didn’t surprise me to hear that on the way home she cried anew each time she crossed yet another state line, taking her further and further from her daughter.

When we took Melissa back to school the following year, I was the one struggling and suffering.  I’m not kidding, it was very hard on me; daddy saying goodbye to his little girl.  What made it even more painful at the time was that the minute we pulled up to the driveway to her dorm, the Christian song, Blessed Be Your Name, was playing on the radio.  It was one of those times I knew that the Lord was speaking directly to me through the speakers in our Ford Windstar mini-van.

For those who know this song, you may recall these powerful lines, taken from the book of Job:

He gives and takes away
He gives and takes away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be your name

Ouch!  It was a clear message to me: He gives us our children, and then a mere 18 years later, He takes them away from us, so they can go out and do bigger and better things.  It is an act of faith as we let go of each one of these precious gifts that He has given.

When we took her back to Wheaton in 2005, it was much easier on all of us, being the third time for Linda and the second time for me.

The next year, it was Brian’s turn to go to college.  It was pretty hard on both he and his parents, but we got through it, knowing full well that it was the right place for him to be.  Time has confirmed that decision to attend William Jewell College, near Kansas City, MO.  Miraculously, we got both he and Melissa back to their respective schools within two or three days of each other and survived both long drives, six hours one way to the northeast and four hours one way to the northwest.

If I’m counting correctly, the grand total is 11 trips; five for the eldest, four for the middle child, and two for the littlest rabbit.  There were five for Melissa because I had to account for taking her to start grad school in 2008, where she would live in an apartment in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Another large step of faith for all concerned.

And so, for the past seven years, this has become our life.  We say goodbye to our children in the fall, in January, and in Melissa and Brian’s case for the majority of several long summers spent far from home, and we say hello for major holidays, when school gets out in May, and perhaps a few special visits here and there.  You get used to saying goodbye, and it does get easier over time.  You know you are going to miss them when they leave, but you simply learn to rejoice with those who rejoice.  They rejoice because in their minds they are going home, not leaving home.  College becomes their home, and that is all right.  I know I felt the same way when I was that age.

One last thing to address.  Our newly married daughter and her wonderful husband came home for several days in August, right before school started.  We hadn’t seen Melissa and David since their wedding in March.  This was their first trip home, and it was great to finally see them interact as a married couple.  No conflicts that I can recall; no awkward moments.  We did have to tease the new son-in-law upon their arrival about us making up the futon for him to sleep on like he did during his last visit at Christmastime, but it was short-lived; he knew we weren’t serious.  We definitely enjoyed our time together, and look forward to the next one.

When discussing the details of this visit with Melissa on the phone a few months earlier, I somehow came up with a very simple saying. “Come when you can, and stay as long as you like.”

This statement implied a strong desire to see them, and more importantly, a lifting of any burden of pressure, guilt, or expectations on the timing or length of the visit.  It was all about respect for them as independent adults and about us honoring the biblical principle of “leaving and cleaving”.  They had the freedom to choose when to come and go when it was convenient for them.  It meant that this visit was about them graciously sharing their lives as a married couple with us, and in gratitude, we would feed them well, and would even let them do some laundry if they needed to.  If it was a short visit or a long one, that would be their decision to make as a couple.  We would be grateful for the time to share our lives with them once again, but their needs would come first.

I used this little phrase again when we invited Brian and his new fiancée to come home for Labor Day weekend.  It seemed appropriate, as he will be moving towards that transition of “leaving and cleaving” next summer.  It was also a great visit.  The principle seems to have worked out well with them, too.

We are still learning how to treat our children as adults, but I think we are on to something.  The best we can hope for is that they will come back home again, or perhaps, let us visit them at their home next time.

So, it’s back to just Linda and I again.  And yes, with one year under our belts as empty nesters, we are clearly enjoying our time alone together as a couple.  Yes, the spark is still there!  We talk with our kids on the phone at least once a week.  Also, we and they send texts and/or post something on Facebook as needed.  We rejoice that they are all independent, compassionate, responsible, Christian adults who are making good decisions and have found true love.  What more can a parent ask for?

Later.

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The Use of the Old Testament in the Psalms (Part 11)

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In the final chapter of Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor, William Brown steps from the merely theological to the personal, as he looks at Psalm 139.  His exposition of this beautiful psalm brings much personal significance to me.  I will explain why shortly.

This particular psalm never quotes from the OT narratives.  It does not give a direct reference to any specific historical event.  However, it does clearly allude to the creation event in Genesis, as David reflects on the sovereignty of God who was intimately involved in his own creation in his mother’s womb.

Listen to what David says, “For you created my inmost being; you kit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.  My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.  When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.  All the days ordained form me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:13-16).

Let me point out the obvious parallels between God’s work at creation in Genesis 1 and His work in the creation of David from conception to birth.

David used the term, “you created” in Ps. 139:13, signifying a divine act that God had done once before when He made all things.  This also reminds us that He had created Adam (Gen. 2:7) and then Eve (Gen. 2:21-22).  He characterizes God’s work in his mother’s womb in verse 14 as something that God “wonderfully made”, concluding, “your works are wonderful”.  This lines up with other psalms David wrote where he reflected on God as creator and/or creation as the works of His hands (see Ps. 8:3-6, 19:1, and 124:8).  He refers to the process of his own fetal development in verse 15 as being “made in the secret place” and “woven together”.

The same God who supernaturally brought everything into being from nothing (ex nihilo) in the beginning had also supernaturally brought something from a one-celled fertilized egg.  When David recognizes these creative acts, he marvels at God’s divine omnipotence, omniscience, immanence, and sovereignty, as should we.

I chose to write a critical book review on Brown’s work three years ago when I took a seminary class on the Psalms.  Here is a short excerpt from that six-page paper:

“Brown then skillfully exposited on the third section of this psalm, as he described God’s care over his development in the womb, providing a keen insight here: ‘The psalmists’s own genesis, as a result, corresponds to the genesis of humankind from the earth’ (211). Brown eloquently remarks that the psalmist ‘construes himself as handwoven material and praises God for the masterful handiwork he knows so well . . . the intricacy of his physical structure bears direct witness to the Weaver’s care’ (211).  I was moved to tears as I pondered my own humble beginnings and marveled over God’s supernatural work in my own mother’s womb.”

This brings me to my final point.  As I wrap up this reflection, I want to keep my promise to explain why this psalm is so personal.  Here is a quote from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession:

“You see, I was the result of a problem pregnancy, a supposedly untimely conception by two intelligent young college students. By God’s grace, I was allowed to be born. When I look back on all the things God enabled me to do and the family I raised with my wife of thirty-seven years, I know that God had a purpose for me. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord … ‘Plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). My life was not an accident.”

Psalm 139 helps us to praise God for His wonderful works of creation, both large and small!

The Use of the Old Testament in the Psalms (Part 10)

Let me share just a few thoughts on one verse in the Psalms that refers to God’s faithfulness in the past, but does not give us a specific reference to a historical event.

William Brown, in Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor, continues to shed some light on the metaphor of water.  In our previous post, he had focused on water as a picture of chaos, whether individual or communal.  Here, he moves on to show how the lack of water depicts affliction.  Brown explains, “Most prominent is the motif of ‘thirsting,’ a metaphor indicating the psalmists’s desperate desire for an encounter with God” (p. 121).

Brown highlights Ps. 143 as an illustration of the believer’s “thirst for God within a situation of conflict” (p. 122).

In the midst of conflicts with “the enemy” (v. 3), King David expresses confidence in God, which is based on His past performance.  Psalm 143:5-6 reads, “I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.  I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.”  Brown declares, “Trust is met with the hope of sustenance and, thus, deliverance from persecution.  Sustaining such hope is the supplicant’s remembrance of God’s past deeds” (p. 122).

I wondered what other commentators have to say about what David may be referring to when he said that he remembered “the days of long ago.”

In the new commentary I purchased a little while ago to help me with this study, Psalms, by Tremper Longman III, I found something helpful.  Longman states, “The psalmist looks to the past to find confidence to live in a troubled present and to engender hope for the future (see Ps. 77:11-20).  After all, considering God’s works in the past (days of long ago) would bring to mind the numerous times when God saved his helpless people . . . The psalmist, knowing his own inability to save himself, now calls on the God of the exodus to do so” (p. 462).

Any Christian should be able to relate to this idea.  Whether we think of God’s lovingkindness, grace, and faithfulness to His people throughout the Old and New Testament or in our own experience, we should be able to recount the days where God infiltrated our lives and showed up.  Whether these days were long ago or more recent, recalling them to our minds will give us hope to handle any challenges in the present or the future.

 

The Use of the Old Testament in the Psalms (Part 9)

Beauty-of-Sea-Waves-9As I continue to page through William Brown’s insightful work, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor, I find another small gem that adds to our study of how and why the Psalms takes the reader back to key elements of the OT narrative.

In his chapter on the metaphor of water, he indicates, “Whether as a hostile force or as a source of sustenance, water is as much of polyvalent image in the Psalter as it is a defining element in the diverse environment of Palestine, a small land of remarkable topographical and climatic contrasts” (p. 105).  He continues, “Water imagery in the Psalter reflects both geographical and climatic extremes: the metaphor of thirst in a parched land connotes the psalmists’s desperate yearning for God’s saving presence, and the onslaught of chaos is well illustrated by the roaring power of a flash flood and churning sea during a storm” (p. 106).

Brown begins this fascinating in-depth exposition by highlighting water as a metaphor for chaos.  He states, “In their various laments and thanksgiving songs, the psalmists convey the raw, destructive power of rushing water and roiling waves in vivid ways” (p. 106).

As a great example, Brown takes us to Psalm 107:23-26, where we see a scene of a ship “caught in an almost ‘perfect storm’ (p. 106).  He reminds us that in response to the sailor’s desperate cry in v. 28, Yahweh calms the storm in v. 29, reminiscent of when Jesus did the same in Mark 4:35-39.  Brown suggests, “YHWH is the storm God who both stirs and stills the waters” (p. 107).

In addition, Ps. 107 describes a common pattern using several different scenarios where there is a predicament, petition, pardon, and ending with praise.  None of these difficult storms in life described here are depictions of historical events in the life of Israel.  Rather, they are personal illustrations of great trials where God brought deliverance in each case.  Its purpose is summarized well at the end: “But he lifted the needy out of their affliction . . . Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the Lord (vv. 42-43.)

Brown then takes a closer look at other psalms where chaos is illustrated by water.  This section is where I found my greatest inspiration this morning, as I read about God’s authority and power to rebuke the waters.

In Ps. 104, we have a clear allusion to the Noahic flood.  Looking at the context, in verses 2-5, we see the psalmist lists creative events such as God wrapping Himself in light, stretching out the heavens, laying out the beams, making clouds, wind, and fire, and setting the earth on its foundations.  He then mentions covering it with water so high that it “stood above the mountains” (v. 6).  He goes on to say, “But at your rebuke the waters fled” (v. 7).  Here, God commanded the floodwaters that had destroyed His creation to diminish so that He could start again with Noah and his family.  The psalmist ties God’s authority and power at creation to this new creative act, where the water goes “to the place you assigned” (v. 8).  We are reminded in v. 9 that God promised in His covenant with Noah that He would never again flood the earth.  (See Gen. 9:8-17.)

Brown indicates that the waters God rebuked now have a new purpose: “they become sources for springs that course through the valleys.  As in Psalm 74, the waters’ flight is followed immediately by the formation of streams, which Psalm 104 depicts as a means of God’s provision for the animals” (p. 110).

Incidentally, this Psalm reminds me of the common partnership between God’s work and man’s work.  Psalm 104:13 declares, “the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work”.  Starting with the next verse and continuing on to v. 23, the psalmist alludes to or directly mentions human work: cattle that need to be taken care of (v. 14), plants that need to be cultivated (v. 14), wine that needs to be pressed (v. 15), cedar trees that need to be cut down and made into lumber for buildings (v. 16), and daylight that calls man to go out and work (v. 23).

Next, Brown takes us to Ps. 106 to highlight the exodus, where God rebuked the water, removing chaos from His people to bring glory to Himself.  Verses 9-12 reads, “He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert.  He saved them from the hand of the foe; from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them.  The waters covered their adversaries; not one of them survived.  Then they believed his promises and sang his praise.”  Brown points out, “Divine ‘rebuke’ secures Israel’s safety” (p. 110).

Brown deftly ties this rebuke of the waters in Ps. 106 to the preceding psalm, where we see an astonishing parallel, demonstrating God’s power and authority.  Ps. 105:14-15 states, “He allowed no one to oppress them; for their sake he rebuked kings: ‘Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.’”  Brown instructs, “As God’s people, wandering in the wilderness, are deemed ‘off-limits’ for the kings of the nations, so the engulfing waters of the Red Sea are warded off (and defeated) as Israel is led through the deep” (p. 110).

Later, Brown concludes, “Only God can pull Israel out of the depths, out from the mouth of death and onto solid ground.  As God alone can still the billowing waves of the sea, so only God save a people in the face of military defeat or deliver an individual before the power of any enemy” (p. 115).  Amen!

I rejoice in finding these divine connections in God’s word, not only between these Psalms and major events that took place in Genesis and Exodus, but among these Psalms themselves.  They illustrate quite loudly that God was in control when He created the earth, restored it after the flood, during the crossing of the Red Sea, and as He led them through the wilderness.  He had all the authority and power needed to do this work because He is God.  In His mercy and by His covenant love and faithfulness, He did it all for the sake of His people.

Through Jesus Christ, those same promises that are based on God’s unchanging nature apply to us as well. He will take us through deep waters and calm our storms.  He will deliver us from bondage to freedom.  He will protect us from our enemies and provide for us.  Let us rest in these truths, and remain faithful to never forget.

The Use of the Old Testament in the Psalms (Part 8)

In Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor, Brown continues to expound on the metaphor of “pathway”.  He states, “The individual’s salvation and refuge are bound up with Israel’s historical deliverance and secure identity.  The psalmist’s path runs parallel with Israel’s trek through history.  Both encounter distress and persecution and experience deliverance.  Both are instructed.  Through the ‘pathway’ metaphor, the individual is construed as Israel in miniature, and vice versa” (p. 46).

The idea that the individual’s and the community’s experience with God has some similarities is easy for me to comprehend.  The OT Scriptures consistently show that God rewards faithfulness and punishes disobedience the same, whether with one person or with a whole nation.  There are hard times and good times for both.  God leads, teaches, cares for, and shows up at just the right time to deliver one of His servants as well as for many.

Brown indicates that Psalm 77, which was also discussed in my last post, illustrates this well.  He explains, “Fraught with cosmic significance (cf. Exod 15:4-10), the exodus event is retold not for its own sake, much less to satisfy the reader’s antiquarian interests, but effect rescue from ‘the day of my trouble’ (Ps. 77:2a).  God’s deliverance and guidance of Israel with a ‘strong arm’ (v. 15) serves as both precedent and motivation for the individual’s petition for rescue and sustenance” (p. 46).  Underlying this assumption that if God delivered Israel, He may deliver me is the knowledge that God is unchanging.  This foundation gives all believers hope.

Brown continues to highlight this parallel experience between individual and nation by taking us to Psalm 106, which recounts Israel’s history.  I had not noticed this clear assertion before: “Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them, that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may share in the joy of your nation and join your inheritance in giving praise” (Ps. 106:4-5).

Brown states, “As God is said to have ‘regarded [Israel’s] distress’ with covenantal compassion (v. 44), so the psalmist pleads that he be saved from present affliction.   History is the arena in which the Israel of the  past and the Israelite of the present join their voices in common petition. . . Like Israel of the past, the psalmist walks the path of Israel’s ancestors in confession and in trust that rescue is at hand” (p. 46).

Here is a thought I have had for some time.  I am not a grammar expert by any means, in English, Greek, or Hebrew.  However, I do know this instinctively.  Things said using a plural form of “you” (or “ya’ll”, in Southern speak) imply the singular form of “you”.  When someone says to the congregation, “This is true of you”, it means every single one of us who is part of the plurality.  It means me.

To emphasize this point, when we are singing a hymn or song that contains the lyrics, “for us”, I will always sing, “for Russ”.

Brown concludes, “In short, the metaphorical force of ‘pathway’ and ‘refuge’ can be felt even in the historical psalms, thereby uniting the psalmists’s personal situation with that of corporate Israel.  The psalmist’s personal path from affliction to restoration has its historical counterpart in Israel’s corporate experience out of bondage to redemption” (pp. 47-48).  This summary confirms what I have understood about this topic previously.

Additionally, from a NT perspective, our experiences as followers of Christ are similar to those of an Israelite.  I think that 1 Cor. 10:11 sheds some light on this: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.”  The advantage we have over OT believers is that we have God’s indwelling Holy Spirit in us.

Nehemiah—Leader of Wall-builders

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Note: This article is an excerpt from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession.  I wrote it by request of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, and was posted on their blog in mid-April.  However, I neglected to post on my own blog.  I hope it brings encouragement to someone today.

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In addition to Joseph and the Spirit-filled tabernacle construction workers that I discussed earlier in separate articles on my blog, there is another key narrative in the OT that highlights the deliberate biblical connection between God’s presence and human work, which I call Immanuel labor.  Seeing this theme repeated throughout the Bible helps us to understand the theology of work, how God works through His people as His coworkers to accomplish His purposes.

Stevens reminds us, “Nehemiah was like Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Mordecai, worshipers of Yahweh who were placed in extraordinary positions of trust by pagan rulers.”[1]  As a federal government worker, I can relate to the privilege one is granted in a position of trust.

Nehemiah 3–6 describes how the Israelites returned from exile and rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem under Nehemiah’s inspired leadership.  A few things are worth noting here.

First, Nehemiah makes it clear that this project was a unified effort between Yahweh and His people.  We observe that the people worked with all their heart (Neh. 4:6), demonstrating what the apostle Paul would later command to the NT church in Col. 3:23.  If we examine the literary context a little closer, we can see that Yahweh had already worked in their hearts. Nehemiah’s heart was broken when he first heard that the wall was broken down (Neh. 1:3–4).  On his initial secret reconnaissance of the wall, he went out at night with a few others and said that he did not reveal “what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem” (Neh. 2:12).  God had initiated the work in the hearts of His people internally so that they could work with all their hearts externally.  He still works that way with us, doesn’t He?

Second, in Neh. 4:9, we read that they prayed to God and posted guards.  This illustrates the partnership between God and man as they work side-by-side that we see in Ps. 127:1, which says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.  Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”  God does build, but He needs builders.  The Lord does watch over the city, but He still needs watchmen.  Both are necessary, and work as a team.  Before they even began, they totally depended on God’s protection.  They believed, as Nehemiah did, that God’s hand was upon them (Neh. 2:8, 18). The people merely continued the prayer that Nehemiah had offered earlier (Neh. 1:5–11).  Then they went to work, half of them performing guard duty and the other half doing the construction (Neh. 4:16, 21).  God’s presence enabled them to be coworkers with Him, which brought them success in rebuilding the wall despite heavy opposition from the enemy to destroy, distract, and discourage God’s people from the project.

Third, God’s hand of protection and strength that Nehemiah and his team of wall-builders depended on daily enabled them to complete the job in record time despite the spiritual warfare.  Nehemiah had boldly stated to those opposed to the project at the beginning, “The God of heaven will give us success” (Neh. 2:20).  Moreover, Nehemiah encouraged his workers to remember the Lord’s great and awesome power (Neh. 4:14).  Yahweh actively frustrated the plans of the enemy (Neh. 4:15), demonstrating once again that He was working with them as they worked for Him.

Beckett zeroes in on what is probably the main point of this amazing story.  “When the final stone was set in place a remarkable reaction occurred: ‘When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God’ (Nehemiah 6:16).”[2]  God and His faithful coworkers worked together on this wall.  Everyone who was involved on the inside and all those who watched it from the outside knew without a doubt that this was a divine-human effort.

Regarding this narrative, Stevens offers us some personal application as he instructs, “We are providentially placed by God in situations where we can make a difference, whether these differences are small or great.  God enlists each of us in a compelling project from which we must not be diverted. ‘I am carrying on a great project,’ was Nehemiah’s perspective.”[3]  (See Neh. 6:3.)  In his faith-filled heart and scripture-informed mind, Nehemiah was not just called to replace stones in a broken wall.  He was restoring a kingdom for God’s glory!

When we as children of God, do God’s work through the redeeming work of Jesus and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, we are doing the same kind of holy work that Nehemiah did.  We are expanding the reign of the King who owns it all.  (See Ps. 24:1.)  Beckett echoes this truth. “If what you and I are doing is God’s will, it qualifies as a ‘great work,’ whether it is cooking dinner for the kids or designing a bridge to span the Amazon River.”[4]

[1] Stevens, Work Matters, 67.

[2] Beckett, Mastering Monday, 78.

[3] Stevens, Work Matters, 70.

[4] Beckett, Mastering Monday, 78.