“I Will Call to Remembrance My Song in the Night”

The psalmist, Asaph, finds himself in a night-time crucible. God has withdrawn. But Asaph, while treading deep waters, shows us a pattern, an ancient rhythm:

I will call to remembrance my song: and in the night I commune with mine own heart, and search out my spirits. Psalm 77:6

The rhythm begins with complaint and ascends in song. David’s psalms illustrate this pattern frequently, but here Asaph, too, unapologetically pours out his complaint. It sounds something like this:

What’s wrong with me, God?!

And then, with even more gut-level honesty:

What’s wrong with You, God?!

But Asaph doesn’t stop there. Like the pattern showed often by David, he transitions to take a Deep Breath of Remember. A breath so deep, it takes the rest of Psalm 76 and the entirety of Psalm 77 to fully rehearse the ancient works and wonders God has accomplished for His people. It’s a powerful and beautiful song bursting from a heart intent on glorifying God.

Asaph’s song punches through the thick, foggy layer of his current circumstances filled with a multitude of voices demanding his attention and allegiance. His choice, in essence, means he must forget the moment in order to remember the moment rightly. Remembering realigns his loves!

Do you have a song in the night? A song that abandons the grip of disordered, misplaced loves and dreams of a selfish “good life?” A song in which you discover you can glorify God and enjoy Him forever?[1]

Consider these few snippets of Asaph’s song of remembrance:

Who is so great a God as our God?

The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths were also troubled.

Thy way is in the sea, and thy paths in the great waters: and thy footsteps are not known.

As you begin to craft your own personal song in the night, consider Who it is you’re singing to. Listen to Asaph’s contemporary singer, David, as he turns his complaint to a song of remembrance:

The Lord,

  • My strength
  • Stony rock
  • Defense
  • Savior
  • My God
  • Might
  • Trust
  • Buckler
  • Horn of salvation
  • Refuge
  • Worthy to be praised
  • Show’s lovingkindness and mercy.

[1] Taken from Westminster Catechism Question #1: What is the chief end of man?

Gaspeth

Psalm 143:6   I stretch forth my hands unto thee: my soul gaspeth unto thee as a thirsty land.

(From the Translation of the great English Bible, set forth and used in the time of King Henry the Eighth, and Edward the Sixth, in The Book of Common Prayer, 1662)

Gaspeth!  There it is! There’s the word I’ve been looking for.  In a snapshot, a word picture of what my relationship with God often looks and feels like.  It’s like a Deep Breath of Remember, only quicker.  More paralyzing.  Desperate.  Maybe without exhale.  What any good trusting relationship with God should look like.

We all have dreams about our good life.  Hopefully we get glimpses of the good life smack in the middle of hardship and suffering.  Paul did:

2 Corinthians 4:8-11  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 

Here’s part of a story, still unfolding, to illustrate my new found appreciation for an obscure word that gives voice to my soul.

My soul gaspeth

It’s what I do when the criminal investigators invite my son to join them in their unmarked police car for a ride to the station.  They have a few questions.  It’s what I do when, out of curiosity, I pull up the online local newspaper and see a posting, “Police ask for help identifying suspected arson,” accompanied by a surveillance video.  I click >.  And there he is.  My beloved youngest son carrying a gas can down the hallway of the Christian School he’d attended.  The school my wife worked at for nine years as secretary.

It’s what I do when my pastor sits in my living room with a shocked mom and dad, listening to us groan.  Listening to our deep ache gushing forth in tears, questions, fears.  Stunned at our crumbling world.  He prays for us.  Prays for our son.  Reminds us of something I hadn’t thought about much.  Our core identity.  In God.  Beloved son – beloved daughter of God.

It’s what I do when the officers return and my son struggles out of the backseat in leg shackles.  A thick leather belt around his waist with one-foot long chains connected to his handcuffs.  He stands, quivering, trying to find a way to make it all go away with his final drags on his final cigarette that, because of the chains, he has to stoop forward in order to reach to his lips.  He had the guts to confess to the early morning crime.  And for good measure, also confessed to setting the same school gym on fire two years previous.  Now, no longer an unsolved mystery.

It’s what I do.  It’s what my son does when I speak redemptive words gracefully prompted by my pastor.  “My son, there’s nothing you can do to diminish the love God has for you.  There’s nothing you can do to diminish your mom’s and my love for you.”  I call these redemptive words because they bought us, delivered us, out of the grip of despair, hopelessness, shame.

My wife and I hug him.  Hug him hard because it feels like it might be the last time.  There’s a price to be paid, you know.  Hearings.  Pleas.  The slammer.

It’s what I do when, having bled a father’s grief watching television news flashes and front-page headlines, I sit staring in numbness out the window.  I witness the strangeness of black storm clouds roiling in the eastern sky suddenly burst into a blood redness as the sun sets.  Not red on black, or black on red.  But, red in black.  Like liquids mixing.  Suddenly redemption bursts into the story.  Blood redemption weaved into the same tapestry as life’s darkness.  Redemption’s bloody.  There was a price to pay, you know.  Hearings, beatings, nails, thorny crown, curse, death.

That very blood redemption story was carried by ministers of the gospel into the heart of the prison.  Straight into the heart of my son.  Along with a message from an entire Christian School, students, teachers, faculty, “We forgive you!”  More redemptive words.

Especially during times locked alone in his cell, throughout his years of incarceration, my son learned to hear and rely on that Redeemer’s voice that speaks, “My beloved son.”  His soul learned to gaspeth.

It’s what we do, years later now.  Time served.  Prison navigated, survived.  Mom, dad, son after a church service.  Gospel preached.  Redeemer worshipped.  My son turns toward us and says, “I need a hug.”  We hug hard.

Liturgy and the “Good Life”

Ok, So What’s Liturgy?

Liturgy sounds churchy and religious, doesn’t it?  Something practiced on a Sunday morning in a few churches that haven’t figured out how, or better yet, chosen not to let go of ancient outdated practices, customs, and traditions.

Well, yes, it’s that.  But it’s so much more.  We are all immersed in liturgies; those practices, habits, rhythms, routines, schedules that make up our daily life. Everybody has liturgies.  Expand your attention beyond a church service and notice how you move through a day and you will perhaps get a glimpse of your liturgy.

Eugene Peterson refers to the Eucharist, for example, as a ritual.  “Jesus’ most honored command produced a ritual – an ordered arrangement of actions and words the Christians reproduce wherever and whenever they want to ‘remember’ and ‘proclaim’ salvation.  There is more going on than I am aware of or can be responsible for.  Reality is larger than me.  A ritual puts me into the larger reality without requiring that I understand it or even ‘feel’ it at the moment.  It keeps us in touch with and preserves mystery.  For reality is not only larger than me and my immediate circumstances, it is also beyond my understanding.  Rituals preserve that mystery, protect certain essential aspects of reality from being reduced to the dimensions of my interest or intelligence or awareness.”[1]

So why is it so big a deal?  Because our liturgies shape us, often subconsciously, into who we are.  They reveal what we love, what we long for, crave for, as our ultimate objective.  Some version of what we call good life.  This immersion in liturgical practices extends far beyond the order of worship in a church service.  Becoming aware of that may enable you to take stock both of desirable liturgies and those liturgies that compete for your loves.  Our liturgies work on us at the level of the heart, the gut.  Your liturgies are determined by a master.  “Show me your schedule, I’ll show you your liturgy.  Show me your liturgy and I will show you your master.”[2]

A Story About the Good Life

Ever been passionately pursued?  Ever come stumbling toward home tarnished from the pigsty, staring at the dust rising from your bare plodding feet, rehearsing your excuses?  Your best hope is to be counted among the hired hands.  Then you glance up and see him.  Without need for dignity, he comes running toward you, both hands clutching his robe so he can sprint.  It’s your Father.  He’s been waiting for you.  He throws his arms around you and lifts you off your feet.  He kisses you and orders his robe to cover you.  Cover you from your nakedness, poverty and rags.  He means to do you good.

That’s an example of a story I can place myself into, allowing the images, the sensory stimulations to move me, bend me shape me toward a relationship I crave.

As human creatures, we are more than what we know, think or believe.  Yes, we have intellect and rationality, but we are more than ‘brains on a stick.’  We are what we love.  My loves are directed toward my version of the good life; how I define human flourishing; and are shaped and bent and formed in me by my little liturgies.

St. Augustine gives a glimpse of the good life that can be found only in God and is initiated by God:

“You have prompted him, that he should delight to praise you, for you have made us for yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.”[3]

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, pg. 205, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005.

[2] Pastor Jeff Hamling, From a sermon, “What is Your Liturgy?”

[3] St. Augustine, Confessions, pg. 3, 2007, Published by Barnes and Noble Books.

Deep Breath of Remember-Barnyard Liturgy (Part 4)

The Good Life in the Black Forest

Crisis at 13,000 feet.  You know the feeling.  Life’s relatively smooth.  You’ve got dreams and your trajectory is upward.  Then, suddenly you’re in free-fall thanks to a little circumstantial shove out the airplane’s door.  You’ve been through these challenging times.  A company downsize.  Divorce papers delivered by the sheriff.  Your 16-year old daughter moves in with the 29-year old tattooed drifter.  The biopsy result is positive.  Maybe you are in one of those challenging circumstances now.

If you’re like me, you pull the parachute rip cord and quickly survey the landscape below.  Upper right quadrant, a verdant meadow with peaceful stream and a flock of sheep ready for shearing.  Lower right quadrant, a wheat field with rolling hills of golden, full heads of grain, ripe-for-harvest, swaying in gentle breezes.  You’re descending slowly, also swaying in mild currents allowing you to recover from the sudden shock of change.  You tell yourself, ‘everything’s going to be alright’ even if you drift into the less desirable left quadrants below.  A deep canyon.  A cactus-filled desert, maybe.

But smack in the middle is the Black Forest.  A small, acre-sized, dense patch of trees and thorns definitely to be avoided.  It’s the place that makes you shudder because it’s unknown and you sense your worst fears reside there.  Don’t go there.  Too much risk, danger, threat to your reputation.  ‘No worries’, you mutter as you tug on the steering toggles and contemplate your options.  A different job.  A new partner.  A grandchild.  Treatments promising remission.

The toggles seem unresponsive.  The ground rushes upward at you.  Your intent and efforts amount to futile kicks and screams.  Nooooo, not there.  Not the Black Forest!

When you awake, you realize the landing was brutal.  You’re bleeding and bruised from the tree limbs and undergrowth thorns.  Your head hurts.  Your butt hurts.  The parachute is in shreds.  Full adrenaline heightens a few senses but panic makes you numb, stunned.  One sense that is lost completely is sight.  It’s dark.  The same felt darkness you learned to fear as a toddler in a crib.  You don’t know what to do.

“Welcome to the good life.”

“But”, you protest, “it doesn’t look like the good life.”

“Deep breath.”

“Good.  Now let me show you around the place.  I’ve been here awhile and there’s Someone I want you to meet.”

“Use your hands to push away the thorns and crawl along beside me.”

“Okay, extend your right hand.  There he is.  He’s called Rock.”

You feel the Rock.  It’s large.  About your same height, and maybe six feet long or so.  Your fingers discern jagged edges.

“Those are good hand holds.”  “Good for clinging to when the waves of panic strike again, and again.”

“Touch here.”  “Those are my favorite gripping edges worn smooth over the years.”  “You’ll create your own, I promise.”  “Clinging, tears and time will serve you well in here.”  “Familiarity creates fondness.”

“Touch your tongue right here.  Taste the water from this morning’s dew.”

“And just over here.  Those seeds that drifted in on evening breezes, that’s your bread.”

“Now, carefully look at this hole in the side of the Rock.  That’s your cup.”

“You can only see it with ‘those other eyes’ you have.  Those eyes He gives you light to see.”

“Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve known!?”

“It will nourish you.  Can you drink of it?”

Listen to what the poet says,

“Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

                Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.”[1]

“It’s a good cup, really.”

“Not that I haven’t felt like the meadow or the wheat field offer better sustenance, it’s just, I’ve tried crawling out of this Black Forest many times.”  “I haven’t found my way out yet, plus, I’m not sure I want to.”  “I tell myself, in my best moments, that I don’t want to leave unless the Rock comes along.”  “So far, he hasn’t budged.”

“It’s that cup that keeps me here.”  “It seems to me, since it’s what the Rock has given me, it’s a good cup.”  “It’s a good life.”

A Picture of “To Cling” Or “Watch Out For That Creek!”

Let me share a word picture illustrating the act of clinging.  Clinging like there’s no tomorrow.  Clinging to something bigger than yourself.

In my early twenties I was insecure and shy.  I had few female relationships and I blame it on the “party-line” phone system ensuring any attempt of asking a girl on a date would be heard (and repeated) by at least 3 housewives and by my Uncle Harold, guaranteed.   To overcome this intimidation I did the manly thing.  I waited for a girl to ask me out.  Any girl.

But this time, it was not just any girl.  I’d made it to the early phase of a dating relationship with a blonde beauty who’d recently whooped me in a game of tether-ball.  Ever encounter a professional tether-ball player?  Turns out, in her youth, she’d work her way to the pole during middle-school recesses and never relinquish the victor’s position until the bell rang.  I hit the ball once.  Kinda gentle like as if you were playing against a girl.  When it reached her side of the pole, she interlocked her fingers making a two-fisted sort of club and launched the ball into orbit above my head.  I just watched the ball twirl into tight loops at the top of the pole.  No use even jumping.

I picked my cowboy hat out of the dust and asked her to join me in the Fall roundup.  She joined me and my family as we sought to fetch the cattle from dry pastures and haul them back home for winter care.  We warmed ourselves on the cold day around the campfire, watching our breath mingle with the steam from cowboy coffee my dad perked over the coals, and listened to tall tales told by Uncle Harold.  He was a great story-teller.  Some parts were true.  At least as true as truth can be stretched.  Some parts may have been gleaned from overheard party-line conversations.

We mounted our horses, gave out the traditional cattle call, “Come Bos!” and discovered there was little work to do but open the corral gate and watch eager cattle stream in.

It was over too quick.  So, the pony-tailed gorgeous blonde and I went for a leisurely ride to absorb the scenery of the North Idaho mountains and meadows.  Here I was, in my cowboy shyness, swapping stories with not just any girl while we meandered on gentle horses back towards the corrals.  I’m thinking, “Gosh, if she enjoys this, perhaps I’ll step up into cowboy confidence and ask her out again someday.  Don’t blow this one, buddy.”

“Hey, wanna gallop these ol’ cayuses?”  I asked, glancing at the corrals down over a few hillsides about a mile away.

She said, “Sure.”  It may have been the last word she ever uttered if she’d been just any girl.

I’d expected the horses to hit a gentle loping stride as we nudged them with our heels.  Instead, the horse interpretation for seeing corrals in the distance equates to, “Whaaa Hoooo!  Let’s fly!  Last one to the corral’s an ol’nag!”

In a flash, our horses were tearing down a steep hillside like an avalanche.  Blondie’s ponytail bobbed and fluttered, marking each hurtling stride.  From a few paces behind her, too far behind to rescue her, I shuddered as the sudden startle caused her feet to come out of the stirrups.  Worse, she dropped the reins.

My memory now shifts into slow motion.  The next moments unfold frame by frame as if dreamed.  It wasn’t a dream.  With panic in my voice I screamed, “Watch out for that Creek!”  The Creek was about 6 feet across by 3 feet deep.  It held no water this time of year, but any horseman knows the paralyzing dilemma it presented.  The mad dashing steeds allowed themselves two options.  Maintain full blinding speed and leap to clear the obstacle.  Or, apply horse brakes, sliding to the edge of the Creek in rapid deceleration effectively launching any saddle occupant without their feet in the stirrups like a catapult.

Meanwhile, facing the inevitable onrushing catastrophe, I thought, “Either way the horse chooses, Blondie’s dead.”  “I killed her and she wasn’t just any girl.”  I imagined sitting in the dirt holding her head on my lap, stroking her hair to comfort her toward her last breath.

But Blondie assessed her predicament and notice the saddle horn.  Two tether-ball-honed hands interlocked their fingers around that stout piece of leather-covered metal, and clung.  Clung for dear life.  That’s the picture I want you to put in your mind.  What brash option did the horse choose?  The “don’t-slow-down and leap” option.  Up. Up as if it were a cow jumping over the moon.  As the horse descended toward earth, I could see the sunset twixt the saddle and Blondie’s jeans.  But oh she did cling.  The landing was rough, but she stayed in the saddle.  She clung.  There will be a tomorrow.

In a most welcome moment of relief, I absorbed the glorious outcome and made note of a deep inner voice whispering, “She stayed in the saddle.  I’ve got to marry that girl.”  She gave me a picture of clinging that’s lasted 35 years.  She also gave me a ring that’s now the same age.

Projected Image vs. Core Image

My Dad was a cowboy stud.  He would have been selected as the Marlboro Man if he wasn’t isolated on a rural Idaho cattle ranch/wheat farm 10 miles from the hometown of 289 city folks.  Dad was so bow-legged, he made bow-legged men look like their legs came out of the same socket.  He had no lazy-boy recliner.  To ease his aching back muscles after a hard day’s labor he’d climb in his saddle and ride off the pain.  He dressed like a cowboy should, not with duds bought from the catalogs catering to pretenders, but with whatever was available at the local feed/implement/clothing store.  I had nearly identical boots, jeans, straw hat and snap-up shirt.  I have a memory of him tying me into the saddle, when I was four-years old, with the straps you’d use to tie your raincoat or woolen blanket to, so I wouldn’t fall off.  We’d ride a circuit of 10 miles to visit neighbors and in between stops he’d sing “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.”  I was awed by the way he could roll a cigarette holding a bag of tobacco in his teeth, reins in one hand, cigarette paper in the other.

The clinching event occurred a few years later when I was probably nine.  I no longer needed to be tied into the saddle.  I’d become a decent horseman.  We had ridden the pasture to gather some cattle to take to the sale barn located 30 miles away.  On the way, we passed through our hometown in the cattle truck and he stopped so we could get a burger at the local café.  As we walked through the door I realized neither of had taken our spurs off.  That thought puffed out my chest.  I noticed some of my classmates who didn’t live and work on farms and, therefore, swam most summer days, goofing off in the cafe, playing pinball, dressed in their swim trunks and wearing flip flops.  I stepped in a way that exaggerated the bend of my ankles so my heels struck the floor hard, making the spurs jingle as we strode to our booth.  I noticed their envious glances from the corner of my eye.  I remember the wave of superiority wash over me.  Junior-cowboy-stud.

So many of my stories center on this cowboy theme.  I enjoy telling them because I enjoy giving you the perception that I’m a tough cowboy capable of handling any challenge.  I can’t help it.  My experiences have shaped me.  They’re part of my identity and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But it can only remain a good thing if I guard against “I’m a tough cowboy” becoming a pose.  If I can guard against it becoming my core identity.

[1] George Herbert, The Agony, lines 17, 18.

Deep Breath of Remember – Barnyard Liturgy (Part 2)

Through gospel-driven liturgy, our worship can calibrate our hearts.  Information won’t do that.  Christian worship is designed to bend our hearts back toward God.  We can’t think our way out of wrong desires.  Rather than being an expressive endeavor, God calling us to worship invites us into a space where He gets ahold of us and re-shapes our fundamental loves.  Historic Christian worship invites us into the gospel story anew.  We gather around the Word and the Table to re-inhabit the gospel which converts our imagination in ways we may not be aware of.  This spiritual transformation is our sanctification.

We’re image-bearers called to tend God’s flourishing world, much like from the story in Genesis 1.  Our liturgies within our work environments shape us.  They impart a vision of how we define the “good life.”  There are many rival liturgies trying to capture us with a picture of what we want to live toward.  We need new liturgies, new habits, new routines and rhythms to bridge the gap between what we think of as our “good life” and what we actually do.[1] http://trinitybozeman.org/sundays/sermons/?sermon_id=203

My work environment happens to be labor on a dairy.  As my love for God’s liturgy practiced on Sunday’s grows, and as I discover my qualification for responding to His call to worship is to feel my need for Him, I find that I profoundly feel that need the other days of the week.  So, welcome to my version of Barnyard Liturgy.   Like you, my work is partly satisfying, permeated with unexpected joys, and mostly a crucible for the shaping of my identity.  I share my stories with the hope that you will grow in awareness of your liturgies practiced in a cubicle, tending the kids, selling real estate, caring for the elderly, teaching at the University.  My hope is that we will grow toward having our identity shaped in God and God alone.

[1] These thoughts provided by James K. A. Smith, Christ and Culture Lectures, “You Are What You Love.”