Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Wisdom of Story Reflection 2: Modern Crises and the Balance of Work, Rest and Play

When I started the Wisdom of Story I had no idea that the session on act 2 of the story, the part of the story where the conflict comes in and changes things around would coincide with an actual set of minor crises (predominantly around a building project at my congregation) and the stress that would be added by that to an already full schedule. So I am thankful for thinking about crisis and the practices that sustain me immediately before needing to call upon many of these practices. There is ancient wisdom in the practice of Sabbath, which is not primarily about worship but about rest. For me one of my natural reactions to stress is to work harder and to attempt to plow through the crisis and outlast it. Yet, while this is one of my defaults it also tends to be an unhealthy reaction for me because it impacts my creativity, my joy, my relationships and it cuts me off from the support I need.

As an introvert I require space and time to recharge, but beyond the space and time there are things that recharge my batteries faster than other things. These include music, stories, exercise, eating well, learning, playing, solitude or time with people I love, and working with my hands. Music has always been a source of joy for me and whether I am singing along with a CD, attending a concert, drumming on the steering wheel as I drive or jamming to the air guitar alone in the house by myself, music is one of the things I love. Unfortunately, when I overwork I tend to put myself in places where I can’t enjoy music in the same way. A lot of my work is either talking with other people or things that require more concentration and often silence is beneficial. But I need the balance of music to bring richness into my life.

I am a person who feeds off stories. Stories come in many forms, in books, in a movie, sometimes I just make them up in my head. I’ve always been able to let stories take me into their world for a moment and to get caught up with the actors or characters. I often find things in the world of the story that bring insight into situations in my own world, and then there is also simply the joy of a well told tale. Perhaps one of the other gifts of stories goes back to the gift of Sabbath, it forces me (or allows me) to have an excuse to step away from that drive to work through my struggles and instead to sit in another place at some distance from my own crises and to come back to them re-energized from being away in a distant land or time or world through the story.

I’m thankful that early in my life I learned the benefit of staying fit and eating a healthy diet. Through my time at Texas A&M and the Army physical fitness was a daily part of my work day and my enjoyment of running endured well after my time in the Army ended. Physical exertion is a great stress relief for me and my body just feels better and I am more creative when I make the time to run and workout. When I am stressed I am more likely to miss workout and I also have one less method to work through stress. Diet also affects me greatly. I enjoy cooking and I cook pretty fresh food using very little preservatives. If my diet changes through eating out frequently or even eating at church potlucks then I notice it rapidly. Caffeine also has a stronger effect on my body than it does for many people and again it is another thing that is readily available and tastes good at the moment but when I am stressed it contributes to that stress.

For a long time I didn’t give enough credence to the need to play. I was simply too busy doing ‘important’ things to give myself permission to do something as unnecessary as that. I always enjoyed playing, whether it was sports or a computer game or doing puzzles of various kinds but I never made time for it. Sometimes it goes back to my love of story (which video games often do immerse you into a story world) other times it feeds that need for physical activity but in the midst of all of it is the need to bring fun and joy into one’s life. I’m still not great at making time to play but I’ve learned it is an enjoyable part of my life and very healing.

Being an introvert doesn’t mean that I shun opportunities to be around other people, but it often doesn’t recharge my batteries. People who I love and trust can help me recharge but I also need my times of solitude. I’m not cut out to be an hermit, I need other people but social situations (like parties) take a lot more energy than they give to me.

Finally, I do enjoy working with my hands. Whether it is working in the soil in my garden or building something or just trying to be creative.  So much of what I do requires my intellectual side to be engaged but I also have the need to use the tactile side of my personality. I like being able to problem solve and being able to see something created or improved through working on it.

Psalm 21- A Blessing for the King

Statue of David by Nicolar Cordier in the Borghese Chapel of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Statue of David by Nicolar Cordier in the Borghese Chapel of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Psalm 21

<To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 In your strength the king rejoices, O LORD, and in your help how greatly he exults!
2 You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah
3 For you meet him with rich blessings; you set a crown of fine gold on his head.
4 He asked you for life; you gave it to him– length of days forever and ever.
5 His glory is great through your help; splendor and majesty you bestow on him.
6 You bestow on him blessings forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
7 For the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.
8 Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you.
9 You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them.
10 You will destroy their offspring from the earth, and their children from among humankind.
11 If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
12 For you will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows.
13 Be exalted, O LORD, in your strength! We will sing and praise your power.

At first glance we may wonder if this royal Psalm which is all about the relationship between the king’s trust and the steadfast love has to say to our time when we no longer have kings and, other than politically conservative Christians, we are reluctant to declare God’s blessing upon a political candidate. In a world with a flourishing royal establishment, which is the world of the Psalm, it does qualify the king’s leadership. Everything the king, and by extension the people, has received is an extension of God’s rich blessings from the physical crown the king wears to the long life and glory the king receives. It does place the king as the vessel of the Lord’s blessing and not the cause of the blessing itself and perhaps here is a place where some humility, which is easily lost for those tempted with power, can indeed remain. The gifts lifted up here for the king are similar to the gifts that Solomon is said to receive after his request for wisdom in 1 Kings 3. Yet, these gifts are not merely for the king but for the people by extension.

Perhaps one could impertinently state that the Psalm reflects a type of divine trickle-down economics where the king is blessed so that the nation as a whole may be blessed. The people of Israel could not imagine a representative democracy or any other modern system of government. Their frame of reference was that of a monarchy and with its nobles and officials. To pray for the life of the king may seem strange to us but it is a frequent stock petition of the time and as Rolf Jacobson can remind us, “and this blessing was not just for the king but for the nation. Short royal reigns are often symptomatic of nation turmoil, and the common folk were just as likely to suffer in such times as the nobility.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 224) Much of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible about the people of Israel and Judah directly links the health of the nation to the faithfulness of the king in power. It is a strange thought to us who are used to our individuality but in a nation where access to biblical texts as well as literacy would have resided with the priests and the nobles the leadership of the king often set the course for the nation. When the king trusts in the LORD the nation is blessed, when the king (and by extension the people) turn to other gods they also turn away the blessings of their LORD.

The world of Israel and Judah was a dangerous and violent world and conflict was a part of life. Here, like in Deuteronomy 20 it is the LORD who is the primary force when Israel triumphs and not their military prowess or strength. I have discussed in other places the ways in which the use of God as a divine warrior can be a powerful but also a dangerous way of talking about God. Yet in the world of the Psalms it is one of the central ways of referring to God. God is the divine warrior, the shield, the fortress, the rock and many other metaphors of strength that provide comfort for the Psalmist and people of many times and places.

Those called into positions of leadership in our time could benefit from remembering that their calling does not exist to serve their benefits but instead their position is for the sake of the community. As Rolf Jacobson says well:

And the blessings that come with leadership do not exist for the advantage of the leader, but for the sake of the community and for the sake of the world. The kings of Israel and Judah never learned this lesson. And the leaders of today seem to do no better. One is reminded of the old saw that people get elected to Congress in order to do good, but end up doing well. So perhaps Jesus’ warning is still apt: From those to whom much has been given much will be expected. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 226)

In our time the final axiom of the quote could almost be reversed, that to those whom much has been given little will be expected. There has been a loss of faith in those elected to political office in our society. At the same time humility seems to be an undervalued trait in those who we tend to elect to positions of authority. Perhaps we have sought the wrong traits in our leaders. Perhaps a leader who is able to understand that the position given to him or her is indeed a gift of God, not in the sense of entitlement but instead in the sense of vocation, could have enough humility, compassion, and gratitude to use their position for the sake of the community, the people and the world. Unfortunately, it often seems that those leaders who claim their Christianity most vociferously seem to be those who view their calling as entitlement to do well instead of doing good.

Wisdom of Story Reflection 1: The Roles and Rules of the World

When an author tells a story one of the first things they have to do is place their characters in roles and in a world that has rules. The rules and roles will be different based upon the character and the world. A young wizard in a world where magical things are possible will have different roles and rules than an old cowboy riding into the old West. Even within the same world the rules can be different. A private in the army, for example, operates under different rules and certainly a different role than a general. Rules and roles work in a story because it imitates our life. Often the roles we play are second nature, like the feel of clothing on top of our skin that we no longer notice and the rules are as much a part of the environment we live in as the air we breathe.

The rules that we live within are dependent on the numerous roles we play within our lives. Some are gender determined: there are different cultural expectations for men and women. Men are shown from a young age to put their work above everything else (even family), to not express pain or weakness, and that the cultural expected role is for them to be the provider. Some rules come out of one’s place within a family: a young son or daughter should have different rules and constraints than a teenager or a young adult. Some rules come from the organizations and work that one is a part of. In my life the expectations as a military officer and later as a pastor were very different, for example language that was assumed to be a part of the life in the military are no longer considered appropriate in a more ‘holy’ calling by many.

Rules are not bad, we need rules to make sense of our lives and world. However, there are times where they can become stifling. Roles may fit us like a second skin or we may feel like we are continually wearing a mask that covers up our true self. Often these parts of our lives are invisible until a major change comes that changes the rules and roles. Things that we may have assumed to be true about our lives no longer hold up under the stress of the changes that go on within our lives.

So what do we do when the rules no longer work and the role we once played no longer fits. That is where the hard part of the story begins. Much like the people of Israel on their long Exodus from Egypt we may long to return to the places we knew and the security we once had (even though it might have been its own type of enslavement). Yet, in a story this is act 2, the challenging part of the story where a crisis pushes the protagonist to find our something new about themselves. If a person is in that part of their life it doesn’t feel like a story, it may feel like chaos or freefall. Yet all stories have a beginning point, a Launchpad so to speak and the rules and initial roles are that solid ground that retreats away on the expedition into the scary unknown frontier.


These meditations are based upon the Courageworks course, the Wisdom of Story taught by Brené Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton. This is my reflections after session 1.

Ecclesiastes 12-The End of Wisdom

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8: The End of Things

1 Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3 in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4 when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5 when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6 before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

So now we come to the end of things and at the end of things is growing old and death. The final eight verses either talk metaphorically about the aging of the individual or directly about the collapse of a city or town. I read this metaphorically and at the end of all things is the gradual process of letting go that comes with old age, diminished health and eventually mortality. One of my nonagenarians from a previous congregation who had a spry sense of humor even in the midst of her failing vision and health would remind me when I would visit her that, “Old age isn’t for sissies” and that “they can call these the golden years but it must be fool’s gold.” Ecclesiastes has no place for a sentimentalism about how things will be better in some great by and by in the afterlife, it only has place for that which it can see. Perhaps there is an uneasiness with the somewhat agnostic perspective that Ecclesiastes seems to portray at certain points, its willingness to question what many people would rather overlook. Yet, looking at the world through the lens of a person who is willing to call much of what they see ‘vanity’ doesn’t lead the Teacher to desperation but instead a greater sense of peace in the moment. It allows them to counsel their pupils to embrace their youth, to remember the creator of this time and not to rush forward into the responsibility and diminishment of old age. In a culture where old age was valued and youth was not Ecclesiastes was an unusual voice. In our culture where youth is valued and old age is considered a burden and death is to be avoided at all cost perhaps the honesty of Ecclesiastes might help us with our own vain struggles against our mortality.

One of the greatest gifts I think Ecclesiastes brings to things is the wisdom of appreciating the gifts of the day. We can struggle against our mortality and against our limits but they make the time we have precious. Health, wealth, relationships, fame and power may all be transitory but the gift comes in being able to find joy in one’s food and drink, relationships, toil and the work of one’s hands and mind. Vanity of vanities, all may be vanity but that doesn’t have to be a source of struggle. Instead we can be freed to enjoy the day that our creator has made and to indeed be glad in it.

Ecclesiastes 12: 9-14: Epilogue

 9 Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. 10 The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

 11 The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. 12 Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The voice shifts suddenly to one talking about the Teacher rather than one talking as the Teacher. This short book was one that barely made it into the canon of Scriptures because it is a very different voice. Here an appreciative epilogue is offered which closes Ecclesiastes as we have it. It evaluates what has come before as both plainly truthful but also pleasing in its composition. That perhaps is a challenge for anyone trying to speak or write in a way that can speak the truth to the best of their ability but also not in a callous or judgmental way. Ecclesiastes writes about some uncomfortable truths and as Ellen Davis can comment, “who in our culture has the moral authority and the imagination to make uncomfortable words heard in the public forum? Few teachers or clergy, even fewer politicians.” (Davis, 2000, p. 226) Yet truth, perhaps most of all the uncomfortable truth that is skipped over in the soundbites and marketing strategies, is needed for both the individual and the public’s life.

Perhaps it is great vanity writing about a book that can claim ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ But there has been enjoyment in the toil and a sense of satisfaction coming to the end of these reflections upon this irreverent little piece of the scriptures. Fearing God may be the beginning of wisdom as Proverbs 1:7 can state and here is one of the few times Ecclesiastes sings in harmony with its neighbor in the scriptures. Yet, perhaps it would be vanity to worry about how God will judge this deed in the end and so for me too this is the end of the matter. Vanity or wisdom or both it is done and I go to enjoy the rest of this day that God has provided.

Ecclesiastes 11- Proverbs for Life in an Uncertain World

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) Vanitas

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) Vanitas

Ecclesiastes 11

1 Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.
2 Divide your means seven ways, or even eight, for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth.
3 When clouds are full, they empty rain on the earth; whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
4 Whoever observes the wind will not sow; and whoever regards the clouds will not reap.
5 Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.
6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
7 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.
8 Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
9 Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
10 Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

As we approach the end of the reflections that make up Ecclesiastes there is a sense of peace as the mundane moments of day to day life are lifted up against the vanity and uncertainty of the future. In the much more secular age that we live within perhaps Ecclesiastes is one of the voices of the canon that rings truest to our experience. While there is much in the New Testament, and some in the Hebrew Scriptures as well that deals with the transcendent the wisdom of the author of Ecclesiastes is in the discovery (or rediscovery) of the pleasure of the present. As Charles Taylor can describe our time as one where, “many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent.” (Taylor, 2007, p. 143) These proverbs for life in an uncertain world lift up joy and generosity in the face of foolishness and vanity.

Over 105 years ago the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegard stated:

Philosophy is quite right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause—that life must be lived forward. The more one thinks through this clause, the more concludes that life in temporality never becomes properly understandable, simply because never at any time does one get perfect repose to take a stance—backward. (Pauw, 2015, p. 200)

Or put more simply, ‘hindsight may be 20:20 but we don’t walk through life backwards.’ We may understand much of our life much better with the hindsight of experience and the separation of time but we don’t have that option. Life is lived forward and so within the unknowable future and in the immanent present one chooses how one will approach it. The approach to life in these initial verses of chapter eleven is one of generosity, of spreading rather than hoarding. Of letting one’s bread float out upon the waters and dividing one’s wealth numerous ways. There are no guarantees but generosity and trust seems to be the way lifted up here by the Teacher. If we wait for the rains to come down from the heavens or trees to fall or until we understand all the secrets of life we will not act and we will miss life. Going out to work and planting without a guarantee of harvest is a part of the risk of life. Sometimes our work will come to nothing, sometimes the things we nurture and care for will fail. Here there is the ability to enjoy the light when it comes in all its sweetness while rejoicing even in the dark days. Ecclesiastes is not a moralistic crusader trying to put off passion, he encourages those who are young to follow the inclination of their heart even while knowing that their lives ultimately rest in God’s hands. We do not always see or understand the interaction between the work of our hands and the gifts of God’s work for our sake, yet we can move ahead without knowing the “blueprint for God’s work.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 201)

Finally, the chapter closes with a note on anxiety which has several echoes in the New Testament, probably the most famous being in Matthew 6:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25)

Many of the things that cause anxiety are indeed hevel (vanity). This is not to belittle those who suffer from anxiety but Ecclesiastes’ focus is on the present. Often anxiety or worry may come from an unknown future and the desire to secure that future and that is in Ecclesiastes’ view hevel. Youth and the dawn of life may be vanity but they can also be joyful. Often joy is stolen by trying to hoard one’s gifts to ensure an uncertain future but we are reminded to enjoy the immanent present. To enjoy the sweet times of light even though days of darkness may be many. To go out and sow without guarantees and to follow the inclination of your heart before it is too late. Carpe diem, to seize the day not because one is fatalistic about the future but instead because they have not invested securing the future as an ultimate concern.

The Future of the Bard

By Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard) - 0QHOMxCB-XDE7Q at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

By Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard) – 0QHOMxCB-XDE7Q at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Perchance if one would live to see
The bard forgotten as time passed thee
If Hamlet’s question was ne’er to be
And forgotten Othello’s tragedy
Bubble, bubble, and trouble that day
When lost are king John, Henry two and three
Would Julius still say ‘et tu brute’
Or Cleopatra hold dying Anthony
Yet somehow all the world is still a stage
A midsummer night dream when day is done
May the poet’s words endure each new age
Perhaps it is much ado about none
And maybe it’s silly even to fret
Forgetting Romeo and Juliet


This was for the day 10 prompt of the Intro to Poetry where the prompt is future and the challenge is to write a Sonnet. Since Shakespeare wrote many sonnets I challenged myself to write about the future of the bard using his style of iambic pentameter and his typical ababcdcd efefgg rhyme scheme. Was a fun try to use some of the bard’s work to inspire the words of the poetry.