Of Twisties and Pantry Lights

Command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the lamp, that a light may be kept burning regularly. Aaron shall set it up in the tent of meeting, outside the curtain of the covenant, to burn from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.
Leviticus 24:2-3 (NRSV)

Wendy and I live together quite comfortably, but we are no different from every other couple on the planet. We have our differences, which don’t always become acutely clear until you live together for a period of time. Wendy and I were both raised in our Dutch heritage, and we both exemplify the legendary frugality of Hollanders. Our frugality, however, is exhibited in very different ways.

My wife’s frugality is exemplified in the hoarding of things that might  be useful in her kitchen. For example, one should never throw away a “twisty” (the little colored paper covered wire that binds the bag on a loaf of bread). You never know when you might need a million or three of these incredibly useful utensils. The same principle can be applied to sacks (especially the ones with little handles on them), and zip-loc bags. I may roll my eyes at the piled rainbow of twisties in the kitchen drawer, Wendy will remind me, but I know without a doubt that there is one (or 12) available when I need it, and I know exactly where to find them.

My frugality (thank you, Dad) is exemplified by my compulsive desire to turn out lights that are illuminating empty rooms (and the accompanying rage that rises in my soul when I see it). Wendy has no problem keeping a room illuminated if there’s the possibility that she might enter it some time during her waking hours. When I see lights on in empty rooms I go into panic just short of cardiac arrest. After all, the unnecessary illumination of empty rooms will certainly be our financial ruin. They will drain our retirement fund of necessary pennies and lead to us living in a dark, cold, rat-hole of an apartment in our old age in which we will rock in our chairs and grieve long hours over this stark reality: If we’d have simply turned out more lights in empty rooms all those years, we might be able to afford turning on the furnace to ease our frigid, arthritic appendages.

So, where am I going with this? Well, just yesterday in the middle of a bright, sunny summer day I walked down to the kitchen to get a cold beverage. Sure enough, I found that the light in our empty kitchen pantry was on. Wendy was in her office working away at her desk. My frugality alarm went off and, as usual, my blood pressure went into its rapid, steep ascent. In a moment of lucidity, however, I reminded myself that entering an argument over turning out the pantry light was futile. We’ve been down that road to nowhere before. I am also frugal with arguments (especially those I’ll never win).

I asked myself: How do I get over my obsessive frustration over turning out the pantry light so that I can live in peace and avoid the cardiologist’s bill?

That’s when I remembered the eternal flame.

Growing up in the Methodist church, there hung a large cross over the altar at the front of sanctuary. From the bottom of the cross hung what looked like a large candle holder. I was taught as a child that this was the “eternal flame” which was always lit (except, of course, when the light bulb burned out) as a word picture of God’s eternal presence and Light.

I laughed as I thought to myself that I needed to stop thinking of the pantry light (which is the light I find most commonly lit unnecessarily) as the bane of our financial freedom. Instead, I need to think of it as the eternal flame that illuminates God’s blessing and provision (as evidenced by a stocked pantry).

In a moment of synchronicity, this morning’s chapter is the source of the “eternal flame” concept. It began with the Levitical law commanding that the high priest (Aaron) keep a lamp burning in the temple, just outside the curtained area which metaphorically represented God’s presence.

Today I’m thinking about frugality and eternal flames. I’m thinking about our individual differences and the compromises we learn to make in living together harmoniously. I can think of compromise as a negative (e.g. I’m having to “give up” or “give in” to something) or I can choose to find something beneficial in the process. The illumination of a pantry void of humans is also a pantry illuminating the evidence of God’s blessings and faithful provision. Perhaps that reminder is worth the pocket change it costs me.

We Need More Festivals

Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed festivals of the Lord.
Leviticus 23:44 (NRSV)

For going on nearly a century, our small Iowa town has held a Tulip Festival every May. Everything stops for three days as residents pour their time and energy into the tens of thousands of visitors who descend on our community. Make no mistake, the festival is all about promotion and commerce. It’s the major fundraiser of the year for most of our community organizations. Nevertheless, I think everyone in our town would agree that the festival is much more than that. It celebrates our history, our heritage, and it promotes a strong sense of community and a spirit of service within it.

Festival is just a fun word. From the Latin word for “feast,” the root word is defined as “cheerful and jovially celebratory.” Who doesn’t want that? That’s one of the reasons Wendy and I wanted to get married on New Year’s Eve. What a great evening to celebrate our lives and love through time.

I find it interesting that God would program into His people’s calendar a series of “festivals.” At the top of the list is the weekly day of Sabbath or rest. The weekly day of rest was supposed to be a festival, but over time the religious people turned it into its own version of burdensome religious toil. Jesus got more grief from religious leaders about breaking Sabbath rules than anything else He said or did. The uptight religious people had perverted a festival of rest into a weekly religious burden. That was never its intention and Jesus knew it.

I can’t say that the institutional church and Jesus’ followers have done much better with our weekly day of worship which was moved from the Jewish sabbath on Saturday to the day of Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday. Each Sunday is supposed to be a festival of resurrection, but I wouldn’t describe the weekly mood in many churches as “festive.”

I knew a family who decided to try and instill this understanding of Sunday being a festival of Jesus’ resurrection in their young children. They began early in the week looking in anticipation of Sunday as a special day of celebration. Every Saturday night (the eve of Resurrection Day) they had a special family meal that the children helped plan during the week. Guests were invited to join them. They decorated with bright colors and had special desserts. There was a large brass chandelier fixture in their dining room with long swooping arms. At the end of the weekly Resurrection Eve dinner all of the meal participants would stand with a party popper, point it at the chandelier and pull their popper so that the colorful streamers would hit the chandelier and get caught on the arms. There the streamers would stay so that each week day the children would see the colorful remnant of their weekly feast and look forward to the next.

The family celebrated getting to worship on Sunday and celebrate the Resurrection. They planned special moments together on Sunday as well. Believe me. The day I was a guest in their home, the children couldn’t wait for their weekly Saturday night and Sunday festival.

This morning I’m thinking about the fact that we don’t do more to make personal festivals a way to mark special days, seasons, heritage, and history that is meaningful to us and our loved ones. Festivals are fun as well as meaningful. Who doesn’t love a nice feast in which to be cheerful and jovially celebratory? Let’s plan a little festival and invite our loved ones.

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Featured image by metku via Flickr

The Latest 08-21-2016

Ugh. It’s been several weeks since I’ve written to catch everyone up on the latest. Summer is winding down already and life has been so amazingly full.

We spent the end of July and first week of August at the lake. It was great to have our friends Matthew and Sarah spend the weekend with us. The weather this summer has been sketchy every time we’ve been at the lake and this visit was no different. Nevertheless, we found time for some fun in the sun. Always a great time to relax.

Wendy and Kim (Treasurer and Secretary) keeping everything straight for the annual election of officers.
Wendy and Kim (Treasurer and Secretary) keeping everything straight for the annual election of officers.

A year ago Wendy and I stepped down from a decade of leadership in our local community theatre. Earlier in the summer Wendy was asked to step back into the position of Treasurer and was asked to continue into this next year. I was asked if I would consider running as President for another year. After some long discussions Wendy and I agreed that it was the right thing to do. So, here we go again. I’ve been joking that it feels like my Godfather III moment:

Speaking of community theatre, Wendy held auditions this past week for the holiday musical, The Christmas Post. This is the third time she’s taken helm of this show. It was ten years ago the last time she directed it. Auditions are going great. Call backs tomorrow night. The show will be the first two weekends in December.

Nephews Sam, Sol and our new niece Christina!
Nephews Sam, Sol and our new niece Christina!
Wendy and me with niece Lydia
Wendy and me with niece Lydia

We’ve added two new family members in recent weeks. Our nephew Solomon married Christina in a small private ceremony in Des Moines. Wendy and I got to meet the sweet Christina at family dinner in Des Moines. The couple are in the Navy and are shipping out to international waters in the near future. Wendy’s brother, Josh, married Ellie in Korea. Dad Hall was the only family member who got to make the trip for the ceremony. We can’t wait to meet our new sister-in-law.

VWs and McQs enjoying a summer evening of baseball at Principal Park!
VWs and McQs enjoying a summer evening of baseball at Principal Park!
Yasiel Puig makes a minor league start in Des Moines.
Yasiel Puig makes a minor league start in Des Moines.

We’ve been enjoying a lot of our usual joys of life. Lots of socializing with friends and baseball (Go Cubs!). A few weeks ago we got to watch MLB superstar Yasiel Puig playing for the Oklahoma Dodgers against our Iowa Cubs. Puig launched a no-doubter in his first at-bat. Our I-Cubbies stunk up Principal Park, but it was a wonderful summer evening with friends Kevin and Linda. We also enjoyed a wonderful evening at Kevin and Linda’s house this past Friday celebrating their birthdays and Kevin’s retirement with the most exciting, eclectic social gathering I think Pella has ever seen.

Our girl Madison learns how to crab!
Our girl Madison learns how to crab!

Taylor is still in Edinburgh, Scotland working at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She’s having a great experience and we’ve loved getting to FaceTime with her a wee bit. A September homecoming is scheduled for our lass. Maddy Kate continues to help make the fairer sex beautiful in her work for Laura Geller. She’s getting more familiar with South Carolina and even did a little crabbing with a friend. You go, girl! Madison plans to join Wendy and me at the lake in a week or so. Can’t wait to spend some time with our girl.

The highlight of recent weeks has been my mother’s 79th birthday. As her Alzheimer’s continues to progress, we relish out rare opportunities to gather as family. Dad put out the call for family to gather, and we had all my siblings and a good representation of grandchildren yesterday afternoon. It was a simple agenda. We just met at their home and spent the afternoon chatting, eating Wendy’s cheesecake, and playing cards. We headed to Cracker Barrel for dinner. After dinner Scott invited us to the shooting range he manages to have some fun exercising our 2nd amendment rights.

When I was just a little kid my dad would take all four of us kids to the shooting range at the downtown Des Moines YMCA. We learned safety and marksmanship. It was a lot of fun to all be on the range together for the first time in over 40 years. We fired a number of different firearms, including Wendy who more than held her own on the range. At the end of the evening the guys all had a little one-shot competition with a .50 caliber Desert Eagle. Scott won, but me and the other bros were only a couple inches off center, which wasn’t bad considering it was our one and only time firing the massive handgun.

The Challenge of Words

“You shall not profane my holy name….”
Leviticus 22:32 (NRSV)

Wall Street Journal columnist, Ben Zimmer, writes a weekly piece in the newspaper’s weekend edition that explores a different word or phrase that has been in the news that week. It’s one of my favorite columns to read over coffee on Saturday mornings.

I have become increasingly fascinated with words as I’ve continued in my life journey. I’m fascinated with their origin, how they become part of our vocabulary, their meanings, and how we use them. I’m intrigued with how our society perceives words as positive or negative, good or bad, acceptable or not acceptable.

Wendy’s and my adventures in community theatre often take us into debates about words. Should we use a word that will likely offend our audience here in rural Iowa? Can we legally change the copyrighted work by using a different word? If we do have the actor use a different word, will it change the play’s character and how the audience perceives him or her? Why would that word offend the audience? Should we risk the offense and challenge our audience to consider their notions about vocabulary? They are challenging questions that prompt fascinating and equally challenging discussions.

Toward the end of today’s chapter God tells the Hebrews not “profane” His name. I was given a definition of the word profane by a professor in college that I’ve never forgotten: “to empty something of its meaning.” I can still remember the word picture as the professor stood in front of the class and mimed turning a cup over in his hand, emptying the contents of the imaginary vessel on the ground.

I’ve always found that an apt understanding of God’s zealous protection of His name. It’s really no different than we as human beings. We don’t like people making fun of our name. We don’t want our name mocked or “drug through the mud.” In Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, John Proctor tells the witch hunters in Salem to go ahead and kill him unjustly but then begs: “give me my name!

Of course this opens a fascinating and challenging conversation about the name of God. As a child I was taught never to use the word “God” as in “Oh my god.” But, “god” is a impersonal noun that could refer to your generic pagan idol as it could refer to Yahweh (the name God gave Himself to Moses in Exodus 3). The name “Jesus” is much more specific and it packs all sorts of meaning and power. Jesus told His followers to do all sorts of things from prayers to exorcisms “in my name.” History records many signs and wonders that happened “in the name of Jesus.” If I then turn and use “Jesus” as an exclamation of disgust when the restaurant brought me the wrong order it certainly appears that I’ve taken something of spiritual power and authority, emptied it of its meaning, and used it for common swear word. I’ve profaned it.

This morning I’m once again thinking about words. It’s fun and challenging to debate the particulars of words and their usage. Despite the hairsplitting, it’s obvious that throughout God’s Message I’m reminded that words have power to heal, encourage, and build others up. They also have the power to sully, divide, tear down, and profane. I am reminded that the words we choose should be gracious, wise, and kind. May the words of my mouth always exemplify those basic guidelines.

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featured image by dorkmaster via flickr

We Love Our Rules

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God.
Leviticus 21:16-17 (NRSV)

One of the things that I must continually remind myself as I read through the ancient laws of Moses: They didn’t work.

The rules did provide a moral and religious framework for guiding Hebrew society. One could argue that the ideals presented in the chapters we’re reading provided an idealistic goal for Hebrew society to shoot for. The rest of history, however, proves that they continually fell short of the mark. The books of history are a record of the Israelites perpetually doing the things they knew they shouldn’t do. That’s why there are so many books of prophets, because God would always have to call them back to repentance.

One of the cornerstones of theology for followers of Jesus is this very fact. You can’t work to earn salvation because no person perfectly executes the perfection God requires. No human being can reach moral perfection of their own human effort. We are broken people who perpetually do things we know we shouldn’t do and refuse to do things we know we should. All of these rules for moral and spiritual perfection taught us how we couldn’t do it on our own, in and of ourselves. We need a savior.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways I have seen and experienced the institutional church and religious organizations trying to lay Levitical-type legalistic rules over the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice. “You are saved by grace through faith,” we often say and then continue with: “and you must do this and that and not do that or this because it says so in God’s law.” I find it fascinating that God provides forgiveness and salvation freely to anyone who will simply accept it, regardless of our moral standing, and we still want to run back to embrace the religious rules we’ve never been able to keep in the first place.

The Importance of the Backstory

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
Leviticus 20:10 (NRSV)

Over recent months I have been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It is not an easy read. Rather than a simple and continuous narrative, The Silmarillion is a collection of stories that, together, create the cosmology of Tolkien’s fictional universe from its creation.  Having a lot of excellent on-line reference material has been extremely helpful.

Slogging my way through The Silmarillion I am constantly inspired as I make connections and gain a broader understanding of the backstory of The Lord of the Rings. Knowing the backstory makes the story I know so well even more colorful and thought provoking. I better understand why the elves are leaving Middle Earth and where they are going. I better understand exactly what the “Three rings of elven kings” really are and represent. I learn the skinny on Shelob the giant spider and the evil Sauron, the scary faces in the Dead Marshes, all the obscure references made by the hobbits and about hoard they find with the barrow wights in the Old Forest, and the song Aragorn sings as he and the hobbits camp on the road to Rivendell.

In many ways The Silmarillion parallels the loose collection of history, poetry, prophecy, and legal text that make up what is commonly known as the Old Testament. For many people these ancient writings are difficult to wade through and understand. Nevertheless, I’ve always found that without them I have an incomplete view of who Jesus is, what His message was about, and why things happened the way they did. The stories of Jesus suddenly gain more color and depth in context with the backstory.

One such example struck me this morning. According to Levitical law in today’s chapter, those who committed adultery were to be put to death – both the man and the woman who committed the deed. I then thought about the story in John’s biography in which the religious leaders, seeking to trap Jesus and discredit him, bring a woman to Him. She had been caught “in the act” of adultery and deserved the death penalty. They wanted Jesus to render the verdict. If He let them kill her then it would be unpopular with the crowds, but if He let her off then they could accuse Him of being a lawbreaker.

But Jesus knew today’s chapter as well as they did. If she was caught “in the act” then where was the man who was committing adultery with her? He was to be put to death as well. The story said that Jesus sat doodling in the dirt as the religious leaders were making their case. Perhaps Jesus was symbolically writing the name of the woman’s lover into “the record.” Knowing the law, I begin to understand how hypocritical, misogynistic, and crooked these religious leaders proved themselves to be with their accusations. Without even saying a word, Jesus’ brilliant response called the leaders to a legal point-of-order. His gracious forgiveness of the woman means even more to me in light of this context. [Note: you can read the brief story in John 8]

This morning I’m thinking about backstories. Beyond The Silmarillion and the Old Testament, there are also backstories to our lives, our families, our communities, our nation, and our world. I realize, once again, this morning why I love history. Knowing backstories helps me better perceive and understand things in the present. With that, I can made better decisions and judgements in the present just as Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery.

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The Ancients Way of Welfare

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:9-10 (NRSV)

The ancient Hebrew legal system had a way of providing food for the poor. Farmers were forbidden from harvesting everything in their fields. The edges of the field (e.g. more easily accessible) were to be left unharvested. In addition, if grapes or grain fell to the ground during harvest they were to be left there. Those who were poor could gather food from the fields.

The thing I find fascinating about this ancient tax and welfare system is that the poor still had to work to gather the fruit or grains themselves. If they were incapable of harvesting themselves, then they had to work to arrange for someone else to do it for them. Once harvested, at least some of that which was gathered still had to be prepared. It wasn’t a “free” handout. It required some effort of the recipient.

This morning I’m thinking about giving and gleaning. Having been raised in the midwest and steeped in the Protestant work ethic, I’ve always known that the value of work goes beyond the paycheck. When you work for what you have you earn self-respect and self-esteem. There are always exceptional situations, but I have always thought it foolish to base societal rules on exceptional situations. In general, I believe there is something subtly and insidiously damaging to a soul when it continuously reaps without having to glean.

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Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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