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Saturday, June 22, 2013

What's in a Name? : Methuselah Does Not Just Mean "Old Guy"

I don’t usually have blog entries two days back-to-back, but in this case, I found out something really cool and I’m having a hard time just keeping it to myself. And to the family. And Carolyn and Miles who stopped by last night. When you learn something cool, you just want to share it, you know?

It came about because Emma has to read Genesis, Exodus, the Samuels, Ecclesiastes, and The Odyssey this summer before she goes back to school in August. She was lamenting having to read Genesis again, because we did it as a homeschool family, quite thoroughly, and she’s done it in Sunday school two or three times due to a repeating curriculum, and she’s read it on her own. “It’s just all those long names. They bore me,” she said. “I mean, who would name their child METHUSELAH anyway? What kind of dad was that?”

Well, that’s what I pounced on. “Let’s find out! Let’s find out what kind of dad would name his child Methuselah, and why!” I always love that kind of challenge when it comes to biblical things. She meant it as a dismissive question, but it’s actually a really good one, and it turns out, it was EVEN BETTER than I had imagined.

I didn’t know what we were going to find out about Methuselah, but I did know a couple of things already going in: 1) Names in the Old Testament meant something. So to ask, “Why that name?” was guaranteed something of interest; 2) Methuselah lived to be the oldest man ever. I knew it was more than 900 years. I didn’t remember the exact number. But again, we were going to go find out what made him significant, name and all.

Here’s what we found. I knew some of it but definitely not all, and had never put this together before.

Methuselah was the son of Enoch. Enoch was the guy who was said to “walk with God.” He also didn’t die, because God took him. There’s something special and unique going on here, that’s for sure. Walking with God implies a deep closeness. God walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Enoch walked with God after the Fall, when everything was spiraling farther and farther into disobedience and havoc. People were running amok but Enoch was walking with God. We had to stop and think about that for a little while. What was that like?

It was only when we looked up the meaning of the name of Enoch's son Methuselah that our imaginations about Enoch walking with God went kind of wild.

According to Jones’ Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names, Methuselah means, “When He Is Dead It Shall Be Sent.”

I am fascinated by the meanings of names. I wanted to know each name’s meaning before I bestowed it upon my daughter. I’ve wondered about my own name, and how it came about that somewhere back in history, a man looked at his baby girl and said, “I shall call her ‘bound with a noose,’” and so it was. (A modern translation of Rebecca tries to take the trauma out of that noose-binding imagery by putting a romantic spin on it and revising it to “captivating.”)

But now Emma’s question was even more valid. What kind of dad names his kid “When He Is Dead It Shall Be Sent”?

The answer: The dad who was walking closely in fellowship, and maybe even in the special, revelatory confidence, of God during the time when evil was springing up more and more in each generation.

So Methuselah lived 969 years on the earth, bearing that name, that prophetic warning, all that time. In God’s mercy, Methuselah, bearer of the name of warning, lived longer than anyone else ever had before or since. He was from his birth a prophet with a message, even when his mouth was shut. Something’s coming. It will be sent. At the end of my days, it will come. Everywhere he went, for as long as he went, he was the embodiment of warning. And every day, every one of those long and many days, was a day of mercy, of God withholding his heavy hand of judgment, allowing time for people to listen and turn and repent.

But God keeps his word. And eventually, Methuselah did die. Do you know when? I did not.

Laying the lengths of lives down in chart form shows that Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, died in the very year that the Great Flood was sent. The very year. When he had died, it was sent.

Some say it took Noah more than 100 years to build the ark. I can’t say I’ve found that exactly spelled out. It may be an interpretation of God’s spoken statement that “The days of man will be 120 years,” and that started the point at which Noah began to build. Perhaps that is true. If it is, then in addition to Methuselah presumably still walking around all that time, he was also overlapping with his youthful, 500-year-old grandson who was preparing for rain. For a century or more.

A man walked with God and then disappeared from the earth. If that didn’t make one sit up and take notice, he named his son with a prophetic and ominous name, and that guy outlived every one of his peers and many of their own offspring, bearing that name as warning all the while, the name given him by the dad who “translated” but didn’t die. Then the old, ominously named guy’s grandson, called Noah (which means “rest,” by the way—and maybe means that he was the one through whom rest from all the terror of evil of man against man was going to come), heeds some sort of divine revelation and builds a massive ship like nothing anyone has seen before.

I mean, really. Something unusual is up with this family, don’t you think? Unnatural. Supernatural. Tradition says that people thought Noah was crazy. But look at what actually happened before him. And no one, not one, outside his own immediate family, listened, considered, wondered if maybe paying a little attention was a worthwhile investment? Not one?

Jesus told the Pharisees and Sadducees that though they could interpret the signs in the sky, whether it would be fair or stormy the next day, they could not interpret the signs of the times. It seems it has always been that way. A common saying is that “If heaven opened and God appeared there, we wouldn’t believe it. We’d find a way to explain it away.”

Funny thing is, that’s just the terminology that keeps showing up. God took Enoch. Heaven opened to receive him. When the flood came, Genesis 7:11 says “the windows of heaven opened,” and the rain came. Ezekiel the prophet looked into the open door of heaven. Heaven opened for the Spirit to come down upon Christ at his baptism, and others saw it. Stephen, at his martyrdom, saw heaven opened and told those around him, even the ones casting the stones that took his life. The witnesses said Stephen’s own face was like that of an angel. I wonder what that was like.

We’ve been hearing lately at church to pay attention to the signs of the work of the Holy Spirit with us individually. Comfort that seems to come unexpectedly. Provision. Communication at just the right point. The Spirit is here, present, in an experiential way that is closer and new for these last days. But history certainly shows that all along, God has been invested in communicating to his creatures.  

Why don’t we hear?

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Sweet--and Very Literal--Lightbulb Moment

It takes all kinds.

I discovered that today in such an eye-opening and humorous way while talking to my irreplaceable and long-time friend Heather. I've known Heather just shy of 20 years. Most of that time, we've lived in different states, and maybe the geographical distance has served us well, because while we get along swimmingly, with never an actual conflict arising between us in all those years, we are so very different in some ways.

Heather is a practical thinker. I am a metaphorical thinker. I've even been called an "eschatological thinker." She's all about "what it is." I'm all about "what it means."

And in a phone conversation today, those two approaches collided in a humorous and helpful way.

My daughter Jane has been sick with strep. The first round of antibiotics knocked it back but didn't cure it, so we're in for the second. Not being a practical thinker, I did not think to tell the doctor that, at 12, Jane prefers pills to liquid medicine. When I arrived at the pharmacy yesterday, they had prepared for her a nasty, bitter, milky-white concoction she has to take twice a day for 10 days. Twenty doses of that vile elixir. I dreaded telling her almost as much as I dreaded the difficult altercation we're likely to have each time I have to dose her. TWENTY dreadful altercations. That's more bitter than the tonic.

So I told Heather about the situation, and her immediate response was to quote Mary Poppins: "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!" She said, almost cheerfully.

OK, I thought, yeah, that's a nice sentiment. And then I realized she was still talking. "It's a treat anyway, for a kid, if you don't have sweets all the time. It's soothing and it takes the taste of the medicine right out of the mouth."

What?! She was sounding downright scientific about this. She was LITERALLY talking about giving the kid a spoonful of actual sugar to ingest following the administration of the medicine. And I had to laugh at myself. Out loud. For several very long seconds. (You can ask Heather. She can confirm my authentic amazement.) Because it had never even occurred to me that that song was anything but metaphorical. I thought it was completely talking about interacting with other people, and the "spoonful of sugar" was a way of approaching another person gently, or with some sort of praise or affirmation before delivering criticism or bad news.

For one as deeply metaphorical as I am, it is easy to forget--or never even consider in the first place--that the metaphor is drawn directly from some practical, literal, real-life event or condition. As this one is.

Pause. Wait for it. This was my next response:


Yeah, it takes all kinds and we need each other. Heather helps keep my feet planted on this rock, this literal dirt-and-gravel-and-stone-with-all-kinds-of-boily-melty-stuff-underneath-it planet that we live out our physical (yes, physical!) lives on. And I help her learn to reach a bit for the stars, and to see the other layer in all the physical--what our artistic Creator was up to when he made the physical to reveal the glories of his character.

But he made us both--physical and spiritual, practical and meaningful, literal and symbolic. The existence is richer for the fullness of that experience.

And I'd even say it's sweet. Like a spoonful of sugar.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ashes, Not Dust

When I was a girl, away from home at college for the first time, finding out who I really was, and not just who everyone had always told me I was or ought to be, I came across a passage written or stated by author Jack London. Previously I had known London only as that miserable guy who, for the very life of him, could not start a fire with frozen fingers. Oh, the wasted matches! He ate a baby bird whole to keep from dying.
I wasn’t a fan. To Build a Fire stuck with me, yes, but not in any sense was it in a good way. I can say I never read White Fang.
But then I found this, his credo, and it resonated with me in a way that until very, very recently, no other secular work or statement has. I memorized it right away. It still hasn't left me.

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark
should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor
every atom of me in magnificent glow
than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The proper function of man is to live
not to exist.
I shall not waste my days
in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

                              —Jack London

I hand-wrote his credo on a piece of plain white paper. I stuck it to my dorm room wall. It stayed there for two years. It went with me to at least three different college-years apartments. At some point, it landed in my mother’s hands, and she, seeing so much of me in it, mounted it on a board, by that time the paper was yellow and curling, and hung it in the room that had been my bedroom as a younger girl—the same room for which I painted the walls yellow, and she let me, though it had never occurred to her to paint a room such a bold and garish color. (It is, once again, respectably blue-gray now.)

I have quoted this credo to many young friends. To my daughters. I mention it sometimes when we girls are singing Katy Perry’s “Firework” song at the top of our lungs in Bella, the Damselfly Beetle, with the sunroof open. I alter it a bit from time to time. “The proper function of man is to live not to exist” may sometimes come from me as “thrive, not just survive.” I want it for them. Life abundant, you might call it.

When I first became a believer, the weapon of the enemy I feared the most was complacency. I did not want the new fervor to fade away. I did not want to be one who “got all that salvation stuff over with, and then got back to normal life.” I wanted that spark to burn in a brilliant blaze, and it’s how I felt: renewed, with every atom of me in magnificent glow.

Today, I spoke directly with an artist. His work is breathtakingly crisp and pure. It isn’t overly dressed, but understated. He said he wanted to paint my daughter. I said I wasn’t opposed. Understated, and yet, it was clear because he was using his gifts, he was certainly not stifled by dry rot. His spark is burning. I could see it most when he talked about how happy his work made him. Nothing sleepy there. But superb, yes. He found his means of using his time.

I also spoke with a pastor and his wife, visiting my area here from their area farther south, which I once called home. Though the conversation stayed firmly in the realm of dignity and politeness, we were all bubbling beneath the surface with the same longing, the same idealism, the same hunger for the already in the not yet. The goal is in sight. No complacency there.

Last week, someone said to me, “Get ready, and let’s take this wild ride together.” He was talking about a very difficult ride that lies ahead. And I wasn’t thrilled. I was frightened. Isn’t fear the fuel of dry-rot, really? Fear paralyzes, and yes, that’s where I was. I was also thinking in terms of me. What I want. How I want to use my time.

But it’s not really my time to use. Yes, in God’s sovereignty he does ordain to allow me freedom of responsibility and creativity and response. But it’s all him. “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them,” London said. What futility there would be in that! Many days of pointlessness? Purposelessness? Personal peace and prosperity?

All my days are written in the book, and have been before even one of them came to be. If every hair of my head is numbered, then I can be sure every atom of me is numbered as well, and all the elements that make up those atoms, held together by that mysterious God-particle, without which the entire universe would unravel in nuclear fury. Who am I to say I don’t want the wild ride, simply because it has turned out to be more of a blaze than I expected at times, at others, ash long before it seemed due for the glow to be subdued? What if this is the meteoric existence I looked ahead to so long ago? Why should today's fear so woo me with the permanent lull of sleepy comfort I once found more fear-inducing than the wild ride of faith in action?

I won't be dust. No. I won't be. Ash, maybe, but not dust.

I think I'd better buckle up.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Harvest To Come through a Man Named Ray

John 12:24:
“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

These were Jesus’ own words, and he was talking about himself and his own upcoming death.

But then he goes on to tell us that those who follow him in this willingness to give up our lives for greater purposes—living with God and reflecting the truth of his will and power to save and unite rebels to himself—will be likewise honored by God.

This is not my story. This story comes from the life and death of a person I never met. Until the day he actually died, I can’t say I had even heard his name mentioned. But his story has now reached me, like a seed carried on the wind. And that is the point. When a seed dies, it produces many seeds.

Now that I’ve heard the story, it comes as no surprise that Ray was working in his garden on the morning of Tuesday, May 28. Gardening. Planting things, tending those plants. Looking for fruit or flowers. The whole image is one of production and growth coming from attentive work.

As he was known as “Smilin’ Ray,” I choose to imagine that he was enjoying himself that morning, taking delight in the creation he was cultivating, looking optimistically ahead to future blooms and harvest. Manyfold. I also imagine that he intended to share the bounty that was to come.

But he had no idea. No idea how much bigger this was than his personal garden.

There is life in a garden. Flora, fruit. Beauty and sustenance combined. Isn’t God just all over that? From dirt he raises up life that can produce, in just a matter of a few weeks’ time, lush greenery, varied in leaf, stem, and flower, and such abundance in flavor, scent, color, texture, taste, and nutrient—all from the same patch of soil. I always have marveled at a garden. Same soil, same water, same sunshine—but the produce is seemingly unlimited in its variety. Kind of like a crowd of humanity, made of distinct individuals, each with a gift to bring for kingdom good.

So Ray was working in his garden. And then it happened. Unexpectedly. That great heart stopped. By afternoon, Ray was gone.

The only reason I heard was because Ray is the brother-in-law of my pastor, and I was supposed to meet with him that afternoon. Our meeting had to wait, and I found myself in the position of grieving for someone I had not met, and all those he had left behind, and waiting in silent distance for the next word, and looking around me at the ones I love and giving thanks more often for their presence and God’s mercy which has brought us together thus far. I wasn’t thinking then about seeds that explode into abundant fruit for good purposes. I was thinking then about bruised reeds and how easily we are crushed.

But that wasn’t what was happening. God promises the opposite. A bruised reed he will not crush, and a seed that dies produces much fruit. 

I hope it does not in any way suggest that I am making little of the pain and loss and suffering of Ray’s family and friends when I say that even in death, Ray was not crushed. I imagine that I would feel crushed, if I were his wife. His daughter. His granddaughter. At least for a little while, I imagine I would feel that way. But yesterday, more of Ray’s continuing story was shared, and his life is being used for great growth. God is working through even this event—what seems to us like an ending is perhaps just a beginning in many ways, right here on this dirt planet.

My pastor told yesterday about the funeral and the events around it. Of course he went, to be present with his sister and extended family, to Ray’s home in New England. Many states removed from us here in the South. As a pastor, he was called on to conduct the service. And as Ray was well-known and well-loved in his community, it was reported to us that practically everyone in the town came. The Catholic church in which the service was held was packed, and packed with many who rarely attended worship services. Packed with broken hearts, hungry for answers, for relief, for real knowledge, balm that is effective in times of such shock and sorrow. Human hearts crying out in grief and longing for truth.

We’re all like that. But sometimes it takes a devastating and catastrophic event to open the eyes of our hearts to see, feel, taste, the acuteness of the need. What will satisfy?

Again, I imagine the congregation gathered, broken, feeling crushed. I know the feeling, the hole in the universe torn open by the loss of someone I loved taken far too soon, too unexpectedly. The raw gaping hole in my reality that seems senseless and irreconcilable. The hunger for something I can’t quite touch or even name. Just need for filling. And there is only one answer, one sustenance. It’s a different kind of food than what one finds in a physical garden. Jesus told his disciples, in the presence of a moments-ago lost and famished woman, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” He called himself the “bread of life,” the only thing that satisfies. And at Ray’s funeral service and Mass, my pastor let himself be used by that same Jesus to feed those people with that very same food.

How many seeds were planted that day? How much fruit is yet to come because Ray did not remain a single seed, but went into the ground? How much glory awaits our God because of one life? Even in death, God is always at work, and we see it happening around us. It comes, even to me, a stranger to the situation, living--what? A thousand miles away? It comes to me to renew my own hope in him. Nothing at all is outside of his ability and desire to work for good, for growth, for production, in this great kingdom garden. And no life that he has created is too small to have a role in his purposes.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. But when it is planted—when it goes into the earth—it grows. It becomes the largest of all plants in the garden.

I suspect Ray’s story has just begun to be told. As Christ is the vine and we are the branches, we can each expect that much, much fruit is yet to come.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Jane Reacts to Monty Python

This entry probably won't interest you much unless you particularly love almost-12-year-old kids and their infectious enthusiasm for new things, or unless you particularly love my own daughter Jane, or unless you BOTH particularly love Monty Python AND YET are not a "movie-quote snob" who insists on getting every quote exactly right. (If you do insist on absolute exact recitation, this video is not for you. You'll hear me make a correction here or there, when I should have just held my own tongue.

But I had to record some of this and I had to share because it delighted me so much.

Jane's history teacher decided that as part of class, the students should watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I am *so* glad that she did. I too saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a student--but I was a senior in high school and not a 6th grader. My English teacher felt it was absolutely necessary viewing, and I was elected as the class member to do the cumbersome ritual of calling Sycamore Video and reserving the gigantic metal box we called a VHS VCR as well as the VCR tape of the movie. Back in those days, we had to rent the box as well as the movie because most people (and most schools--at least private ones) didn't actually OWN such expensive and high-tech equipment.

So I brought the equipment home and my older brother Jimmy set it up at our house first. He, Kevin, Chris, and I put in the video, not having any idea what to expect. I remember within moments laughing so hard I feared incontinence. By the scene of the Black Knight, I can only remember lying face down on the den floor, literally crying and gasping for breath.

The cardboard cutout of God appearing in the clouds, complaining about the miserable groveling of all those Psalms, unfortunately coincided with the entrance of my dear Uncle Sammy, who stood in judgment over us with hands on hips and declared, "That is the most sacrilegious thing I've ever seen IN MY LIFE!" and bewildered, left us still giggling and howling.

Jane's reaction, even though she's much younger than I was at my first viewing, has been very similar. I'm so pleased for how much of the story and humor she really grasped, so that she could recount it to us in her own narrative.

For the Python-quoting purists, you'll just have to forgive her. She doesn't quote it word for word--at least not yet. But her enthusiasm and delight are worth every single inexact repetition. She went on and on for at least a half hour, sometimes laughing so hard at her own memory that she had to stop to breathe and start again. I'm sorry I missed recording most of that. She got decidedly more self-controlled when the camera came out.

Documented for our own family history.