My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

His love endures: A meditation on Psalm 107

Wood Oaks Green Sled Hill in Northbrook, Ill.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
      His faithful love endures forever.
  Has the L
ord redeemed you? Then speak out!
      Tell others he has redeemed you from your enemies.
  For he has gathered the exiles from many lands,
      from east and west,
      from north and south.
Psalm 107:1-3, NLT

My final semester at Trinity College (now Trinity International University) Dr. Graddy gave our class a life lesson that I have thought on and passed on to others over the years. He would start most of his classes with a devotional thought – sometimes a prayer – but that afternoon in the spring of 1988, in his laconic way, he reported a stunning discovery he had made just that morning. On his morning commute to TC that day he passed the same sites he always passed. Traffic moved along in its own sputtering manner typical of morning rush hour in Chicago when all of a sudden he was captivated by a sight that shocked him: a massive hill seemingly overnight had grown up alongside I-94. He then related how the City of Northbrook had apparently made a decision to build a toboggan and sled hill a year previously. Given that Northbrook like so many other communities in that part of northern Illinois is astoundingly flat, the only way to add a sled hill to your town is to build one. And so a great project had ensued of bringing in dirt in order to do just this. Dr. Graddy related how every day on his way to and from the college, he observed dump truck after dump truck bringing in dirt but in his mind very little progress had been made. Until that morning, when, in comparison to the landscape all around, a mountain suddenly loomed out the window on his passenger side. “My goodness,” he said, “where did that come from? And then, it occurred to me, it's like everything else in my life: one truck-load of dirt at at time.” Even at 25, I was too young to appreciate the wisdom in those words. But now years later I realize how true they are. The mountains that we deal with – be it debt, be it marital or family dysfunction, be it our own moral failures – don't usually appear overnight but slowly and subtly while we are busy with other things.
Dr. William Graddy
A week ago during a long afternoon of visiting with several inmates at the Barron County Justice Center, I found myself with each visit turning to Psalm 107, the first in the fifth book of the Psalter. Every individual I met with that day has issues – problems with the law, problems with their lawyer, problems with those on the outside and a few with problems with their fellow inmates on the inside. In a word, their lives are messy. Young as they are, they have already built some large hills in their back yard. Those who choose to meet with me are looking for something – looking for hope, for assurance, for comfort, and, sometimes, just someone to talk to who is not locked up as they are. They are discouraged, afraid, angry and frustrated. They talk about their case or their disappointment that their family doesn't write or visit them. And they talk about matters of faith – about being lost and wanting to be found.

Some wandered in the wilderness,
      lost and homeless.
  Hungry and thirsty,
      they nearly died.
  “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
      and he rescued them from their distress.
  He led them straight to safety,
      to a city where they could live.
  Let them praise the Lord for his great love
      and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
  For he satisfies the thirsty
      and fills the hungry with good things.

On this day, the majority of those I meet with grew up in some kind of church. They talk about the days when they went to Sunday School or Bible club – a distant memory for them now. Were they to show up at most churches this Sunday, however, it wouldn't feel like home. They haven't been associating with the Sunday-going crowd in a very long time. While each of their stories is unique they are one and the same – they fell into bad company and wandered away. Obviously their intention was never to land in the county jail but the path they chose took them there.

Some sat in darkness and deepest gloom,
      imprisoned in iron chains of misery.
  They rebelled against the words of God,
      scorning the counsel of the Most High.
  That is why he broke them with hard labor;
      they fell, and no one was there to help them.
  “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
      and he saved them from their distress.
  He led them from the darkness and deepest gloom;
      he snapped their chains.
  Let them praise the Lord for his great love
      and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
  For he broke down their prison gates of bronze;
      he cut apart their bars of iron.

Unlike prison where inmates can get outside or work-out in the gym or go to school via the internet, jail is long time. There are programs available – A.A., Breaking Barriers, and various Bible studies as well as the weekly worship services. There is a T.V. in every dorm and inmates can get regular visits via the video kiosks located there. But mostly there is a lot of down time - a lot of time to stare at the walls and think of the course of your life. Or worry about your case, or your girlfriend or boyfriend or kids or family. For people who have medicated themselves by imbibing heavily with alcohol or smoking dope, all that time on your hands can drive you mental. Guys play cards or read or talk about what they're going to do when they get out. Due to the fact that there are no windows in the place and inmates have limited access to the Multi-Purpose Room, many of them just start to sleep a lot one day looking so much like the next.

Some were fools; they rebelled
      and suffered for their sins.
  They couldn’t stand the thought of food,
      and they were knocking on death’s door.
  “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
      and he saved them from their distress.
  He sent out his word and healed them,
      snatching them from the door of death.
  Let them praise the Lord for his great love
      and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
  Let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving
      and sing joyfully about his glorious acts.

Most of the people I have visited with over the years of my chaplaincy at the Justice Center are pretty candid about the things they did to get them there. Some it seems to me, however, have a difficult time of “owning” their sin. They want to blame someone else for the trouble they find themselves in. A friend of mine serves up at the La Coutre Oreilles Reservation near Hayward. The tribal leader told him once that the greatest need of the Ojibwa people who live there was for fathers. Too many inmates I have met with have the same need – they either have never met their dad or don't want to know their dad or their dad, like them, is somewhere in the system. One young Native woman I meet with shares with me that she began using when she was two. Her mother is an alcoholic and as her mother would party, she would drink from the same can as she did. She never had a chance. She's 23 now and this is her 13th stay at the JC. She's already made the rounds to many of the treatment centers in this part of the state. That fact alone makes me fear that she needs something like a miracle or she'll never make it on the outside. But certainly blaming her mother will not help her because now she's a user and dealer herself.

Some went off to sea in ships,
      plying the trade routes of the world.
  They, too, observed the Lord’s power in action,
      his impressive works on the deepest seas.
  He spoke, and the winds rose,
      stirring up the waves.
  Their ships were tossed to the heavens
      and plunged again to the depths;
      the sailors cringed in terror.
  They reeled and staggered like drunkards
      and were at their wits’ end.
  “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
      and he saved them from their distress.
  He calmed the storm to a whisper
      and stilled the waves.
  What a blessing was that stillness
      as he brought them safely into harbor!
  Let them praise the Lord for his great love
      and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
  Let them exalt him publicly before the congregation
      and before the leaders of the nation.

“Willie”, a kid who grew up in a good Bible-believing church, graduated from high school and went right into the army. He later served in Afghanistan. While he was in field, he never saw combat but he must have fallen into the wrong crowd. While on leave last year he got doped up one night and with a buddy went on a spree of sorts. Things got out of hand and hear he sits at the Justice Center waiting to be sentenced. He wears regret like a shirt and I'm touched by his sincerity. So we turn to Psalm 107 and we read it together

Some wandered in the wilderness,
      lost and homeless....

Some sat in darkness and deepest gloom,
      imprisoned in iron chains of misery.
  They rebelled against the words of God,
      scorning the counsel of the Most High...

Some were fools; they rebelled
      and suffered for their sins....

Some...reeled and staggered like drunkards
      and were at their wits’ end...

All of them, the author tells us, do the same thing

Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
      and he saved them from their distress.

The lost, the imprisoned, the rebels, the adventurer far from home, all of them in their distress cry out to God and how does he respond?

...he saved them from their distress...

I ask Willie that based on this psalm who he thinks are the people God is collecting to wit he replies, “It's like, all the losers.” We share a brief laugh and I add, “Definitely not what we would call 'the A-Team'.” “Exiles” is how they are referred to at the beginning of this poem. Those banished and far from home. And yet these the very ones Yahweh delights to save, deliver and heal because, regardless of how others feel about them or they feel about themselves, he loves them with covenant, extravagant and enduring love. It's Luke 15 all over again.

Those hills remain. They do not go away because we wish them, too, or pray a prayer of repentance. But if we can grasp the fact that He is for us than those sled runs will become our trainers in righteousness that we may, in fact, one day bless for teaching us how to walk humbly with our God.