Wresting Categorically Awesome from Utterly Depressing – 33rd Birthday Reflection No.1

I Google searched images for "awesome," and this was the first one listed. It was meant to be.

I Google searched images for "awesome," and this was the first one listed. It was meant to be.

Last Wednesday, I celebrated my thirty-third birthday. Insofar as natal conviviality goes, the proceedings balanced partying so hard you regret it the next morning and throttling back so far you regret it just as much, albeit for different reasons. Between multiple projects at work plus a weekend booked for a men’s retreat lead by The Restoration Project at Lake Geneva with my ecclesiastical tribe, I didn’t have much time to plan a midweek celebration very well. Fortunately, my awesome sister, Adriel, was taking a week off of her usual, breakneck paced of conquering the world of rock and roll to lend a much appreciated hand, and this woman is anything but a stranger to throwing together an epic party with a moment’s notice and a beggar’s dime.

Between dinner with childhood friends at home and evenings out with college buddies, during relaxing runs along the lakefront and dancing classes downtown, I paused to reflect on the things I learned over the past year that I want to bring forward with me into the future. This series of posts touches on some of those lessons; so, I hope you enjoy the read because it cost me a whole year to come up with the content! This time, I’ll start with one of the most fundamental principles I learned, but before I do so, be forewarned: This series of posts is for thinking adults, and I’ll speak at a level of analysis and with a choice of verbiage appropriate to that audience. (Any kids reading this, you rock for perusing essays unforced, but ask your parent or guardian to transmit this one for you and filter the most relevant parts.) Alright, the first principle I want to share is the following; you can use the little sectional markings to leap around in the post:

33rd Birthday Lesson No.1 – A fine line separates utterly depressing from categorically awesome. Relentlessly pursue the latter as if your life depends on it, because it actually does.

§ 1. My context for the lesson
§ 2. The principle formally expressed
§ 3. The divine connection
§ 4. The principle applied
§ 5. Conclusion & resources

§ 1. My context for the lesson - I have long lost count of all the ways I have been instructed by recovering the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing over the past year, but just in case this principle sounds a bit too ephemeral and detached, I’m going to unpack it by sharing some highly personal details apart from which this lesson might never have really stuck with me. The most difficult, painful thing I experienced in my thirty-second year was the loss of the single most important, long term, romantic relationship I have ever experienced–the only one that crumbled just short of marriage. And if I had not found a way to grab a hold of the importance of willing the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing, there’s no way my life would have turned out remotely as well as I have been blessed to live it at thirty-three.

Married 72 years and died holding hands

On my birthday, ABC News published a story about Gordon & Norma Yeager, who were married for 72 years and died holding hands. Click the photo to check it out.

Some guys treat getting married like a mere expectation of their social strata. Others regard it as an outmoded artifact of a bygone era thankfully eclipsed by late modernity’s prevalence of hooking up or indefinite cohabitation. Screw that. I want to get freaking married, man. I don’t want some passing phase jollies to stave off the lonesomeness of my immaturity; I want something more like 70+ years of marriage where we die holding hands. And I have been working my butt off for a long time towards becoming the most epic version of myself possible while seeking the person I will love with all my heart and to whom I will commit with all my soul and strength until death parts us. I really, really thought I had finally discovered that, but I was wrong. This person I lost filled me with more joy yet caused me more hurt, stretched me further yet supported me more greatly than anyone else I had ever known, much less seriously dated. I threw everything I had into our relationship with greater gusto than I have ever done with anything else I have attempted in my life for about two and a half years solid, but it just did not work out in the end.

After months filled with the spectrum of experience that a real, romantic relationship involves, everything finally ground down to a definitive halt. Despite multiple attempts to move forward together, I was ultimately left rejected and alone. And that loss hurt. Deeply. I was a lousy friend for a while, my performance at work suffered, and I came close to a full blown depression. Just about every form of music seemed fanciful, enervating, or contrived; in fact, the only tunes that seemed remotely credible to me were Johnny Cash’s repertoire after his wife died and old school, African American gospel. I fought the compulsion to give up across the board some days and lash out at everything and everyone other days. You get the picture; it wasn’t pretty. And yet, there was an unexpected upside to this state of affairs, and that was knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had really put it all out there, that I had gone beyond the stereotypes of flippancy, lack of vulnerability, and pseudo-commitment to risk a real relationship over the long haul. The only way to climb back from losing something on that order of magnitude is one inch at a time, in frequent solitude and with savvy journeymen by turns. And the strength and groundedness that results from this process, even when the relationship does not work out, is something that only those who leap off the precipice of love and live to tell the tale ever know.

This might sound jejune, but moving through this loss in my life–swimming beyond a seeming ocean of sorrow and anger and the temptation for apathy and mere selfishness to a distant shore I never knew–helped make me more joyful, winsome, and bad ass than just about anything else I have ever done. (And, yes, I am using that term “bad ass” in the technical sense and not for mere shock value; words like “intrepid,” “precocious,” or “baleful” just don’t get the same point across.) It motivated me to get more disciplined with my physical health, and I am now stronger and more fit today than I have ever been before. It challenged me to plot out my career more diligently and make insightful, appropriately risky decisions that have probably saved me years worth of unnecessary wrangling and greatly benefited those with whom I have been blessed to partner. My relationship with God and other people deepened and blossomed in new, profound ways. I rediscovered my love of cycling, I developed a more refined expression of personal style, and I finally signed up for that swing dancing class I always wanted to take–discovering that I apparently rock at all three of these things. In the long run, my response to this loss of a relationship even kicked my romantic self in the pants to a new level of attraction. I never figured myself for a Casanova, but I have evidently been getting more confident and (dare I say?) hotter even as I have aged this past year, perhaps as a combined result of all those other points of growth.

Photo: Tomasz Gudzowaty/Agentur Focus/Hollandse Hoogte

"Blue at Fifth Ave in New York City." Click the photo to visit the site where I found this.

§ 2. The principle formally expressed – But none of those things might have resulted from the loss of this relationship at all. Every single, positive point I just mentioned was just a hair’s breadth away from an even more likely failure–my slacking off even more physically, simply rowing the boat at work, flipping God the bird in protest for the seeming garbage he let me and someone I loved go through, and so forth. What’s the difference? What separated my experience over the past six months or so from what might have been and so often is the case for so many of us? One way to wrench the potential for meaningful greatness from suffocating mediocrity is through the will to believe the better and pursue the brighter horizon as if your life depends on it. Because it actually does. The life each one of us desires in our truest and most sound parts of ourselves will not magically happen one day while we’re walking through the park and then last for the rest of our lives without any effort on our parts. We have to commit ourselves to chasing that life down on the one hand and enticing it to us on the other, of rejecting passivity on the one hand yet finding peace and contentment and thankfulness on the other. That may sound so obvious as to be hardly worth expressing, yet time and again I have watched myself and others miss this lesson to quiet, catastrophic results. And that’s why I’m starting with it here as the first principle that I want to take with me into the future at the dawn of my thirty-third year.

I don’t think it’s by accident that I learned this lesson in a way that really stuck with me shortly after losing the person I loved so deeply and was so convinced I would marry. In fact, it is often  hardship that draws the best out of us when we respond hopefully and courageously. The Roman lyric poet, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, put it this way, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.” Unbroken and unchallenged abundance tends to produce a dangerous sense of ease, a sense of having arrived completely that far more often leads to indolence and apathy than industry and altruism. Helen Keller, the first person born both deaf and blind to ever earn a baccalaureate degree, put it this way, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” And it is those character traits and experiences that provide each one of us with the foundation for a truly full and deeply satisfying life.

Going through adversity isn’t just good for us alone; it turns out that it’s good for the way we conduct ourselves with others, too. Dr. Anne Harrington, Harvard University’s Professor for the History of Science, found a strong correlation between coping with one’s own suffering and the sort of generosity that goes beyond merely empathizing with another’s difficulty to doing something substantially helpful in response. Her essay, “A Science of Compassion or a Compassionate Science?” in the volume, Visions of Compassion, defines this virtue as “a process of external and internal reorientation that softens our sense of individuality by bringing it into a felt relationship with the pain and needs of some other.” It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that the more one has dealt with one’s own sufferings, the better equipped one is to share relationships with others that includes their needs and pains, too. Maybe that’s one reason why so many of us do such a terrible job at sustaining real relationships; we’ve insulated ourselves so well from experiencing our own pain that we are at a total loss in knowing what to do with others’ hardship. Consequently, we quarantine one another until whoever is hurting gets help or buries their pain enough for us to return to our little playhouse, so-called life without being bothered by anybody with a proclivity for being a downer.

§ 3. The divine connection – I develop most of my writings from an explicitly Christian perspective for good reason. The key detail that my relationship with God through Jesus brings to bear on the topic of this post is that all of the above involves far more than merely pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, far more than “not sweating the small stuff” or forcing oneself to regard every glass as half-full in a sort of aggressive optimism that enables one to gradually transcend self limitation. In fact, there’s a real danger lurking in our success at wrenching the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing. On the one hand, we can become prideful and relate to others with an attitude of arrogant triumphalism, you know, because we rock so hard for having pulled off such a difficult stunt day after day in comparison to mere mortals. On the other hand, we can white-knuckle our way through all of life, surviving and even growing in strength but never being able to appreciate it or move beyond anxiety, you know, because everything depends on our continual, unbroken pursuit of greatness versus settling for an inanity that not-so-secretly nauseates or terrifies.

Praise God

A picture of a random guy I found, praising God at dawn.

The only way I’ve been able to surmount this conundrum is by continually living in light of the fact that the process of dividing awesome from depressing is predicated on the being of an omnipotent, magnificent, transcendent God who is completely beyond myself, my aspirations, my failures, and my success. And this God has, for completely mysterious reasons, continually, relentlessly chosen to draw near to us fragile, mundane, limited creatures in such a way as to not just take us from bad to better but from dead to alive, to move us quite literally beyond anything we could ever hope to do or be into something 2 Corinthians 5:11 and following calls “new creation.” Isaiah 57:15 puts it this way:

For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

It is this relationship with God–a relationship God initiates in total freedom even though we don’t deserve it–that serves as the ground for everything I am talking about in this post. This is not about merely willing a better you that could exist tomorrow if only you commit yourself to the process of bettering yourself today; this is about responding to the better you that, in some sense, already is right in the midst of very real difficulty and pain.

Of course, it’s not just random circumstance but often other people who are the source of our pain. Not everybody is a generally upstanding individual, like the girlfriend I lost, whose heart also hurt in letting me go. A lot of people treat others with purely intentional malice and appalling wickedness. And that’s probably one reason why we see so many places throughout the Bible where righteous people are really struggling not just with their own challenges but with the apparent ease of the wicked. In fact, the scriptures record serveral folks directly confronting God on this matter, such as the prophet Jeremiah in the twelfth chapter and first verse of the book that bears his name, saying, “You are always righteous, LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?”

The Bible gives no pat answers for the process by which God executes justice; so, I’m going to focus on what results from presuming that God’s justice holds in this post and direct the skeptical reader towards more lengthy texts that dig into the question helpfully, like N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Continuing as described, it is God’s justice coupled with God’s love that enables us to relentlessly pursue the better without getting sidetracked by resentment or frustration, without thinking that it is all up to us, and without becoming arrogant when we succeed since we know that it is ultimately God drawing us to our destiny rather than us hunting that destiny down on our own and beating back those jerks who ruthlessly get in our way. There is peace to be found in the fact that God not only strengthens those who are downtrodden but will ultimately hold accountable those who are doing the treading down.

The basis of our pursuit of the categorically awesome is the being, activity, and plans of an all-powerful, loving, and also just God. And if that is the case, we do not proceed with this pursuit alone or haphazardly; in fact, we should do so reverently, in relationship with the God who enables us to act in the first place. All our efforts should take place in an overarching context of worship, not as a deluded flight from reality with all its messiness but as a seeing beyond, an embracing, a celebrating, and a living into an even more substantial way of being that connects our stories with the greatest story of all told by the same Author who is weaving it all together. That’s why there’s nothing melodramatic nor cliche going on in the admonition of Proverbs 23:17-18:

Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.

Hope

Some gorgeous street art I found with the text, "There is always hope." Thanks, Del Shimandle for identifying Banksy as the artist!

And that’s why Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome that we not only benefit from this hope on the basis of what we expect to occur in the future but on the basis of what we can experience right now, the growth and victory predicated on God choosing to be good to us in the midst of all the turmoil of life regardless of what we deserve. The good that God invites us to receive and share doesn’t merely anesthetize our wounds while leaving them festering, it doesn’t just psych up our souls but leave our frames limp and lifeless. No, the love that God desires to pour into us right now is every bit as substantial as God’s own omnipotent, bad-ass-beyond-all-bad-ass Self that brings peace and wholeness to ourselves and others right in the middle of circumstances marked by suffering and pain. Thus our hope is both beyond us but also within our grasp; it is something that effectively buoys us in life’s storms due to both its proximity and its substance apart from our subjective experience. It is trustworthy and not merely wishful thinking; as Paul puts it in Romans 5:1-5:

We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

As a result, I can find a greater strength than Sinatra recommends by merely doing things “my way.” I don’t channel my frustration from life’s disappointments in one arena to some poor, unsuspecting target in another arena. I tap into a more substantial reservoir of power than some allegedly mystical but ultimately impersonal spirit-force, and I don’t just sit around waiting for things to get better when there is a course of thought and action I can and should take now. The twelfth chapter of the book of Hebrews teaches us that it was “for the joy set before him” that Jesus endured both the sufferings and the shame of crucifixion on my behalf, and Nehemiah 8:10 teaches that is this same “joy of the Lord” that can serve as the source of my strength today.

§ 4. The principle applied – Lest this all this smack of grandiose religiosity, here’s just one everyday example of this principle at play in my life less than a week ago. It was the the morning of my birthday, Wednesday October 19th, and I found myself at work about two hours earlier than normal. Since I currently lead a weekly, Wednesday night gathering for men and women focused on learning more of who God is and what this means for our lives with a similar commitment on Tuesdays, I usually take Wednesday morning off so it’s not a straight, forty-eight hour block of labor week after week. But a colleague of mine was depending on my preparing some important data for a time-sensitive project that would impact our entire team’s labor; so, I got up early and started to work. Since I was planning to go out with my sister and our compadres later that evening after the group I lead had disbanded for the night, this also meant I had to shift my normal workout time to occur before lunch, before I would normally have started working at all.

I don’t like to do things that way. I like to either workout last–healthily burning frustration that has accumulated over the day–or else I like to breakup a longer workday by going running or doing some calisthenics just before the final, couple hours worth of work to regain the wherewithal to finish strong. Instead, I was pretty much stuck working out just after an initial block of work, meaning I had the majority of the workday still ahead. And since we’re talking about Chicago in October, it was cold, it was raining, and nearly gale force winds where beating the tar out of my lakefront running route. So, I put on few extra layers of clothes, cued up the most intense track I could find on my mp3 player, and ran for over half an hour with the wind and rain blowing at me right in the face. That’s how I started my birthday–getting up earlier than normal to work on somebody else’s project and then running in the rain. Still lacking a girlfriend!

Birthday shot at the beach, midway through a run in the rain.

Birthday shot at the beach, midway through a run in the rain. (Don't ask about the goofy hand...)

And it absolutely rocked. I tell you, I felt the presence of God. I was grateful for everything in my life that had lead up to that point, even the lessons I had learned from being dumped half a year ago by the woman I had loved the most. I even stopped to take a photo with all the sand whipping around me on the beach to commemorate the occasion. That ridiculous sign I’m making with my hand is supposed to look like a wolf, because I felt like I was not just coping with my circumstances but diving headlong right into the fray to tear them apart and journey onward. When I returned from running, my lungs were burning, my legs hurt, and my clothes were soaked. I had sand in my hair and just about every exposed orifice. And I felt like I could tear apart the Rock of Gibraltar and fabricate the Arc de Triomphe with my bare hands. What could have been the most depressing birthday morning of my life turned out to be the only one I have ever committed to written memory so far, and that is because I refused to let all the negative pieces I mentioned above determine the tone of the day, because I was able to yank one more sliver of categorically awesome results from utterly depressing conditions. I felt more than alright; I felt like I could take on the world. And so I confronted the rest of the day with both resolve and joy, and when I finally made it through that bizarre combination of fruitfulness and frustration that so typically marks the afternoon and evening of the average, urban pastor, I was ready to party in celebration of a full life that I had been given and that I had also pursued, that I had found and yet had also helped to build.

§ 5. Conclusion and resources – It has taken me several hours to write this post. And taking stock of this lesson and applying it to my life is what helped me to do so rather than pitch everything to the wind and watch television. It’s the thing that motivated me to throw out the Victoria’s Secret catalog I received in the mail today rather than ogle its contents or take a break from writing to plow through some porn online for a couple hours. This lesson is what I applied this afternoon when I worked out, and it’s the same lesson I will apply later this week when I meet new people and get in touch with a couple ladies who have caught my eye despite the fact that not a single person has reciprocated a romantic advance of mine for more than half a year.

Wrenching the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing is what is going to help me wash the dishes, clean my room, and straighten up my office. It is what enabled me to go deep with my brothers this weekend during our retreat together rather than just throw out the pat answers and mentally disengage from the opportunity to bond with and be challenged by other men pursuing Jesus together in person rather than posting quips on facebook. This principle is going to help keep me humble when I start to feel high and mighty, and it will help keep me from beating myself down when I don’t measure up to the standards I wish I could attain on my timetable. It will help me to treat others with compassion, as people of beauty and wonder who God loves and for whom Christ died and not just bags of meat that make demands of my time or exist to serve as means to my ends. This lesson will help keep me from curving in on myself and instead draw me towards the One who loved me first, who loves me still, and who will lovingly guide me to the very end by the grace and power of God.

The Arc de Triomphe at night

The Arc de Triomphe at night, from wikipedia.

I might have shot wide on some things I shared in this post, but I hope you have taken a moment to ponder the one or two things I wrote that bear an eternal worth beyond the murmurings of the messenger. Really learning this lesson cost me something dear, but it is also paying off in simple, complex, slight, and substantial ways all at once that continue to surprise me, enrich me, and make me stronger, more grateful, more joyful, and more dangerous. To conclude, here are a couple resources that have been helpful for me to implement some changes in my life along the lines of this lesson. A few of these are Chicago and dude-specific, but the fairer gender and those living elsewhere shouldn’t encounter too much trouble extrapolating. Until next time, may you learn to wrest the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing for God’s glory and your continued growth. Remember, your life depends on it.

  • The Restoration Project – Website for a ministry based out of Colorado focused on catalyzing “the restoration of every man’s heart by calling him to rediscover the dignity bestowed upon him by his Creator, initiating him into masculinity as it was meant to be.” These guys did an outstanding job running the men’s retreat I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and I’m really looking forward to checking out more of their resources since I’ve returned.
  • Rootstock Wine and Beer Bar – Gorgeous establishment run by my college buddy, Johnny Hap, and his two business partners. My favorite, relatively new wine bar in all of Chicago with lots of character; bring some friends the next time you’re looking for a bacchanal spot to celebrate the categorically awesome in your life.
  • Simplefit – Hands down the most effective calisthenic program I’ve ever encountered. Doing this plus three days of high-intensity interval training cardio each week has given me a body I never thought I would experience. Best of all, it takes around fifteen minutes a day and is completely free.
  • Esquire Barber – Our culture has forgotten what a legit barber shop does to a man’s soul. Rediscover it here, complete with straight razor shave and resident French bulldog. Love this place…
  • Accountability – Get some–you are not meant to travel alone. This is so important, I’m going to dedicate an entire post to the principle. In the mean time, check out websites like this or this to see what I’m talking about from an explicitly Christian perspective and websites like this to explore accountability in a more general fashion in the work place.
  • Big City Swing - There are several great places to learn to dance in Chicago. I picked this one because I liked the instructors and it was far enough away from my flat that I could sort of make an event out of going there. Fewer things make me feel more like a dude with pro skills that learning to dance better and better every week…
  • Music for your soul – I recommend Johnny Cash’s 2002 “American IV: The Man Comes Around” or Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir’s 1971 “Like a Ship (Without a Sail)”. I’m a bit of a unique bird and also get fired up by Daft Punk’s 2001 “Discovery”. (I blame it on this appeal to my youth.) Of course, I would be remiss to suggest the fine song-smithery of my sister’s rocking band; since they’re recording their latest album right now in Nashville, try 2010′s Death Won’t Send a Letter. You’ll be glad you did.

The End of Moses and the Beginning of the Year – Part 2

Cabanel was a French painter born in Montpellier, Hérault in 1823, exemplifying L'art pompier, or as it has become known in English, "the academic style."

Alexandre Cabanel's "Death of Moses"

Around two weeks ago, I posted the first part of this series exploring the connections between the last narrative section of the fifth book of the Bible and the Jewish high holiday, Rosh Hashannah. Since the article I posted before this was also on the long side and dealt with some heavy topics, I broke things up a bit in my last post by delving into an exploration of the concept of lived simplicity. Although we have now passed the time in the Jewish calendar devoted to Rosh Hashanah, there is still quite a bit I would like to share by developing the preliminary work I did two weeks ago. So, this post will pick up where we left off back then in order to dig into the meat of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30, showing how this portion of scripture so beautifully lays out key aspects of one of the most important biblical holidays, which is traditionally celebrated by Jews right around the same time each year that many of them are meditating on this portion of scripture.

My goal in the previous part of this series was to prepare the grounds for this process by highlighting various aspects of Jewish life and practice that are intimately tied to both the text and the holiday in question. My hope is to facilitate a robust engagement with the cultural context in which this portion of holy scripture is frequently read by the religious community that received it, which will in turn enable us to engage with God in a unique and vital manner often neglected in the church. Among other things, I mentioned how the Jewish rabbis partitioned the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, into sections called parshas that one can study sequentially each week over the course of a year. In fact, if you ever visit a synagogue to participate in a service of worship on Shabbat (more popularly known in English as “the Sabbath,” the seventh day of the week), you will probably hear a message delivered by the presiding rabbi that analyzes the parsha for the week. The parsha for the week during which Rosh Hashanah occurs is our text, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30.

Last time, I also discussed how the Jewish calendar works quite a bit differently than the Gregorian or Julian calendar. It marks its first year from the date the rabbis calculated back to the creation of humanity such that we are presently living in year 2011 C.E. according to the Julian and Gregorian calendars and year 5772 according to the Jewish calendar. Also, there are not one but four different points marking the beginning of the year for the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah being one such point commemorating the new year from a perspective celebrating the creation of the world and ramping up over ten days to Yom Kippur, the holiday commemorating God’s process of atoning for the sins of the Jewish people and thereby reconciling them back again to a restored, righteous relationship with God.

This time around, I will pivot from describing the praxis of the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and the reading of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 in the Jewish community today to laying out the biblical context of the text in question. I want to plow into this parsha to answer four different yet interrelated questions: 1) Just what is going on in this text in general, 2) how does it relate to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah during which it is traditionally read, 3) what on earth does this tell us about who God is, and 4) what might be our response–how does all this not only serve to inform us but to transform us? So, by the end of this post, we should have acquired both the cultural context in which our text is read by the Jewish community as well as the biblical context in which the text can be found. That will enable us to do the in-depth, exeggetical drilling in the final post of this series to take a solid crack at answering those four questions I mentioned above.

Incidentally, I’m writing this post while rocking out to this song, which you should clearly listen to right now while you’re reading this to capture the synergistically epic nature of the compositional moment. Or maybe this one if you want to swing in a more Jewish direction or something…

Image of Moses before Pharaoh from the Syriac Bible of Paris

Image of Moses before Pharaoh from the Syriac Bible of Paris

Okay, Deuteronomy received its English title from the Greek term, “Deuteronomion,” which means “second law.” This refers to the recapitulation of much of the teaching delivered over the previous three books of Torah–Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. These books tell the story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt through Moses, one of the single most important prophets and leaders mentioned in the entire Bible. According to Exodus 33:12 34:35, Moses is the only individual mentioned in the entire first half of the Bible who gets a glimpse of God’s glorified presence; in fact, Moses’ countenance became so radiant from this encounter that he terrified other people who saw him afterwards such that he walked around with a veil over his face to keep them from flipping out. Numbers 12:3 describes Moses as being “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,” and yet God worked so powerfully through him that the Lord himself said that he had made Moses “like a god” to others with whom he came into conflict, such as the king of Egypt in Exodus 7. In fact, Exodus 34:10 says that God spoke with Moses “face to face,” and Numbers 12:8 says that Moses spoke with God “mouth to mouth,” which are parallel literary devices indicating a degree of intimacy in communication greater than virtually anyone else in the entire Bible. (Remember, not even Moses could handle actually looking directly at God face to face according to Exodus 33:12 and following.)

Given all of the above, it is little wonder why the final redaction of Deuteronomy 34:10 indicates that no other prophet had arisen in Israel like Moses ever since, a person whom “the LORD knew face to face.” Now, all those capital letters that get brought into most English translations with this verse indicate the most holy iteration of the name of God in the Old Testatment, nicknamed “the Tetragrammaton,” which means “the four letters.” Why such a strange moniker? Because the Hebrew text doesn’t actually spell out the entire name of God in this case; it was thought to be too holy to even write out in this form. Instead, there are just four Hebrew letters present in the text–yodh, he, waw, and he–and the rabbis actually mixed in some different vowel markings over time to prompt any reader following along to use a completely different word at this point when reciting scripture aloud out of reverence, namely the word, “adonai,” which is the Hebrew term for “lord” or “master.” In other words, Deuteronomy 34:10 is juxtaposing the single most holy name of God with the statement that God knew Moses “face to face.” That’s as freaking intimate as it gets all the way until Messiah Jesus, the Son of God, shows up in the New Testament. This is probably why John 1:17-19 purposefully states that “the Son” is “himself God,” that he is in closest relationship with God, that he is the only one to have truly “seen” God, and that he has on this basis “made God known” to those who follow him.

To continue with Moses, it is little wonder why the rabbis concluded that the person he identifies in Deuteronomy 18:15-19 as being one whom God would raise up as a prophet “like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites” must undoubtedly refer to the Messiah, the chosen and anointed one of God. (Of course, most rabbis do not conclude that this Messiah is Jesus, but that’s a topic for another time.) It is also little wonder why Moses shows up not once but twice in the closest thing we have to a comprehensive statement of faith for the Jewish community today, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon’s “13 Principles of Faith.” And that is also why it must have been utterly terrifying for the myriad Jewish people who had followed Moses for decades through the wilderness towards the Promised Land around the present-day State of Israel to even think of moving forward without Moses’ leadership.

But the twentieth chapter of the book of Numbers indicates that Moses would not survive the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to wilderness to homeland. In fact, almost nobody who had initially been delivered from slavery in Egypt survived that journey, and that is why the final book of Torah, the fifth book of the Bible, gets that nickname Deuteronomy, “second law,” because it was Moses’ last chance to reiterate in detail precisely what God had done on behalf of the Jewish people and what the terms of God’s covenant relationship with them was. That way, all the children of those who had directly witnessed God’s miraculous deliverance back in Egypt, those children who had quite literally grown up wandering around in the middle of nowhere between bondage and promise, would never forget who God is and what God had done–even if their parents’ had not related the story so accurately up to that point.

Yup, the Jewish artists, Chagall, stuck Jesus right there amidst the Jewish people with Moses in the foreground. Crazy, man!

"Exodus" by Marc Chagall

To really bring this point home, Moses not only reiterates the gist of the teaching recorded in the previous three books of the Bible across the text of Deuteronomy, he also boils all of it down into what is the closest thing to a central confession of faith for the Jewish people, the Shema. This is recited at every single Shabbat service of worship, and it’s the very same portion of scripture that Jesus himself quoted when asked what the greatest commandment in all of the first five books of the Bible could be. It’s right there in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” It turns out that this is not just important for Jewish people in general, it’s rather important for the analysis of our parsha; so, let’s take a closer look.

Well, you can see a whole bunch of instances of that exceptionally holy name of God, the Tetragrammaton, in those two verses comprising the Shema. But you can also see several other things when you look into the Hebrew; for the sake of brevity, I’ll mention just a few:

  1. All of the Jewish people present are implored to “hear.” This isn’t a mere dictation but an attempt to draw into relationship even while informing and exhorting.
  2. The LORD–the most holy and awesome being in existence–is also the God of the Israelites. God is both transcendent yet also immanent. As Isaiah 57:10 later puts it, “For this is what the high and exalted One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”
  3. “The LORD is one,” which means two things at the same time in Hebrew: First, that there’s just one, true God; God doesn’t need to jockey for power among some pantheon like the Egyptian, Sumerian, or Greek concepts of divinity. Second, that this God alone is the God of Israel–a sort of radicalization of the whole transcendence / immanence thing that illustrates the completely different sort of relationship God wanted to share with the Jewish people compared to how others understood their relationship with the divine was supposed to work.
  4. The bottom line of what God wants, what God commands, is love expressed through every aspect of one’s being. In an ancient, Jewish worldview, the heart (H. lebab) was understood to be the seat of the intellect, emotions, will, and appetites. The soul (H. nephesh) was understood to be the central essence of a person, the very life of a given being. So what base is left to cover in the appeal to love? Nothing! the final phrase that get’s translated into English as “all your strength” is literally something like “exceedingly much” or “abundant muchness” (H. m’od). It’s like God is imploring the Israelites, “I want you to love me with literally everything inside of you–your reason, your feelings, your volition, your passions, your very spiritual essence, your–well, you get the picture–your everything I put inside of you! Because that’s how much I love you.”

That’s why the Shema stands as a summary statement for the entire Torah, because all the rest of the stories and prophecies and commandments hang upon the truth expressed in these two, short verses. And there are repercussions for committing oneself to living accordingly on the one hand or else abandoning such a love-drenched relationship with God on the other hand. Living in the former way guides us towards the sorts of activities that bring wholeness and justice and truth to ourselves and those around us with prosperity being the result; living in the latter way not only severs our covenant relationship with God, it puts us at enmity with one another, too. The consequences of eschewing this love of God, of rejecting the activities predicated on a response to that love, is nothing short of destruction and death; the consequences of turning to God are overflowing life and peace. To make sure the Israelites would never forget this point, Moses separates all of the people into two groups located on two adjacent mountains in Deuteronomy 27 – 28, and they literally shout the blessings that would follow from their obedience to God’s commands from one mountain as well as shout the curses that would follow from their disobedience of God’s commands on the other mountain.

Moses Bas Relief in the U.S. House of Representatives

Moses Bas Relief in the U.S. House of Representatives

This brings us right up to Deuteronomy 29, the chapter where our parsha starts. If we were to look at what follows immediately after our parsha to round out our understanding of its biblical context, we wind up in a huge chunk of poetry that runs for a solid two chapters–the longest piece of prophecy that Moses delivers in the entire Bible. This is followed by a short, narrative epilogue describing his final resting place somewhere “in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor,” a place that remains shrouded in mystery to this day. Deuteronomy 34:7 tells us that “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.” Well, dropping a couple chapters of prophetic poetry right before one hikes across a mountain and a valley before giving up the ghost certainly demonstrates that!

Now, ancient Hebrew lacks punctuation. So if one wanted to break up a section of narrative, one would typcially insert a section of poetry. And that’s exactly what the portion of scripture following our parsha is doing; it’s communicating through a Hebrew literary device that this is the end of this part of the story. But that means that our parsha is the very last chunk of substantial narrative in the entire Torah, the last bit of story before Moses delivers the longest and probably the most important monologue of his entire life. This means that whatever happens in our parsha must be incredibly significant. And every year, Jews read about the content of the end of Moses’ life at the exact same time that they are celebrating one of the most important holidays, Rosh Hashanah, the biblically mandated celebration that wound up getting associated with the beginning of the year from the perspective of the creation of the world. Why?

Now that we have explored both the cultural and biblical context of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 over the first two parts of this series, we can turn towards an in-depth analysis of the text itself to try to answer that question. And also the other three questions I mentioned above. Next time…