Friday, January 5, 2024

Sitting in a closed church parking lot

Sitting in a closed church parking lot
not alongside, but across the street
unrightly set in no one spot
but where the lines of several meet

he does not see me seeing him
checking every door
where likely he's preached never
and I but a few times more

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Psalm 151: The Luthier Who Waylaid Lions

Have you ever been going through a box from a closet—whether looking for something or just cleaning out junk—and found something that made you say, What is this?

It is for some reason in your home, but nonetheless defies explanation. You stand there, scratching your head. You ask your spouse. You try to ask your former self, who must have stuck this thing in the box. No one knows. It could be part of an old pack-n-play, or just as easily for securing the spare tire under a car you sold years ago. That's how I felt when I first saw Psalm 151.

Hey, boy, don't you know there's just 150 psalms in Psalms? That's true, unless you're looking at the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. And, because the Septuagint includes Psalm 151, you'll find it in some Bibles that include the Apocrypha.

Let's take a look. Here's my own paratranslation. (It's a paraphrase, with poetic license, but I did consult the Greek.)

I was the little one

The baby boy

They left me with the sheep

With my hands I made this instrument

With my fingers, crafted song

And who was there to sing to,

But the Lord, himself?

The Lord, who hears from dusk till dawn

His messenger called me

Took me from the flock

He anointed my head with oil

My older brothers, strong and bold -

Rejected one by one

Till I remained, and I alone

I heard the giant swearing

He cursed me by his gods

I drew his sword

I took his head

And Israel came out from the rocks

Hey, you know that story! Do they make a Children's Apocrypha? Maybe it includes Psalm 151. Anyhow, here are some observations.

Firstly, does any other text tell us David made his own musical instrument(s)? Perhaps it goes without saying. There was no Guitar Center in Bethlehem. It seems he made a harp while out with the sheep, with so much time on his hands between fighting off predators. While Psalm 151 has a handmade harp, it’s missing another Davidic icon.

Where is the sling? Isn’t that perfect shot—one smooth stone sunk into Goliath’s head—the real bragging point? But, this omission jives with 1 Samuel 17. When David tells Saul of his prowess over lions and bears (vv. 34–37), he recalls close-range-beard-grabbing-hand-to-paw combatwithout mentioning the sling. Maybe he doesn’t like to talk about it. He does, however, like talking about his brothers.

David begins by telling us he’s the youngest. They left me with the sheep comes more from how I hear it than from the text, in part because 1 Samuel tells us the three oldest brothers were already with Saul and the army. Later in the poem, David comes back to his brothers, pointing out just what Samuel noticed, that the older ones looked better suited for leadership. Jesse must have thought the same, since he doesn’t mention David until Samuel asks, Are these all your sons?

The poet reminds us that the one more son was the only one chosen, and the three sent off to battle had done nothing about Goliath. David arrives on the scene like a mysterious artifact from your closet. King Saul stands there, scratching his head. Who is this guy? He asks the commander of his army. "As your soul lives, O king, I do not know."

Unlike the thing from the closet—either thrown out or restashed to be discovered anew in five years—David can identify himself. And, while Psalm 151 isn't in our Bible, we can take from it the reminder that God has in his storehouse all manner of things we don't remember, things we can't explain—all at the ready for just the right need at the just right time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Forgetting Everything You Never Had To Remember

We grew up in Gadsden. Kids in Gadsden didn’t think it a small town. We’d all seen places with more farms than car dealerships; where they had only one grocery store. Those were the small towns.

When my tenth-grade English teacher suggested we could relate to John Cougar Mellencamp’s "Small Town," we stared at him blankly. He countered, suggesting Gadsden was small compared to, say, Los Angeles. We shrugged and granted him that.

Nowadays, my parents, my brother and I all live in the Birmingham area. It's different, but I don't usually think of it as different. Again, next to L.A., Birmingham, too, is a small town. I don't think about Gadsden and Birmingham being different, except when I visit Gadsden.


One time a while back, my brother and I stopped in Gadsden on our way to Henagar—the kind of place we considered a small town when we lived in Gadsden. Our parents sent us to pick up beef from the processor—near to where the cow was born and raised. They were into eating local before that was a thing.

In Gadsden we drove through a Hardee's for breakfast. The woman at the window called my brother baby doll. Of course, she did. That wasn't surprising. What surprised me was that I had forgotten the women at fast food places in Gadsden call you baby doll.

How does that happen? How does the new thing become so normal that one forgets the old thing, when the old thing was once the only thing? It could be that we had misunderstood the old thing all along.


As a kid, I thought I was growing up in a suburb, but a city has to be urban to have suburbs. Gadsden had neighborhoods. In a collection of suburbs you find homogeneity that just doesn’t exist in neighborhoods.

In Gadsden, some folks were more country than others. We all knew that. Every day, we interacted with people along different bands of the country spectrum. Out in the county, we encountered folks who shaded more or less country, but that never caught us off guard. Because on any given day you might meet a person in Gadsden who was more country than the standard in the small towns.

Not Returning

In the suburbs, however, we’re not so versatile. We expect each other to sound like we’ve always been here. When asked, we’re sure we remember otherwise, but the din of our monotone dialect makes it easy to forget. Maybe Mellencamp understands the two sides of this coin.

No, I cannot forget from where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me

Mellencamp sings "Small Town" from the perspective of someone who’s still in the small town. Why does he need to warn himself against forgetting where he came from if he’s still there? In that line, we might be hearing a sentiment truer to the songwriter than to the song, but there’s another possibility.

Just before the self-admonition against forgetting, Mellencamp—or his narrator—makes a confession.

Married an L.A. Doll and brought her to this small town
Now she's small town just like me

Somewhere in his story, the singer left the small town, and leaving did something to him—so that even after returning he has to remind himself not to forget where he came from. He needs this reminder despite the small-town ethos being so strong that his L.A. doll doesn’t flinch when the lady at Hardee’s calls her sweetheart. That’s the part I don’t know anything about.

I have not gone home again, let alone taken someone back with me. Moreover, I must have looked like a guy who wouldn’t be coming back.


I worked at a tool-and-die shop between high school and college. Near the end of the summer, a welder offered the advice John Cougar Mellencamp wasn’t there to give. Don’t forget where you came from.

Here in the suburbs—where we all sound like we’ve always been here—I know that on some level I have forgotten where I came from.

Otherwise, I’d still know my brother is a baby doll. We could hit 10 drive-throughs in Gadsden today, and he’d hear it—or the same sentiment—seven times. In Attalla, he’d go 10 for 10. That just doesn’t happen in Birmingham, in Vestavia Hills, in Hoover—usually not even Pelham. As for Los Angeles, I cannot say.

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Thursday, May 12, 2022

Finding Rest Amid The Raucous

Do you ever freak out a little at bedtime?

At one point last year, I had a couple weeks when every night I feared I would die in my sleep. It really caught me off guard. Why was I thinking this way?

Then I realized, after almost ten years without attending a funeral, I had been to two in as many months. Makes a guy think about things.

I tried combating my distress with the following thoughts: God sustains us every breath, and—from the Apostles’ Creed—'I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.'

After a couple weeks of still waking up alive every morning, things went back to normal. I remember those nights when I read the last verse of Psalm 4.

In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Earlier in this psalm, David laments living among the mockers. These mockers ridicule those who trust in the Lord. Worse still, they prosper financially, though all they provide the community is strife.

Despite the raucous, however, David finds true rest. He does so for one reason—'you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.’

The world tempts us to draw comfort from provisions, rather than from the Provider.

Maybe business is good, or a stressful situation turned out fine. But these things bring only temporary relief. In Psalm 4, David relies on eternal hope.

What about you and me? Why do we lie down and sleep in peace?

Thursday, April 28, 2022