About 180 of those views all came in the space of an hour or so, and they all went to one post; a post of self-examination questions on the 4th commandment.
Now that seems like a strange post to suddenly become more popular than anything I ever put on here before, including the one or two things I wrote that got published on Brothers of John the Steadfast.
So it turns out that if you type “hess 2012” into Yahoo’s search engine and then go to image search, way down on about the 7th page you will find the picture above.
That is a picture of my grandfather, Lyndon Roth Hess, making a ridiculous face when he was about 10 years old. In between him and the old man (who incidentally looks a lot like my grandpa did when he got older—when I knew him) is I guess his brother. Probably Lawrence, my great uncle who I never met because he died while a medical missionary in China with Hudson Taylor’s mission outfit.
The old man is my grandpa’s maternal grandpa, Sebastian Roth. They all lived in Buffalo, NY.
My grandpa, in his own telling of the story, was not a particularly pious kid. His mother was a Plymouth Brethren convert and combined fundamentalism and piety with emotional instability. This is what my dad told me. My grandpa wouldn’t have agreed with that, I’m pretty sure.
Anyway, you have here a picture of my grandfather behaving either rambunctiously or angrily. This kind of behavior reminds me of my childhood. One time my grandpa took me into his office when I was a teenager sort of getting into trouble and told me how when he was in high school he had to get rid of most of his friends because they were getting him into trouble. Apparently he had a habit of skipping school to play handball. Way back in 1919 or so.
Somehow my grandpa become pious and disciplined and managed to weave the threads of Plymouth Brethren piety into the tapestry of his self-understanding and the destiny that came out of it. Later on in life he went to Wheaton College, where he was a cross country and mile runner of some success. Family lore says that the Plymouth Brethren missionary board sent him to Africa at just such a time that it made it impossible for him to run in the Olympics, which he otherwise would have been able to do. But that may be a story invented by family members with an ax to grind against the Assemblies (as they call themselves), because my grandpa denied that he would have gone to the Olympics.
After that he spent decades in Zambia where he built and ran a school for missionary children, as well as a small infrastructure for it, and did some missionary work with the Lunda people.
What would have happened if my grandfather had woven the threads given to him a little differently? Say the thread of religion and piety given to him by his mother had been accommodated by embracing theology on his father’s side of the family, which was (I think) German Reformed, and if not nominal perhaps less colored by the emotional injury that seems to have come from his mother’s side of the family?
Who knows? It seems from my perspective—which is probably wholly inaccurate—that my grandpa screwed the lid down on the sickness that may have come down through his mother from his grandfather (pictured here), and set out ambitiously to accomplish something for God. His abilities accomplished some remarkable things, Lord Jim style, out a million miles from where anyone would ever notice it. He did this in the name of God. My dad’s life seems to have been a rejection of his father’s, during which demons repressed in my grandfather came out and wreaked fury on the universe through my dad. But then my dad, later in life, came to terms with God, still not able to free himself completely from his father’s influence and the religion of his childhood. He came to terms with God but I don’t think he ever came to terms with his father. When I was around 20 I asked my dad if he loved his dad. He said something like, “I’m not angry at him,” or “I respect him.”
And now, unpleasantly, I consider—how much of my life is a replay of the narrative of my grandpa’s life? My life is also built on or around the religion of my mother. I also turned to a strict theology to find God and some kind of help with the demons that threatened to eat me alive.
All of which in a way could be a novel, and it is also a meditation on the 4th commandment. “Honor your father and your mother.” I have the impression that my grandpa rejected his father. My dad rejected his dad. Much of my life has been a reaction against my father. What does that do to your life? You have to honor your father, even if he bequeathed his sin to you, and even if he scarred you and failed you by neglect or abuse. Otherwise you will spend your life railing against authority and then railing against those who are committed to your care because of the way they dishonor you.
But basically the 180 people who went and looked at this post didn’t even care about the 4th commandment or this whole story. If even 5 people do, that would be something. Around 200 of them just happened to stumble on the picture and probably thought it was funny, which it is.
If one were to consider this—both the real meaning of the picture (for me), the even more important 4th commandment of God, and the fact that I got more views on my website by total accident when people were concerned about neither the 4th commandment, nor my grandpa, nor my blog—one might be moved to laugh at the complete absurdity of the way we take ourselves and our thoughts and our histories seriously. One might laugh at the absurdity of fame. Or of search engines and their awesome power over people’s lives. But who has time to consider things, unless that leads to you getting something you want?
The stupid stories we make up about the things that happen in our lives—is there any value to our doing that? But we have to do it in order to live, don’t we?
It reminds me of a sentence from Lord Jim—“a man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea.” And then, says the character in the book who is philosophizing about this, the young man must keep the dream but not submerge himself in it. The dream, like the ocean, can propel him up into reality and keep him alive. Or it can drown him.
The verses I read from the Bible in meditation today were from the end of Romans 11. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unfathomable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or been His counselor?”
I don’t know how God would tell the story of my grandfather, my father, and me, and my son if we were in the Bible, like in the book of kings. I don’t understand God’s telling of the story of my congregation or my pastorate.
I have learned that I must believe God when He promises to cause all the events of my life to work out for good and for blessing, even if I sin and fail miserably.
He repeated His promise to Abraham to Jacob, even though Jacob didn’t really believe Him the first time at Bethel, and didn’t appear to believe Him when He was coming back to see Esau. But Jacob did wrestle with God and say, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
The narratives I have in my head about my life are mostly delusional. I’m a liar like Jacob was. Then I deceive myself and forget that God is just and that I deserve the sorrows that I have. I deserve worse, much worse.
But even though my stories of what God is doing are usually self-serving, He still has promised to do me good. Good often means that my delusional stories are nailed to the cross, and I slowly realize that God has been righteous and kind, and repaid my lies and arrogance with patience. Remember how God showed up to Jacob at Bethel and promised to bless him? The first thing Jacob does is jump up and say, “God, if you will be with me and bless me, I will serve you”?
Wait a second, why are you making deals when He just promised to bless you unilaterally, even though you stole the blessing from your brother? Why are you trying to take credit for God blessing you, as though you initiated this?
That’s what I’ve been like with God. I always have tried to snatch good things out of the world because I didn’t trust that God would be gracious and give them to me. But like Jacob I was delusional. God has shown me favor even though I made things worse with every attempt to be worthy or to take a blessing. I thought I was accomplishing things when He was allowing me to take them.
When we wrestle with God and demand a blessing, He lets us win. When the tenants of the vineyard killed the son so that they could have the vineyard, that was only because God willed that they should take his life and have what was his. He willed for us to dress up like Jesus and receive His blessing, like Jacob dressed up like Esau.
The Lord my life arranges; who can His work destroy?
In His good time He changes all sorrow into joy.
So let me then be still. My body, soul, and spirit
His tender care inherit according to His will.