Folk music is a bunch of fat people.
— Bob Dylan
Folk music is a bunch of fat people.
— Bob Dylan
I was discussing Psalm 1 with some friends last week, and I was struck by the promise of the third verse. In all that the righteous man does, it says, “he prospers.”
We found ourselves fixated on that word. Prosper. Who could’ve imagined that to modern ears the word “prosperity” would come to carry so much baggage? Preachers you’ve heard on TV peddle an image of prosperity that promises some of the same things the world craves. Fame, status, riches – God promises these things, the logic goes, to those who love Him. And really, why wouldn’t He want that for all of us?
It’s a comforting bit of heresy, if I may speak so plainly. God, of course, is not against those things. Billy Graham certainly had influence. King Solomon was very likely the richest man who ever lived. God does not discount the rich or the popular simply for being rich or popular.
But by the same token, neither is God influenced by what our flesh sees as the deepest depths of true satisfaction. No, God sees past these things, past these desires, understanding in ways we do not that real, lasting prosperity only comes to those who choose to abide in Him.
In John 15, Jesus says “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (verse 5). The key to true prosperity, found here in Jesus’ analogy, lies in the fruit of those who abide in Him through the studying of His word and obedience to His commandments. Like Psalm 1, the mark of a man abiding in God is the fruit of his life.
Consider that fruit. What would we identify as the ”fruit” of the modern man? For what or for whom does a tree bear fruit? Not for itself. Trees do not consume their own seeds or rely on the sustenance provided by their blossoms. Flowers bloom, branches yield fruit not for themselves but to spread out. Psalm 1 is thus remarkably prescriptive. Rely on the water, bear the fruit of testimony, and find what keeps your leaf from withering. Jesus puts it clearly, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
What the world calls prosperity can never provide the joy Jesus speaks to, “full joy.” It is the righteous man – not simply the rich man or the powerful man or the famous man – that experiences this. There’s so much to draw from the analogy in Psalm 1. We are beaten and battered by unforeseen circumstances, by our own sinful machinations, and yet like the tree in the Psalm, we survive by clinging to God, by planting ourselves in his living water and abiding in Him. No amount of material success can deliver the joy that comes with knowing God will never fail.
It was this truth that drew me to “Only You" by Young Oceans:
It’s difficult not to read Psalm 1 and consider the ways I’ve wandered from Him. But God’s invitation to abide in Him and experience joy is an open one, a daily opportunity to return to His presence. The words of the song, written with the poetic verve of cherished psalms, draw me to consider God’s power, His promise, and His grace:
Lord You are the thunder to my whisper
Yes Your greatness knows no bounds
All these things
Too wonderful to speak of
Fill my soul with a heavenly sound
Only You Have set the earth on its foundation
Only You Give orders to the dawn
Only You Can know the depths of every ocean
Only You Deserve our song
My prayer is that, in everything we do, we would sing to the only one who deserves our song, and that in our worship we might experience the fullness of joy that comes in abiding in God.
I’ve been reading a lot about the Psalms lately, going through NT Wright’s The Case for the Psalms with a a couple friends at Grace Point. It’s been an illuminating opportunity to dive into the history and themes of the Psalter, what we can consider the founding document of our approach worship. Wright describes the Psalms with flair, highlighting the mountains and the valleys, the sorrow and the joy, the grief and the hope of human experience as poetically illustrated in the Psalms.
There’s so much to consider and to study, and I confess that I’ve left so much of this cherished book of the Bible to gather dust on my shelf. But now, as I take a closer look at these songs, I find myself seeing how they echo through what we play and sing in today’s corporate gatherings.
Much of the emotion of the Psalms arises from what Wright calls the tension of the “now and not yet.” As the Israelites found themselves burdened by the weight of their own sin and the schemes of their enemies, they looked back to the experience of the past to find hope for the future. Psalm 89 provides a great example of this. After thirty-plus verses proclaiming God’s power, the Psalm turns to a lament, as the speaker cries out in pain.
How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations, with which your enemies mock, O LORD, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed. (Psalm 89:46-51, ESV)
The Psalms endure because they express deep grief even as they point God’s people to great hope. The writers of these cherished songs don’t turn away from the human experience. They sing of the greatness of God but also express the impatience of a grieving people.
It’s hard to read the Psalms and ignore an unfortunate truth. Much of our worship music today seems afraid to go to the places the Psalms do, to plunge to the depths of despair. We express the jubilation of the freed, but in some ways, the sweetness of salvation is taken for granted, as we sweep aside the shared experience of bitterness away from God.
For this reason, I am drawn to songs of worship like Josh White’s “Enclosed by You.” It’s an honest and even painful look at a soul embroiled in doubt and fear. “Will you stay with me when I forget you’re there?” White asks. “Will you still love me when my love lingers elsewhere?” That feeling of distance from God, the darkness that fills the space we create as we push him away - these are shared experiences. Who among us hasn’t felt this before?
But like the Psalms, White’s song responds with hope, both from the experiences of the past and with a promise for the future. In the chorus, the narration changes, as God speaks (with a three-part harmony perhaps in reference to the Trinity).
I will never leave you
Leave you waiting ‘round
I’m the one who’s been waiting
For you to turn around
There’s nothing wrong with expressing our grief. Indeed, deep, sincere expressions to God is what He desires. The Psalms, and song’s like White’s, remind us that this tension between the “now and not yet” is a part of our earthly existence, but they also point us to the knowledge that the God we serve is faithful. He has rescued us from death, and He is sure to rescue us again and again and again. His mercies are new every morning. As Wright sums it up, “Past, present, and future belong to Him. We are called to live, joyfully and painfully, in the story that is both His and ours. Our times are in His hand.” In your deepest of emotions, God is faithful to answer. Just like He has before. Just like He always will. Our worship should be a reflection of our experience and a dedication of our faith.
It’s sitting in my DVR. I know it’s there because I saw the red light. I pressed record, it came on, and I forgot about it. But by the end of the night, as my pounding heart slowed and my hands stopped shaking, that light seemed to have gotten brighter. When I finally turned off the TV, it was positively glaring. It was always there, but somehow I had ignored it. When I pumped my fist in the air as goosebumps covered my arm, when I called my wife about where to meet for the downtown celebration, when I slammed my fist on the kitchen counter as the game slipped away – that cruel light stayed on, reminding me that this was indeed already a part of basketball history.
I haven’t gone back to watch the game. It was a classic, and it will be a NBA TV staple for years to come. But I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. There will be things in this game to go over, things here to study as we look back on the careers of some incredible players. But I’ll never be able to watch it again. No matter how Game 7 goes down, this game will always occupy that place in my mind where the cruelty of enjoying something I have no control over finally beat me to a pulp. It was an incredibly exciting, visceral, deeply emotional experience, but the fires it stoked inside are not memories I find important to revisit.
I love this team. For most of the people in this city, the Spurs are a part of your family. When you go back and look at family photos, there’s your uncle, wearing his beloved ’05 championship shirt. That’s your first car in the background of that picture, and you’ve proudly displayed a Spurs logo flag on the driver’s side window. In the pictures from that Christmas five years ago, your grandma is in her favorite chair, smiling and holding a McDonald’s Spurs cup. (And if she’s really cool, it is of course a Matt Bonner special.) Put simply, the Spurs are family in San Antonio.
In a podcast with Bill Simmons a few weeks ago, Steve Kerr recalled the emotional return home after his incredible, unexpected three-point barrage in Dallas, now affectionately referred to as “The Steve Kerr” game. What he described shocked Bill Simmons, but it wouldn’t surprise any of us who grew up with this team. On the drive down his block, the entire neighborhood had come out. There were signs on lawns, people wearing jerseys, kids screaming his name. As Kerr pulled into his driveway, he noticed somebody had even written out a thank you note on his driveway.
This is standard here. Fans go to the airport at 3:00 in the morning to welcome back the team. They recognize important performances or big games as they happen and react accordingly. The whole city goes into a confused stupor in the days between a lost Game 6 and the mystery and finality of a terrifying Game 7.
Ah, that Game 7. You’ve surely read or seen much about Legacies™ in the past few days. How will this game define Lebron James? How will this series impact how Tony Parker is remembered? The truth is this game won’t define any legacies. None. Not a single one. Gregg Popovich was right when he dismissed the question (joking that his legacy would be “food and wine”). If this is how these men are going to be remembered, then we didn’t really care all that much for them anyway.
Game 7 is huge. I get that. Right now, it’s massively important to two fanbases, to two teams of players aching from the wear of a long season, and to two coaches that have schemed and plotted to get them here. But in ten years, you’ll forget it. It’s a sad truth. I mean, sure, you’ll be able to remember the series, who hit the big shots, who failed to show up, and all that. But if you’re a fan, you’ll still forget the emotion this series wrenched from your chest. You won’t remember the anguish of seeing that Allen shot drop and knowing a championship may have slipped away any more than you can recall the devastation you experienced when Manu Ginobili inexplicably fouled Dirk Nowitzki seven years ago. And you know what? You should forget that. You should move on.
Right now, it hurts. And tomorrow, it may hurt even more. But big sports losses don’t define legacies anymore than your failed attempt at a work presentation defines you. Popovich’s response is not a flippant excusing of a “big” question. It’s an acknowledgment that a legacy is defined by more than a career choice. Think back on those same pictures of your relatives. Your uncle? The one in the Spurs shirt? Do you remember him for what he did for forty hours a week, Monday through Friday? How about your immediate family? Would you say your dad’s legacy starts with his career as a salesman? (“I certainly hope not.” – Dad)
This is a game, and we’re invested. At times, it’s great. At times, it sucks. You cry with the emotion of victory, and you cry with the frustration of defeat. You wear your goofy personalized jersey, tucked in your jeans even, because you are just so proud of the way this team fought all year. You tear off your “We Want Some Nasty” shirt, faded and worn from countless gamedays and beer spills, because you are just so disappointed in how stupid this team could be.
These are valid emotions. They come with being a true fan. (And if these emotions sound terrible, you can always leave the game early. I hear nobody ever regrets that.) But this legacy question isn’t one we should take as seriously as we do. It’s a ridiculous amount of pressure we put on people we cheer for, and then we toss them aside when they fail. Tim Duncan would much rather his legacy be as a great dad who cherished his kids than simply as the greatest Power Forward of all time. (To be fair, his will be both, but stick with me.) Some of the greatest sports legacies were made by terrible people from whom we demanded a “killer instinct.” These legacies we have come to lust after are usually built on ego and selfishness and, sometimes, even hatred. Why would we want that from somebody? Worse, why would we want that for somebody? Michael Jordan’s legacy is one that will never be touched, and he’s a total jerk. It’s sad. Sadder still to think that we had a hand in that.
Like me, my grandma would record the games. She’d do this to avoid picking up smoking again. When the games got tight, when the nerves started to jump, my grandma would grab a cigarette to calm herself down. But when she quit smoking, she started recording the games. If a game got close, she’d simply step outside to calm down, knowing the VHS was rolling. She’d watch the game later without letting it get her so emotional.
My grandma’s love for the Spurs is something my family has always cherished. It’s a part of us because it was a part of her. (Agonizingly, my cousin tweeted “This one’s for granny” seconds before the Spurs gave away Game 6. Brutal.) But I learned so much more from watching my grandma when she’d walk away from the TV than I did when I sat by her and we watched the game together. She cared most of all about her life around the people she loved. If that meant getting up from a good game to keep setting a good example for the kids, then so be it.
When you sit down to watch the game tonight, whether by yourself or with friends or family, you’re going to hear a discussion about the legacy question. Ignore it. Enjoy the game because it’s exciting and emotional. Relish the opportunity to cheer for your team, one of the last left standing in a competitive league. Soak up the moment, as you realize that few fanbases get this opportunity. Let the chills cover you when the shots go down. Be heartbroken if your team loses. Run outside, get in your car, and start honking your horn down the street if they win it all. But forget about the legacy question that is being forced on these players. They’re going to have lives away from this game. You are, too. Give them the dignity of defining a legacy the same way we all do: in peace, near the ones we love, putting something in a family photo that will be worth remembering later.
This is sort of what Ginobili does. He gets intoxicated by the game and by the moment, and enters a fugue state where he’s capable of truly amazing things, or truly dumb choices.
— Barry Petchesky at Deadspin
This is what writing is: I one language, I another language, and between the two, the line that makes them vibrate; writing forms a passageway between two shores.
— Hélène Cixous, from Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (via poetryeater)