So that the time periods I am talking about don’t seem to be wrong, let me explain that my mother was 40 years old when I was born. Her father had married a much younger woman and was 45 years old when my mother was born. Therefore I was born 85 years after he was. I have a relatively rare campaign service medal from my grandfather--from the Philippine Campaign--dated from 1899 to 1913. It's kind of an historical irony that the Philippines are in the news right now for wanting U.S. military installations to be removed from their country. This is why history is important because it provides context and meaning to actions.
My grandfather was the child of Irish immigrants raised in an Irish “ghetto” in Patterson, New Jersey. Patterson was then an industrial city (Colt Arms had started there) and it attracted immigrant labor who then settled near its factories. His name was Charles Aloysius O’Beirne and, at the beginning of the Spanish American war, he enlisted and left the ghetto permanently (like many young men, this was his only way out.) His sister, my Great Aunt Elizabeth, remained behind and, when he became engaged to my Grandmother, she supervised Grandma Goldie’s conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.
My grandfather served in Cuba, the Philippines and then France in World War I, where he received a field promotion to Captain. The family story is that his superior officer removed the “O” from his name when he was promoted “because Irish weren’t officers.” When he returned from France he got a position at Ft. Leavenworth at the “U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks,” more simply “Leavenworth” as it is generally called. It was a safe job in the after-war years. The U.S. Army was never going to close its maximum security penitentiary.
It has always been a bit of a joke throughout my life when I have said that my mother was raised at Leavenworth. “No, on the outside, not on the inside!” is my standard response. In his retirement my Grandfather managed the post’s Service Station and ran it with prisoners who could be trusted to work outside the walls. They were the ones who gave my mother (with her auburn red hair) her lifelong nickname, “Irish.” I can’t remember ever hearing her called Elizabeth.
Although jokes about Leavenworth usually have to do with the prison, it is also the location of the Command and General Staff College. It is the place where officers go to learn how to handle brigades and larger commands. It is the place where General Petraeus developed and taught the Army’s modern concept of how to handle “Counter Terrorism” and “Insurgencies.”
One summer vacation, while returning from Colorado, I took my family to the post to visit my grandfather’s grave. I remember the day as typical in my memory of the area from my childhood: 104 degrees and near the same percentage humidity. I also remember the two institutions as being across the street from each other. My remembrance of that is faulty, at least according to Google Earth! But they are near enough to see one another at a bit of an angle.
This is the irony of the Fort. At any given time, there is an institution holding the most violent offenders in the Army and another institution holding the future command officers of that same Army. Standing where you can see both buildings is an illustration of the choices that humans make. It reminds me of Psalm One—the foundation of the entire psalter.
1) Blessed is the one who does not
follow the advice of wicked people,
take the path of sinners,
or join the company of mockers.
2) Rather, he delights in the teachings of the Lord
and reflects on his teachings day and night.
3) He is like a tree planted beside streams—
a tree that produces fruit in season
and whose leaves do not wither.
He succeeds in everything he does.
4) Wicked people are not like that.
Instead, they are like husks that the wind blows away.
5) That is why wicked people will not be able to stand in the judgment
and sinners will not be able to stand where righteous people gather.
6) The Lord knows the way of righteous people,
but the way of wicked people will end.
I am sure that every incarcerated soldier has a story and a history worthy of some minimal understanding and compassion. I easily assume that the trustees that my grandfather supervised were glad to be outside the walls. As a veteran sergeant I am sure he didn’t put up with any nonsense. I am also sure that men who missed their children were glad to tease my mother a bit.
I am also sure that I would prefer my children, if they would have a military career, to be in residence at Ft. Leavenworth on “the right side” of the road.
Psalm One is as practical and descriptive as it is poetic. It begins by pointing out the obvious and reiterating it three times: a blessed person does not associate or conform to those who do wickedness or evil or mock God. The psalm asserts that the company you keep is very important. Your first response may be to say that Jesus certainly “hangs out” with sinners. That is true. But Jesus ministers to sinners—he does not follow their advice, take their path or join their company. He calls them to His advice, His path and His company.
My grandfather “ministered” to prisoners by giving them the satisfaction and dignity of productive work. He did not join them but they did join him—a combat veteran worthy of respect.
The psalm then gives us the key to this blessedness, to “delight in the teachings of the LORD.” This literally is the Torah. I like to expand it to the entire “instruction of the LORD.” This clearly gives us the whole counsel of God, including the Gospel. The psalm continues, “and reflects on his teachings day and night.” It is an easy exhortation to “be in the Word.” It is more difficult to put in place a daily method or practice— a spiritual discipline— of reflecting on the instruction of the LORD. The benefit of Hebrew poetry is in its descriptive style. To be “in the Word” in the abstract is described quite literally as to be “day and night"--in other words, daily!
The result is described in the metaphor of a tree planted near water which bears fruit. The Apostle Paul amplifies this metaphor: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5) Receiving the daily instruction of the Lord is promised to have an effect upon our character and our behavior and is promised to bear such fruit.
Psalm 1 then spends its remaining verses describing the stark contrast of the righteous and the unrighteous and its consequences. It ends on a tough note: “The way of wicked people will end.” The unstated opposite needs to be noted--the way of the righteous does not end.
I don’t know how much my mother’s experience of watching her father supervise prisoners influenced her sense of compassion. I know that she became a licensed nurse, eventually working at Pontiac State Hospital. When she told stories of working with psychiatric patients she never demeaned them or made fun of them—in fact, she was the object of their humor in her stories. I never heard or saw her treat anyone in anything but a mutual and respectful manner. One of our neighbors was a Japanese war-bride and my mother had the lady teach her how to wear a kimono! When I preach at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, I see my ministry there as just a legacy of being taught well to have compassion for the mentally ill. (Are you surprised that I would be called to city with such an institution?)
The lessons of righteousness that we teach do not end but multiplies. Consider the “ratio” given in Exodus,
I, the Lord your God, am a God who does not tolerate rivals. I punish children for their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. But I show mercy to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my commandments. (Exodus 20)
This does not fate the third and fourth generation to harm. The point is the great mercy shown “to a thousand generations.” The Lord promises His blessings to a people who worship Him alone and do His will following His instruction.
I like to take the metaphor of a tree bearing fruit and end it as Revelation does:
The angel showed me a river filled with the water of life, as clear as crystal. It was flowing from the throne of God and the lamb. Between the street of the city and the river there was a tree of life visible from both sides. It produced 12 kinds of fruit. Each month had its own fruit. The leaves of the tree will heal the nations. There will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and the lamb will be in the city. His servants will worship him and see his face. His name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night, and they will not need any light from lamps or the sun because the Lord God will shine on them. They will rule as kings forever and ever. (Revelation 22)
Only Jesus can be righteous enough to exemplify and fulfill Psalm One. By grace, through faith in Jesus we receive this psalm in our lives and in our vocations. Through him we extend his righteousness into the world “for a thousand generations.” Blessed is the One who…