Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 133) transports me to the makeshift barber chair my Dad would set up in the living room when I was a kid. Basically it was a chair from the kitchen table, and when little folk like me were ready for a trim, we sat on a tool box he placed on the seat of the chair. Daddy was the family barber, lowering the ears for his brothers and sons and nephews with his electric shears. I can vividly remember the feel of those shears on my neck, and the oily smell that filled the room. I think Daddy’s brothers came over as much for an excuse to visit and talk as to get a haircut. When I was 9 or 10, a crisis began to emerge for me relative to that barber chair. My oldest brother Jerry had gone to Vietnam a couple of years earlier, and I looked up to him so much, I had Daddy give me an Army crew cut just like his. And then my middle brother David, in his late teens and early twenties, decided to forego the barber chair completely. Influenced by the hippie movement, he let his hair and beard grow long. Some of the folks at Daddy’s shop started calling him Moses. I looked up to David, too, even though he occasionally picked on me, as older brothers are prone to do. I eventually gave up the crew cut and tried the Moses look. I’ve gone back and forth over the decades; right now I’m back with the buzz. I’ve reflected a lot over the past forty years on that brotherhood we experienced and continue to enjoy. It was a brotherhood whose love was deeper than the divide between Vietnam GIs and long-haired hippies. We must have learned by osmosis, watching our Dad with his brothers. They were all very different people, with different lifestyles and political views and theologies and personalities, but they were united in their family love and loyalty, and they enjoyed each others’ company. For a long time I thought that was the norm, brotherly love. My brothers and I now laugh about that naive assumption, as we have learned what a rarity it is.
I think the Psalmist understood what a rarity it is for brothers to dwell together in unity. Many of the translations utilize inclusive language for the beginning of this Psalm, and talk about how wonderful it is when relatives live in unity, or when God’s people live in unity. But here’s a case when I think the direct translation of the Hebrew achim with gender specificity (brothers) is preferable. After all, when you look at the Hebrew family history, the challenges to experiencing brotherly love is a central theme. It started with Cain and Abel, and moves on to Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and his brothers, Solomon and his brothers. There’s hardly a functional set in the lineage. So for the Psalmist, the image of brothers getting along was indeed precious, a rarity. It reminded him of Aaron, another of those biblical brothers; the poet can see oil dripping down Aaron’s hair and beard onto his robes.
Oil on hair and beard. It brings me back to that barber chair in the living room, and the smell of the oily shears. And it brings me back to Daddy and his brothers, some of whom had some rough patches in life and needed an occasional helping hand. During those times, I remember Daddy referencing one of the hippie songs that David must have played on his 8-track at some point. He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother. I don’t know if Daddy knew any of the rest of the Youngblood’s lyrics, but I think he would have appreciated them. His welfare is of my concern. No burden is he to bear. We’ll get there. . . It’s a long, long road, from which there is no return. While we’re on the way to there, why not share? If only my naive childhood sense was true, that this ethic and this feeling was the norm in our society. If only the progeny of Abraham – the Jewish Brotherhood and the Muslim Brotherhood – who struggle mightily in the Middle East could transform brotherly conflict into brotherly love, so that the oil would indeed run down Aaron’s hair and beard. If only the Cains and Abels and Jacobs and Esaus of the Christian family could learn to carry each other over rough patches instead of curse each other over doctrinal differences. If a hippie and GI could do it in the 60s and 70s, in the midst of intense cultural conflict, it could happen anywhere. It reminds me of another one of brother Dave’s 8-track songs, a call for us to live in that unity: Come on people now, smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc. Note: If you mouse over the artwork, info on the painting or photo will pop up.