Psalms

good grief

A few years ago, I preached on Psalm 137.  In that church, just like here, there was an anthem between the scripture readings; we didn’t read them all at once.  As a result, something happened there that also happened a few moments ago.  Immediately after reading verse 9, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” I said (I’ll admit, with a smile), “This is the word of the Lord.”  And the congregation responded, “Thanks be to God!”

Yes, happy are those who beat Babylonian babies against the rock!  Amen!  Hallelujah!

1 ps

Psalm 137 is in a group classified as “imprecatory” psalms, psalms in which curses are invoked, in which evil is invoked.  They are not to be repeated in polite company!  One of my favorite examples comes from Psalm 58.  “The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (v. 10).  And there’s a charming response: “People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth’” (v. 11).

Psalms like today’s text also create an embarrassing, uneasy feeling.  Even as noteworthy a figure as C. S. Lewis suggested an alternative way to look at it.  He, in effect, spiritualized it.  He suggested seeing the Babylonian babies, not literally as children, but as temptations.  He said they’re “the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments.”  They “woo and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them, we feel we are being cruel to animals.”[1]

In other words, we shouldn’t think of them as actual babies, but as apparently harmless attractions—and not yielding to them would be like mistreating a little puppy!

I can understand the impulse that wants to soften the blow, to keep the raw emotion of our psalm at arm’s length.  It’s like the feeling we get when, in the presence of someone gripped with pain and anguish, we hear all kinds of utterances that seem vile and even blasphemous.

When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, we both worked for a while at a nursing home, Broomall Presbyterian Village.  Banu was the chaplain, and I assisted the social services director, Pat.  When I wasn’t helping her with paperwork, she would just have me go and visit the residents.

There was a variety of them, from people who were completely lucid—but couldn’t move very well because of various conditions—to those with advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  There was a particular woman who was still somewhat active, and who also had a very active vocabulary!

More often than not, upon entering her room, you could anticipate being greeted with quite colorful language, and by that I mean expecting a stream of expletives.  “What the blankety-blank do you want?  Who the blank are you?”  (You may fill in those blanks as you wish.)  I would tell her that I was working with Pat, and I was simply there to visit her for whatever reason.  She might cut loose with another tirade.

Call me a masochist, but in a way, I actually looked forward to visiting her!

If it was evident that she really didn’t want me there, I would leave.  Other times, after the initial salvo, she would welcome a visit.  I wonder if that foul language was her way of dealing with the fear and pain, knowing she was slipping.  And miraculously, once in a while, she would actually smile when she saw me.

2 ps

Her demeanor made her a difficult person to deal with, to say the least.  In a similar way, the language in our psalm makes it difficult to deal with.

I believe I’ve only heard one sermon on this psalm.  It was when I was in my early twenties and not yet a Presbyterian.  My impression was the fellow preaching didn’t want to deal with the tough language in it.  He read the first verse, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”  As soon as he got to the phrase, “there we sat down,” he stopped and said, “That was their first mistake!”

He then launched into an entire sermon on the need to praise the Lord in all circumstances.  It seemed to me that message could be used for any number of scriptures.  It seemed he wasn’t really engaging with the word, and he wasn’t honoring those who had been exiled to Babylon.

As I’ve suggested, it is understandable if we’re reluctant to address the grief and pain in the psalm, especially because it involves curses!  I will be the first to admit that trying to reconcile this talk of curses and blood and vengeance with the God I know as the God of love—as the God of Jesus Christ—is not something I readily embrace.

Reed Lessing, teacher at Concordia University in St. Paul, explains to us the vengeance of God “arises out of a cultural milieu in which cursing was an integral part of life.  Ancient Near Eastern texts are filled with treaty curses, inscriptional curses, and incantations to undo curses.  Often these blessings and curses were employed to ensure a vassal’s loyalty to his sovereign.”[2]  It was a way of ensuring fidelity and devotion to one’s leader.  We see that in Deuteronomy 30.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (v. 19).

Lessing adds that “it is out of this understanding that the imprecatory psalms are prayed.  When psalmists call down curses, it is because enemies have been disloyal to Yahweh’s covenant.”  When you live in a world where curses are as customary as the sun rising and setting, it doesn’t seem so unusual.

So, what good is Psalm 137 for us?  Why should we bother with this psalm and others like it?  We haven’t been sent into exile; we haven’t had to live like refugees.

Today’s psalm, to a large degree, is about identity.  When things are taken away from us, when we’re called to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” there can be a powerful temptation to just give up (v. 4).  We can forget who we are; we can lose our identity.  Clearly, we don’t have to go into a literal exile for that to happen.

Psalm 137, and others like it, provides a common language for grief.  Walter Bruggemann, in his article “Conversations among Exiles,” makes the observation, “From Israel the church can learn a better way to deal with grief and rage.”[3]  The Israelites had plenty of experience in that department.

He says that “the church can offer ways of speaking and acting that the dominant society regards as subversive, but without which we cannot for long stay human.  It can express sadness, rage, and loss as an alternative to the denial that inevitably breeds brutality.”  When we bottle things up, or pretend that they aren’t there, that stuff usually comes back with a vengeance!

The language of lament in the biblical tradition is a gift.  Bruggemann concludes that the church “can be a voice of holiness that counters the trivial commodity-centered world by the practice of disciplines that make communion possible.  It can be a voice of imaginative, neighborly transformation…  And it can express new…possibilities, rooted in the truth of God’s good news.”

We do have that common, shared language for grief.  Scriptures like today’s psalm provide it.  It is a language for grief that is holy, even with the curses.

There’s something tricky about grieving—we’re not always aware that we’re doing it.  Sometimes there can be an indefinable heaviness; sometimes there is no emotional content at all.  Sometimes we have to plunge beneath layers of anxiety and anger and rage and sadness.  Sometimes there may be the fear of the future.

It is important to recognize when we are grieving.

3 ps

The late Charles Schultz, through his cartoon “Peanuts,” employed plenty of theological and psychological concepts.  Linus, besides carrying his security blanket, was the biblical scholar.  His sister Lucy was the judgmental figure.  And poor Charlie Brown was the one who most frequently cried out, “Good grief!”  He probably didn’t realize it, but there is wisdom in the idea of “good grief.”  Or we can at least say: there is wisdom in recognizing our grief and working through it in a surprisingly good way.

When we aren’t aware of our grief, or when we aren’t able to name it, it can drive us in unhealthy ways.  We have major difficulty in finding some kind of resolution.

So, what can we say about those primal urges of fear and fury in our psalm?  By themselves, they’re neither good nor bad.  The question is, “Can we channel that stuff in constructive ways?”  Another way of looking at it would be: how do we take that stuff and honor Christ and Christ in each other?

I want to give one possible answer to that question by leaving us with a prayer request.  This comes from our missionary friends in France.  We can clearly see those urges of fear and fury at work.  In this case, those forces are definitely bad.  They are directed at servants of the Lord.

We are entreated, “Please pray for our brother ‘Gabriel’ and especially for his wife.  Gabriel escaped terrible persecution and mistreatment in his home country and has been seeking a means for his wife to join him.

“He sent us a message that his wife, who was in hiding, has been found by the extremist group of another faith which group was the source of his persecution.  She is now physically sick and emotionally at her ends.  Her captors are threatening her.

“Gabriel himself is very discouraged and depressed.  He is considering returning to his country, which would probably mean dire consequences, even death.

“Please pray for a miracle.”

4 ps

Can we honor Christ and Christ in each other?  We can join with our brothers and sisters in distress.  We all can sing the Lord’s song, even if it is in a foreign land.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 136.

[2] concordiatheology.org/2011/02/on-suffering-the-bible-and-preaching-part-2

[3] www.religion-online.org/article/conversations-among-exiles/


the ravine of blackest shadow

If there’s one part of the Bible that English-speaking people are familiar with, it’s today’s text from the Psalms.  Even in America, with our dwindling knowledge of the Bible, the 23rd psalm is something almost everyone has at least a passing awareness of.  But it isn’t from the translations done in recent centuries—it’s the King James Version.  (People often request this psalm for funerals.  For those services, that’s the only version I’ve ever used.)

One thing that really stands out is in verse 4: “Even though I walk in the darkest valley.”  That might be a better translation, but it’s not as dramatic as “the valley of the shadow of death.”  In my opinion—and I don’t think I’m alone on this—it’s not as powerful.  It’s not as artistic.  The phrase literally reads: “the ravine of blackest shadow.”  Friends, that’s pretty dark!

1 ps

Those considerations aside, we can see a sense of movement throughout the psalm.  That would be in keeping with the image of the shepherd guiding the sheep, moving through grassy meadows, by tranquil streams, and yes, through the darkest of valleys.

However, one doesn’t usually think of shepherds as preparing tables for their sheep, anointing their heads with oil, or pouring them cups that overflow.  And here’s a shot in the dark: sheep aren’t usually known for their desire to spend time in the house of the Lord!

A quick lesson in Hebrew might help.  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, is written with all consonants.  The vowels consist of points—dots—that were added up to centuries later.  Clearly, a change in vowels makes a difference in the sound and meaning of words.  Change one letter, and we go from “sack” to “sock.”  Same consonants, different vowels.

Before printing presses came along in the 1500s, copies of the scriptures were done by hand.  Sometimes a copyist would receive a manuscript that was difficult to read.  A dot might be misplaced.  That could change the pronunciation and the meaning.  It’s possible that happened here.

The word translated “shepherd” in verse 1 is the Hebrew term רֺעׅי (ro`i).  With a slight vowel change, we wind up with the word רֵעַ (re`i), which means “companion” or “friend.”  In fact, it’s the same word used in Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If Yahweh, the Lord, is our re`i—our companion, our friend, our neighbor—that puts loving our neighbor in a very different light.

We can see the 23rd psalm as a song of pilgrimage, of travel to the holy place.  We are on a journey, and we are not alone.  The Lord is our companion, and we need nothing else.  Whether by peaceful waters in pleasant meadows or in the loneliest, most terrifying abyss, God is with us.  And God—as shepherd, companion, or both—provides for us, even when those bent on our destruction are all around.

2 ps

So far, I’ve given an example of how Psalm 23 is used liturgically, in worship.  I used a funeral service as a case in point.  I just mentioned how it can be looked at academically.  Examining the Hebrew text can yield new ways of understanding the psalm.  But all that stuff isn’t enough.  We need more in order to learn how to live when we are in the darkest of ravines.

Again, on the point of funerals.  I recently met with daughters of a beloved woman who passed away a few days earlier.  She had celebrated her 97th birthday the previous month.  She had a special interest in music; a piano graced her living room.

She had been living in a retirement center when she needed help in daily tasks.  After a stay in the hospital, it was clear she wouldn’t be going back.  Arrangements were made for hospice care, and she would be returning to her home, after six years away. The daughters said she didn’t last long, but she was overjoyed to be back in her own house those final days.

I remember visiting her in the hospital, when she told me before going to sleep the night before, she wondered if she would wake up.  She said she was ready to go, even though she wasn’t ready to go.

Some people are graced to walk through the deepest shadow with a sense of wonder and profound gratitude.

What does it mean to live with the awareness that the Lord is our shepherd, our companion, and our host?  What does it mean to know that we do not want—that we do not lack?  And even more, what does all that mean if we’re in the presence of our enemies?  What response does it encourage or require?

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he comes from a different direction.  “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light” (5:8).  If living as “children of light” isn’t sufficiently clear, he goes on to say, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (vv. 10-11).

Works of darkness are “unfruitful”; they aren’t creative.  They don’t accomplish anything worthwhile.  Works of darkness are the methods of control and force and manipulation we so often use.

Imagine, preparing a table in the presence of our enemies.  Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who died in 2009, once said, “People enjoying such a feast would make themselves an easy target for their adversaries!”[1]  It would be like squirrels, happily crunching on seeds and nuts, completely unaware of the cat sneaking up behind them!

But that’s okay, he says, because “this is none other than an expression of the supreme wisdom and strength of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and whose weakness is stronger than human strength.”  In verse 4, when the psalmist says to God, “I fear no evil,” what reason is given?  I have security through advanced firepower?  Or, I have enough money to bribe anyone?

3 psOr maybe is it “for you are with me”?  Koyama adds, “God’s vulnerability is stronger than human invulnerability.  Through a banquet table—not guns and warplanes—God wills to transform us and our world.”

It’s indeed a blessing, a gift of grace, that none of us is dependent upon our own experience, our own devices—certainly not our own strength—to secure the friendship of God.  It’s been said that, as the psalmist finds out, God satisfies every need and transforms all circumstances.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (v. 6).  By the time we get to this final verse, we see that the psalmist is “no longer hunted down by…enemies, but…is literally pursued by the goodness of God.”[2]  (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)

Considering that this is a beloved psalm, most people probably don’t want to hear this.  But is it possible that when the psalmist speaks of having a fine meal while foes are nearby, it’s not just an expression of trust in God?  Could it also be a case of “who’s laughing now”?  There are plenty of prayers for revenge in the Psalms.  The Lord could be vindicating his servant.

And to be honest, “follow” is too weak a word.  The Hebrew word, רָדַף (radaf), is better translated as “pursue” or “chase.”  The same word is used after the Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and we see the Egyptians “pursuing” the Israelites (Ex 14:9, 23).  It’s almost always used in a military context.  Someone is being hunted down.

One notable exception is in Psalm 34, where we are told, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14).  I myself can relate to needing, and wanting, God’s goodness and mercy chasing after me.

I can think of times when I’ve been petty and spiteful.  I’ve enjoyed the blessings of God, knowing that others have gone wanting; they’ve gone lacking.  And I haven’t lifted a finger to help.  I can only speak for myself, but I want the goodness of God to keep chasing me, no matter where I try to hide.  I want to be the rabbit tracked by the hound of heaven.  I need that light to shine on me when I’m in death’s shadow.

Christoph Blumhardt was a German Lutheran theologian in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  He has a fitting thought for the Easter season.  “Christ’s resurrection,” he says, “is not just something that happened in the past.  There is resurrection today just as much as there was back then, after Christ’s death.  Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order.”[3]

Here’s a question.  What does Blumhardt mean when he says there’s resurrection today, as surely as when Christ rose from the grave?  What about that?  What are some ways in which there is new life, where once there had been only death?

That leads to another question.  When he says, “Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order,” what is that?  What is an entirely different order?  I imagine that could be a lot of things, but let’s stick with what our treasured 23rd psalm gives us regarding traveling the dark path.

Blumhardt adds that “[o]ur task…is to demonstrate the power of the resurrection.”[4]  When we allow the power of Christ to have freedom within us, enemies are no longer feared or despised.  Evil is de-fanged, in whatever valley of death-shadow we find ourselves.  That may be brokenness in body or heart or spirit.  We also (amazingly!) find it within ourselves to reach out to those we once considered repellent.

Our friend Kosuke Koyama reminds us, “The table that God prepares for us culminates in the eucharistic table of the Lord,” the table of the Lord’s Supper.  “This sacrament is the ultimate symbol of God’s hospitality, demonstrated in full view of the enemy.”  I don’t care who we consider our enemy to be.  When we dine together at the table “prepared by the very life of God,” enemies become friends.

4 ps

When we come to the table of the Lord, we come as the one being chased by the goodness and mercy of God.  We dine with the risen Lord, who gives us the power to rise from the shadow of death.  We come to the table, trusting that in the journey of our life, God is our beloved, our companion, our shepherd.

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/article/you-prepare-a-table-for-me-psalms-23/

[2] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1981), 199.

[3] Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor (Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2004), 23.

[4] Blumhardt, 25.


on the road we have to travel

We are now well into the season of Lent.  The usual question is, “What are you giving up for Lent?”  I like the answer Banu gave.  “We need to dispossess ourselves of the possessions that possess us, so we can be possessed by God.”  As one who is not fond of clutter, I can think of plenty of possessions which, were they to disappear, would please me greatly.

Of course, possessions need not be material.  The most insidious possessions are the ones within.  They grab hold of our minds, emotions, and spirits.  They grab us and we grab them.  We are indeed possessed by our possessions.  We need to be exorcised!

1 ps

Psalm 142 presents the utterance, the cry, of one who has been dispossessed, though not by choice.  The psalmist laments the loss of security, the loss of freedom, the loss of joy.

According to the title of the psalm, we’re hearing from David when he was in the cave, hiding from King Saul.  Saul had become insanely jealous of David.  The people loved him; his son Jonathan loved him; the Lord blessed David’s actions.  Therefore, David must die!

In the Hebrew Bible, those titles are considered part of the psalm.  That’s why David is traditionally thought of as the author.  Still, whether or not we see David as the poet, the singer of the song, the psalmist gives voice to a grief resounding down through the ages.

A large percentage of the psalms are psalms of lament.  This is one of them.  “With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord / I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (vv. 1-2).

This is a psalm suitable for the season of Lent, even though it appears nowhere in the lectionary.  That’s the case with many of these psalms.  They tend to be omitted from the worship of the church.  (I’ll come back to that later.)

Psalm 142 is suitable, not because Lent is all about lamentation, moaning and groaning.  Rather, the Lenten journey focuses on repentance, reflection, and renewal.  And it is indeed a journey.  As we go through the psalm, we find ourselves in process, in transit.  The psalmist is also on a journey.  The psalmist is on the road, and it is a rocky road.  The psalm speaks to these things.

2 ps

[photo by John Salzarulo on Unsplash]

Our poet is walking the path, and with confidence says to the Lord, “When my spirit is faint, you know my way” (v. 3).  That’s a good thing, because here comes trouble.  “In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.”  The New Jerusalem Bible says, “On the road I have to travel they have hidden a trap for me.”

Who are these would-be captors?  What are these would-be captors?  What traps, what snares, are lying in wait?

Those are good questions for us this season.  I suppose this could be said every year, but it seems like this is a Lent like none other.  We are emerging from a global pandemic, and traps a-plenty have been set.  Destruction and hardship have been left in its wake.

Wrestling with the effects of lockdowns, debates about masks, the wisdom of vaccine mandates, all that and more—it has taken a toll on our well-being.  It’s taken a toll on our sanity!  Families have been divided; they have turned on each other.  It’s sad but true that in too many cases, people who thought of each other as friends have been divided.  Discord has occurred.

I haven’t lost any friends, but I can say there are people I agree with who I didn’t think I would before Covid.  On the flip side, I have found myself disagreeing with those who I couldn’t imagine myself doing so before Covid.

Our psalm continues with David (or the David-like person) crying out, “Look on my right and see—there is no one who recognizes me.  All refuge is denied me, no one cares whether I live or die” (v. 4, NJB).  No one recognizes me.  No one cares whether I live or die.  This is the picture of dejection, the portrait of despair.  Maybe there’s a tiny touch of paranoia?

3 psHave you heard the saying, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”?

The psalmist is encircled by enemies, surrounded by the sinister.  Our friend is nameless, and no one is offering a hand of greeting.

I wonder, could this also be a picture of abandonment by friends?  A question I know we’ve all heard is, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”  Abandonment by friends was poignantly and heartbreakingly demonstrated on the night we call Maundy Thursday.  The words from the liturgy: “On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested” are played out.  When the disciples see the gang coming to take Jesus into custody, they make themselves scarce.

Have we ever stood back when a friend needed us?  Have we ever seen an injustice and not lift a finger?  It’s a terrible feeling if we dare allow ourselves to feel it.

Here’s another uncomfortable question.  We easily see those others as persecutors, but how about us?

I don’t if this exactly qualifies as persecution, but in my freshman year of college, I might be described as the “roommate from hell.”  Maybe that’s too strong a term; I never did anything bad to him.  Maybe I was just the roommate from heck!

I never really made an effort to get to know him.  I rarely asked him about himself or his family or anything personal.  He occasionally would offer an olive branch.  One night after he’d been out with his friends, he brought home a tamale for me.  (By the way, he was Mexican American.)  He was a really nice guy.  I’m sure we could have been good friends.

4 psOne morning really stands out for me.  It was a Saturday morning, and I was still in bed.  I awoke to the voices of his father, mother, and sister.  They were speaking Spanish, so I didn’t know what they were saying.  I figured if I pretended I was asleep, they would cut their visit short.  That did not happen.  They had to know I was awake.  I imagine they asked him, “What’s the deal with your roommate?”

They were there for about twenty minutes.  After some time had gone by, I was too embarrassed to act like I had just woken up.  All I had to do when I first heard them was to greet them and ask if I could have a minute or two to get dressed.  I must confess there was a bit of racism involved.

The story does have a happy ending.  Decades later, I connected with him on Facebook.  I profusely apologized for being such a complete jerk when we were roommates.  I even let him know that a few years later, I came to faith and the Lord had turned me around.  It turned out he hadn’t thought about very much about it.  He just thought I was quiet.

I said earlier that Lent is not all about lamentation, but it certainly has a large role.  It is okay—even necessary—to lament.

There is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church located in Oakland, California named Dominique Gilliard.  He has written on the subject of lament.

“Somewhere along the way,” he says, “we modern Christians got lament wrong: we began thinking of it as optional instead of a required practice of the faith.”[1]  This goes with my earlier comment about lament being overlooked by the church.

He continues, speaking of its benefits, “When we lament, we confess our humanity and concede that we are too weak to combat the world’s powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness on our own.  When we lament, we declare that only God has the power to truly mend the world’s pain and brokenness.”

This is always true, but how much more we see that pain and brokenness today with war in Europe.  At the same time, we too easily disregard wars in Asia and Africa.

Gilliard comments on the power of lament.  “Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world and of those whom we shepherd.  Lamentation begets revelation.  It opens our eyes to death, injustice, and oppression we had not even noticed.  It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world. To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”

5 ps

I like how he credits lament as begetting—as producing—revelation.  It opens our eyes and ears to the pain that is “the white noise of our world.”  It’s difficult for me to sleep without running a fan or something else generating white noise.  I need the white noise to drown other sounds out.

Something that gets drowned out by white noise are school shootings.  To be honest, I lose track of them.  It seems like there’s one every week somewhere in the country.

“To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”  Before I read that in his article, I hadn’t thought of it that way.  (Maybe I need help in examining my life!)  Lament helps to make us fully human.  It puts us in touch with realities that deserve our attention.  It puts us in touch with people who deserve our attention.  The apostle Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Ro 12:15).

The psalmist begs for attention when calling upon God.  “Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low.  Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me” (v. 6).  Here’s the final request: “Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name” (v. 7).

So, as we’ve been on the road we have to travel, what is our prison?  What holds us?  What prevents us from giving and living in gratitude to God?  Dare to look deep within; I promise you will find something.  Going back to the beginning, that is the often-maddening question of Lent.  What will we give up?

I’ll repeat my original quote from Banu: “We need to dispossess ourselves of the possessions that possess us, so we can be possessed by God.”

The psalm ends on a powerful note of praise.  “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.”  As we progress through Lent on the road we have to travel, if we yearn for freedom, the Lord will burst the bars of our self-constructed prisons.

 

[1] www.faithandleadership.com/dominique-d-gilliard-reclaiming-power-lament


there are trees, and then there are trees

Throughout the scriptures, one plant—the tree—is employed over and over again to illustrate, to teach, to make sure things take root.  We see that in Psalm 1 and in Jeremiah 17.  In those scriptures, we human beings are compared and contrasted with our woody friends.

I am far from a botanist.  The number of trees I can identify is not great.  A maple leaf adorns the flag of Canada.  Oaks shed acorns.  Pine trees produce those lovely needles.  As for palm trees, who doesn’t know what they look like?  Just think, the first church Banu and I served was in Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day!  (Arbor is “tree” in Latin.)

Regarding Arbor Day: in most states, it falls on the final Friday of April.  The Arbor Day Foundation website reports, “In the last 50 years, [we have] planted and distributed nearly 500 million trees in more than 50 countries around the world to fight global issues facing humankind.  And we’re just getting started.”[1]  That’s a hopeful reality.

1 jr

I have a love-hate relationship with black walnut trees.  Those of you who are familiar with them might have similar feelings.  They make excellent shade trees.  It’s really appreciated on those beastly hot summer days.  However, they have a dark side.  Their roots, leaves, and walnut husks contain the chemical juglone, which is toxic to many plants.  It gives the black walnut trees plenty of elbow room!  Plus, when they fall, those walnuts make a huge mess.

If I had to think of a particular tree to compare with humans, it just might be the black walnut.  Like us, they deal in blessings and curses.  (At least, to our way of thinking.)

Trees in general, though, share an important characteristic with us.  Professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard says they “communicate with each other in cooperative ways that hold lessons for humans.”[2]  They are linked to other trees “by an underground network of fungi that resembles the neural networks in the brain.”  They share information and even warn each other of danger, such as peril from predatory insects.

She says we have much to learn from trees.  I couldn’t agree more.

Moving on, I have often said, “This is one of my favorite psalms.”  The same can be said here.  Psalm number one, kicking off the book, gets things going the right way.  It presents the two ways, the two paths in life—that of the wicked and that of the righteous.

Put in those kinds of terms, it looks like everything is cut and dried; everything is locked in place.  Still, it’s been said, “This most wisdom-like of the Psalms is not claiming that there are no shades of gray in our commitment and walk of faith.  People are complex; life is not so simple.  Rather, this psalm strives to depict the two ways and their consequences for us in all their stark reality.  At any one moment we find ourselves moving in one direction or the other, moving toward an ultimate destination.”[3]

There is always the possibility and reality of correction, of choosing another path.  There is always the possibility of repentance, which as I’ve said before, means “turning back” or “changing one’s mind.”

Now, let’s see what those trees are up to.

Something to notice is that the psalmist and Jeremiah approach those trees from different directions.  The psalmist starts with blessing.  “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…  They are like trees planted by streams of water…” (vv. 1, 3).  However, the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4).

The prophet does the exact opposite.  He starts with doom and gloom, no doubt reflecting how his life has tended to go.  (He’s warned his people about their own wickedness.  Consequently, they have not been happy with him.)  “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength…  They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes” (vv. 5-6).

But then there’s a light in the darkness.  “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (v. 7).  And what is their blessing?  “They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream” (v. 8).  Sending out its roots.  Remember how we just learned about the trees, using their roots in that web of fungi, collaborating with each other in sharing life-giving information of an arboreal nature?

2 jr

However, there is something of consequence here.  As with the trees and their roots, so much goes on beneath the surface.  Can we see that among ourselves?  How much of blessing and cursing goes unnoticed?  What does it take for us to see past the obvious?  How often do we pray for the Lord to extend blessing, to extend shalom?  How often do we see random people and pray for their best?  I wonder how many times others see us and pray for goodness to envelop our lives?  I wonder how many times that has happened for me?

There is a sense of caring for these trees.  Again, in the psalm, the blessed ones “are like trees planted by streams of water.”  And again, the prophet speaks of “a tree planted by water.”  They haven’t simply appeared in what seems to be a lush environment; they have been planted.  They have been transplanted.  The loving, divine gardener is eager to see them flourish.  They’re given all they need.

The wicked are different.  They are left to fend for themselves.  The psalmist says they “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4).  They are “dust in the wind,” to borrow a phrase from the band Kansas.  Jeremiah declares they are “like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes” (17:6).  They will live in a land of salt.

Both the righteous and wicked will be exposed to drought.  The dry times are coming.  The shrub won’t see any relief.  It won’t see when the good comes.  It will wither away.  It will choke on salt.

The righteous, however, will survive—even thrive.  That tree has no fear of the heat.  Its leaves stay green; it continues to bear fruit.

3 jrWe all have our times of drought.  We all experience those hot summer days when we see water in the distance, but to discover it’s only a mirage.

Putting it a different way, Jesus says our “Father in heaven ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’”  Rain is sent on the just and the unjust.

William Holladay tells us, “It is not a fair world: the signs and rewards of faith are motives for our gratitude when they are present, but we cannot always count on them.  It still makes a difference, Jeremiah says, whether one has a trust in Yahweh or not, even those who trust and those who do not trust may both lack water.”[4]

In case it hasn’t already become abundantly clear, there is very much the element of choice.

When Jeremiah speaks of the unjust as shrubs in the desert, he says, “They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”  One translation doesn’t say they “shall live,” but “since” they live in the parched places.[5]  If you want to consign yourself to the great wastelands, you’re welcome to do so.

4 jrHow often do we insanely choose what kills us?  We often incorporate it into our lifestyles.  Do we eat too much?  Do we drink too much?  Do we spend too much time just sitting around?  Do we avoid exercise?  Do we buy too much?  Do we waste too much?  Do we hurt the environment?  Do we not love God and neighbor?

Don’t worry though, in verse 9, the good Doctor Jeremiah presents his diagnosis.  “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?”  Who indeed can understand it?

The word for “heart” is all-encompassing.  It includes the mind, the will, the heart, the understanding, the inner nature.  It is everything we are!  We can be some devious little critters.

And this all-encompassing heart is perverse.  The word in Hebrew ( אׇנַשׁ, `anash) is better translated as “weak” or “sick.”  The New English Bible says the heart is “desperately sick.”  It is the human condition.  We are desperately sick.  We need to be healed.

The apostle Paul has a similar thought.  “I do not understand my own actions,” he confesses, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Ro 7:15).  He cries out, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  He is a mystery to himself, as are we all.  Then Paul has a new awareness and celebrates, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).

Who can understand our innermost being?  It is the Lord.

That’s a good thing, because like a partridge hatching another bird’s eggs, so are we when we take what is not ours.  We become the opposite of those trees relaying blessing and health and life to each other.  We’re like the emerald ash borer.  We destroy the ash trees which are destined to be chopped down.

Do we deprive others of blessing?  And as I sometimes say, “What would that look like?”

I had a little help envisioning that.  I asked a friend for some reflections.  Depriving others of blessing is similar to cursing them.  It means not encouraging them to share their gifts and abilities.  It means ignoring them.  It could go as far as telling them they’re dumb or ugly or worthless.

5 jr

How different it is to bless and to be a blessing.  It is to lift the other up.  It is to affirm them in their hopes and dreams.  It is to discover the joy of the Lord together.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”

 

[1] www.arborday.org

[2] www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/05/04/993430007/trees-talk-to-each-other-mother-tree-ecologist-hears-lessons-for-people-too

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-psalm-1-2

[4] William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 493.

[5] New Jerusalem Bible, Jeremiah 17:6


no contagion

I sometimes speak of particular psalms as works of art, that is, as real works of art!  Psalm 91 is certainly in that category.  It has so many rich and vivid images.  “You will not fear the terror of the night…  or the destruction that wastes at noonday…  You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.”  But we’ll get to all those in a few minutes!

1 psIt also has a personal connection for me.  Psalm 91 is my mom’s favorite.  She has spoken of how she sometimes inserts her name where the appropriate pronoun appears.  For example, “Ida will not fear the terror of the night.”  “The young lion and the serpent Ida will trample under foot.”  (Banu reminded me it is also her favorite, which she recites and does the same thing my mom does.)

I can speak of a quite intimate moment.  It happened when she was about to have surgery to implant a pacemaker.  Banu and I were in the hospital with her just before they were ready to roll her away and knock her out.  We prayed this psalm with her.  As you go through verse after verse, the promises of the Lord keep adding up, until we get to the end, “With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (v. 16).

This is a song, or a poem, of trust and confidence.  The writer is assured of victory, of obstacles overcome.  This assurance isn’t based on anything within herself or himself.  This assurance, this conviction, is based on living “in the shelter of the Most High, [abiding] in the shadow of the Almighty (v. 1).

The word “Almighty” comes from the Hebrew שַׁדַּי (shaday) Shaddai.

It’s like the Amy Grant song, which was written by Michael Card and John Thompson.  “El-Shaddai, El-Shaddai [“God Almighty”] / El-Elyon na Adonai [“God in the highest, Oh, Lord”] / Age to age, You’re still the same / By the power of the name.”  And of course, the song goes on.  There’s a good case of a psalm inspiring a work of art.

2 ps

Shaddai is the “self-sufficient one,” the “one who suffices.”  That’s a shelter impervious to the storms of life.  One who needs nothing else.

And yes, our psalmist, our poet, has seen some tough times.  There’s been the threat of being snared by the fowler—the danger of being trapped, like a bird rendered helpless.[1]  Who knows what snares, what traps, have lain in wait?  What has been escaped?

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

Who can speak of the “deadly pestilence”?  Our writer has been set free—has been protected—from that which would leave desolation in its wake.

We’re told by Gregg Braden the ancient rabbis held that “Psalm 91 protected the prophet Moses the second time he climbed to the top of Mount Sinai, which is when he received the Ten Commandments.  [He] was enveloped during his ascent by a mysterious cloud of unknown substance of unknown origin.  The cloud became so dense that he could no longer see ahead of him, nor could he be seen by those watching him from below the cloud…”[2]

“It’s during this time of uncertainty and fear that Moses composed and recited Psalm 91 for his protection.  For reasons that he attributed to the power of this prayer, Moses, in fact, was protected.”[3]  While it’s not likely Moses actually wrote the psalm, we can see how it was regarded to have served as a shield.

I spoke of rich and vivid images, including verses 5 and 6.  There is defense from dangers of night and day.  No “terror of the night,” no “arrow that flies by day” will bring harm.  In verse 6, we once again hear about pestilence.  The psalmist is told to not fear “the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

The destruction that wastes at noonday.  Many have seen that as a reference to “the noonday devil” or “noonday demon.”  Now that’s a colorful character.  Throughout the centuries of church history, it became associated with one of the seven deadly sins, the one known as sloth.  We might be tempted to laugh it off as mere laziness, but it is more than that.  It is the condition called acedia.  In Latin, it literally means “lack of care.”  It is a refusal to act on the demands of love.

Andrew Michel is a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  He says, “As an absence of care, acedia can seem harmless enough since it is not an observable…offense.  However, whenever there is an absence of care in the world, an absence of intentionality, then someone is left lacking—an elderly person unattended, a starving person unfed, a woman battered, a child uneducated, a life’s gifting uncelebrated.”[4]  It might seem the only person harmed is the one afflicted by it, but as we see, it spreads outward.  It is not a victimless crime!

3 ps“Therefore,” Michel continues, “acedia is difficult to notice because it [deals with] an absence.  Perhaps this is the reason it has been associated with the Psalmist’s noonday demon, who seems to terrorize his prey in the light of day, not fearing being seen or noticed.”[5]

I’ve taken some time with this, because “the destruction that wastes at noonday” doesn’t have to be something dramatic.  In fact, it can hide in the ordinary run of the day.  We get so busy with busy-ness that we demonstrate the prayer of confession of sin in which we ask forgiveness, not so much for “what we have done,” but “what we have left undone.”

But there’s good news!  As Michel contemplated studying acedia, he feared it “might turn into turn into a project in moralizing.  Yet, to my delight,” he realized, “as I have explored the richness of acedia, I have paradoxically discovered that the concept is refreshing and illuminating.  Rather than heaping judgment on a person, the recognition of acedia offers an invitation to abundant living.”[6]  The richness of acedia, the noonday devil: that sounds like a contradiction in terms!  Refreshing?  Illuminating?

Still, that is the hope the psalmist holds out.  Fear not.

The promises of deliverance continue.  Consider verses 9 and 10: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”  The word for “scourge” is נֶגַצ (nega`).  It has several nuances, but probably the best one here is “contagion.”  That could include the contagion of acedia, that noonday devil.

The promise here is that “contagion…shall not approach into your tent.”  It shall not rest in your home, because the Lord is in your home.  Something we’ve become familiar with in this past year and a half is indeed contagion.  It has swept through the land; it has swept through the world.  It has visited so many of us. I wonder, though, is there a difference between visiting and taking up residence?  Moving in?

4 psAssuming we take verse 10 literally, at some level, we have no control over being visited by the contagion of Covid, or any other contagion for that matter.  Of course, we take precautions, but there are no firm guarantees in this fallen, disease-infested world.  (I guess I’m scaring all the germophobes!)

Still, as I just suggested, maybe there’s a difference between having a visitor and having someone walk in unannounced, go to the fridge, grab a snack, plop down in your favorite chair, and put their feet up.

So unfortunately, we have become familiar with contagion.  It seems to have brought to the surface some disconcerting realities.

I’ve been reading a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas.  Bonhoeffer, as you may or may not know, was a church leader in Germany during the time of the Nazis.  His best-known book was The Cost of Discipleship.  He was arrested for his anti-government activities, including participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler.  He was imprisoned for two years.  Bonhoeffer was executed just a matter of days before the surrender of the Nazis.

In the book, Metaxas quotes Bonhoeffer on his thoughts about what the war has revealed.  I would suggest in the place of the word “war,” we substitute the word “contagion.”  (It’s kind of like what Banu and my mother have done with Psalm 91, inserting their names in various places.)  Here are some of his reflections on the realities that World War 2 revealed:

5 ps“It is not war [contagion] that first brings death, not war that first invents the pains and torments of human bodies and souls…  It is not war that first makes our existence so utterly precarious and renders human beings powerless, forcing them to watch their desires and plans being thwarted and destroyed…  But war makes all of this, which existed already apart from it and before it, vast and unavoidable to us who would gladly prefer to overlook it all.”[7]

Does it seem like I’m overstating the effects of the pandemic by comparing it to war?  Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s by very much.  Maybe I’m alone in this, but I think these past months have revealed how crazy we make each other!  Lengthy traumatic experiences have a way of doing that.

Going along with Bonhoeffer, those realities and forces were already there.  The divisions, the shaming of each other, the recriminations…  Covid has given all that an elevated platform.  Especially with the forced lockdowns, it has exposed in detail the economic inequality, the imbalanced opportunities for education, the scourge (yes, the contagion) of domestic violence.

Hasn’t this talk of the noonday devil and contagion been fun?  Fortunately, there’s more to the story.

To those who love the Lord and know his name, these vows are made: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them” (v. 15).  The word for “honor” כָּבַד (kabad) is the same word for “glorify.”  Imagine that: the Lord will glorify us!  Plagues and contagions might surround us.  That includes the self-imposed contagion of acedia, of sloth—the one that has us saying “no” to love, “no” to the Spirit.

6 ps

God is ever present, wanting so badly to glorify us.  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ says, “No contagion will harm you.”  Glory be to God in the highest!

 

[1] also in Psalm 124:7

[2] Gregg Braden, The Wisdom Codes (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2020), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 2, paragraph 1.

[3] Braden, 1.2.2

[4] Andrew A. Michel, “In Pursuit of Sophia: A Pilgrimage with Depression and Acedia,” Acedia: Christian Reflection (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2013), 29-30.

[5] Michel, 30.

[6] Michel, 29.

[7] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 373.


mourning to morning

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (vv. 5, 11).

These beautiful, elegant verses from Psalm 30 often adorn little knick-knacks and more serious pieces of art.  They are truly inspiring lines of poetry.

1 ps

"Angel of Grief" sculpted by William Wetmore Story (left), a happy woman (right)

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?” (v. 9).  How about that one?  Is it poetry?  Sure it is, but how likely are we to see it on a coffee mug—or as a decoration on someone’s tee shirt?  Probably not so much!

What about the book of Lamentations?

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vv. 22-23).  This is truly majestic stuff!  I imagine there are some people who don’t realize it comes from this book.  Of course, it’s the inspiration for one of the most beloved hymns of the church, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

There’s a worship chorus many of us have learned, those who are familiar with some of the music of the Maranatha Singers: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; / his mercies never come to an end. / They are new every morning, new every morning; / great is thy faithfulness, O Lord, / great is thy faithfulness.”

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!  How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (v. 1).

That’s how Lamentations begins.  I wonder, what are the chances of those lines embellishing a plaque mounted on a wall in your house?  Compared with “great is thy faithfulness,” what are the odds of that appearing on the welcome mat at your front door?  Probably not so much!

As you can see, celebration and lament often go together.  We’re good with the celebration, but how about the lament?  About 40 percent of the psalms are psalms of lament.  Lament is shot through the books of Job and of course, Lamentations.  Psalm 22 appears on the lips of Jesus on the cross.  (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)  Lament appears throughout the scriptures.

Given the weight the Bible puts on lament, it would seem our worship would include at least a tiny bit more of it.  Our hymns scarcely mention it.  Churches that do lament better are the traditionally black churches.  No doubt, they’ve experienced much more of it.

2 psHere’s a question I’ve asked myself: how can we include lament—how can we include it in song—without getting morbid?  Is there such a thing as a liturgical Debbie Downer?

Psalm 30 portrays the other side of the danger, of the misfortune.  It is used as one of the psalms in the Easter season.  It speaks of life from death.  Aside from the little goody we’ve already seen, “What profit is there in my death,” we have verse 3: “O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”

Sheol is the land of the grave.  It is the underworld.  It is the land of the dead; it’s like Hades in Greek thought.  Not much happens in Sheol.  It’s a gloomy, gray place.  All the restaurants are closed.  All the musical instruments have been confiscated.  There’s nothing to read, nothing to watch, no fun whatsoever.  And as we see in verse 9, addressed to the Lord, “Will the dust praise you?  Will it tell of your faithfulness?”  The worship of God is absent.

Sheol is the land of the grave.  As such, it can include death in many forms: whatever is destructive, whatever is harmful, whatever is shameful.  As for the psalmist, what is presented is recovery from a serious illness.  Indeed, it’s an illness that first appeared to be terminal.

It has been a long night.

I’m sure we can relate to this in a literal way.  There are those nights that seem to never end.  Maybe we’ve even looked to the east, wondering when the sky would begin to show signs of light.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in body.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in heart.

Finally, here comes the dawn.  Maybe we’re still sick, but a sense of relief takes hold.  We’ve made it through the night!  Hallelujah.

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”

3 ps

It’s been a hard road, as verses 6 and 7 tell us.  “As for me,” according to our poet, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.”

I like the way the New Jerusalem Bible puts it.  “Carefree, I used to think, ‘Nothing can ever shake me!’  Your favour, Yahweh, set me on impregnable heights, but you turned away your face and I was terrified.”  In Biblical thought, when God’s face is turned away, favor, special privilege, is suspended—if not canceled altogether.  Who can say what that would mean for any single person?  For that matter, who can say what that would mean for any single group?

The other night, while we were talking about the virus, Banu wondered about the next thing we’re supposed to be afraid of!

We must admit that for many, favor and special privilege are too often absent.

In 1996, Pastor Soong-Chan Rah and his wife Sue started a church in inner-city Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is the Central Square neighborhood, positioned between Harvard and MIT.  The students called it “Central Scare.”  That is, “the scary urban neighborhood into which you dare not venture.”[1]

After the church had been going for a little while, Rah was planning a sermon series, but he wondered, “What should I use?”  He considered the gospel of Mark, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or even Revelation, with God’s vision of the heavenly city.  Eventually, he decided to go with the book of Lamentations.  It’s safe to say the church growth gurus rarely suggest that one!

He felt the need to meet the people where they were.  Instead of glossing over their suffering, he wanted to address it.  He wanted to give them the language for it.  He didn’t want the “rah-rah,” exuberance to be the only word that was heard.

The status quo—the way things are now—isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration.  In many ways, the status quo is a cause for mourning, a cause for grief.

In his book, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Rah comments, “Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed, because their lives are in a good place.  Tax rates should remain low.  Home prices and stocks should continue to rise unabated, while interest rates should remain low to borrow more money to feed a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.”[2]

4 ps

The book of Lamentations pictures a city and temple that have been destroyed and a people who have been forcibly relocated by a mighty empire.  Jerusalem, who “was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal” (v. 1).  She’s had to exchange her fine garments for a burlap sack.

“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place” (v. 3).  They have no place to call their own.

There is something we already incorporate into our worship that has a resemblance to lament.  It’s when we join in our prayer of confession.  When we confess our sin, we admit the wrong in our action and in our inaction.  We do this at the corporate and at the personal levels, that is, as a body and as individuals.  One would presume—one would hope—that at least a smidgen of lamentation goes with it!

As for lament itself, it also is expressed for all of us and for each of us.  Are we to take responsibility, to follow up on lament?  Is it enough to simply “feel bad” when it’s within our power to act?  I would suggest that St. James’ maxim of “faith without works is dead” would apply (2:14-26).

How about when we have little or no control over the situation?

Rev. Rah describes the book of Lamentations in several ways, including that of a funeral dirge.  Already in chapter 1 we see references to widowhood (v. 1), young girls grieving (v. 4), priests and elders perishing (v. 19), and a note that “in the house it is like death” (v. 20).

“Lamentations 1 depicts the reality of death and suffering that leads to the appropriate response of lament.  The city of Jerusalem has died, and Lamentations 1 initiates a funeral dirge in response.”[3]  Jerusalem is a dead body.  It must be acknowledged and mourned.  It must be honored.  “The funeral dirge is a reality check for those who witness suffering and allows mourning that is essential for dealing with death.”[4]

When we mourn, we remember.  Christopher Wright says, “Part of the horror of human suffering is to be unheard, forgotten, and nameless.  Lamentations is a summons to remember.”[5]  It “forces us to listen to every mood that the deepest suffering causes, whether we approve or not.  We are called not to judge, but to witness.  Not to speak, but to listen.”[6]

When Job’s friends heard of his misfortune, they traveled great distances to be with him.  They were true friends, being with him in his pain.  They were witnesses.  Of course, when he began venting his “every mood that the deepest suffering causes,” they began to judge!

Earlier, I expressed the concern about being morbid, being a Debbie Downer.  With that in mind, can we see the power of lament?  Can we see how it helps us to be real?  Can we see how it enables us to honor and care for each other?  Can we see how, through a meandering, circuitous route, lament leads to joy?

Clearly, not everyone has experienced the same degree of sorrow; not everyone has had the same amount of misfortune.  However, I think there’s something we all have in common—something we’ve all gone through.  And that is, the pain of growing up.  The feelings of rejection, of awkwardness, of embarrassment—that’s all part of the package.

For those who are still kids, I can tell you, “Hang on; you will get through it.  It might not seem like it, but you will make it.”  Of course, even as adults we still deal with that stuff, but one hopes we become better able to handle it and learn the lessons it provides.

5 ps

[photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash]

The remembrance and witness that come with mourning and lament do indeed impart power.  They lead us in the path of Jesus, a man acquainted with sorrows.  He walks with us through those never-ending nights.  And finally, here comes the dawn.  Our mourning gives way to morning.

 

[1] Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 1, paragraph 1.

[2] Rah, Introduction.1.13.

[3] Rah, Epilogue.2.1.

[4] Rah, 2.1.6.

[5] Christopher J. H. Wright, “Lamentations: A Book for Today,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39:2 (Apr 2015), 59.

[6] Wright, 60.


idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

In the Presbyterian Church, our constitution has two parts.  Part one is the Book of Confessions, and part two is the Book of Order—the guidelines for how we live together as the church.  It strives to bring “order” to our lives.  Of course, both are subservient to the holy scriptures.

Our Book of Order has a statement which calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05).  The book of Isaiah might go along with that.  The prophet speaks of idols created by workers, goldsmiths, and artisans (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

Speaking of the latest features, I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.)

Have you not heard?

1 is

With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

We’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  We can see the revelation of God stretching back over 13 billion years.  The advancement of human knowledge is definitely worthy of celebration.  Even so, it’s also true that a healthy perspective means knowledge and humility go hand-in-hand.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?  Hold that thought!

With chapter 40, we begin a new era in the book of Isaiah.  We move to the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon.

I’ve heard it said that the exile cured the Israelites of idolatry.  I think that’s a hasty conclusion.  As you see in our text, they still need to be reminded that the old Babylonian gods are powerless and represent something that really doesn’t exist.  Verse 18 asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?”  But certainly, those gods aren’t the only form of idolatry!

On that matter, George Knight said, “[We have] first to make [our] gods, or create [our] concepts, before [we] can bow down to them and worship them.”[1]

We devise all manner of concepts.  Even our concept of God can become an idol.  There are other things we conceptualize, which also can become idolatrous.  Our beliefs regarding life together are certainly in that category.  For example, so many of the posts on Facebook and other social media make claims that are taken out of context, are half-true, or are simply false.  Of course, we see this all over the place.

Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and ask if it’s really necessary that we put this out into the universe.  Still, sometimes getting tied to our idols is just too much fun!

If you think I’m kidding about idols being fun, think again.  In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Idols aid us, console us, and give us direction…”[2]  And yet, “The Bible is relentlessly anti-idolatrous.  And I don’t think it’s all out of some sort of prudish, narrow-minded…pagan-hating disapproval of certain rituals.  I think it’s an astounding revelation that however much idolatry seems to secure life, it actually diminishes it.  It doesn’t make life, it takes it.  It may provide stability and orientation, but it is giving our lives to what is not alive.  Idolatry is death.”

I like the way verses 19 and 20 answer the question about to what we can compare God.  There’s a mocking reply about a gold-covered figure with silver chains or someone getting sturdy wood and having an image carved that won’t tip over.  By the way, the Hebrew word for the fellow who chooses that wood means “to be impoverished.”[3]

Knight says, “With biting sarcasm [the prophet] suggests that if a man is too poor to rise to a gold-plated image, then he can be happy making do with a piece of wood, provided only that it does not fall over.”[4]  Hey, it’s okay if you can’t afford the top of the line.  You don’t need the latest features.  You don’t need the cell phone that lets you smell people!

If you hadn’t noticed, verses 18 and 25 ask similar questions.  “To whom then will you liken God?”  And also, “To whom then will you compare me?”  They both are answered by verses 21 and 28.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

2 is

There seems to be a bit of theological amnesia going on.

How often does that describe us?  When things are running smoothly, when the car is running well, when we have plenty of Granny Smith apples (okay, that’s me), we can say, “God is good, God is good all the time.”  However, when things fail to run smoothly, when the car breaks down, when we only have onions (again, that’s me), we can find ourselves saying, “Where are you, God?  What is happening?”

We might be like the psalmist who proclaimed, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; [but then] you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6-7).  We don’t know what happened for the psalmist to say God’s face was hidden, but I think we get the point.  We can forget the blessings of the past when the present seems grim, and when the future seems dark.  I don’t believe any of us are immune to that.

Indeed, there is a space for mourning.  There is a space for sadness.  The Bible is filled with notes of lamentation.  It is honest.

We hear verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?”  Is this a voice of faith or faithlessness?  Here’s a question: would it make sense for a truly faithless person to bother calling out to God in the first place?

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “He’s covered idolatry.  What about tyranny?  How is that a human tendency?”  Good questions.

The prophet says God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (v. 23).  Another translation speaks of “princes” as “dictators.”[5]  We might not be dictators of a nation, but we can be dictators in other ways.  Has anyone ever had a boss who behaved like a dictator?  If you haven’t, consider that a blessing from God.

We can have our own inner tyrant.

3 is

Political affiliation can become idolatrous and tyrannous.  Wouldn’t it wonderful if we avoided the insults and the giving of childish nicknames?  We might expect behavior like that in middle school.  It’s quite another thing when full grown adults engage in that infantile behavior.

And it’s not just politics.  We really do it with religion.  Sometimes it gets really nasty, such as labeling others as “dog people” or “cat people.”

Labeling can actually be a form of judging.  We assign worth­­ to people.  We can sum up their whole lives.  As Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1-2).  We get what we give.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  There’s something else about a tyrant.  A tyrant doesn’t want to be told.  Tyrants don’t want to hear.  Tyrants assume they already know.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

My inner tyrant would have me close my ears and tell me I know all I need to know.  My puny god idol raises its head.  Sometimes, though, that tyrant works in the opposite way.  Our inner tyrant can bully us and tell us there’s no point in hearing.  We don’t know anything; we are not capable of knowing anything.

But that’s where the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, steps in.  The one who does not faint or grow weary; the one whose understanding is unsearchable arrives on the scene.  Trying the carry the world on your shoulders will wear you out.  (Do you believe me?)  However, the Lord empowers; the Lord strengthens.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v. 30).

Your days of forced labor are over, O you exiles returning home.  Be rid of the idolatry and tyranny that have been your taskmasters.  You need not enslave each other.  The good news is that Jesus casts out demons, be they literal demons or the demons of besetting sin­­—the demons of continual letdown.

4 is

Idolatry and tyranny can’t stand it when we wait for the Lord.  They demand to be heard.  When we ignore their voices—and they will be there to rant and rave—we open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.  The promise of waiting for the Lord is that we will fly like an eagle.  We will run like a gazelle.  We will take the long walk and remain strong.

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2008), 21.

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


we dreamed, and it was joy

Sometimes I will try to go to sleep.  Please note, I said “try.”  This might be taking a nap or going to bed at night.  There are those times with an in-between level of awareness in which you’re not sure if you slept or not.  At least, I have found that to be true with myself.  Did I really make the plunge, or did I remain up in the waking world?  If I have memory of a dream, then I know I was actually asleep.

Dreams themselves can be funny things.  They can be crazy things, as I’m sure you all know.  Throughout history, people have interpreted dreams in all manner of ways.  People have derived messages and gained insights from them.  That goes for me, too.  I know I’m not alone in this, but I have had dreams which provided answers to some problems I had been mulling over.  More than once, I have had ideas for a sermon come to me in the night, sometimes entire paragraphs.

1 ps

The greatest dreams, in my opinion, are the ones impossible to put into words.  They don’t demean themselves into petty things like solving problems.  They’re too good for that.  They’re too sublime.  They’re too majestic.  They fire the imagination.  They are works of art.

Psalm 126 is one of those works of art.  It is one of my favorite psalms—and I love a lot of the psalms.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1).  That first part can also read, “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion.”  What an awesome image.  “We were like those who dream.”  It had to be a dream!  These were people who had been exiled to Babylon.  They had been forcibly removed from their homes and sent marching on that long trail of tears.  The world as they knew it had ended.  And yet…

I love the Hebrew word for “dream”: חָלַם, chalam.  It’s dreaming while asleep (last night, I dreamed I had the face of a horse).  It’s dreaming for something in life (I’ve always dreamed of going to Alaska).  It’s dreaming as a prophet (thus says the Lord).

I should add that prophets are not fortune tellers.  Nine times out of ten (maybe more than that) their prophetic dreams are about the current situation the people face, rather than predicting the future.  Having said that, we benefit from the messages they have given.  We need them!  And there are indeed foreshadowings of the Messiah.  The New Testament has one or two, here and there.

The word chalam has another definition.  It also means to be strong, to be robust.  It refers to infants and livestock if they’re fat and plump.  Poor bony creatures do not qualify as chalam.  The Revised English Bible captures this nuance of “those who dream,” by saying “we were like people renewed in health.”  Is it safe to say those who dream are healthy?  Those who do not dream are unhealthy?  They are not strong?  They are not robust?

According to the psalmist, they need not worry about that, as we see in verse 2.  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”  They can’t control themselves.  Their amazing reversal of fortunes demands response.  “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

2 ps[Here is a joyful person!]

The word for “shouts of joy” is רׅנָּה, rinnah.  It also appears in verses 5 and 6.  It can also mean “singing” and “rejoicing.”  What is their response to what the Lord has done for them?  What is their response to be like those who dream?  It’s singing; it’s joyful singing!

The Jews who have returned from exile can only ask, “How can we keep from singing?”  It’s like the hymn which poses the question, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging / Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?”[1]

The psalmist does something interesting.  It is affirmed, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  And then there’s a transition.  Acknowledging what’s been done, a request is added, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (vv. 3-4).  (That’s the desert in southern Israel.)  We’re moving from the past to looking to the future.

Lord, we ask you to make the streams flow in the desert.  This isn’t the time to let us down!  Don’t let our dreams turn to dust.  We just got our singing voices warmed up!  We were making beautiful music.

Still, maybe the psalmist understands the score.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (v. 5).

What’s the deal with introducing this language of sowing and reaping?  Maybe there is an understanding that joy must be grounded.  Joy can’t simply be “just a dream.”  It should be noted joy is not a mere emotion.  It is a deep spiritual reality, even when we don’t feel elated.  Quite clearly, there’s no guarantee that sowing the seeds will produce a good crop.  Maybe the ground will not be receptive.  Is it rocky?  Is it sandy?  Is it scorched by the sun, dry as a bone?

The image of sowing and reaping is a universal one, common to people throughout time.  Jesus tells a story which begins, “Listen!  A sower went out to sow” (Mk 4:1).  How receptive are we to receiving that seed which is the word?  Is our ground barren, rocky, filled with thorns?  Do we need to benefit from that fresh water in the desert?

Or will our efforts end in tears?

Henri Nouwen speaks of the joy that emerges from sorrow.[2]  “Joys are hidden in sorrows!  I know this from my own times of depression.  I know it from living with people with mental handicaps.”  He refers to his time after leaving his position as professor at Harvard Divinity School to live with the folks at L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, a community for adults with intellectual disabilities.

“I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor.  We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness.  We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.”

3 ps

[Some friendly folks at L'Arche Daybreak]

It really is too easy to focus on the negative.  One way I notice this is when we take prayer requests.  I think you will agree with me in saying the concerns usually outweigh the joys.  We too readily overlook the blessings and celebrations in life.  Please understand me.  In absolutely no way am I suggesting we overlook or dismiss the very real struggles and sorrows among us.  We all have burdens to bear, some much more than others.

I have a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  There is a section devoted to Evening Prayer.  There’s one in particular I frequently visit before going to sleep.  (Yes, we’re back to sleep!)

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.” (page 124)

I especially appreciate the request to “shield the joyous.”  I find depths of meaning in that.  Is it a plea for protection, lest the joyous too easily fall?  Does it refer to the prayer’s concern for the sorrows immediately preceding the joy?  Is it a shelter for the joyous prophetic dream of justice and peace?  I imagine it is those and many other levels of awareness.

The psalmist concludes, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6).  That’s the story of bringing in the sheaves.[3]  “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, / Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; / When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, / We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

How has our harvest been?  How have our crops fared?  Is our livestock chalam?   Can we carry our sheaves with joy?

The psalmist would have us be dreamers.  During this Advent, I think we are especially called to be dreamers.  Howard Wallace reminds us that, in our call to be dreamers, we would be like “those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be.  It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as the Lord comes to us in the midst of the tears of this earthly experience.”[4]

It’s not hard to see us in our own exile, of sorts.  We might be weeping for a season.  And yet…  God gives us the promise of the advent, the coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us through the desert of our journey.

We dreamed, and it was joy.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=VLPP3XmYxXg

[2] henrinouwen.org/meditation/joys-are-hidden-in-sorrows

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7yMUIezLSE

[4] hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/AdventB/Advent3BIsa61Ps126.html


wordless words

Sometimes, events happen that simply must be addressed in a sermon.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.  When the president and first lady tested positive for the coronavirus, that pushed its way to the front.  It’s a tragedy when anyone contracts Covid-19.  It has happened tens of millions of times worldwide.  Over one million people have died.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say 2020 has been a year unlike any other for every human being alive on planet Earth.  (I know we’ve said that for various years in the past—but this time, it’s really true!)

Aside from the global pandemic, which is way more than enough, demonstrations have spread across America, the political landscape has been incredibly volatile, the ice caps continue melting, the oceans are getting warmer, but guess what?  The Spirit of God is moving.

And I trust the Spirit of God was moving me when I wrote this sermon.

1 ps

In July, I started noticing something else about 2020.  I began a frequent ritual of gazing into the night sky.  From our vantage point, Jupiter and Saturn have been doing a nocturnal dance since early this year and will continue to do so for the rest of 2020.  The two largest planets in our solar system have recently begun sharing the sky with our neighbor, Mars.  I often like to await the appearance of Jupiter as the sky gradually darkens.  It becomes visible well before any stars.

Seeing those planets has been a gift.  They are my cosmic friends!  I have been reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, our problems—as genuinely serious as they are—still are part of a vast intergalactic tapestry.  Contemplating such matters has become almost a spiritual discipline.  It has been therapeutic.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  So says the beginning of Psalm 19.

That psalm is one of my favorites.  It would seem I’m not alone in that.  It has been celebrated down through the ages for its poetic beauty.  A prominent writer in the 20th century also had great admiration for it.  That would be C. S. Lewis, professor at Oxford and author of numerous books, including The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.  A professed atheist, he came to Christ, partly due to his conversations with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis’ praise for the psalm has been widely quoted.  “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter,” he wrote, “and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[1]  I wish he had said how he really felt!

2 psHe spoke of how the psalmist describes “the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west…  The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is ‘there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.’  It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardor.”

He’s really passionate about this psalm!

Psalm 19, which displays the eternal word of God, is laid out in three sections.  The first part, verses 1 to 6, is an exaltation of the majesty of creation.  Verses 7 to 11 glorify the written word, with the benefits thereof: it is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true, and righteous.

It revives the soul.  It makes wise the simple.  It rejoices the heart.  It enlightens the eyes.  Its beauty puts gold to shame.  And how does it taste?  Sweeter than honey, child!  Psalm 119 agrees.  “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v. 103).

We end with verses 12 to 14 with a prayer of repentance and protection—and that includes protection from oneself.  You did know we can be our own worst enemy?  The psalm ends with words that might be familiar.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  (More about that one later.)

So there’s a lot in this psalm, but I want to focus on something I know I need help with—silence.

I started with speaking about admiring my friends, those radiant beauties in the night sky.  I think of how long it’s taken their light to reach me.  (Minutes?  Over an hour?)  I can’t hear them, but they proclaim the work and word of God.

Verse 3 speaks, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”  Recall the line from our call to worship: “Without a word being spoken, all creation bears witness to the goodness of the Lord.”  Their voice is not heard, and yet, “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (v. 4).

Maybe if I would just shut up, I could hear their silent statements, their wordless words.  Maybe if I weren’t too busy thinking about what I could say about them, I could listen, and my soul would be enriched.  I could pass that blessing along to others.  But no, I have to focus all my attention on myself.

3 ps

Sometimes my dog joins me on these nightly sojourns.  After a little play time, he will lie down and occupy himself with chewing on a stick, or he’ll walk around, sniffing stuff.  He doesn’t say much.  I could take a lesson from him.

I want to revisit that final verse: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, etc.”  The word translated as “meditation” is an interesting one.[2]  It carries the meaning of a “murmuring sound.”  It’s compared to the sound of a harp when struck.  There’s that lingering sound as it begins fading to silence.  It’s not like a drum, something percussive, something rat-a-tat.  It’s smooth.

Another translation speaks of “the whispering of my heart.”[3]  It is as loud as a whisper.

We’re reminded of the prophet Elijah when he is on the run from the wrath of Jezebel, wife of King Ahab.  Elijah has presided over the killing of the prophets of Baal.  Jezebel is not happy, and she gives orders to her hitmen.  That’s when Elijah hits the road.

In the desert, the word of the Lord comes to him.  It isn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  It isn’t in any of the sound and fury.  It is in sheer silence, a small still voice.  It is “a light murmuring sound” (1 Kg 19:12, NJB).

We tend to be quite uncomfortable with silence.  We can notice that in worship.  Moments of silence can seem to go on and on.

There’s another thing I want to mention in this psalm.  Verse 13 says, “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”

The poet wants protection from the insolent, the arrogant ones.  The plea is to be shielded from the harm they would do.  However, as before, the Hebrew word (אֵל, el) can have another nuance.  It also refers to “proud thoughts.”  It can also mean inner insolence.  I wonder if that isn’t the meaning that better applies to most of us.

You know, I have my opinions.  (And of course, they are always the correct ones.)  But at the end of the day, they pale in comparison with Jupiter and Saturn and Mars, who keep doing their thing.  The noise we humans make doesn’t affect them at all.  And my opinions pale in colossal fashion in comparison with the one who says in Isaiah, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).  Period.

4 ps

Our proud thoughts affect the way we treat others.  They affect the way we treat planet Earth.

Besides being World Communion Sunday, today is also the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  He is considered the patron saint of ecology.  He was noted for befriending the animals!

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing prayer walking.  Last Monday, I considered something with which St. Francis would be an excellent guide.  I reflected on how we called to tread lightly on the earth.  Indeed, walking on God’s good creation can be an act of prayer in itself.  Think of it.  We easily disregard that.  We pave over everything.  Our bombs and weapons of war kill more than just humans.  Lord only knows how many plants and animals we kill.  We dump poison and plastic on land and in the sea.  We foul the atmosphere.

We destroy ourselves, and in doing so, we defile the presence of God within us.  We grieve the Holy Spirit.

As I move toward my conclusion, I’m not going to tell you to do anything.  Just turn off the noise.  Open yourself to the word, however it appears.  When we befriend silence, we can better hear the word of the Lord; we can better hear those wordless words.  Let that sweetness fill you up.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

 

[1] reiterations.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/c-s-lewis-on-psalm-19/

from Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harper One, 1958), pp. 73-74.

[2] הׅגָּיוׄן, higgayon

[3] New Jerusalem Bible


memento mori

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

1 ps

"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

That is the poem “Ozymandias,” by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in the early nineteenth century.

This Ozymandias was a fellow who wanted his name to live forever.  By virtue of this massive monument, he wanted to defy the grave.  I wonder how that worked out?  The traveler tells the poet of a “colossal Wreck.”  Long ago, the head fell off.  “Half sunk a shattered visage lies.”  The face has been smashed.  There is a proud boast: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  However, who is there to look on his works?  “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

Having led or helped lead two funerals in just over a week, and one the week before, I’ve been thinking about death recently.  Actually, I’ve been reminded how everything returns to its fundamental parts.  The chair you’re sitting on has crumbled into nothingness—it’s just a question of when it happens.  It’s true of your house.  It’s true of planet Earth itself.  In about seven billion years, our sun will expand out to Earth’s orbit.  (Not exactly the day after tomorrow, but we’ll get there.)  Bye-bye, Mother Earth!

2 psMemento mori.  That’s Latin for “remember death,” as in “remember your death.”  It’s a reminder that we are not immortal.  Lest we think memento mori is a walk on the morbid side, here’s something else to remember: we have an entire season in the church calendar that emphasizes the same thing—Lent.  Our Ash Wednesday liturgy directs us to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There are plenty of people who don’t like Lent because they think it’s too much of a downer.  I’ve even heard ministers say they feel the same way.

There’s a line in a prayer from our funeral liturgy that has helped remind me of such things these past few days.  “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live.”  It is a joyful affirmation that we will be with the Lord.

Memento mori comes from the time of the ancient Romans.  We’re told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”[1]

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”?  Well, here’s another one.  “You can’t take it with you!”

That seems to be the message of Psalm 49.  We already get that in verse 1, as the psalmist proclaims, “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world.”  It’s a message for everyone on planet Earth.  The Hebrew word used here for “world” is interesting.[2]  It only appears five times in the entire Old Testament.  It means “world,” but with the sense of a short period of time.  It means “transient” or “fleeting.”  It’s the perfect word, considering the theme of the psalm.

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

There’s quite a bit in Psalm 49, but we don’t have time to go into all of it.  I’ll just mention a few points.  I want to take a tip from Ozymandias and “those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches,” as verse 6 puts it.

That’s some shaky ground.  We’re told we can find security in money or gold or real estate or whatever.  Considering the fires and floods and famine and whatever the coronavirus is up to, I think security might better be found in drinkable water.

3 ps

The psalmist continues: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.  For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, that one should live on forever and never see the grave” (vv. 7-9).  Well, tell that to the researchers who say death is something we can delay indefinitely.  There are some folks who say a lifetime of 150 years isn’t too far down the road.  And then there are already some people who’ve had themselves cryogenically frozen.  The hope is they can be thawed sometime in the future.

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

Keeping my promise to hit only a few points, I want to jump to verse 16.  “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.”  We can become intimidated in the presence of those with great affluence.  Verse 18 reminds us, “you are praised when you do well for yourself.”  (Remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?  Robin Leach would engage in what could almost be called televised drooling.)

Nurse practitioner Vincent LaBarca notes, “Life pulls us into painful directions and our impulse is to fight.  But resistance is futile.  (I don’t know if he’s a Star Trek fan, but that’s the warning from the Borg.  You will be assimilated.)  Like swimming against a riptide, we inevitably wear ourselves out and drown.  If, however, we relax and allow the tide to take us, we are safely guided back to shore.”[3]

Verses 12 and 20 have always been the ones to catch my attention.  It is a repeated thought.  “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.”  We humans cannot hang on very long to our splendor.  I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “We aren’t immortal.  We don’t last long.  Like our dogs, we age and weaken.  And die.”

I suppose if our measure of life is pomp and splendor, we might very well end up like an animal, even a beloved doggie.  I don’t believe their deaths are meaningless, but one thing we can do which they can’t is to consciously prepare for our passing.

Henri Nouwen spoke of a “grateful death.”[4]  “The way we die,” he said, “has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive.  It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts.  The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude.  Gratitude sets them free to continue their lives without bitterness or self-recrimination.”

I had a professor at seminary who shared four statements that help in the very things I just mentioned.  “Please forgive me.”  “I forgive you.”  “Thank you.”  “I love you.”  That works both ways, for the one passing and for those left behind.  No regrets.

4 ps

photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

I was fortunate and truly blessed to have that kind of ending with my father.  Banu and I lived in Jamestown at the time.  My dad had been hospitalized several times, but this time, there was more a sense of finality to it.  I got a call from my sister, telling me I needed to come home.  I flew to Nashville the next day.  My brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to the hospital.

My mom and sister, and my mom’s pastor, were in the waiting room.  They had already said their goodbyes.  So I went into the ICU and stood next to my dad’s bed.  His eyes were closed.  I held his hand and told him that I loved him.  He didn’t last much longer.  I think he willed himself to hang on until I arrived.  My dad passed away at five in the afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set.  He was welcomed with its orange-red rays.  It was like something from a movie.

It puts a little different spin on the promise of the one who said, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved” (Jn 10:9).

I don’t need to tell you we’re constantly surrounded by death.  We are routinely reminded of the Covid count.  In some quarters, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to inspire fear.  However, our risen Lord says, “Fear not.”  Instead of fear, he inspires us with holy boldness. Memento mori is a fierce and wonderful embrace of life.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] medium.com/@julesevans/the-memento-mori-f588311adce0

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

[3] medium.com/illumination/an-existentialist-and-a-christian-walk-into-a-bar-91f713d5e5f0

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/a-grateful-death