Psalms

dragging that cart

Isaiah 5 begins with a very clear image.  “I will sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill” (v. 1).  Aside from singing to a beloved one, we definitely have a vineyard in view.

So guess what?  I started thinking of vineyards!

Certainly, there are places in the world noted for their vineyards and the wine produced by them.  Here are just a few: France, Spain, Italy, Germany (by the way, they’ve had a little success with beer), Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, and others.  Then there’s the United States.  Of course, the most celebrated wines come from California.  Other states make the list, including Tennessee.  There’s a winery less than ten minutes from my Mom’s house.

When we moved to the Empire State, we discovered there’s more than a few vineyards here.  Traveling on I-90 between Buffalo and Erie, PA, you will see some wine-producing country in Chautauqua County.  And then, the Finger Lakes!

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[back to nature and a little strand]

When we served churches near Keuka Lake, there were vineyards opposite two places where we lived.  At one, the vineyard had gone back to nature, being overgrown.  At the other, there was a vineyard in operation.  We even had a strand of grapes behind the house!

So what does the prophet have to say about the vineyard and the expectation of fine wine?  There are some sobering words.

It seems the beloved took all the proper steps in planting the vineyard.  The beloved one “dug it and cleared it of stones…  planted it with choice vines…  built a watchtower…  hewed out a wine vat” (v. 2).  The preparations have been made.  Well, grapes have indeed grown, but they’re rotten.

With a sense of extreme exasperation, questions are cried out.  “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?  When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield rotten grapes?” (v. 4).

I can imagine one lover saying to another, “After all I’ve done for you, and this is how you repay me?”

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I want to change gears for a moment and point some other notable examples of vineyards in the Bible.  In Psalm 80, we see a quick reference to Israel’s history.  “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.  You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land” (vv. 8-9).  It was glorious.  However, wickedness destroyed it.  There follows a plea for restoration and new growth.

In the gospels, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants.  (I’m following Matthew’s version, 21:33-41.)  A rich man leaves them in charge of his vineyard while he travels far away.  When harvest time comes, he sends servants to collect the grapes.  The tenants beat and kill them.  They do the same when another group is sent.  The landowner then sends his son, thinking they will respect him.  They kill him, too!  Finally, the tenants are put “to a miserable death” (v. 41).

A similar fate of destruction is pronounced on the vineyard we’ve been considering.  Verses 5 and 6 contain some less than tasty consequences.  “I will remove its hedge…  I will make it a wasteland…  it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns…”  It sounds like the vineyard we lived near that had reverted back to nature.  At least the birds and the deer enjoyed it.

Here’s a nice final touch.  “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”  Now that’s harsh!

The passage on the vineyard ends with verse 7, and it has an exclamation of pain and perhaps missed opportunity.  It is set up with this preface, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished garden.”

(Here’s an FYI.  Judah was the southern kingdom, and Israel was the northern.  They split apart after the death of Solomon, some two centuries earlier.  Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in the 730s and 720s BC.  The prophet Isaiah, who lived in Judah, was active during this time.)

The people of Judah are his cherished garden, or his pleasant plant—his delectable plant.

3As you might know, I love to use puns, plays on words.  In that regard, I am following one of the finest and noblest scriptural traditions.  The Hebrew scriptures are chock full of puns, especially in the writings of the prophets.  The final line of verse 7 is a good, yet tragic, example.

He expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness but heard a cry!  It doesn’t really carry over into English.  It loses something in the translation.  It loses a lot in the translation.

The Lord expected justice— מׅשְׁפָּט(mishpat).  But the Lord saw bloodshed— מׅשְׁפָּח (mishpach).  Expected mishpat.  But saw mishpach.

The Lord expected righteousness— צְדָקָה(tsdedaqa).  But the Lord heard a cry— צְעָקָה (tse`aqa).  Expected tsdedaqa.  But heard tse`aqa.

That is the power of the pun.  At the same time, we have an example of the power of poetry.  Poetry can express a nuance, a surprising discovery, a reimagining that a more prosaic approach fails to convey.  It can express a wonderful and delightful turn of phrase, even a mind-expanding trip down the rabbit hole.

The rest of the chapter features a laundry list of social injustices, of ill-treatments of fellow human beings when fidelity to the Lord is cast aside.

It might be asked, considering the array of choices, why focus on just two verses?  When we read the Bible with earnest intent, it is a common thing to have words jump out at you.  Actually, it should be expected to happen on a not uncommon basis.

In this case, that applies to verses 18 and 19.  Here’s how it appears in the New English Bible.  “Shame on you! you who drag wickedness along like a tethered sheep and sin like a heifer on a rope, who say, ‘Let the Lord make haste, let him speed up his work for us to see it, let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel be soon fulfilled, so that we may know it.’”

Here’s how Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase, The Message.  “Doom to you who use lies to sell evil, who haul sin to market by the truckload, Who say, ‘What’s God waiting for?  Let him get a move on so we can see it.  Whatever The Holy of Israel has cooked up, we’d like to check it out.’”

If it hasn’t already become crystal clear, the folks hauling those carts are being chastised for their evil words and evil doings.  Sentences beginning with “woe,” “shame,” and “doom” usually aren’t followed by words we want to hear.  Dragging iniquity with cords of falsehood, dragging sin like one would do with a cart, can only be perceived as a failure of character—having a moral compass in need of repair, or at least a bit of tweaking.

However, is it possible to envision something a bit less dire?  Could dragging along that cart suggest another type of fault?

At least one thing I would propose it shows is an inability, or unwillingness, to release the past.  And that could comprise any number of things.  Perhaps we have become comfortable with how things have “always” been done.  I will definitely admit, change is not always easy.

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Nonetheless, perhaps we become too comfortable.  One of the crazy things about comfort is we can even get used to the boring and the bad.  We can have a strange security in the insecure.  For example, we can expect—we can become familiar with—abusive relationships.  We might think we don’t deserve any better.

I want to use myself as a case study.

Our retirement from the Presbyterian Church (USA) presents a dramatic new chapter in our lives.  For 26 years, I have been a pastor in a parish setting.  It has provided me with a level of comfort.  That will be changing.

Certainly, different churches have their own qualities, their own DNA.  But my job description, for the most part, has remained the same.  Now, I can’t rely on the security of how I did things before.  Clearly, I have learned things along the way.  I will use them in the future.

Still, I am being asked to take a leap of faith.  It is both daunting and delightful.

I’ve been speaking of my own situation.  However, all of us have stories that are analogous in one way or another.  It might deal with family situations, career, moving to a different part of the country, a different part of the word, saying goodbye, saying hello.

It might deal with congregations.  As just noted, change is not always easy.  In fact, it can be scary or tedious or offensive—offensive in the sense of welcoming those we do not wish to welcome.  It can be a choosing to survive, or even to thrive.  Sometimes it might even call for dramatic decisions, a genuine leap of faith.  Such is the power of change.

There can also be impatience.  We might want God to hurry up, to speed up the process so we can see it.  We might say along with those the prophet is admonishing, “Let the plan of the Holy One of Israel hasten to fulfillment, that we may know it!”  God, get a move on!  I want to jump to the conclusion.  This in-between stuff is too messy.  Here’s an idea, Lord.  Why don’t you make the decision for me?

So we’re back to dragging that cart.

If we hang on to that cart, if we hang on to those ropes, it’s safe to say we haven’t been caring for the vineyard, which is the house of Israel.  It’s safe to say we haven’t been tending God’s cherished garden, which are the people of Judah.  To the extent we identify ourselves with the covenant of the Lord, that also includes us!  We haven’t been caring for ourselves the way God intends.

5To the extent we hang on to that cart, that we hang on to those ropes, to that same extent we sin.  There’s something to understand about sin.  In both the Hebrew ( חָטָא, chata) and Greek (άμαρτανω, hamartanō) words, sin means “missing the mark.”  It means throwing the dart at the bullseye and winding up in the outer ring—maybe even missing the dartboard altogether.  It doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of irredeemable reprobates.

If it seems like all of this is too heavy a burden to bear, here’s some good news.  We have someone who will take the load.  Our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, promises, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).  Jesus knew all about vineyards.  Tending them is hard work.  That’s true in the literal sense and in the symbolic, spiritual sense.

He continues, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (vv. 29-30).  And this, coming from the one who turned water into wine, and it was fine wine at that.

That last line, in which the people want the Lord’s plan to hurry up so they can know it, “know” has a special meaning.  It is “know,” in the sense of “experiencing.”  It’s not just head knowledge; it is knowledge appealing to all we are.  We must know God—we must know Jesus—so that we can more fully invite others to join the covenant family.  We can lend a hand in tending the vineyard with heart and soul.

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fear and great joy

There are a number of certain commercials I think we’ve all seen.  They go along these lines: “But wait!  Your culinary experience isn’t complete until you’ve savored our luscious dessert.  Layer after mouth-watering layer of deep, rich chocolate!  It has a taste that is absolutely decadent!”

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I realize, of course, that the intent is to describe a delight that is a guilty pleasure.  However, unless one has a particular preference for the flavor of rotten rations, that dish might be one to avoid.  After all, the original meaning of “decadent” refers to something in a state of decay—something in the process of decomposing!

Still, at some level, descriptions of decadent dessert are true.  Nothing lasts forever.  I’m reminded of the song by R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”  (And I should add, “And I feel fine.”)

As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, “the present form of this world is passing away” (v. 31).  The Revised English Bible says that “the world as we know it is passing away.”

Plenty of cosmologists say the same thing.  At some point in time, all of the current creation—everything we now see—will be reduced to its constituent elements.  And even they won’t hold together.  If the cosmos continues to expand, that would mean we have in the neighborhood of 20 billion years before every atom, every subatomic particle, in our present universe gets ripped apart.  (At least, that’s one school of thought among many!)

In an Old Testament reading from the book of Isaiah, the prophet has a vision truly looking beyond our present reality.  In the first verse of the passage, he relays the message God has given him, saying, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (v. 17).  Today we recall and celebrate an event that in the timeless, eternal mind of God, shows a door opening to that new dimension: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The scripture reading ends on a note recalling the Garden of Eden—and the reversal of what went wrong.  “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (v. 25).

If we recall in the book of Genesis, the serpent was given the sentence “upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (3:14).

2[Edward Hicks, "Peaceable Kingdom" (1844)]

The resurrection is often thought of as the eighth day of creation.  “And on the eighth day…there was a new creation.”  On the eighth day, God raised Jesus from the grave.

It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out why the text in Isaiah 65 is one of the Old Testament lessons read at Easter.  All of that stuff about a new creation, a new vision, a new Jerusalem—all of that lends itself very well to reflections on resurrection.

Still, having said that, we have to be aware of trying to shoehorn Jesus Christ into the Hebrew scriptures.

I said how the passage begins with God’s promise of a new creation—how the former things won’t be remembered.  Hear verses 18 and 19: “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.”

There will be no more crying.  The infant mortality rate will drop to zero.  “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (v. 21).  There are also the images I mentioned earlier that recall the Garden of Eden.

This poetic language of a seemingly unreal, dreamlike, future appears throughout the Bible.  It’s in some of the prophets, some of Jesus’ words in the gospels, and the book of Revelation is filled with it.  It’s called apocalyptic language.  “Apocalyptic” literally means a “revelation” or an “uncovering.”  It tends to emerge when the community of faith is under great persecution.  It states, in often very colorful terms, that the high and mighty will be brought down and the lowly will be lifted up.

The prophet is telling the people that, besides the need to get their act together, they need not worry about the past, the former age.  It is said earlier in Isaiah, God is “about to do a new thing” (43:19).  What they’ve been doing hasn’t worked.  It has led them to a dead end.  That’s true in more ways than one.

They’re no longer ruled by the Babylonians (these words come after the return from exile in Babylon), but they’re still subject to the Persians.  The prophet is trying to expand their vision, to help them see how they are slaves to their own corruption, to their own decadence.  They are slaves to the powers of death.

In Luke’s version of Easter morning, angelic visitors pose the question to the women coming to the tomb: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Lk 24:5).

What does that mean for us this morning?  In what ways do we look for the living among the dead?  In what ways are we trapped by the past, trapped by the former age?  In what ways do we reject God’s new creation?  And on the flip side, in what ways do we yearn for that eighth day to dawn?

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There are plenty of ways to approach this.  Recall verse 18, where the prophet, speaking for God, says to “be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”  We are called to joy.

Is there room in our hearts for joy?  I’m not talking about painting saccharine smiles on our faces.  I’m talking about something deeper than emotion; something that’s present, even in times of extreme sorrow.  Is there room in our hearts for the joy of resurrection—for the hope of life, where once there was only death?

In Matthew 28, that’s something Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” are facing.  (By the way, “the other Mary” could be any number of people.  Mary was a very common name.)

They are coming to the tomb of Jesus, preparing to care for the body.  There’s an earthquake, caused by the angel rolling the stone away from the mouth of the tomb.  (Please note: in Matthew’s gospel, there is only one angel.)  He took a seat on the stone, which prompted the Roman guards to tremble with fear and become “like dead men” (v. 4).  Maybe they passed out or were paralyzed with dread.

The angel comforts the women, saying he knows why they have come.  They’ve come looking for a body, but wait, the body has disappeared!  They are searching for Jesus, but he has been raised—just as he predicted.

Then he gives them an assignment: go back and tell the others.  You all (y’all) will be reunited in Galilee.  But then Jesus gives them a surprise visit.  Greetings!  As one might expect, Mary and Mary are terror-stricken.  Jesus repeats the angel’s message.  “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v. 10).

I did mention joy.  You might ask, “Okay, where is it?”

I want to especially focus on verse 8.  We are told, “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples.”  With fear and great joy.  The Greek words are φόβος (phobos) and χαρά (chara).  We get our word “phobia” from phobos, and “cheer” comes from chara.

Along with love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Ga 5:22-23).  Joy is part of God’s very nature.

For that precise reason—and this shouldn’t be a surprise—the devil has no part in joy.  The devil has no joy.  The devil laughs, but it is cruel laughter.  But as for joy, the devil hates joy.  The devil fears joy.  The devil is “joyphobic.”  Joy is a weapon against the darkness.

The women are filled with fear and great joy.  With great joy.  The word is μέγας (megas).  It’s mega-joy!  How often have we experienced mega-joy?

I am reminded of Psalm 126.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1).  We couldn’t believe it.  We were in a state of euphoria.  We were plunged into an ocean of joy.  However, what did we do to deserve it?

Again, hear the word of the prophet, speaking for the Lord.  “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear” (v. 24).  Before they call I will answer.  Friends, that is a picture of grace.  Grace doesn’t ask if we are deserving.  Grace doesn’t ask if we are worthy.  If we do deserve it—if we are worthy—then it isn’t grace.  Grace empowers the joy that floods our soul.

Still, remember we’re told the great joy is joined with fear.  How can fear be joined with joy?  What is this phobos?  This fear is not a fear of punishment.  It is not a fear of retribution.  It is not a fear of being caught red-handed.  It is not a fear of being caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

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This phobos, this fear, is one of reverence.  It is one of awe.  As the psalmist says, it is like those who dream.  But this exceeds even their wildest dreams.  It is unimaginable.  The message Jesus gives the women is just that.  To their disbelieving ears, he tells them to bear forth the gospel.  Spread the good news: our Lord has risen from the grave.

Here are some prayerful words for us all on this day of resurrection: Come to the altar of the heavens, seeking the vision of the new heaven and the new earth.  Lay aside your fear and hatred of the other—our phobia of the other.  Watch your words.  Guard your heart because that is where evil festers.  Practice agape—God’s selfless love.

Indeed, bear forth the Gospel.  We stand on holy ground.  Pray for each other; refrain from gossip.  Pray for the community of the remnant in which God is shaping the harvest.  There is not a sin which cannot be redeemed.  Welcome the mega-joy of the Lord.

To God be the glory.


rock solid words

“This country’s going to hell in a handbasket.”  I’ve long wondered what a handbasket has to do with a trip to the infernal regions.  I’m not sure how that particular container became linked with shaking the hand of el Diablo.  I don’t suppose there’s anything particularly evil about handbaskets.  They frequently are taken on picnics, and there doesn’t seem to be anything especially sinister about picnics, unless a spot is chosen right next to an anthill!

(Side note: the world’s largest handbasket is the building in Newark, Ohio, former home of the Longaberger Basket Company.  In the late 90s, Banu had a Longaberger Basket party when we lived in Nebraska.  That’s when her love affair of the baskets began!)

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I tried to find out the origin of that phrase.  It seems to date back to the 1600s.  Another variation was “going to hell in a wheelbarrow.”  Apparently, that wasn’t quite as catchy, so “hell in a handbasket” it was.

I think it’s safe to say, one who utters that phrase is expressing a grim outlook.  The poet of Psalm 12 clearly shares that perspective.

“Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from the human race” (v. 1).  Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket.

There could be any number of reasons for that lamentation.  It might result from certain beliefs or attitudes or practices.

The psalmist (who traditionally is identified as David) wastes no time in uttering his complaint, his cause for concern.  In the place of the godly and faithful are those who “utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a deceitful heart they speak” (v. 2).  The genesis of so much wrongdoing lies in the words that come out of our mouth.

What are we to make of “flattering lips and a deceitful heart”?  Has anyone ever experienced that?  Have we ever been guilty of that?

What does the psalmist suggest as a remedy?  “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts” (v. 3).

I’m reminded of the song by R.E.M., “Shiny Happy People,” which came out in 1991.[1]  It was inspired by a propaganda poster distributed by the Chinese Communist Party two years after the Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre.  There is the iconic image of the lone protestor standing in front of a tank.  He came to be known as “Tank Man.”  The government wanted to promote the image of the population as “shiny, happy people holding hands.”

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It was indicative of a policy of flattering lips and deceitful heart portraying deadly events in an obscenely deceptive way.

One of the ironies of that song turned out to be its popularity.  People often enjoyed the shiny, happy tune, thinking it was about shiny, happy things—not realizing it was satire, dripping with sarcasm.  R.E.M. didn’t intend it as propaganda, but it worked very well as such!

Verse 4 continues the thought of flattering lips and boastful tongue with “those who say, ‘With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own—who is our master?’”

The Revised English Bible puts it, “They say, ‘By our tongues we shall prevail.  With words as our ally, who can master us?’”  With words as our ally.  What a delicious phrase.  In another translation, it reads “our weapon is our lips.”[2]

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, who is the central character, makes the statement, “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four.  If that is granted all else will follow.”  By the way, I read his book in 1983.  I wanted to be sure I read it before the year arrived!

The Orwellian concept of language focuses on Newspeak, in which the government deliberately reduces words and the ability to express freedom of thought.  For example, “bad” becomes “ungood.”  “Very good” becomes “plusgood,” and “wonderful” becomes “doubleplusgood.”  Language becomes narrowed, as does awareness, even the ability to conceive.

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1984 gave us the helpful reminder, “Big brother is watching you.”  What a pleasant thought.

Would it be a surprise to know—to be “aware”—that we employ our own forms of Newspeak?  Of course in our case, the goal isn’t deletion of language but the deletion of trust.  That includes deletion of trust in definitions of words.

Once upon a time, a “vaccine” prevented, or almost certainly prevented, one from obtaining a disease and being able to spread it to others.  Sadly, that is no longer the case.  The word “appropriate” seems to have lost its contours.  Case in point would be drag shows held in schools, even elementary schools, being called appropriate.

With words as our ally.  Our weapon is our lips.

Moreso than any other, it is government who uses words to redefine the truth.  “The first casualty of war is the truth.”  So said the ancient Greek poet, Aeschylus.

In her article, “Acceptable Torture,” Karen Hunt comments, “It’s worse than that.  Truth has become the first casualty of everyday life.  The elites have manipulated, discredited, and denied the truth so convincingly that it has all but disappeared.”[3]

In a speech at Texas A&M University, a recent CIA director “jokingly asked his audience, ‘What’s the cadet motto of West Point?  You will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do…  ‘We lied, we cheated, we stole,’ he continued, laughing as if he thought that was very funny and clever.  And the brainwashed audience laughed along with him.”  He then added, “It reminds you of the glory of the American experiment.”[4]

I honestly don’t know what that last comment is about.  Certainly it doesn’t mean he believes deception is glorious?  Or does he believe it epitomizes America?  Beats me.

Chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel notes “every careless word,” or “every idle word” (v. 36).  We’ve just seen plenty of careless, idle words.

Words have power.  Besides “idle,” the Greek word (argos) also means “lazy.”  We too often don’t consider the impact our words carry.  Or maybe we do!  We might intend our words to hurt, calling each other stupid, ugly, worthless.  We utter curses rather than blessings.  Jesus tells us, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  What is in us has a way of coming out.

Words have power.  That power can be wielded for good or ill.  That power can be filled with grace or filled with reproach.

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Words have power; they have energy.  We are to pronounce blessings and avoid curses, not because it’s nice, but because what comes out of us comes right back to us.  We clothe ourselves with whatever we produce.  If we emit positive energy, we are bathed in what is good and true and holy.  If we emit negative energy, we are bathed (maybe I should say defiled) in what is wrong and false and unholy.

There are some words of wisdom which state, “truth is in order to goodness.”  (It’s a nugget from our Presbyterian history, but I think it’s available to all!)  The truth must serve the good.  It must promote goodness.  It is possible to tell the truth with the purpose of crushing someone, beating them down.  The truth can be told with malevolent intent.  I call that “the devil’s truth.”  It’s meant, as I just said, to hurt and not to help.  To the extent it does that, it really isn’t the truth.

What stories do we tell about each other?  What stories do we tell about ourselves?  Are they stories of despair and discouragement?  Are they stories of acceptance and affirmation?

I’ve often wondered, how many wars have been started (both wars large and small) over a word misheard?  Once the word is out there, it’s out there.  It really is impossible to “take it back.”

There’s an illustration all of us will recognize.  What happens when we give a tube of toothpaste a little squeeze?  Here comes the toothpaste.  But what if we have a change of heart?  Well, we could return it from whence it came.  I have tried that, and to my amazement, I’ve never been successful.  It’s impossible to take the toothpaste back.

5In his journals, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard makes an embarrassing confession.  “I have just returned from a party,” he says, “of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me—but I went away—and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit—[inserted in the text is a dash taking up half the line] and wanted to shoot myself.”[5]

Of course, none of us have ever spoken foolish words, whether accompanied by drink or not!  Idle words, indeed.  Having said that, even when we speak out of turn, our words can be transformed; they can be redeemed.

Far from words as our ally, from words that are idle, the psalmist paints a new picture.  “The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (v. 6).

All the impurity, all the duplicitous language is burned away.  The promises of the Lord—the words of the Lord—are rock solid to the ends of the earth.

“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found / Far as the curse is found.”

The Lord promises protection to all who seek it, because “on every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the human race” (v. 8).  Another translation puts it, “The wicked parade about, and what is of little worth wins general esteem.”[6]  What is of little worth wins general esteem.  That’s almost as delicious as “with words as our ally.”

Where are you with your words?  What are you uttering?  What are you claiming?  What are you rejecting or owning?  Words have energy.  They indeed have power.  We either build with our words or destroy with our words.

In Deuteronomy 30 the Lord says, “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).  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).

That’s a tall order!  I don’t know if anyone ever really gets there, but it is a lofty goal.  If that’s the stratosphere, it makes it all the more doable here at ground level.  It makes it all the more likely that idle words are silenced.  It makes it all more likely that we see the faithful reappearing among the human race.  That includes the face in the mirror.

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There is a word which liberates.  It is the word—the word permeating the cosmos.  It is the word with all power.  It is the living word.  It is the word that defeats death, Jesus the Christ.  It is the word rising from the dead and letting us know that in the end, nothing has truly been wasted.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYOKMUTTDdA

[2] Mitchell Dahood, Psalms 1 (1-50) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 72.

[3] khmezek.substack.com/p/acceptable-torture?publication_id=258694&post_id=101510344&isFreemail=false

[4] www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPt-zXn05ac

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948), 7.

[6] Revised English Bible


in with the old, out with the new

Psalm 51 has been called “one of the most moving prayers in the Old Testament.”[1]  It hits all the right notes.  There’s a full admission of guilt, acknowledgment that no pardon is deserved, and loving joy because God does forgive.  There’s an expressed awareness that “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  That’s why the psalmist “appeals to God for a clean heart and a new spirit.”[2]

This is the psalm which appears in the liturgy with Ash Wednesday, which by the way probably never makes the list on anyone’s favorite holidays.  There is a cruel and kind revelation about our very existence, who we are, down to the bone.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There can be no pretensions.

1

A key verse in our psalm is verse 14.  The psalmist seems to be on the precipice of some kind of horror, something to be dreaded.  “Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,” is the cry, “O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.”

Opinions differ as to what “bloodshed” here is all about.  Is it something the psalmist has done—or something feared yet to happen?  Is it a comment about the whole nation, something we frequently see in Old Testament prayers?  I would say there’s room for both.

Still, there is a painful, agonizing note sounded by an individual.  The caption of the psalm refers to it as King David’s plea for pardon after raping Bathsheba.  The prophet Nathan has confronted the king and exposed his guilt.  There’s nothing to say.  He has been caught red-handed, so to speak.

Lest we think we are free of the shedding of blood, reflect on this.  Even with inflation, have you ever thought of how so many items are priced so cheaply?   Consider the overwhelmingly vast number of goods coming from a single country.  We support that country, which commits plenty of bloodshed, both literally and figuratively.

Recall verse 1, how this whole thing gets kicked off: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”  The Hebrew word for “abundant mercy” (or in the New Jerusalem Bible, “tenderness”) is רַחַם (raham).  It means “womb.”  O God, according to your compassion for your unborn child…

Recalling David’s violation of Bathsheba, the Lord can be seen (or is seen) as a female who has suffered that grievous harm—one who has been violated in that most violent way.

The king can’t undo the past; he knows a radically new way is called for.

As we recite the psalm on Ash Wednesday, we should note not all of the psalm is used.  We stop at verse 17.  Here are verses 16 and 17: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As we scroll through this poem, time and time again, we see calls for radical openness.  I encourage you to read every verse and then pause and reflect on it.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity…

Against you, you alone, have I sinned…

You desire truth in the inward being…

Create in me a clean heart…

Restore to me the joy of your salvation…  (I think the point is made.)

For that vision, for that reality to come alive, some radical change—as already mentioned—must come to pass.  That sounds great, but then here are verses 18 and 19.  These last two verses are often seen as having been added later, as a sort of appendix.

“Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”  We might ask, “Okay, so what’s the point?”  It sounds like a perfectly acceptable and necessary part of repentance.

I would suggest there is a chasm between these two verses and what has gone before.  I know not everyone agrees with me.  They might say I’m overstating the case, pretending I’m looking at the Grand Canyon, as opposed to a babbling brook.  And that’s fine.  But see for yourself.

2

On the one hand, “For you have no delight in sacrifice…”  And on the other, “Then you will delight in right sacrifices…”

On the one hand, “If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased…”  And on the other, “You will delight in burnt offerings…”

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.”

With those last two verses, there is a sense of “but then…  There’s nothing wrong with the way we served God in the past.”

At the Missionaries of Prayer website, there’s a post titled, “Prophetic Word—Why am I Attracted to This?”[3]

Why am I attracted to this?  That’s a question for each of us.

Why am I attracted to this?  Suggestions are offered.  Why am I attracted to this church…  this person…  this place?  What do I really want?

“You need to know the answer to this, for yourself.  Because this will help to make or break you.  Only you know the answer.”

This is hard.  It is deeply uncomfortable.  I want the safe.  I want the secure.  I want what verses 18 and 19 promise: the tried and true.  I don’t like being dangled over the cliff, held only by spirit, held only by the Spirit.  How badly I want to say, “In with the old, out with the new.”

Last week, we had a dinner in which a young woman invited many of her friends.  Some of them were sharing experiences they had with the Holy Spirit.  I appreciated a comment by another young woman who said she was asking her husband if they should leave.  With these other people uttering such profound insights (my words, not hers), she said she felt “shallow.”  She felt inadequate.  As I just suggested, I have had feelings like that.

The author of the article says, “We need to grow up.  Christianity is not comfortable.  Growth and change are not comfortable so if every now and then your pastor is not preaching a message that stretches you and causes you to think about your life or calls you to repentance, then something is wrong.  It means you’re only hearing the parts of the Bible that makes you feel good but there are large sections not being preached.  And that should bother you.”

And that should bother me.  As the apostle Paul said, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Co 9:16).  That’s a stark warning.

God forbid I give you easy answers.  God forbid I don’t encourage painful and probing questions.

Adam Neder, professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, says, “If our way of talking about God leaves [us] unaware of the threat he poses to our lives, perhaps that is because we no longer perceive the threat he poses to our lives.”[4]  Can we see God as a threat to our lives?  What could that mean?

3

I would suggest we often—or perhaps always—believe our lives are limited to the way we sleepwalk through life.  We don’t necessarily have to get into some deep philosophical discussion.  A trip to the grocery store can be quite revealing.  We see people rushing around, impatient, not smiling, without joy.  What would happen if we conducted an experiment?  What would happen if we decided to slow down?

The late Thomas Merton wrote, “Our ordinary waking life is a bare existence in which, most of the time, we seem to be absent from ourselves and from reality because we are involved in the vain preoccupations which dog the steps of every living [person].  But there are times when we seem suddenly to awake and discover the full meaning of our own present reality…  In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds.  We recapture something of the calm and balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.”[5]

Thank the Lord that God is a threat to that substitute for real life, our life hidden in Christ.  We fear the dangerous and delightful depth expressed by the worship chorus, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. / Cast me not away from Thy presence, O Lord / and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. / Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, / and renew a right spirit within me.”

At the beginning I used the quote, “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  The psalmist ready to move on.  There’s no looking back.  The past has involved David’s being a rapist and a murderer.  The threat God poses is seen and welcomed.  “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).

To insert a New Testament perspective: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!” (2 Co 5:17).

So, what now?  As the song says, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, / And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. / That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; / You spread His love to everyone; You want to pass it on.”  Pass it on.  “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (v. 13).

4

We aren’t made righteous in the eyes of God just for the fun of it.  If we have truly experienced it, our lives will be changed.  We won’t be able to do otherwise.  We need not feel inadequate, as did the young woman at our dinner.  We are made more than sufficient, more than conquerors.

 

[1] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992), 389.

[2] Anderson, 398.

[3] www.missionariesofprayer.org/2022/10/prophetic-word-why-am-i-attracted-to-this/

[4] Adam Neder, “Theology as a Way of Life,” Theology Matters 28:3 (Summer 2022), 4.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 10.


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!

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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.

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[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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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"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.