We see dimly

File:Light through a stained glass window, cross, wall of the Marmor (Frederiks) Kirke Copenhagen Denmark.jpg

It’s hard to talk about Charlottesville. It’s also hard not to.

Thoughts on Psalm 70

Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.
…..O Lord, make haste to help me!
2 Let those be put to shame and confusion
…..who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
…..who desire to hurt me.
3 Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!”
…..turn back because of their shame.

4 Let all who seek you
…..rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
…..say evermore, “God is great!”
5 But I am poor and needy;
…..hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
…..O Lord, do not delay!

This psalm has a notation at the beginning: “To the leader. Of David, for the memorial offering.”  At least that’s how it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version. Other translations suggest:

“To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David. To bring to remembrance.” (New King James)

“For the director of music. Of David. A petition.” (New International Version)

“For the choir director. A Psalm of David; for a memorial.” (New American Standard)

The Tanakh translation of the Jewish Publication Society doesn’t pretend to know or guess and simply transliterates the Hebrew Word, printing the opening line as “For the leader. Of David. Lehazkir.” A footnote indicates that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.

It is a line full of mysteries. We do not even know whether the word translated as “of David” means “by David,” “for David,” or “in the style of David.” Maybe the Davidic house is the patron of the singer? We don’t know.

It is convenient, of course, to refer to the psalms as the psalms of David. There is, after all, witness that David was a singer/songwriter. But many psalms are without such names. And many have other names attached (Psalms 73-83, for example, are attributed ‘to’ Asaph). Reading the scriptures it is like finding letters in the attic. They are beautiful in themselves but, for the most part, we don’t know who wrote them, when or why. We try to piece it together from clues in the letter, from the style of the handwriting, from references in the text, even from the vocabulary and style. Letters of the Civil War, for example, have a very distinct look and style, but find a peace symbol at the end and you suspect the sixties.

1 To the leader. Of David, for the memorial offering.”

We don’t even know if that header is from the time of the psalm or when it was gathered into a collection, or from some later editor. Maybe the headings were added when the temple had been destroyed and they needed to write down for the generations to come how songs were used. We don’t know.

It’s important to remember that our knowledge is limited. It is too easy to say, “The Bible says…” when what we are really doing is asserting our own values and opinions. We know what we think and verses that reinforce those opinions jump out as confirmation. We don’t see the ones that would speak differently. In the sciences they call it “confirmation bias”: we see what we expect to see.

But the scripture is generally not trying to confirm what we think we know; it is trying to get us to see differently. It’s why Jesus tells parables. It’s why the prophets preach as they do. Look at the way Amos seduces his hearers by proclaiming God’s judgment on their enemies before suddenly turning the spotlight on themselves. Or the way Hosea gets people listening with a scandalous story of infidelity. Or how Jeremiah grabs attention by shattering a clay pot in the city gate – or wearing a yoke in the temple precinct. It’s not without reason that the gospel writers tell so many stories of Jesus opening blind eyes and deaf ears.

God is trying to get us to see differently. So we must be wary of seeing what we want to see. We must come to the scriptures humbly. We must remember there is much we don’t know. The scriptures are like a candlelit room: Some things are clear. Some are lost in the shadows. And other things we see dimly.”

We should attend to those things that are more visible, that are nearer to the light.

+       +       +

So let me say this about Charlottesville. Love of neighbor is nearer to the light.

Kindness, compassion, mercy and justice (the fulfilling of our obligations to one another), these are all nearer to the light.

Anything that involves a baseball bat is far into the shadows.

Anything that involves a Nazi slogan like “blood and soil” is in the outer darkness.

+       +       +

To pretend otherwise is to betray all the commandments, but especially the one about misusing the name of God. And there is a warning attached to this commandment. “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11)

We see dimly. But some things a very near to the light.

+       +       +

8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” (Luke 6:27-29)

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. 10For “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; 11let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.” (1 Peter 3:8-11)

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALight_through_a_stained_glass_window%2C_cross%2C_wall_of_the_Marmor_(Frederiks)_Kirke_Copenhagen_Denmark.jpg By Jebulon (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Pregnant with the truth to come

File:Maria e José buscando guarida em Belém (Bento Coelho da Silveira).png

On Psalm 69

1 Save me, O God,
…..for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
…..where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
…..and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying;
…..my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
…..with waiting for my God.

4 More in number than the hairs of my head
…..are those who hate me without cause;
many are those who would destroy me,
…..my enemies who accuse me falsely.
What I did not steal
…..must I now restore?
5 O God, you know my folly;
…..the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

6 Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me,
…..O Lord GOD of hosts;
do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me,
…..O God of Israel.
7It is for your sake that I have borne reproach,
…..that shame has covered my face.
8I have become a stranger to my kindred,
…..an alien to my mother’s children.

9It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;
…..the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
10When I humbled my soul with fasting,
…..they insulted me for doing so.
11When I made sackcloth my clothing,
…..I became a byword to them.
12I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate,
…..and the drunkards make songs about me.

13But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
…..At an acceptable time, O God,
…..in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
With your faithful help 14rescue me
…..from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
…..and from the deep waters.
15Do not let the flood sweep over me,
…..or the deep swallow me up,
…..or the Pit close its mouth over me.]

16Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good;
…..according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
17Do not hide your face from your servant,
…..for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.
18Draw near to me, redeem me,
…..set me free because of my enemies

19 You know the insults I receive,
…..and my shame and dishonor;
…..my foes are all known to you.
20 Insults have broken my heart,
…..so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none;
…..and for comforters, but I found none.
21 They gave me poison for food,
…..and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
22 Let their table be a trap for them,
…..a snare for their allies.
23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
…..and make their loins tremble continually.
24 Pour out your indignation upon them,
…..and let your burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be a desolation;
…..let no one live in their tents.
26 For they persecute those whom you have struck down,
…..and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more.
27 Add guilt to their guilt;
…..may they have no acquittal from you.
28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
…..let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
29 But I am lowly and in pain;
…..let your salvation, O God, protect me.

30 I will praise the name of God with a song;
…..I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
31 This will please the Lord more than an ox
…..or a bull with horns and hoofs.
32 Let the oppressed see it and be glad;
…..you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
33 For the Lord hears the needy,
…..and does not despise his own that are in bonds.

34 Let heaven and earth praise him,
…..the seas and everything that moves in them.
35 For God will save Zion
…..and rebuild the cities of Judah;
and his servants shall live there and possess it;
…..36 the children of his servants shall inherit it,
…..and those who love his name shall live in it.

It is a prayer for deliverance. And we recognize these emotions. We have felt as though we were drowning. We have wondered where was God in our struggle. We have known shame and insult. We have felt the rage that cries out for God to avenge. And we have rejoiced when deliverance came.

We recognize these emotions. The words have power to help us speak when our own words fail. They help us pray when we have no strength to pray. But the early followers of Jesus saw something more, here, than fellowship in our suffering. They saw Jesus.

There are the obvious things. “They gave me vinegar to drink is part of the crucifixion story. 4My enemies accuse me falsely.” “19You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor.” 7It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.” They all reflect the tragic and incomprehensible ending to the one who was the anointed of God, the harbinger of the age to come, the bearer of the kingdom.

8I have become a stranger to my kindred,
…..an alien to my mother’s children.

Even this reflects not only the cross, but the earlier rift when Jesus’ family came to collect him, to protect him from the dangers of all his crazy talk and he renounced them, declaring that those who do the will of God are his true family.  And John uses this psalm in the very beginning of his Gospel when Jesus drives the money-changers from the temple.

The psalm pulses with the cries of Jesus.   And here the first believers found evidence that a suffering servant was always God’s plan. Here – and in places like Isaiah 53 – they pieced together a new and more profound understanding of the heart of God. Here they saw that the mighty warrior who would bring deliverance to the nation brought a deliverance far more profound.

Here they began to see the scriptures in an entirely new light. Here they heard the voice of an eternal compassion. Here they heard the voice of a good shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep.

There are pieces in the psalm that don’t fit with Jesus, however: the prayer for revenge, for example.

24 Pour out your indignation upon them,
…..and let your burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be a desolation;
…..let no one live in their tents….
27 Add guilt to their guilt;
…..may they have no acquittal from you.
28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
…..let them not be enrolled among the righteous.

They are not the words we expect from the one who gathers the outcasts of Israel. Nor are these the words we know from the font of grace who welcomed sinners and forgave his crucifiers. These are our cries, our primal passions, our torn and tearing humanity.

Yet the psalm is stunning in light of the cross. It is pregnant with the truth to come. It points to an innocent who suffers and a God who redeems.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaria_e_Jos%C3%A9_buscando_guarida_em_Bel%C3%A9m_(Bento_Coelho_da_Silveira).png By Bento Coelho da Silveira (MatrizNet) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Singing of a warrior God

File:Bridgman Pharaoh's Army Engulfed by the Red Sea.jpg

Thinking about Psalm 68

1Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
…..let those who hate him flee before him.
2As smoke is driven away,
…..so drive them away;
as wax melts before the fire,
…..let the wicked perish before God.
3But let the righteous be joyful;
…..let them exult before God;
…..let them be jubilant with joy.

4Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
….. lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the Lord—
…..be exultant before him.

5Father of orphans and protector of widows
…..is God in his holy habitation.
6God gives the desolate a home to live in;
…..he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
….. but the rebellious live in a parched land.

7O God, when you went out before your people,
…..when you marched through the wilderness,
8the earth quaked,
…..the heavens poured down rain
at the presence of God, the God of Sinai,
…..at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
9Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
…..you restored your heritage when it languished;
10your flock found a dwelling in it;
…..in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

11 The Lord gives the command;
…..great is the company of those who bore the tidings:
…..12 “The kings of the armies, they flee, they flee!”
The women at home divide the spoil,
…..13 though they stay among the sheepfolds—
the wings of a dove covered with silver,
…..its pinions with green gold.
14 When the Almighty scattered kings there,
…..snow fell on Zalmon.

15 O mighty mountain, mountain of Bashan;
…..O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan!
16 Why do you look with envy, O many-peaked mountain,
…..at the mount that God desired for his abode,
…..where the Lord will reside forever?

17 With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand,
…..thousands upon thousands,
…..the Lord came from Sinai into the holy place.
18 You ascended the high mount,
…..leading captives in your train
and receiving gifts from people,
…..even from those who rebel against the Lord God’s abiding there.
19 Blessed be the Lord,
…..who daily bears us up;
…..God is our salvation.
20 Our God is a God of salvation,
…..and to God, the Lord, belongs escape from death.

21 But God will shatter the heads of his enemies,
…..the hairy crown of those who walk in their guilty ways.
22 The Lord said, “I will bring them back from Bashan,
…..I will bring them back from the depths of the sea,
23 so that you may bathe your feet in blood,
…..so that the tongues of your dogs may have their share from the foe.”

24 Your solemn processions are seen, O God,
…..the processions of my God, my King, into the sanctuary–
25 the singers in front, the musicians last,
…..between them girls playing tambourines:
26 “Bless God in the great congregation,
…..the Lord, O you who are of Israel’s fountain!”
27 There is Benjamin, the least of them, in the lead,
…..the princes of Judah in a body,
…..the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.

28 Summon your might, O God;
…..show your strength, O God, as you have done for us before.
29 Because of your temple at Jerusalem
…..kings bear gifts to you.
30 Rebuke the wild animals that live among the reeds,
…..the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples.
Trample under foot those who lust after tribute;
…..scatter the peoples who delight in war.
31 Let bronze be brought from Egypt;
…..let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out its hands to God.

32Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
…..sing praises to the Lord,
33O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
…..listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34Ascribe power to God,
…..whose majesty is over Israel;
…..and whose power is in the skies.
35Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
…..the God of Israel;
…..he gives power and strength to his people.

Blessed be God!

What shall we say about this psalm that acclaims God as 5Father of orphans and protector of widows,” and yet exults that

21 God will shatter the heads of his enemies,
…..the hairy crown of those who walk in their guilty ways…
23 so that you may bathe your feet in blood,
…..so that the tongues of your dogs may have their share from the foe.”

We don’t read such verses in worship. We leave them on the cutting room floor. We pack them away in shoeboxes in the back of the closet. We hope the children won’t notice and ask.

But there are such nice verses here:

19 Blessed be the Lord,
…..who daily bears us up;
…..God is our salvation.

There are hints of themes that will develop into the visit of the magi, and the gathering of all nations in that day when all is made new.

29 Because of your temple at Jerusalem
…..kings bear gifts to you.

There are verses that blossom into flower in light of the resurrection

20 Our God is a God of salvation,
…..and to God, the Lord, belongs escape from death.

And words of assurance that we all need:

35Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
…..the God of Israel;
…..he gives power and strength to his people.

So what shall we do with this psalm of the divine warrior who crushes enemies underfoot?

But there is something here, something indulgent like a sneaked cigarette for those who are giving up smoking, or a hidden cache of little Snickers bars. Something that feeds our wounded spirits when sadness and frustration, or rage and hurt, assail. There are times we want to do a victory dance at the defeat of some adversary.

And, on a deeper level, there is something reassuring in words like this when we face a world with powers and events beyond our control. It is gratifying to know God will bring an end to all the greed and corruption that rots the world. It’s rewarding to think God will crush hate and war and hold the warmongers accountable. It’s comforting to hear that God will scatter the wicked.

Trample under foot those who lust after tribute;
…..scatter the peoples who delight in war.

But the words get uncomfortable when they grow too concrete:

21 But God will shatter the heads of his enemies,
…..the hairy crown of those who walk in their guilty ways.

It is troubling when human enemies are described in subhuman terms:

30 Rebuke the wild animals that live among the reeds,
…..the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples.

We know the feeling. But we also know where such language leads. It involves machetes in Rwanda and gas chambers in Germany and marches into the desert in Turkey. It leads to the waving of the confederate flag and separate water fountains and brutal police attitudes. It sweeps us down that path of torture where our own humanity gets lost.

So what shall we do with this psalm? We can pull out the nice verses and ignore the rest. We can “spiritualize” the enemy to refer to the devil and his minions. Or we can acknowledge that nobility and cruelty sometimes live together in us – and give thanks that this word is fulfilled in Jesus, who laid down the sword and took up compassion, who laid down his life to reconcile those who were enemies, who grants us his spirit and conquers with love.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABridgman_Pharaoh’s_Army_Engulfed_by_the_Red_Sea.jpg Frederick Arthur Bridgman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Blessings

File:Growing wheat field, springtime green. Invigorating body, mind and soul. Hopefully not ( yet ) Triticum Monte Santum !!! Who knows ? (7146639785).jpg

More on Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
…..and make his face to shine upon us,
2 that your way may be known upon earth,
…..your saving power among all nations.

Why does the poet pray for blessing? So that God’s ‘way’ and God’s ‘power’ may be known by all people.

The blessing isn’t for our comfort and happiness. The blessing isn’t for our ease and plenty. The prayer is that God’s ‘way’ and ‘power’ may be known. This is a very long way from the Americanized gospel: “God made me rich; he can make you rich, too.” This is a prayer that God’s goodness may be known by all. That God’s way may be followed by all. That God’s mercy and compassion may be lived. God’s grace and forgiveness lived. God’s generosity and joy celebrated in all the earth.

I want the blessings that I might have a peaceable and happy life. But the abundance of the earth is given that all might see the goodness of God and rejoice in his generosity.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGrowing_wheat_field%2C_springtime_green._Invigorating_body%2C_mind_and_soul._Hopefully_not_(_yet_)_Triticum_Monte_Santum_!!!_Who_knows_%3F_(7146639785).jpg By Miran Rijavec [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Learning to pray

File:Pan asturiano.JPG

Thoughts on Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
…..and make his face to shine upon us,
2 that your way may be known upon earth,
….. your saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
….. let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
…..for you judge the peoples with equity
…..and guide the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
…..let all the peoples praise you.
6 The earth has yielded its increase;
…..God, our God, has blessed us.
7 May God continue to bless us;
…..let all the ends of the earth revere him.

The poet doesn’t ask God to “bless me,” he asks God to “bless us.” We should let that truth linger for a while on our tongue. There is importance in what is yet to come but, first, the prayer is for the whole people. Indeed it is for the whole world.

“Bless us,” rather than me. Though everything within me wants God’s blessing on me, the prayer is for the world. I want safety for my children. I want their lives to be happy, their marriages strong. I want their work to be meaningful. I want them to have good homes and good health and happy children. I want them to have a rich spiritual life. I want them to be good people.

I want God’s care and protection for my Mom and my Dad. I want an easing of their loneliness and grief. I want health and safety. I want problems to be few.

And I want such things for myself, too. And so I pray, remembering my daughter, my parents, my family, myself.

Sometimes at the dinner table I remember the rest of the world. But I can see how many times in these few paragraphs I have used the words ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘my’.

The poet prays for ‘us’. And it is the poet’s prayer that dwells now within the holy book, not mine. It is the poet’s prayer that brings to us God’s voice. It’s is the poet’s prayer for the world that lives forever in the scriptures.

And so I pray once more, and yet again for myself: “May I learn to pray as the poet prays…”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APan_asturiano.JPG By Tamorlan (Photo taken by Tamorlan) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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The river of God is full of water

File:Manavgat waterfall by tomgensler.JPG

Thoughts on Psalm 65

1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
…..and to you shall vows be performed,
2 O you who answer prayer!
…..To you all flesh shall come.
3 When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
…..you forgive our transgressions.
4 Happy are those whom you choose and bring near,
…..to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
…..your holy temple.
5 By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
….. O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
…..and of the farthest seas.
6 By your strength you established the mountains;
…..you are girded with might.
7 You silence the roaring of the seas,
…..the rearing of their waves,
…..the tumult of the peoples.
8 Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
…..you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
9 You visit the earth and water it,
…..you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
…..you provide the people with grain,
…..for so you have prepared it.
10 You water its furrows abundantly,
…..settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
…..and blessing its growth.
11 You crown the year with your bounty;
…..your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
…..the hills gird themselves with joy.
13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
…..the valleys deck themselves with grain,
…..they shout and sing together for joy.

The river of God is full of water;

This little half verse is immensely sweet. I don’t know what the poet has in mind with the expression “the river of God.” Does he imagine the River Jordan at its height at the end of the rainy season? Does he imagine the underground waters that feed the springs of Jerusalem? Is it something more primal, mythic, like the rivers that flow from Eden? Is it a reference to the primordial waters that surround the created world above and below? I do not know. I suspect it is all of this.

Without water there is no life. Yet life is surrounded by water. There are the seas that encompass the earth, the rains that fall, the rivers that flow, the aquifers hidden beneath the ground.

We are surrounded by water. Without it we perish. But it is present in majestic abundance.

And that abundance reflects the abundance of God. The vast sweeps of wildflowers in the mountain meadows. The rich abundance of the earth beneath our feet. The power of a single grain to bring forth many. The flocks of birds that fill the sky. The wildlife that bursts forth around us. The vast swaths of forest. The seemingly endless prairies. The symphony of crickets on a summer’s eve. The roar of mating frogs. The songs of the meadowlarks. The flights of geese overhead. The brilliant flash of hummingbirds. The wondrous migrations of monarch butterflies. Even the swarms of mosquitos in the summer testify to the rich bounty of the world.

The river of God is full of water;

So what does that means for the measly possessions to which we cling? Do we understand nothing of God’s open hands? Do we understand nothing of the rainbow and its promise that tomorrow the sun will rise? Do we understand nothing of the rain that falls on the just and the unjust?

The river of God is full of water.

We are surrounded by riches untold. And would we make God into a miser like us? Would we imagine that blessings are parceled out only to the deserving? That only a few are truly beloved? That the many are consigned to fire?

Would we make God in our miserly image, where people are allowed to hunger and perish because we counted them insufficiently resourceful and diligent?

The river of God is full of water – and we should be splashing his bounty like children squealing with delight on a summer’s day.

File:Thaipusam Festival (5384200412).jpg

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AManavgat_waterfall_by_tomgensler.JPG By Thomas Gensler (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThaipusam_Festival_(5384200412).jpg By Peter Gronemann from Switzerland (Thaipusam Festival) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Sometimes it is not our prayer

File:Gera Abel.jpg

Thoughts on Psalm 64

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
…..preserve my life from the dread enemy.
2 Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
…..from the scheming of evildoers,
3 who whet their tongues like swords,
…..who aim bitter words like arrows,
4 shooting from ambush at the blameless;
…..they shoot suddenly and without fear.
5 They hold fast to their evil purpose;
…..they talk of laying snares secretly,
thinking, “Who can see us?
…..6 Who can search out our crimes?
We have thought out a cunningly conceived plot.”
…..For the human heart and mind are deep.
7 But God will shoot his arrow at them;
…..they will be wounded suddenly.
8 Because of their tongue he will bring them to ruin;
…..all who see them will shake with horror.
9 Then everyone will fear;
…..they will tell what God has brought about,
…..and ponder what he has done.
10 Let the righteous rejoice in the Lord and take refuge in him.
…..Let all the upright in heart glory.

Sometimes the prayer of the psalm is not our prayer. Sometimes we are not the persecuted victim. Sometimes we are not the grieving penitent. Sometimes we are not the anguished sufferer.

Yet we read the words. We pray them. We know that they speak for someone. We know, indeed, that they speak for many. They are the voice of Christ in his flesh. And they are the voice of Christ in the needy.

So we pray them. And as we pray, though we may not feel it, their cry becomes our cry, their sorrow our sorrow, their hope our hope.

As we pray, we are joined with those who are victimized. We are joined with those who cry for justice. We are joined with Christ.

It is not our prayer. But it is someone’s prayer. And so we pray with them. And we are changed.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGera_Abel.jpg By Steffen Löwe (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Prayer, Psalms, Reflections on the Scriptures, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Words

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I had dinner at a restaurant the other night that had a big sheet of thick butcher paper covering the table. It is Silicon Valley, and I presume it’s there for business meetings that result in plans or complex equations. I wanted to write words, words that tell a story or speak beauty or say something of significance.

I believe in words. I believe in their power to connect us with one another. I believe in their ability to connect us with our own selves and to fundamental truths of human existence.

I believe in the power of words to inspire in all the best ways. But I also know they can inspire in the worst ways. I have stood in the Nuremburg parade grounds. Though all the symbols of the Nazi era have been torn down, the words spoken there still haunt. Words can rend relationships, divide families, tear communities, topple nations, and destroy lives.

Words are things of power. They create and they destroy. They exalt and cast down. They comfort and kill. They start war – but they can also end them. The right words, bold courageous words, can summon us to peace. It’s just that the other, hateful, bitter words are too easy. And too often we take the wide road that leads to destruction.

I wanted to write on that thick brown paper. Its broad emptiness seemed to beg for ink. But no words came that evening. So I left the pen there, besides the few scattered spots from food that escaped the dinner plate and the ring left by the water glass.

There are times to be silent. But these are not those times. These are times for words that come down from heaven and water the earth. These are times for words that bring seed to the sower and bread to the eater. These are times that cry out for words of grace and life, words that lift our burdens, befriend our enemies, heal our spirits and forgive our souls.

These are times that need honest words, true words, words of care and beauty, words that sing the song of heaven and summon us to join.

I’m sorry I had to walk away from that brown butcher paper. But I am sure there is fresh paper there. And it is waiting.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABread_man.JPG By Mohanad5ayman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Refrigerators and saints

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Our congregation council had to approve $1,000 to fix the refrigerator in the church kitchen last Thursday night. It is one of those necessary expenses to keeping a congregation running. It is linked to the ministry of hospitality – whether Sunday coffee hour or special events like our Oktoberfest, a funeral luncheon or for any of the community groups that use our building.

But there’s not much glamour in fixing a refrigerator. It’s much easier to ask people to donate to educate a small child in Rwanda or provide clean water to a village or kits for the homeless or Easter baskets for the children at the Fisher House at our local VA hospital.

I am very grateful for those who contribute to such causes. They are deeply important acts of mercy and faithfulness in a world with too little of each. But I am even more grateful for those who help to pay for the refrigerator repairs. There is little glory there, but such generosity is the foundation underneath all the others.

It matters to our community that there is a place for people to meet. It matters that there is a playground for children and a prayer labyrinth to walk. It matters that there are shaded picnic tables at which to visit and some lawn left to feel the grass between your toes. (This is California, and grass requires water, so it is now something of a luxury – and though we have reduced the size of our lawn, mindful of the call to care for the earth, we care also for one another and our lawn matters to those who linger here from the small, lawnless homes and apartments around us.)

Who would have imagined that donating to the water bill would be a random act of kindness? Or paying for the youth worker who has such deep bonds with our children? Or providing for the organist whose music causes people to linger amidst its beauty after worship – and then to visit with one another rather than rushing off to coffee or the rest of their day.

We are a society deeply ingrained with the notion that you pay for what you want. But I am deeply grateful for those who are willing to pay for what others need – or what simply adds grace and beauty to life – whether these are obvious things like food and shelter, or the hidden things like a refrigerator repair.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AToolbox_(7263382550).jpg  By florianric from Deutschland (Toolbox) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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“I kept that promise.”

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This reflection was posted at my blog “Watching for the Morning” that focuses on the readings for the coming Sunday and, occasionally, looks back at what happened during worship. However, it also belongs here where I post occasional and more personal pieces.

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It’s hard to describe what happened to me at the altar during the prayers of the church, yesterday. Typical Lutheran congregations don’t have a shared vocabulary for discussing personal spiritual experiences. Other communities of which I have been a part find it easier to say that God spoke to them. They know we are not talking about any kind of auditory experience, but a kind of intuition, a sense of some truth breaking into our consciousness.  A truth that comes from somewhere beyond us. Or deep within us.  Though it does seem almost audible at times.

It typically comes with the force of deep conviction. It carries a certainty, though we seldom think of it as if it were absolute. If the intuition doesn’t work out, we are willing to let it go. We misheard. Or it’s something whose truth is waiting its time.

Anyway, I had one of those moments in worship Sunday morning.  It came to me as if a voice, saying “I kept that promise.”

The reference is to the story of the synagogue ruler’s daughter, where Jesus comes in answer to the father’s prayer for her healing only to be met by the wail of mourners. On the way, the little girl had died.

It is that story with the words “Talitha cumi”, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I have read that text in worship many times since I laid my daughter’s body in the ground. The text from Mark comes around in the assigned lectionary every three years, as does the account in Matthew, and we have been through the cycle five times, now. It is always bittersweet to give voice to those words before the congregation.  I recognize the message of the text. I understand the grace of Jesus’ work. I also know the parents’ grief. There has always been a certain kind of hole in my heart that Jesus wasn’t there to say those words to Anna on the night her life was taken.

It’s been 16 years. And, for some reason, this morning I was finally ready to hear Jesus whisper to me: “I kept that promise.”

He had spoken those words. Beyond my hearing, in ways far more profound than I can understand, he kept the promise. He spoke to Anna saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I know it sounds like pie in the sky, a pious fiction, a denial of death’s dark realty.  And anytime in the last 16 years it would have sounded that way to me, too. I have fought fiercely – sometimes unfortunately fiercely – to be truthful about the reality of death. I resist all the pious platitudes about God’s plan and loved one’s in heaven. Death is death. It rips from our arms those we love. It rends the human community. It is an invader in God’s good creation. And even in those times when it comes as a relief after long suffering, it is still death, still a thief, a bandit, a terrorist, stealing life from the world – whether sucking it away slowly and snatching it away all at once.

The wonder of Easter is not that it minimizes death’s power. The wonder of Easter is that it proclaims that death is a pretender. It does not own our lives. It could not silence Jesus. It could not stop God’s redeeming work. There is a making whole of this rent world that awaits us. Somehow. Beyond our understanding. But real enough for us to trust. Real enough for us to live.

Why, today, I don’t know. It wasn’t our assigned reading. The text hasn’t been on my mind. I wasn’t experiencing a moment of grief – though the grief of Anna’s death is never all that far away. It wasn’t particularly related to the prayers being offered or the sermon I had just preached. But there it was. And today, for whatever reason, I was ready to hear: God was faithful. He spoke the words. He kept the promise.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verso_l%27infinito_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Posted in Christianity, Grief, Hope | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment