In our weakest member

File:Viejita.jpgThe Christ Mass, the worship service celebrating the nativity, echoes with the gathering of God’s people throughout the ages. The anthems and carols, the prayers and lessons, the breaking of the bread and, above all, the nativity story from Luke of the pregnant mother and her husband dislocated from their home by imperial decree, laying their first born in a manger to be greeted by lowly shepherds, yet heralded by angelic choirs and royal words like “savior”, “messiah”, and “lord” – these have been sung and read in nearly every language and place.

It is not “bleak midwinter” in all those places. And in very, very few of those places is it accompanied by advertisements of Santas hawking luxury cars or lingerie. But the story is told. The mystery is celebrated. Heaven has come to earth in the form of a child, a helpless infant.

What shall we say about this truth that God’s manifestation in the world is in its very weakest member?

Do we see the connection with the words of Jesus as he drew near to that violent and brutal end when he said “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it [or not done it] to me?”

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus to raise a child from her deathbed, to free a woman from her infirmity, to answer the cry for help of a blind man at the side of the road?

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus to deliver a wild, naked man, living among the dead in a cemetery?

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus to respond graciously to the woman whose tears fell upon his feet and scandalously took down her hair to dry them?

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus to treat the outcast woman at the well as a daughter of his own house?

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus who had compassion on the sick and was willing to place his hand upon a leper? Or the lame man who had no one to help him into the healing pool? Or the family absent the social support that should have provided wine for their wedding?

Do we see the connection with Jesus inviting himself to dine at the home of a despised man?

Do we see the connection with Jesus feeding the crowd who had gone without food for days?

And do we see the connection with the weak and vulnerable of our own age? Do we see the open arms welcoming the despised of our time? Do we see the courage and grace that protects others at the cost of his own life?

It all is there in the reality of a fragile child. Here is where we will meet God. Here is where God will meet us. And it will be our salvation – our healing, our transformation, our new birth.

The child of Bethlehem profoundly transforms our understanding of God. It transforms our understanding of the way we should live towards one another. It transforms the world.

What happens at this mass of the Christ is not warm-hearted entertainment or family tradition, it is awe and wonder and kneeling in the presence of the holy. It is joy and radiance. It is peace and healing. It is a vision of a new world – and the call to live it.

God grant us eyes to truly see the child of the manger. And to see every neighbor, every stranger, every creature, reflected in his eyes.

Originally published in the January, 2018 parish newsletter of Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AViejita.jpg By Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Of skorpa and hope

File:Cardamom bread.jpgI can’t fry an egg anymore without thinking of my stepmother and a conversation we had not long before she died last year about how best to cook an egg over-easy. I am going to make coffee bread today and it will remind me of my grandmother who brought this bread as dinner rolls for every thanksgiving dinner. I will think of Grammy and Grampa in their little kitchen having afternoon coffee with slices of these rolls dried in the oven to make her version of skorpa.

I’m not making a turkey this year, but just the thought of it brings back memories of thanksgiving dinner with the girls, the cats meowing underfoot, demanding a taste, and grabbing it aggressively when offered. I will think about the table set with my good Dansk dishes and blue “crystal” wine and water glasses received as wedding gifts. I will think about the girls’ glasses filled with “white wine” (milk) and all of this will remind me of my own childhood when my cousin placed black pitted olives from the condiment dish onto every finger and them popped them serially into his mouth.

Food is memory. Aromas take us places. Certain dishes link us to our past. The cranberry salad is the story of our family. It was not something I made with the girls, but my sister made it when I visited her one thanksgiving in Dallas. So now it links Aunt Evelyn’s table with Kathy’s.

Food is memory. Even when the memories are less than delightful – like getting sick after too much pumpkin pie so that now I can’t bear the thought. But the memory remains.

There is a reason our central act of worship involves food. Worship is memory. Remembering what God has done. Remembering what God has said. Remembering the true nature of the beating heart of the universe. Remembering judgment and grace. Remembering steadfast love and faithfulness. Remembering mercy immeasurable. Remembering dying and rising. Remembering blind eyes opened and hearts made true. Remembering a Spirit given and lives that are sent. Remembering the promise that holds us of a world reborn.

With the bread and wine all of this becomes living memory. The past becomes present; tomorrow touches today, and today is reshaped and renewed. We are not children of a dying world but children of a world being born. We are not sons and daughters of greed and bitterness, but citizens of the city of God. The winter of the world marches towards spring. And though today the light seems dim and the world cold, the trees bud. The crocus stretch forth. The ultimate and abiding truth of the world is light and life.

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACardamom_bread.jpg By Julia [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Feeding of the 5,000 window at Los Altos Lutheran Church, photo by dkbonde

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Neither death nor life…

File:Ruger AR-556.jpg

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.” (Psalm 89:15)

My eyes fell on this verse as I opened my Bible this morning. I have been reading news and am deeply discouraged over the cruelties, sorrows and follies of the world. The shooting in Texas lies heavily upon my heart. It calls to mind a time when I had to warn our ushers to lock the doors and call the police if a certain individual arrived. Such an action is against every notion of what it means to be church. I struggled, recently, when the fire marshal made us change the lock on our front door. The proposed solutions bothered me for days until I figured out why: they required turning a handle to enter the church instead of our current door that had a simple handle needing only to be pulled for the door to swing wide.

The doors of the church should open wide. But that particular Sunday morning I was telling the ushers in no uncertain terms to close them. It felt like a betrayal of all I believed. But there was also fear. The possibility was unlikely; but the risk so terribly high, the consequences so troubling to imagine.

Now here are those fears on the national news.

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.”

I heard Michael Lewis on Fresh Air yesterday and read his article Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White Housein Vanity Fair last night. The headline will probably keep some people from reading it, but you shouldn’t let it stop you; it’s important. We have belittled government for so long, we have forgotten how important governance is. No one wants to pay for it. We have been told the government is “them” who want to take away “our” money. But I am grateful that there were firefighters in Santa Rosa last month when my mother and my brother and his family had to flee their homes in the middle of the night. The roads were crowded with those in flight, but I am grateful that “we the people” had paid for roads that were public rather than private. The news this morning included information that insurance companies had provided private fire fighters to protect wealthy homes. I understand the economics of that action – but it reflects our failure to be a true democracy where the ‘demos’, the people, are equal in their rights as well as responsibilities. And, perhaps more burdensome to me, it reflects our failure to love our neighbors as ourselves.

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.”

Apple is in the news with the revelation that they are holding $250 billion offshore on the island of Jersey because they don’t want to pay taxes on it. I understand the economics of that, too, but I don’t understand the abandonment of the social contract. They thrive because of the freedoms, creativity and scholarship of this country. There would be no Amazon without UPS and no UPS without the interstate highway system – not to mention the Arpanet, the public universities and defense contracts – that “we the people” paid for. There would be no Google if people couldn’t drive on public roads, make us of public water and sewer, create products in a society where innovative ideas would be recognized and protected by public laws, and live in safe communities because fire inspectors came to check the front doors.

I was irritated that our door had not been a problem to any of our previous inspectors. And I was irritated that we had to give up the candles that decorated the alcoves in our sanctuary. But “we the people” decided that we didn’t want another Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Chicago, you remember, once burned to the ground. So we pay the taxes that allow us all to thrive. Companies used to think of themselves as good citizens. People used to think of themselves as good citizens. Now, it seems, it’s all about me. My right to own an assault rifle, 15 magazines, and 450 rounds of ammunition. My right to march with torches in the night, chanting Nazi slogans. My right to keep “my money” (that I was able to earn because of public roads, utilities, schools, and on and on).

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.”

Disconsolate as I am, my Bible falls open to this verse. There is lament in this psalm, to be sure. The poet cries out against all the suffering, shame and loss they have experienced. We hear the bitter question: “O Lord, where is your steadfast love?” But back towards the beginning of the psalm is this verse whose voice lingers:

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.”

And that little verse pushes me to remember the shout of Easter morning, “The Lord is risen”, and the congregation’s response: “He is risen indeed.”

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance;

PS Our front door is actually damaged in some way so that, even when it is “closed”, it stands slightly ajar. It won’t be great when winter comes. But I rather like it.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARuger_AR-556.jpg By SenseiAlan from Muscle Shoals, US (Ruger AR-556) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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The day will come

File:Dülmen, Wildpark -- 2015 -- 8871-7.jpg

The number of people I remember on All Saints’ Day continues to grow. It is the burden of life. My father, 96, read me the names of those being remembered in his church. Again and again the names he read were friends and neighbors of his, long time residents of that community, some I knew or knew of.

And then there was my step-mom.

That’s the most raw, the freshest wound, in a list that includes my daughter, my uncles and aunts, my cousin, my grandparents, my brother. I hear my father speak of losing all his friends. I understand something of which he speaks.

And then there are all those whose funerals I have conducted over the years. Some dear friends. All whom I loved. Tragedies I walked through with loved ones. Bodies I helped identify. Children I laid in the ground.

The list is long.

Tragic deaths. Peaceful deaths.   Murdered children. Suicides. Their names begin to run together and slip out of memory. There was someone we buried in the rain. The ground was too wet for them to dig the grave, so we did the committal at a fake site near the road. The family panicked when they went back and couldn’t find their loved one. I had to explain.

And who was it that was buried in that tiny cemetery in East Toledo surrounded on three sides by the clanging roars and smells of a refinery? And what was his name who went home after we buried his wife and reached up into the closet to find the gun hidden there. We buried him on Good Friday.

I wish I had kept a better record. I wish I knew all their names. I wish I had recorded the site of every burial. There have been a hundred or more. But they deserve to be remembered.

And there have been children. Infants. Young men. Murdered and murderers. Too much blood. Too many tears. Sometimes the names come to me. Vince. Ricky. Rebecca.   But oh so many are lost. Lost to me – they are not lost to God.

That is what this day means to me. They are not lost to God. He plays with the children. He laughs with the young men. He holds the infants in his arms. He sips sherry with my grandmother and throws the ball for my grandfather’s dog. He has coffee – which means sweets my grandmother has made, whipping the cream by hand with bangles flying and the cigarette ash dangling from the tip never to fall into the cream.

They are not lost to God. By now God has taught Rebecca to walk. By now Anna is dancing a perfect ballet in a field of daisies. By now Farfar has found a comfortable porch on which to sit, and Kecko, his dog, is no longer murdered by the farmer on the next slice of land.

By now, Ken has found his voice. By now, Irvin is free of his epilepsy. By now, the lost children are found and the forgotten elders treasured by all. By now, even the gerbils and turtles and hamsters we buried in our back yard are scampering through fields of joy. By now, the whole great chorus of heaven is ready to sing with us this Sunday, “For All The Saints…” and all creation will grow still to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

By now, Hanna is reconciled to her father and drinking wine at the table of heaven. By now, John has laid aside his episcopal crozier and is gossiping about those yet to come.

By now.

But for me the scars remain. Hidden, of course, but there to be seen when the light shines just so. They show their face on this day. But though all these know no pain, I hurt. I regret. I wish I could hold them just one ore time.

But the day will come.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AD%C3%BClmen%2C_Wildpark_–_2015_–_8871-7.jpg Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Dülmen, Wildpark — 2015 — 8871-7” / CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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The value of the exceptional

The pricelessness of the ordinary (2)

Once again, in the stillness of the early morning my mind roams. As I gaze out the window, the radiance of the morning light reminds me of the wonder of the exceptional. I attended a play with my daughter last night and thoughts linger about the talent of the actors to convey a person, a place, a story, a mood, a mystery of human existence – and of the playwrights and songwriters and musicians and all those others hidden from view whose work with light and sound and stage call it all to life.

But it is not just these extraordinary talents that prompt my thoughts, it is also the coffee I had that afternoon with a perfect cardamom bun. Or the two lions, Patience and Fortitude, who keep watch over the New York City public library. Or the display of Christopher Robin Milne’s worn and well-loved stuffed animals in the children’s library that gave birth to the Pooh stories. Or the artists of the children’s books I read, whose work sparks imagination and joy.

I do not minimize those whose job it is to cook ordinary food and do commonplace tasks; it matters when these are done well and with care. And I do not idolize those whose skill and good fortune have brought them to the top of their fields. But just as there is something priceless about the ordinary, there is something priceless about the perfect pearl and the cut diamond, and the flash of brilliant work be it science or architecture or compassion.

We need the exceptional. We need its power to call us to wonder. We need its ability to inspire, to lift us beyond the ordinary, to raise our eyes to see what might be.

Watching Steph Curry shoot a basketball is like watching ballet. Full of grace and beauty, it amazes. It excites a crowd. It showers joy. But more importantly, it stretches the imagination. It makes the impossible possible. Dreams become reality. A child goes home and practices. We are advanced as a people. We can be more. We are more.

So perhaps it is possible to love more deeply. Perhaps it is possible to make peace where it has long been lost. Perhaps it is possible for wisdom to govern. Perhaps it is possible for kindness to rise. We need not settle for the world as it is. We need not be limited by what we’ve been told are the givens of the “real world”. We can be better.

We need the exceptional. We need the exceptional sacrifice of firefighters who save others while their own homes burn. We need the musicianship that creates community among strangers. We need the charity that opens hearts and saves lives. We need the beauty that makes us see the pricelessness of the ordinary.

PS The evacuation order for my brother has been lifted and they have been able to return home. My mother is with them until she can return to hers.

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The pricelessness of the ordinary

I think many thoughts in the early morning. About the beauty of first light even on an urban neighborhood. About the wonder of birds wheeling in the sky. About the pricelessness of the ordinary.

My mother has been shaken, this week, by her flight from the fires in northern California. The 2:00 a.m. call from the managers of her senior living center in Santa Rosa, California, warning of the need to flee and summoning them to be ready to evacuate. The apartment is pitch dark; the electricity has failed. Unable to see, groggy in the night, she misses a handhold getting out of bed and cracks her head on the bureau. It isn’t serious. Blood and a black eye.   But it is the kind of moment that seems to foretell the day.

My brother and his family also had to flee in the middle of the night. Neighbors pounding on the door.   The smoky air and darkness but for the glow of fire. The long stream of brake lights fleeing their neighborhood.

They went to his office at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. He found Mom later that day in the evacuation center at the county fairgrounds and brought her to them at his office. As the disaster grew, my sister-in-law brought Mom and their daughter down to the south bay where her parents lived.

We watched the news. Searched for friends. Wept for those now homeless. Watched disbelieving as pictures came of whole neighborhoods razed to the ground. Tried to comprehend the enormity of it all.

Numbers can’t tell the story, but that’s what we got. Buildings destroyed. Firefighters on the scene. Speed of the winds. People displaced.

My mom has trouble remembering she’s not at home. She thinks of something and goes to reach for it and it’s not there. “Oh,” she says. “Darn it,” slapping her knee, “I keep forgetting.”

I take her to lunch to distract her with something ordinary. We go to Target to buy some basic clothes and makeup. I bring some comfort foods. Somehow the salt and crunch of a potato chip calls us back to the simple pleasure of the moment.

She is safe. Her house may not be, but she is. My brother is allowed home and gets to shower. Another delicious piece of the ordinary. The power comes back on. Simple pleasures. But then the winds shift and he must flee again in the night. Blaring bullhorns and flashing lights, intrusive, demanding. Anxious.

I am at my daughter’s home. It is early morning and I see the sunlight on the next building. I watch a mother escort her child to the school bus. I see the first signs of a new day. There are car horns, and planes overhead, and trees ready to turn for fall. A gentle morning alarm chirps. Stillness turns to footsteps. The pricelessness of the ordinary.

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Side by side

My brother and I at Disneyland, ages 9 and 4

I offered to go with a friend to a funeral tomorrow. I do not know the person who died, but I know how crappy it is to go to a funeral alone. At my brother’s funeral so many decades ago I sat in the pew among pallbearers I did not know. Well, maybe I did, but I remember none of them now. We sat in that first row beneath the pulpit, each alone in our grief. My solace was an unexpected friend waiting for me in the narthex of the church as we processed out with the casket.

My mother dragged me to a funeral once when I was in my teens. She said it was important for me to know about such things. I suspect, though, that she simply did not want to sit alone.

I have been to too many funerals since then. Some comforting. Some infuriating. Some just sad. There are communities that know how to come together to grieve and honor a life and support a family. And there are communities that don’t – and times where there simply is no community. There have been ruptured families where the children refused to attend. There have been services where everyone was glad the son of a bitch was dead. And there have been gut-wrenching services of murdered children. Too many services. Too many losses. Too much sorrow.

No one should have to go alone.

So I will go tomorrow. I know I have no comfort to offer, only my presence, only the reminder that we do not walk these journeys alone. At least not this day.

I am watching the Vietnam documentary by Ken Burns, so it’s hard to escape grief right now. There was a woman who had her son buried at Arlington because, she said, if they buried him nearby she would be clawing at the dirt to feel the warmth of his body again. That was the most gripping moment for me so far, the left hook that catches you unaware. Eyes welled. I understand this. Last week was the anniversary of my brother’s death. And many of you know I have watched them lower my eldest daughter’s casket into the grave and listened to the grinding of the dump truck filling the hole with dirt.

I never really understood Easter as a child. I saw bunny rabbits and pastels not a divine cry of pain and outrage loud enough to wake the dead, God’s defiance of all our warring and wounding.

I guess it takes time and some dirt under your nails to understand how profoundly Easter bears witness that we were not made for the grave. We were made for life. For connection. To tend a garden. To walk in God’s presence. To rejoice in families and friendship. To enjoy the beauty and abundance of the world. To figure out how to make chocolate and wine. To devise dances and songs from the chicken dance to the Bolshoi. To compose songs and symphonies. To paint majestic canvasses and butterflies on children’s faces. We were made for laughter and tenderness. We were not made for funerals.

But we were made to sit side by side.

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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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