The Letter to the Hebrews

The author reshapes our perspectives through his images. One is of Jesus as pioneer, a first century Daniel Boone, but instead of blazing a path through the American forests, Jesus’ life experiences, his ministry, denial, suffering and torturous death, resurrection and ultimate ascension is able to help those who are meeting their test now. The idea is that a pioneer goes where others have not yet traveled for the purpose of opening a way through a spiritual Cumberland gap through which others might follow. …

I have always wondered how The Letter to the Hebrews was ever accepted into the New Testament Canon of scriptures.  Its name suggests that it’s a letter.  It isn’t.   Some have described it as a tract.  Its name also suggests that it was written to ‘the Hebrews.’ We don’t exactly who that is.  We don’t know who wrote it. Attribution to Paul has long since been denied.  While it is an exhortation to keep the faith it isn’t very encouraging to ‘backsliders’ for whom there is no second chance for salvation.  I’ve gotten sidetracked by some of the imagery the author uses and found myself arguing with the metaphor rather than trying to understand what the author was trying to communicate.  Matter of fact, initial impressions of Hebrews might suggest that the writer is detached from any context.

The opening chapter takes us into the heavenly realm of the angels. Then the author seems to live in the world of the Old Testament rather than the Hellenism of his Roman culture. He quotes passage after passage from the Psalms, ponders the relationship of Jesus to Aaron, then takes us on a tour of the tabernacle that is described in Exodus. One might wonder: What’s the point?

The fact is that the writer is addressing issues facing his congregation. He gives us glimpses into three moments in the congregation’s life.  First, his readers began their faith journey on a high point. They had a vivid sense of the goodness of the gospel and the power of God’s Spirit working in the people’s (2:2-4). It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, 4while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

Second, their newfound faith created tension with others who did not share their beliefs. They found others marginalizing them and acting with hostility. 32But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting.  Suffering for the faith made community of the faithful all the more important, and the congregation pulled together (10:32-34).

But third, over time that sense of community faded. The gospel initially seemed glorious, but congregational life fell far short of the kingdom of God. The biggest challenge the congregation faced was that of indifference. Things grew “dull” (5:11) and “sluggish” (6:12). The congregation was declining — not because of a major crisis but out of neglect. So he urges the congregation to come to life: 10:24-25 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another. 6:12 And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, 12so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. The challenge he gives is to reinvigorate a congregation that is faltering and discouraged. And the writer does this through writing that rekindles the imagination.  The congregation began with a vivid sense of the goodness of the Word. If it is to have a future, the Word must rekindle their faith.

The author tells of the many ways in which God has communicated with his people. He speaks of Israel’s prophets, but then says that God communicated through an embodied Word: the Son. The writer will not let the readers’ imaginations remain impoverished with a Christ who is too small. The opening lines encompass the Son’s inheritance of all things and his activity at the very moment of creation. The writer uses words like “radiance” to evoke a sense of divine light entering human sight.

He then sketches out a journey.  He follows Jesus from death to glorious life. For a moment readers are taken out of the ordinariness of their situation, as they follow Christ into the presence of God. As readers then and now are drawn into the presence of God in worship, we too go on a journey. It reorients our perception of the situation in which life is lived.

The author reshapes our perspectives through his images. One is of Jesus as pioneer, a first century Daniel Boone, but instead of blazing a path through the American forests, Jesus’ life experiences, his ministry, denial, suffering and torturous death, resurrection and ultimate ascension is able to help those who are meeting their test now. The idea is that a pioneer goes where others have not yet traveled for the purpose of opening a way through a spiritual Cumberland gap through which others might follow. This is the way Hebrews portrays Jesus’ way. Jesus enters fully into the reality of human suffering, in order to open a way to life.

The writer employs images of family life, portraying Jesus as the readers’ brother. He touches on a theme that is all too real in family life: being ashamed. When growing up, one might experience momentary embarrassment when we are trying to impress others, and would rather not be associated with a particular brother or sister.  But there are also the deeper senses of shame that reflect perceptions of failure in relationships. Here the author claims that Jesus is “not ashamed” to call others his brothers and sisters. In positive terms that means being valued by Jesus, who himself felt the shame of crucifixion (cf. 12:2). And to those who feel a sense of shame, being valued is a powerfully transformative moment.

Then Hebrews portrays Jesus as liberator. He uses language reminiscent of the exodus, but transforms it from the deliverance out of slavery in Egypt to liberation from slavery to fear of death. The imagery recognizes that people are held captive by fears that can close off the future. The exodus is replayed on a personal level when fear is overcome so people can more fully embrace life.

In 4:14-5:10 the writer uses an odd pair of words: sympathy and boldness. To use the term “sympathy” to describe Christ’s role as a priest can seem superficial. When someone says “I’m sympathetic” in casual conversation, it can mean that the person is more or less inclined to see things your way, but is not ready to go beyond that. In Hebrews, however, sympathy conveys Jesus’ depth of feeling for those who are weak. He enters into the struggle.

The writer recognizes that weakness can include moral failing. People in ministry are flawed human beings. They understand human sin because they share in it, and being honest about that is important for ministry. It allows people to minister as one flawed human being attending to another. But the writer explains that when he speaks of Jesus’ sympathizing with weakness, it is about the weakness involved in suffering. He portrays Jesus’ anguished prayer in the face of death. He can sympathize or “feel with” people who suffer, because he has suffered, and that experience empowers his ministry.  I’m still moved when I recall visiting in a hospital room with a cancer patient who was is serious pain and having her point to the crucifix on the wall across from her bed and saying ‘he understands’.

What is odd is that we might assume that sympathy encourages passivity.  According the  author of Hebrews, the human response to Jesus is boldness” (4:16). If we are objects of sympathy, we might assume that everyone agrees that things are unfortunate but nothing can change. Yet Jesus’ sympathy is designed to awaken a sense of boldness to approach him in prayer. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  He enters into suffering in order to empower people to move through the suffering to renewed life in grace.

By the time we get to the ninth chapter, where the author describes the sanctuary of ancient Israel with its outer court, the curtain that marked its limit, and the place of God’s presence beyond it we need to be thinking spatially. Jesus is characterized by movement from the outer court to the inner one. The point is to open the way into the presence of God.

The physical barrier reflects a relational barrier. In human experience a graphic example is an argument in which someone walks out and slams the door behind them. The question is how the relationship can continue when the door is closed. To bring change, a mediator might be needed. One might ask a friend to seek access through the closed door in order to speak with the other person, to open up possibilities for relationship.

That notion of opening the door is vividly depicted here in a surprising way. It is God who wants the door to be opened to us. It is God who sends Christ as the mediator, who conveys the divine love that overcomes the barrier.  This is about God’s action to restore relationships, which we have closed off. The imagery of the sanctuary and liturgical movement in the text demonstrates God’s action in transforming relationships.

The final section is about the power of the Word of God to evoke faith. The Word is unseen, but its power is palpable in its peculiar effects on people.  The idea is that if there is to be faith, something beyond our senses must pull it into being.

Examples from the past include Noah, who ordinarily would have seen no good reason to build an ark. Why expend the effort if it is not raining? The Word evoked Noah’s willingness to trust and act faithfully for the sake of an unseen future. Abraham and Sarah were called from their home toward a land they could not see. It was the promise of God that moved them to do this.

Nothing the readers of this Letter to the Hebrews can see warrants hope.  Yet the author seeks to draw them and us into the race by fixing our eyes on Jesus, who summons us to engagement.  We are being called from despair to hope. There is no reason for this congregation to persevere without the Word. But they continue to be called into Christ’s future, which they may not see but only know through the living and present Word.

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Waiting

Paul Tillich wrote:  “I think of the theologian who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed within a doctrine.  I think of the Biblical student who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed in a book. I think of the churchman who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed in an institution.  I think of the believer who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed within his own experience.”

Waiting

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.

Sixty years ago in chapter eighteen of his book The Shaking the Foundations Paul Tillich declared that: “Both the Old and the New Testaments describe our existence in relation to God as one of waiting.”  He went on to say that “In the psalmist there is an anxious waiting; in the apostle there is a patient waiting. “Waiting” he said  “means not having … for we have not what we wait for; or, as the apostle says, if we hope for what we do not see, we then wait for it.”

He said that “our relationship to God is, first of all, one of not having, not seeing, not knowing, and not grasping.  When a religion forgets that, no matter how ecstatic or active or reasonable, it replaces God by its own creation, an image of God.

            He said: “I think of the theologian who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed within a doctrine.  I think of the Biblical student who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed in a book. I think of the churchman who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed in an institution.  I think of the believer who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed within his own experience.”

It is not easy to endure this not having God, this waiting for God.  It is not easy to stand behind a pulpit Sunday after Sunday without convincing ourselves and others that somehow we have God….  It is not easy to proclaim God to children and pagans, to skeptics and secularists, and at the same time make clear to them that we ourselves do not possess God, that we too wait for God.  Way before our time Paul Tillich contended that much of the rebellion against Christianity is due to the  claim of Christians that they possess God.  John Kapsalis wrote that we are not a people ready or willing to wait for things to happen.  We make them happen.  And we take this attitude with us to Church.

The prophets and the apostles speak of waiting. They did not possess God; they waited for God. For how can God be possessed? Is God a thing that can be grasped and known among other things? Is God less than a human person? Even in the most intimate communion among human beings, there is an element of not having and not knowing, and of waiting. Therefore, since God is infinitely hidden, free, and incalculable, we must wait for God in the most absolute and radical way.

The psalmist says that his whole being waits for the Lord, indicating that waiting for God is not merely a part of our relation to God, but rather the condition of that relation as a whole.  Although waiting is not having,  yet, in a way, it is also having. Waiting anticipates that which is not yet real. If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. He who waits in absolute seriousness is already grasped by that for which he waits. He who waits in patience has already received the power of that for which he waits. He who waits passionately is already an active power himself, the greatest power of transformation in personal and historical life. We are stronger when we wait than when we possess.

When we possess God, we reduce God to that small thing we knew and grasped and we make that into an idol. Only in idol worship can you believe in the possession of God. There is much of this idolatry among Christians. But if we know that we do not know God, and if we wait for God to make God’s self known to us, we then really know something of God, we then are grasped and known and possessed by God. It is then that we are believers in our unbelief, and that we are accepted by God in spite of our separation.

Waiting precludes all complacency about having nothing… waiting precludes our indifference or cynical contempt towards those who have something, and waiting stifles our pitiful indulgence in doubt and despair.  Our time is a time of waiting; waiting is its special destiny. And every time is a time of waiting, waiting for the breaking in of eternity.

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Mose’s Do Over

A picture recently posted on Facebook was a proverbial thousand word illustration that only included three words – twice the word true was used and once the word truth.  It was a picture of a cylinder suspended between two bright lights both of which produced shadows on screens opposite the lights.  One screen clearly displays a round image while the other displays a rectangular image.  Both are true.  The truth is the item creating the shadow.

 

Though the Documentary Hypothesis has run out of favor with contemporary Old Testament scholars, it is helpful as an illustration.   In studying the first five books of the Bible the theory suggests that instead of Moses being the author of those books, four strands of material are seen as being weaved together to build the early history of Israel. One voice is identified as the Yahwehist or J.  This author was thought to  have lived about 900–850 BC in the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the divided Kingdom.  It is a collection of myths and legends of the Ancient Near East such as the Creation, Flood and Babel stories.  It is the basis for most of Genesis. It is characterized by it’s attention to  humankind and earth and with God as YHWH who directly interacts with humanity.

 

Then there is Elohist or E.  He was thought to have done his work about 750–700 BC in Israel’s Northern Kingdom.  He wrote some of Genesis and most of Exodus and Numbers. This source is characterized by God as Elohim, and is most interested in the affairs of Northern Israel and  speaks of Horeb instead of  Sinai. This is a more transcendent, more remote,  understanding of God.

 

Source D is the Deuteronomist.  He wrote most of Deuteronomy around 650-625 BC. It is speculated that his was the book found by King Josiah in the Temple in Jerusalem in 621 BC (2 Kings 22:8). This source is characterized by God as Elohim (until Exodus 3), but unlike E is more concerned about the affairs of  Judah and holds to a cultic approach to God and through genealogies and lists sets up a rather exclusive view of who is ‘in’  and who isn’t.

It is thought that the material identified as P was written by a priest who lived during the Babylonian Exile. This source provides chronology, genealogy, the book of Leviticus, and the code for the priesthood and worship. This source is characterized by an emphasis on the Temple and obedience to the law.

 

In Exodus 6, we see elements of three of the voices: ” And Elohim said to Moses, “I (am*) Yhwh.” “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shadday, but by my name Yhwh I did not make myself known to them.”  This text is presumed to be from a Priestly source.  As the Priestly voice does, we need not to argue over which is true.  Both are true, neither are all the truth.  Coming from different times and places and under different circumstances each speak as best they can, with all the integrity they can muster.  Why would we want to take a razor and expunge the parts that seem to contradict our own belief or experience?  All the intertwined pieces are valuable.  None can be tossed out on a whim.  Holding all their perspectives together gives us a much clearer picture of Israel’s history and by extension what God expects from creation and us.

 

The reality is that all of us, at times, can fall victim to not wanting to accept as valid what others through their own processes of discernment have concluded.  And we all can make errors in judgment and need to redo our homework.  It takes a great deal of courage to see that we’ve missed the mark, even when we have felt justified in our action.

 

In Exodus 31: we learn of Moses being given two stone tablets engraved by the finger of God. In the middle of the next chapter we read: Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets.  The narrative shifts to how when Moses was detained on the mountain the people got anxious and melted down their ill gotten gold and made an idol and began dancing.  But it angered Moses.  Here’s how the text reads:  As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

 

The narrative is broken again telling  how the Israelites, if obedient, could to be successful in the promised land.  Chapter 33 concludes with Moses making intercession for the people.  So Chapter 34 begins this way: The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke.  (O.K. Here’s the question: Who was the first to break the ten commandments? Moses.) Sorry, the text continues:  Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.” So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone.

 

Later in the Chapter we read:  He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

 

The good news in all this is that God gave Moses and the children of Israel a second chance.  A do over.  They could repent of their actions done spontaneously and in fear.  That was true for both the idol builders and the tablet tosser.  God exudes grace.  Over and over again.  Grace sometimes has a difficult time overcoming human pride and human celebration.

 

Moses got a do over.  But he had to go stand before God a second time.  But it suggests that maybe actions taken by people in leadership positions that are motivated by anxiety and expediency need not to be the final word.  I wonder what it was that motivated Moses to acknowledge that what had occurred needed correction.  Were there those who understood the gravity of the broken stone tablets thrown down in anger, those who recognized the intemperate behavior of the people and urged Moses, on their behalf , to ask for a second chance to do the right thing?

 

It takes a bit of back tracking but if we go into the narrative where God tells Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it…  The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

 

Moses demonstrates real integrity here.  He is promised to be made a great nation instead of the tribes on the plain below. But Moses implored the Lord … Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

 

The Lord changed his mind.  What an interesting notion.  Why is it so hard for us?  Again we learn that  one characteristic of God is grace. Abundant grace that makes do overs possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Certain Individuals

I find it fascinating that the translation of Luke’s words into English identifies those who made up the group to check out the rumor were ‘certain individuals’.  Certainty seems to have the effect of closing the door to consideration of all other perspectives.

 

Acts 15 tells an important story in the life of the church.   Serious efforts among non-Jews were being made to make known the way of life that flowed from the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the coming of his Spirit to comfort, and guide those who chose to follow the way.

A rumor had spread that Gentiles in Antioch were being joined to the church without having first become Jews.  So a contingent of ‘certain individuals’ (that’s how Luke characterized them, certain individuals) went to where Paul and Barnabas were working intent on getting to the bottom of the rumor.

These certain individuals began telling the people there that they weren’t part of the church unless they submitted to first becoming Jews.  For the men involved that required circumcision, no little consideration for an adult male.  A literal translation of the Greek is that these brothers had to be “cut to the custom of Moses” in order to be saved.

Luke tells us that it became quite contentious. Paul and Barnabas literally debated this group of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem.  It finally got so heated that Paul and Barnabas and a small contingent of the new followers of the way went to Jerusalem to get the matter clarified.

This gathering was the first Church Council.  The nascent church had to deal with a truly troublesome matter, an issue that threatened to break it apart.  It takes Luke twenty-nine verses to tell the story. It is worth the time to read it.

A small contingent of certain people took it upon themselves to set things right.  They went to Antioch and speaking for the church said: “Unless you accept the law, Christ will not accept you!”  Can it happen that one small group with a particular ax to grind can leave the impression that they speak for the whole body of believers?

And think about what it meant if what this group was saying was true.  It would mean that the grace of God in Christ is not adequate for inclusion. They were contending that you have to add to it the Law of Moses. Peter, on the other hand, wisely frames the theology of the early church in verse 11. “We believe,” says Peter, “that we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Period. Martin Luther didn’t make that up 15 hundred years later.

The party of the Pharisees must have believed in grace. They had accepted God’s grace in Christ. What could have made them so blind to the situation of others? They were confusing non-essentials with essentials. And they were making life more difficult not only for the Gentile Christians, but for the Holy Spirit!

The Antioch church doesn’t go rogue; they don’t wash their hands of the Jerusalem church. They respect the apostolic community. They understand that they would have never even heard the Gospel had it not been for them.

So they didn’t give into the temptation to say, “Forget Jerusalem, we’ll do our own thing!” The Antioch church sends a delegation to Jerusalem. They send key leaders, Paul and Barnabas, among others. And notice the response when they arrive. They are welcomed by the apostles and the elders. There’s a mutual respect. The mother church doesn’t say, “Oh brother! Here comes trouble!” They welcomed them.

Apparently, in this community everyone mattered. Everyone had a voice. And the church took time to listen. Luke tells us that some who were of the ‘certain ones’ who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees made their case saying “it is  necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” 

Simon Peter said “Friends, you know that from early on God made it plain that he wanted the pagans to hear the message of the Gospel and embrace it. And God, who cannot be fooled by pretense on our part, but always knows a person’s thoughts, gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as he did to us. He treated the outsiders exactly as he treated us, beginning at the very center of who they were and working from that center outward, cleaning up their lives as they trusted and believed Him. ‘So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and crushed us, too? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those from beyond our nation? What are we fussing about?'” (The Message)

It’s a difficult thing, isn’t it, to let God be God? It can be so hard to trust grace! Paul and Barnabas witnessed to the signs and wonders that God was doing among the Gentiles. And then everyone got quiet. And God spoke in the silence.

James was evidently clerk of the meeting. This is not James the apostle, the brother of John. This is not James, son of Alphaeus, another of the original twelve, sometimes called James the Less or James the Just. No, this is James, the brother of Jesus.  And after listening, he speaks. He places all that they have heard in the context of Scripture. It is clear that the experience of the Gentiles is actually a fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12. And then, notice they don’t take a vote. Spiritual leadership doesn’t decide God’s will through opinion polls and secret ballots. They waited to be led by Christ’s Spirit.

And after holy conferencing, James, as Clerk of the Meeting, announced what he believed to be the sense of the Meeting. “We will not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,” he says. For grace is enough!

Later James will write up the decision in verse 28: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to impose this burden on you.” Notice the order of priority. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. There was a high trust level in James. Tradition says that they had a nickname for him. They called him “Old Camel Knees.” Apparently, his knees were so hard from constant intercession that they looked like those of a camel. I’ll trust a leader like that.

Speaking for the church, James wrote to Antioch, saying, “God’s Grace is enough!”  Here’s the text: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”  In other words, please respect the scruples of our tradition. Don’t abuse your freedom by intentionally offending others.

I’ve wondered what an expanded interpretation of those four requests would look like.  I’m thinking about what people do sacrifice to their idols, what the Jerusalem church meant about abstaining from blood? I couldn’t help but wonder about what and who gets strangled in our society today.  Fornication speaks of infidelity and extramarital  sexual behavior.

They sent the letter and with it representatives from Jerusalem to encourage the gentile believers in Antioch.  And there was unity and there was joy! In Antioch and in Jerusalem.

Great line “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden…”

In 1656 Richard Farnworth and William Dewsbury, two leading lights of what would become Quakerism,  were signers of an important set of guidelines promulgated by the Elders of Balby which suggested how local Friends should conduct their Meetings, deal with problems, meet the needs of the indigent and other things as well.  Actually some of us today would find following all their advice as difficult to accept as Paul and Barnabas found the words of their ‘certain’ advisors.  But what is most important in the whole document is the post script.  It reads: “Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

Acts 15: 1-29 Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

6The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.’ 19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”

22Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

 

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The Fear of the Lord

There’s a fascinating concept in traditional Quaker lore that described the work of the Holy Spirit.  It speaks of the Spirits ‘Terror and Power’.  When, as Jesus promised, Christ’s Spirit invades a person’s life the first thing to happen is the Spirit, like it has a white glove and a flashlight, begins to search our interior life and showing us the filth and trash we’ve collected there.  It’s clearly a fearful time because we already know that God requires more of us than we are ready to offer.  The good news is that it is not in our own power but that of the Spirit that enables us to make the changes necessary.

 

The Fear of the Lord:

There’s really no disputing the fact that fear drives a lot of things that impact our lives. We are already into a Presidential election and what we hear from candidates is primarily designed to stir fear.  We actually hear some of that in our city election.  Global economic markets are fearful about decisions being made about Greece.  People fear rogue Police officers and Police officers are fearful for their own lives. We are told to fear immigrants from Mexico. We are told to fear home grown terrorists every bit as much as those from abroad.  And many live in fear of government.

Proverbs are pretty easy to overlook.  They aren’t all that exciting. But in the first one, Proverbs 1:1-7 this is what we read: The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young—let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. And then it says:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

I’ve been guilty of explaining “the fear of the Lord”  as something a kin to respect or reverence. It’s a pretty common perspective among the ‘nice’ churches where the notion is that God is love and why would you fear love?  What I’ve read recently abused me of that notion.  The Hebrew won’t let me get away with that. In direct reference to God the Bible uses the word fear at least 300 times and believe me it’s not about simple respect. We can’t get away with downplaying it.

The Bible is full of examples of how fearing God is a positive rather than a negative thing. For example  Joseph wins his brothers’ trust when he declares that he is a God-fearing man. Moses survived because the midwives feared God that they obeyed him instead of the authorities by sparing the Hebrew babies . Pharaoh brought disaster on his own nation because he did not fear God.  Moses chose leaders to help him on the basis that they feared God and wouldn’t take bribes (maybe we could use leaders like that!) Moses told the people that God met with them in a terrifying display of his power so that they wouldn’t sin. The Mosaic Law cites fear of God as a reason to treat the disabled and elderly well. And this is not just an Old Testament idea.  Jesus states this stronger than anyone when he says, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. And Paul advises us to work toward complete holiness because we fear God.

So it’s clear from these passages, that fearing God is a good thing because it saves us from caving into the wrong thing.

That’s why learning that someone is God-fearing actually makes us trust that person more. If they fear God, they are more likely to keep their word and treat others with kindness. In Romans 3 we learn that our chief sin is that we “have no fear of God at all”. The subject becomes even more mysterious when we read 1John 4:18 that says that “perfect love expels all fear.” So how do we marry this contradiction? How can we fear God while God expels all fear?

When you read the Prophets the idea of fearing the Lord has teeth.  The Prophets are instructed to tell the leaders of Israel and Judah that failure to keep the humane elements of the covenant that treats everyone in the family equally destruction will surely follow.

Amos 5:6 Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground! The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress. They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.

Their leaders said – ‘naw, God loves us. We are special.  He let’s us get away with murder’ .  After ignoring warning after warning nations less righteous and more evil than Israel and Judah came and destroyed everything they had built and carried away those with wealth, education or power into captivity. They did not fear God enough to fulfill their obligations stated in their covenants.

William D. Eisenhower put it this way in his article ‘Fearing God” in Christianity Today: “Unfortunately, many of us presume that the world is the ultimate threat and that God’s function is to offset it. How different this is from the biblical position that God is far scarier than the world …. When we assume that the world is the ultimate threat, we give it unwarranted power, for in truth, the world’s threats are temporary. When we expect God to balance the stress of the world, we reduce him to the world’s equal …. As I walk with the Lord, I discover that God poses an ominous threat to my ego, but not to me. He rescues me from my delusions, so he may reveal the truth that sets me free. He casts me down, only to lift me up again. He sits in judgment of my sin, but forgives me nevertheless. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but love from the Lord is its completion.”

It’s a standard plot line in action movies when a good guy is holding a gun on a criminal and demanding that the bad guy reveal the person he’s working for .  “No, I can’t tell  you. He’ll kill me”  There it is.  Fearing the wrong party. Fearing the wrong thing.

There’s a fascinating concept in traditional Quaker lore that described the work of the Holy Spirit.  It speaks of the Spirits ‘Terror and Power’.  When, as Jesus promised, Christ’s Spirit invades a person’s life the first thing to happen is the Spirit, like it has a white glove and a flashlight, begins to search our interior life and showing us the filth and trash we’ve collected there.  It’s clearly a fearful time because we already know that God requires more of us than we are ready to offer.  The good news is that it is not in our own power but that of the Spirit that enables us to make the changes necessary.

And, of course, the ultimate example of fear and perfect love working together is Jesus Christ. He warned us at every turn to fear God, not men—and he confirmed that in everything about his life and death. He spoke lovingly but frankly to all and didn’t mince words when people needed to face their brokenness and find new directions for their life. But he also demonstrated love beyond human understanding when he lived out his words, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” With love like that, what is left to fear but God?

 

 

 

 

 

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Psalm 146 What God Cares About

You’d think you were reading Amos or Jeremiah. According to Abraham Heschel,  Israel’s prophets are those whose ‘life and soul are at stake in what they say about the mystery of God’s relation to humanity.  We think of them as some of the most disturbed and disturbing people who ever lived and yet they are also the ones whose image is our refuge in distress and whose voice and vision sustain or faith. But here, in the Psalms.  These are the values Israel ignored...

 

Psalm 146

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,

who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;

the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

 

How many Psalms are there?  One hundred and fifty.  How many of you have paid any attention to how the Rosary is used by many devout Catholic women, holding it in their hands as they pray?  Originally, and not so much anymore, there’s a huge connection.  The rosary dates back to the ninth century when Irish Monks would recite and chant the 150 Psalms as a major part of their worship.  People living near the monasteries were drawn to this beautiful devotion and they were eager to join in.  The rosary was an attempt to help them move through the whole Psalter.  That explains the circle of fifty beads and the beads that remind you on which course you are on.  But because the Psalms were very hard to memorize people were encouraged to simply pray over and over the same simple prayer Jesus had taught his followers:  “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”  Later, while keeping the structure, it was modified to solidify many different goals within a mostly illiterate culture including the establishing the ‘Apostle’s Creed” which didn’t show up until about the year 710 a standard point of reference and the special role of Mary and her subsequent veneration.

I was trying to imagine where my mind might be, following the tradition of the Irish monks, by the time I reached the 146 Psalm, near the conclusion of the third round of fifty.  Would the phrasing that repeats itself throughout the Psalms have grown sterile and cold?  This Psalm alone starts with four “praise the Lord” s.  In another Psalm the phrase repeats a dozen times. Blessed or Happy is another repeatable. Over twenty times the Psalmist warns us to not put our trust in man but in God.

I dissected this Psalm, wanting to see what was here that might, for one already half asleep from the repetitions already read, stir a new thought.  The Psalmist says “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob…”  I wondered,  why not Moses or Aaron, Abraham or Isaac?  Jacob, himself schemed to steal his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing that was intended for his brother. Fleeing for his life he was deceived into marrying the sister of the love of his life and then each of their maidservants resulting in the twelve tribes that had become captive in Egypt and formed the basis of the people now led by David. But long before that, with his family Jacob returns to the home he had fled and had to reconcile with his brother.  Again, fearful for his life, he sent his wives, sons, and possessions across the river, and was alone with God. That night, he wrestled with a man until the break of day. As the dawn broke, Jacob demanded a blessing from the man, and the “man” revealed himself as an angel. He blessed Jacob and gave him the name “Israel” meaning “the one who wrestled with God”.  I guess the answer to my question, why Jacob? Is that you don’t get to choose your family.

But it’s not about Jacob at all.  It’s about this God with whom Jacob wrestled.  What the Psalmist says about that God is quite informative:

First, David says that this is who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;”  This isn’t any local god who has oversight over a territory, a people or a nation.  You can’t imagine a God greater than the one who created everything.    No wonder he advises those who sing his song to not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.  Because unlike God, “when their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”  So “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God…”

The next thing the Psalmist tells us about the God of Jacob is that he: “…keeps faith forever.”   You can trust God. Of course the issue isn’t God’s faithfulness, it’s our`s.

But there is more: this is a God who:

  • … executes justice for the oppressed;
  • … gives food to the hungry.
  • …sets the prisoners free;
  • … opens the eyes of the blind.
  • … lifts up those who are bowed down;
  • … loves the righteous.
  • … watches over the strangers;
  • … upholds the orphan and the widow,

Looking through this list should certainly challenge contemporary culture.

You’d think you were reading Amos or Jeremiah. According to Abraham Heschel,  Israel’s prophets are those whose ‘life and soul are at stake in what they say about the mystery of God’s relation to humanity.  We think of them as some of the most disturbed and disturbing people who ever lived and yet they are also the ones whose image is our refuge in distress and whose voice and vision sustain or faith. But here, in the Psalms.  These are the values Israel ignored that caused their being taken into Babylonian captivity. That’s the last of these short phrases – “but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin”.

Trying to put a date on when the Psalms were written is a lost cause.  It’s a song book that accumulated hymns that became favorites in meetings for worship.  And these pieces were composed over a thousand years of Israel’s history.

The good news is that “The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!”

That’s a creedal statement,  a statement of belief that should be a guiding principle.  If the Lord reigns forever – for all generations –  that means God’s reign is a current reality.  To turn the Psalm around, to follow the way of the wicked brings us to ruin. And what’s the alternative?   To live into what this greatest of all Gods sees as important. To execute justice for the oppressed; give food to the hungry; set prisoners free; open the eyes of the blind;  lift up those who are bowed down; love the righteous  (and I’ve got to tell you some are pretty difficult to love); watch over the strangers; uphold  the orphan and the widow.  That’s quite a challenge when most of us just try to keep our heads down so as to not get into an argument over religion or politics.  I think this Psalm is a challenge us to stand up and be counted for the values that God holds dear.

 

 

 

 

 

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Psalm 40 A New Song

…we wait in traffic, wait for things to get better, or wait in the waiting room. We are no good at waiting. We want to get moving, we can’t bear wasting time, and the clock is ticking while we just don’t know what will unfold next. Patience is listed by Paul as a “fruit of the Spirit,” which means it must be for somebody, somewhere, but not me, or at least not yet. I can’t muster it; maybe a miracle will dawn.

I like the way the New English Bible translates Psalm 40.  It’s earthy, human-ey,. personal and visual- here goes:

I waited, waited for the Lord, he bent down to me and heard my cry.  He brought me up out of the muddy pit, out of the mire and the clay; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm footing; and on my lips he put a new song, a song of praise to our God.  Many when they see will be filled with awe and will learn to trust in the Lord:

Happy is the man who makes the Lord his trust, and does not look to brutal and treacherous men.

Great things thou has done, O Lord my God; thy wonderful purposes are all for our good; none can compare with thee; I would proclaim them and speak of them, but they are more than I can tell.

If thou hast desired sacrifice and offerings thou wouldst have given me ears to hear.  If thou had asked for whole-offerings and sin offering I would have said. ‘Here I am.’  My desire is to do thy will, O God, and thy law is in my heart.

In the great assembly I have proclaimed what is right, I do not hold back my words, as thou knowest, O Lord.  I have not kept  thy goodness hidden in my heart;  I have proclaimed thy faithfulness and saving power and not concealed thy unfailing love and truth from the great assembly. Thou, O Lord, dost not withhold thy tender care from me; thy unfailing love and truth for ever guard me.

For misfortunes beyond counting press on me from all sides; my iniquities have overtaken me, and my sight fails; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my courage forsakes me;  Show me favor, O Lord, and save me; hasten to help me, O Lord.  Let those who seek to take my life be put to shame and dismayed one and all; let all who love to hurt me shrink back disgraced; let those who cry ‘Hurrah!’ at my downfall be horrified at their reward of shame.

But let all those who seek thee be jubilant and rejoice in thee;  and let those who long for the saving help ever cry, ‘All glory to the Lord!’

But I am poor and needy; O Lord, think of me.  Thou art my help and my salvation; O my God, make no delay.

Walter Brueggemann refered to Psalm 40 and those like it as “psalms of reorientation (or new orientation).”   They are the songs of praise that are sung by those who have walked the darkest valleys, stood in the midst of the shaking mountains, experienced life when the bottom drops out. They “bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected.”1 They recognize that the ship has sailed through the storm and a new shore has been reached. But having sailed through the flood and the hurricane, there is no going back to a naive harbor childlike “orientation.” These psalms speak for those who have been brought through a deep crisis. As such, they know that faith that speaks the truth can never pretend that all will always be well and that all is as it should be. And yet, they have experienced new life and grace — so they know that despair is not all powerful and evil does not have the last word.

Sylvia Purdie calls the 40th Psalm the Mud Psalm.  For her, David is recalling an actual event from his days on the lam from Saul when he got stuck in quicksand.  In most versions the opening verse is badly mistranslated. It should not say, “I waited patiently.” The prayer for help cries out, “How long?!”  “I waited and waited” is both a more literal and more faithful translation. And when the opening line gets translated “I waited patiently for the Lord” it misunderstands both the situation and David.  David was never known for his patience. “Help me” he calls out. Then the waiting began, trying not to struggle with panic rising in his chest.  If you fight the mud it will claim you.  It is the fear you must fight and keep still.  The most you can do is to cry for help.  And in her retelling the story, his friends come and extricate him from the mire. And David has never been so grateful.

But then, who among us can with any candor say or sing “I waited patiently for the Lord”? When did I ever wait for anything at all without frustration or anxiety?  It’s not a typical human response.  You take your life in your hands when you drive Maple or Ash with people ignoring the speed signs imagining they are driving the NASCAR circuit.  But, we wait in traffic, wait for things to get better, or wait in the waiting room. We are no good at waiting. We want to get moving, we can’t bear wasting time, and the clock is ticking while we just don’t know what will unfold next. Patience is listed by Paul as a “fruit of the Spirit,” which means it must be for somebody, somewhere, but not me, or at least not yet. I can’t muster it; maybe a miracle will dawn.

His whole life long David remembered being stuck in that bog.  Later,  when enemies encircled him, when stress threatened to overwhelm him, he remembered his cry for help. “Save me, rescue me, oh please hurry!  And he remembered the reality of the help. He brought me up out of the muddy pit, out of the mire and the clay; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm footing; and on my lips he put a new song, a song of praise to our God . He remembered bursting with joy.  “I will tell of all you have done.” he promises You are beyond compare. I will sing of you. I will not hide your saving help within my heart. Thou art my help and my salvation; O my God, make no delay.  Everyone must know! Great is the Lord.

For many years the rock band U2 ended most concerts singing, “I will sing, sing a new song.” Today, it is the most famous version of Psalm 40.  The “new song” from the Hebrew is most likely a “song of thanksgiving” — a song that is sung after the psalmist has been delivered by the Lord from the jaws of some crisis.

This Psalm must have been a favorite of the prophets, with the talk of God not wanting burnt offerings. What God wants is “an open ear,” and a “delight” in doing God’s will. The Hebrew for this “open ear” means literally “ears you have dug out for me,” as if our ears are jammed with gunk and wax, and only if God can bore it all out can we actually hear God! What fills your ears so you can’t hear God? And is the doing of God’s will a chore? A duty? Or is it a delight? Young lovers take great delight in doing any little favor for the beloved; can we be as eager and gleeful to do favors for God?

The message of this psalm is that it calls for testimony time. David says: “I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation” (verse 10). When we receive God’s aid, the “thank you note” that God desires isn’t the sacrifice of animals but that we tell others where they, too, can find God. This Psalm isn’t a prayer so much as a report on a prayer. In Bible times, if you were under duress, you would pray and ask others to pray — and then later you would share what it was like, what transpired, and what God had done. If God does something good for us, can we find the words to share?  Could our experience be of help to someone else who is struggling, and might even make us more solid in our sense of God’s goodness. The good that God does may not be precisely what we might have asked for, but that is no barrier to testimony.

The songs of thanksgiving are reorientation psalms because they are the songs of praise that are sung by those who have walked the darkest valleys, stood in the midst of the shaking mountains, experienced life when the bottom drops out.  Life will never be the same. But God met these sufferers in the depths of their sufferings. And they have a simple message: God bent down and p ulled me out of the mire.  Praise the Lord.

Bob Wiese, accompanied by Wade Schwartz, continued our worship is sharing “A New Song” a rendition of Psalm 340 by U2.

 

 

 

 

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Psalm 27 A Psalm of Trust

Worship on Sunday, June 21st, Father’s Day, became focused the attack by a young, self proclaimed, white supremacist on the participants of a Bible Study in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.  The message from Psalm 27, which follows, was substituted for a discussion of divisiveness and diversity in the experience of the Church.

Susan Gray shared her passion for working with the League of Women Voters.

Psalm 27;

Last Sunday we visited a Psalm of lament.  That Psalm that was a prayer for help when the bottom drops out, which for everyone it happens hopefully not all that often.  Very similar to the prayers for help, there are psalms of trust that are prayed from a situation of severe crisis. What Psalm 27 calls the time when “evildoers assail me” (27:2), or Psalm 46 calls the times when “waters roar and foam” and the “mountains tremble” (46:3). These psalms are very, very clear that life in God’s creation isn’t safe. There are very clear and present dangers.

The major difference between the prayers for help and the psalms of trust is the dominant mood. Both types of psalm depend on God. Both types of psalm at least imply a request for help. And both types of psalm include expressions of trust. But whereas the prayers for help strike the dominant note of fear and desperation, the psalms of trust hit the chord of trust.

For this reason, while the psalms of trust have one foot in the camp of “disorientation” because they are spoken in the midst of crisis, they also have the other foot firmly planted in the camp of reorientation – that’s that note of hope rather than terror.

An interpreter might imagine the prayers for help amidst crisis as the prayers of those who are younger, who are going through their first times of crisis. While the psalms of trust are the words of those who aren’t in their first traffic accident or the first death of some beloved person. This crisis isn’t these psalmists’ first rodeo. They’ve been thrown before, had the floor fall out from beneath them before. And even though the crisis is horrible, they are able to trust on the basis of past experience that a brighter tomorrow will soon dawn.

The first phrase of Psalm 27 — “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” – is wildly optimistic.  For some of us, when the bottom has dropped out, it has helped us get through a long night of the soul. I’ve known people who have lost limbs and sight, essential organs, children and spouses to un expected tragic situations.  They never got back what they lost but the testified to the experience that God, my light and my salvation, was there throughout and when they emerged from the darkness.  There is no question, life can be dangerous and deadly.  But these words of trust from those who’ve been there before us, people for whom the bottom has dropped out, and who ‘cried to the Lord’ found God’s very present help in time of trouble.

Psalm 27

1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.

3Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

4One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

5For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

6Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

7Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

8“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.

9Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

10If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

11Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

12Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

13I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

14Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

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I’m Drowning Here…and you’re describing the water.

 

This Psalm and its’ prayers help us give voice to the deepest expressions of human pain, crisis and doubt.  But it does so in a way that claims the promise of God’s presence in the middle of our suffering and also the promise that the God who is with us will preserve us.

 

 

I’m Drowning Here….

 

Next to Psalm 22, Psalm 69 is most quoted psalm in the New Testament.  It is quoted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and also in Acts and Romans. And beyond that there are many references to it. When you read it you’ll see why.

Psalm 69

 

1Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

2I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

3I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

4More 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?

5O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

6Do 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.

 

What a great opening line. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.”

This brought several things came to my mind: the recent flooding in that part of Texas where I grew  up; the whole discussion about ‘water boarding’ as an acceptable form of interrogation; and several years ago when Susan and I tried to take our inflatable boat out of the Spokane river and I learned about the sheer power of that current. I can identify with the literal “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.”

No image better than that of flooding waters captured for the ancient Israelites what it feels like when the bottom drops out. That image is prevalent in the Psalter’s prayers of lament. Psalm 130 begins with the famous cry, “Out of the depths, I cry to you.” Psalm 42/43 “all your waves and your billows have passed over me” (42:7). And Psalm 88 cries out, “Your dread assaults … enclose me like a flood” (verses 16b-17a).

As a metaphor, the image still speaks to us with surprising force. When have you felt like you were “up to your neck” and couldn’t take any more? When have you felt like you were simply “drowning” in stress or crisis? It’s part of our every day vocabulary.

The third verse that reads: I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. recalls to my mind scenes from the1997 movie As Good As It Gets.  I don’t know whether you remember it but it was about how the world of an obsessive compulsive novelist is turned upside down by a brutal assault on his homosexual neighbor, a waitress with a sick child and an endearing little dog. Jack Nicholson portrays Melvin, this offensive person who can’t help but say insulting things without thinking but who finds himself taking care of his neighbor’s dog.

At one point Melvin remarks of his own life: “I’m drowning here.  And you’re describing the water”.

Carol the waitress asks Siimon, Melvin’s neighbor, “How are you? He answers: “Don’t ask. I’m tired of my own complaints.”

Late one evening Melvin takes his neighbor a container of Chinese soup.  Sharing a bench with the neighbor the neighbor says to Melvin: “Is this fun for you?  You lucky devil.  It just keeps getting better and better doesn’t it?  I’m losing my apartment, Melvin. And Frank, he wants me to beg my parents, who haven’t called me, for help. And I won’t.  And…I… I don’t want to paint any more. So the life that I was trying for, is over.  The life that I had is gone, and I’m feeling so damn sorry for myself that it’s difficult to breathe.”  That’s Psalm 69.

This Psalm and its’ prayers help us give voice to the deepest expressions of human pain, crisis and doubt.  But it does so in a way that claims the promise of God’s presence in the middle of our suffering and also the promise that the God who is with us will preserve us.  We have a God who listens to us in our crisis. Who hears us when we pray.

Psalm 69 speaks of the alienation of the psalmist from “those who hate me”, from “my kindred” and “my mother’s children”, from the psalmist’s own body, and most importantly from God.   Remember the children’s song? Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, Guess I’ll go eat worms… Well, that’s Psalm 69.  The psalmist nevertheless pleads “do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me without cause”. And it does so because it believes that the Lord’s very heart is made up of steadfast love and faithfulness: “Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good” .

The Psalmist admits that life is not as well-ordered as a simple Sunday school faith may pretend. He acknowledges that life is really messy, and even protests to heaven that things should not be as they are. But, through prayer, his evoking action from God – it enables us to move to a new place. It give us words for the deepest, darkest nights of our lives — when the bottom drops out, when the pain seems too much to bear. It tell us that God is big enough for everything we’ve got — our pain, our anger, our questions, our doubts. It even suggest that genuine biblical faith is comfortable challenging God. And that God is present with us precisely when it feels like God isn’t there.

 

1Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

2I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

3I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

4More 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?

5O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

6Do 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.

 

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Paying Close Attention to that of which God Pays Close Attention

“We need to pay close attention to the things to which God pays close attention.”

Psalm 113

1Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord; praise the name of the Lord.

2Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

3From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.

4The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens.

5Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high,

6who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?

7He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

8to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.

9He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!

 

There is an important spiritual principle that should make a big difference in our life and faith.  It sounds like a statement of the obvious – but in our great busyness it’s something we dare not overlook.  It’s this: “We need to pay close attention to the things to which God pays close attention.” It’s in this Psalm and also a part of what we learn from the prophet Amos.  In the 8th chapter he contends that God pays close attention to what happens to the poor and needy – and – God pays close attention to our response to the poor and dispossessed.

This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. 2He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. 3The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!”

4Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” 7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 8Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 9On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.

11The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. 12They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.

 

The difficulty is that we don’t want to keep a watchful eye on the things on which God keeps a watchful eye.  The poor and the homeless are kept at a distance. We don’t want low income housing too close to our neighborhood and homeless shelters are best kept well out of sight of our shelter. The alliteration NIMBY is all too often employed (it means “not in my back yard”). And as for the extreme poverty of some parts of the third world – well that’s a “world away” – so to speak.  Are we really so focused on our own survival and well being that we have neither time, energy or resources to spare? So focused that we avoid confronting the political and economic interests that perpetuate keeping others is disparate circumstances?

In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan the priest and Levite passed by on the other side of the road. It strikes me as interesting that perpetrator of the crime isn’t the focus in the parable. What a bad guy he must be.  Maybe we need to pass a law against ambush and then have a long debate on whether to adequately fund enforcement. That’s seems to be our preferred solution today.  Not so in the parable.  We get it loud and clear that God was not only watching the poor man who had been beaten and robbed, he was also watching those who encountered the victim. In the story it is the perpetrators of the misery of the poor that God promises to remember. “Surely, I will never forget any of their deeds.”

I admit it.  For most of us, it is not a matter of consciously victimizing those who are poor. We are not, in Amos’ words, “…buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” We are not hiding in the weeds on the Jericho road waiting to pounce on some poor unsuspecting traveler. But we are aware that there is a dangerous Jericho road out there and in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We’ve got to do something about that Jericho road.”

Psalm 113 is a call to the people of God to remember who God is and what God has done. The creator of all that is and ever will be is somehow concerned with the ordinary activities of people.  It seems a huge challenge to us to consider just how radically unique is our God.  There is nothing in all creation that can be compared to this God, and yet this God is concerned about people.

What does this God do?  God watches over people, raises the poor, lifts the needy, equalizes power relationships, and provides security to the most vulnerable, in the Psalmist’s language raising the status of childless women to full humanity. The equalization of humankind that the psalmist extols calls into question contemporary disparities between wealthy and poor, powerful and powerless, elite and excluded.

The psalmist calls into question the practices of people toward those who suffer in three categories: poverty, need, and vulnerability. If we take Amos seriously we should expect that God will turn the tables on those who aren’t paying attention to that which God is paying attention. Those who participate in activities that push people toward poverty, drive people into places of need, and exclude the vulnerable from circles of security and friendship are reminded that this is not consonant with God’s care for people. Instead, the psalmist affirms for those languishing in the ash heaps and dust piles of despair that they will be lifted up. Their experience will not be forever. They will have a day of grace, a day where economic and power laden fields are leveled. Their day of despair will not prevail. A day of praise shall break forth.

 

 

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