Archive for August, 2011

Longing for Security: The Psalms in Our Worship 37

by   |  08.30.11  |  Behavior, Bible, God with us, Prayer

In our own times of turmoil (what times aren’t?), the need for security seems acute.  Without security, there can be no creativity, no nurturing, no healing.  But where do we obtain security?  Remember Henry Kissinger’s line, “Each success only buys a ticket to a more difficult problem.”  That seems to be true.  True security is elusive, and it does not come in this life in an ultimate sense.

Still, is it not possible to be secure even in the midst of the storm of history?  The composer of Psalm 46 thought so.  This little psalm of trust, part of the collection of the Korahite guild of psalm singers, expresses unqualified confidence in Elohim, “our refuge and strength.”  God becomes a sort of fortress for the singer, replacing all other possible sources of security, even if those sources might be employed by God.  If you’re like me, and a bit tired of religious people being society’s most vocal critics and naysayers (and conflating their faith with a sort of crude social Darwinism), the hopefulness of this psalm offers an antidote to cynicism and self-indulgent criticism of others.  “We will not fear” amid earthquake (the psalmist uses the metaphor of the moving earth to symbolize the pain of social and even psychic upheaval that human beings may face).  This is so because of the existence of the “river that makes Elohim’s city [Jerusalem, presumably] rejoice.”

The contrast of two ecological forces, earthquake and river, which in other texts may both symbolize God’s mighty power, here serves a slightly different purpose.  The reference to the river, which does not exist on any map (no rivers in Jerusalem!) but does exist in the mental maps of ancient peoples as a feature of the Garden of God, allows the psalmist to compare Jerusalem to Eden.  God, the psalmist says, provides a level of security for the righteous comparable to that experienced by the first humans in Paradise.  That’s the metaphor in play in the middle of this psalm.

Of course, the psalmist (and all the rest of us) can look at Jerusalem or any other place on Planet Earth and recognize immediately that we do not literally live in Paradise.  Anyone who imagines that we live in the best of all possible worlds clearly has a shortage of imagination!  Still….  The psalmist believes that there is a sense in which God’s presence will lead to the cessation of warfare, the breaking of weapons.  When that happens, anyone who is paying attention will hear the divine revelation, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  God’s mighty deeds of peacemaking lead to an awareness of God’s true nature, and thus our own.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were secure enough to believe all that?  Maybe someday….

Seeing Across Time: A Communion Devotional

by   |  08.22.11  |  Mission of God, Worship

Our colleague Wendell Willis, who teaches New Testament, offered this devotional in worship yesterday.  Our thanks for him for sharing it.

If you have worshipped with very small churches, especially in mission contexts where there are only a handful of believers in the midst of a very large city, perhaps you have thought about how they see themselves in the context of their surroundings.  What gives you hope when you are one of 15 members in a city of 2 million?  One thing is to take a long view of the church.

In C. S. Lewis’ classic allegory, The Screwtape Letters the senior demonic mentor, Screwtape, tells his nephew, Wormwood, that in order to squelch the beginning faith of a new Christian convert, he should make him focus on the church and the many faults and disagreeable features of the members.  So that is how he will see the church, not as Screwtape and other demons see her: “terrible as an army spread out over the ages with banners unfurled.”

One of the most intriguing passages in Scripture is found in Revelation 5, the description of worship around the heavenly throne.  Most often when we read Revelation we assume that it pictures the future of the church—and often it does.  But in Revelation 5, we see also the present life of the church.  For when John sees into the heavenly throne room, and hears the singing of angelic and redeemed voices, he also smells the incense which surrounds the throne.  He then explains that the incense “are the prayers of the saints.” There is some sense in which what we are doing here is caught up into the larger story of God and the worship of him.

Often when we gather to remember the Lord at this table, we should remember this in association with the Lord’s Supper.  Here is an activity that begins with the sunrise of a new Sunday in Greenwich, England, then continues to circle the world like a wave.  Every hour, even every minute, each Lord’s day a church assembles, partakes of the communion and then passes the Supper on to the next time zone and the next churches.  Thus communion takes twenty-four hours each Sunday.  If the church is most clearly seen to be the church in the communion, it is most clearly seen to be universal too.

Perhaps the most popular play staged each spring at high schools around the land is Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”  In that touching play, the town includes those citizens alive, but also those who have passed on and now reside in the cemetery.  Their shadows fall across the town as well—they continue to be town members.  For Christians that is true in a similar fashion.

The truth is that at any particular time and place, an assembled church, as we are today, is but a small part of the church.  The church includes not only those alive all around the world, but also those who have died.  What is called “the communion of the saints.”

Prayer for the Bread:  God our Father, as we now share in the bread that binds us to Jesus, give us an enlarged vision of your church than encompasses not only all the earth but all time.  Thereby we may realize how much we have shared in the body of Christ and how eternal is your church.  We thank you in Jesus’ name.

Prayer for the Cup:  Lord as we drink from this cup in remembrance of Jesus’ shed blood we also recall how long that redeeming blood has flowed to reach down to us.  Give us grateful hearts for those believers who have brought the gospel to our time, and recommit ourselves to passing on this gospel to yet other places and times.  In this way may we too have a share in the communion of saints, called by Jesus, through whom we pray.

Whose Marriage Is It Anyway? The Psalms in Our Worship 36

by   |  08.12.11  |  Bible, Gratitude, Psalms, Theology

Psalm 45 is one of those texts that means different things to different readers.  It seems to have begun its life as an epithalamium, a poem for a wedding between an Israelite king and a foreign queen.  Later readers connected it to Jesus, not just because they connected most things to Jesus, but because of the psalm’s statement, “your throne O Elohim is forever and ever.”  Whatever the later associations are, and they deserve their own treatment and consideration, the first reading is the one I’ll reflect on at the moment.

First, a digression.  All of us know two things about marriage.  The first is that it can be beautiful as two people come together, based on shared values and commitments and not just emotional attraction, and many of us have experienced that blessing.  The second is that marriage is difficult, not because we expect too little of it but we because we expect too much.  Or rather, we expect too little and too much at the same time.  We expect our spouse to offer us happiness, physical satisfaction, avoidance of mortality, and continuous ego-stroking.  In short, we expect the other person to complete us, not a very realistic or healthy view.  At the same time, we often do not demand of ourselves the same vigorous commitments, the same sacrificial love, or the same investment in personal growth that we expect of our spouse.  From this paradox — too much and too little — comes the marital turmoil all too familiar to our times.  And when we combine the desire for the beautiful with the hard reality of what it takes to get the beautiful, we end up with challenges.

But of course marriage has always been challenging, even in ancient times when love was supposed to be the byproduct rather than the precondition of the union.  (Ancient Israelites would’ve found the Bachelor and Bachelorette tv shows as incomprehensible as some of us do!)  This is where at least one thing in Psalm 45 could help us.

Of course, much of this psalm is difficult to translate to our experience, not merely because of its antiquity, but mostly because it concerns marriage between a king and a queen and therefore all the political aspects of that relationship.  The needs to provide an heir to the throne and to bring about peace with foreign neighbors weigh heavily in this psalm, strongly influencing its language about each marital partner and their new roles.

But there is one thing that might help us.  Notice verses 13-15  (Hebrew 14-16): “How splendid is the king’s daughter [i.e., the bride] inside, decked with golden robes… with rejoicing and celebration they are led along; they come to the king’s palace.”  There is a joy here, a sense that something important is happening in this marriage, and it is not just about politics or the pragmatics of royal life.  There is a sense of wonder here at the beauty of human beings entering into marriage.

Perhaps the sense of wonder is what is lacking from marriages when they’re in trouble.  Isn’t it an extraordinary thing to know that I can have a lifelong relationship with my spouse (my wife, in this case!) through good times and bad, through triumphs and tragedies, and even through the ordinariness of much of life?  Isn’t it amazing that the initial euphoria can give way to far deeper and more beautiful emotions, attitudes, beliefs, and actions?  Maybe if we learn that much from this psalm, that would be enough.  More than enough.  As the psalmist says in opening this song, “My heart overflows with a good word.”  There is none better.

Reputations and Memories: The Psalms in Our Worship 35

by   |  08.01.11  |  Bible, God with us, Mission, Psalms, Theology

After a bit of a break, this post marks a return to the Psalms.  Welcome back!

Reputation.  The legend is that at his trial for cheating in baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson was accosted by a young fan who said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Say it ain’t so.”  Legend or not, the saying has stuck because  we all want to believe the best about our heroes, and we never want them to disappoint us.  Their failures are our failures at some level, if for no other reason than that we believed in them.

Psalm 44 is a “say it ain’t so” kind of psalm.  It opens with an address to God speaking of how the ancestors had spoken of the deity’s mighty saving deeds in the past (notably the exodus and the settlement in the land.  The opening address also claims that Israel has been faithful, a fact that should motivate God to be faithful to them.

Then comes the big shift.  In verse 9 (Hebrew v. 10), the accusations begin.  God, says, the psalmist has abandoned Israel to its enemies, making them like “a flock for devouring” and “people sold for no price.” Israel’s fate has become the stuff of foreign proverbs (v. 14 [Hebrew 15]).  The psalmist summarizes the horror and confusing nature of the people’s fate by saying, “All this has befallen us, yet we have not abandoned you, nor have we betrayed your covenant” (v. 17 [18 Hebrew]).  Such a fate would be understandable if the people had abandoned God, yet they have not.  Say it ain’t so!

What do we make of such a psalm?  It is not unique in its frank criticism of the Almighty (see, for example, Ps 89).  The refusal to admit guilt or to pretend away the horrors of the present are at once intimidating and refreshing.  Intimidating because the sort of gall — if it is — required to say such a thing seems unusual, and refreshing for the same reason.  Few of us ever rise to such a level of honesty in our expressions of outrage, pain, and confusion.

Now, for those who believe that we must always spin our feelings when bringing them to God, such a psalm seems to present a serious problem.  For some readers, it seems arrogant or downright disrespectful.  Yet here it is in the Bible, a book not known for valuing such qualities.  So perhaps we should reconsider what we think proper speech to God is.  The claim of the psalm is that Israel has not deserved its fate, and that the suffering it experiences constitutes a violation of the covenant with Yahweh.  God, says the Psalmist, has not kept His side of the bargain.  A serious charge, if true.

Still, it is important to note how the psalm ends.  It does not end with a repudiation of the covenant or a denial of God.  Rather, it invites God to “arise and save us, and rescue us for the sake of your steadfast love.”   Be who your reputation says you are, in other words.  Save because you are the savior.  The psalmist’s lack of confidence in God gives way to a higher confidence borne of waiting and wrestling.  Yet the new confidence comes from a relationship with God that includes the sort of absolute candor that the psalm displays.

The story is that Shoeless Joe answered the boy, “Yeah, kid, I’m afraid it is.”  And so a hero drifted away.  The psalmist gives his or her hero one more chance.  Sometimes we need to as well, for God’s sake and our own.