Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Roots of God's Justice

Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts; there is no fear of God before their eyes.
For they flatter themselves in their own eyes that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; they have ceased to act wisely and do good.
They plot mischief while on their beds; they are set on a way that is not good; they do not reject evil.
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.
—Psalm 36:1-6

God's love and goodness are found far above the skies the wicked would pollute; the roots of God's justice thrive beneath the earth and water they would exploit for their selfish gains. Blessed as they are by those who use God's Name in vain, the greedy at the top echelons of both business and government believe they have no one and nothing to answer to but their money. But God's salvation will come—not just for people, but for all of creation. What then for those who have sought salvation elsewhere?

Send forth your Spirit, Lord, and renew the face of the earth. Amen.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

You Have Seen

You have seen, O Lord; do not be silent! O Lord, do not be far from me!
Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense, for my cause, my God and my Lord!
Vindicate me, O Lord, my God, according to your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me.
Do not let them say to themselves, “Aha, we have our heart’s desire.” Do not let them say, “We have swallowed you up.”
Let all those who rejoice at my calamity be put to shame and confusion; let those who exalt themselves against me be clothed with shame and dishonor.
Let those who desire my vindication shout for joy and be glad, and say evermore, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servant.”
Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all day long.
—Psalm 35:22-28

"You have seen..." When the ungodly look, what they see is opportunism. How can I take advantage? How can I take revenge? How can I make myself look good? How can I humiliate? How can I profit? But "God also sees and takes notice of the cruelty and malice of those who feel a pleasure and gratification in seeing others afflicted and in trouble" [Calvin].

Throughout the psalms, there's a contrast drawn between those in whose view the vulnerable are brought down, and God whose viewpoint brings wholeness to the downtrodden.

See me, Lord, and know my pain. And give me eyes to see in others not an opportunity for gain, but an opportunity for sharing; in Jesus' Name. Amen.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Bewitched




Elizabeth Montgomery (b. 4/15/33) died of cancer on this date in 1995. She was 62.

In the Great Congregation

Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you.
—Psalm 35:18

"I can commune with God much better alone in nature than I can in a church with all those hypocrites." I can't tell you the number of times I've heard that one. And indeed it's nice to be alone. In nature, even. But to use one's own moral superiority as an excuse not to attend congregational worship is the height of arrogance, and displays the very hypocrisy decried in the opening statement.

Worship with others is not really optional. In worship, we're exposed to others' ideas. We're led to realize our own wrongdoings—things that, left to our own devices, we might not realize are harmful to ourselves or other people. Our spirits are lifted up in song and prayer. We get to be around people we want to be around, and those we might otherwise avoid. All of these things are necessary for the person of faith... or the person seeking faith. Otherwise we remain simultaneously unsupported and unchallenged. The former leads to discouragement; the latter to stagnation.

Only the already perfect can be excused from "the great congregation." But then again, wouldn't an important part of human perfection be the willingness to share one's wondrousness with the hoi polloi?

Thank you, Lord, for calling your people out of the world and out of nature and into a church. Thank you even more for the opportunities you give me to praise you in the midst of and as a part of the body of Christ. Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

If Bones Could Talk

Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance. 
All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”
—Psalm 35:9-10

If bones could talk, what would mine say? The psalmist's faith is so deep, that her or his bones extol God. Not just in body, but in the very frame that upholds the body, the psalmist praises the Defender of the weak and needy.

Today's faithful seem very far removed from the words of this psalm. We are taught to expect blessings that the vast majority of the people on earth cannot dream of. We pray for benefits for ourselves alone. And yet the songbook of our faith, the Book of Psalms, teaches us that at the core of his or her being, the person of true faith cannot help but glorify the One who ministers to the poor.

You created me in your image, O God. So forgive me for all the times I dishonor that image by ignoring the needs of the vulnerable, for reveling in the ways I profit from their need, for asking for that which I don't need. Make me more like you, that at the core of my being, I may praise you with integrity; in Jesus' Name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Lord Delivereth

Great are the troubles of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all.
—Psalm 34:19 (Geneva Bible, 1560)

I wonder what the "name-it-claim-it" preachers of the prosperity gospel do with this passage? It's nice to believe in deliverance from difficulties. But if I actually deny the existence of the difficulties, then what exactly am I being delivered from? Or if I believe the difficulties occurred in the first place due to a lack of righteousness or faith, then what makes my deliverance any difference from a wicked person experiencing a run of good luck?

Troubles are real. And so is God's deliverance. To deny the existence of one is to render the other pointless at best, and nonexistent at worst.

Sometimes, Lord, I feel that I need to thank you for life's difficulties. Without them, I would need no faith; without them, there would be no need to look to you for salvation. Bring me through my troubles, and deliver me in Jesus' Name and for his sake. Amen.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tell It Slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Emily Dickinson died on this date in 1886.

The Lord Is Near

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit
—Psalm 34:18

We ask, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" But the Bible answers a different question. As Eugene Peterson wrote: "the wicked experience suffering as utter despair, the complete destruction of all that is important; the righteous experience it in nearness to God, who preserves his children through every adversity." *

In other words, "good" people shouldn't expect only good things to happen. But the twofold promise of God is that we (and seriously, how dare we call ourselves good?) will never experience them alone, and that they will never be our downfall.

I ask not to avoid suffering, Lord. I ask instead that when it comes, I feel you near; in Jesus' Name. Amen.

*in Praying with the Psalms (HarperSanFrancisco 1993), March 14.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Seek Peace

Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
—Psalm 34:14

There's movement in this verse. Evil is a place. To do something good or kind or even productive, I need to get out of there. I need to depart. Only then can I hunt for peace. But seeking it isn't enough. I must follow where it leads. It must become my goal.

Note that if it's my goal, peace is in control of me. I cannot dictate my terms for peace, but must accept peace on its own terms.

Grant me peace, O God—not as the world offers it and not as my limited mind envisions it, but your peace, which surpasses my understanding; in Jesus' Name. Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Stardust [revisited]*


…so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
—Philippians 2:15
Introduction: 1969

I came upon a child of God—
he was walking along the road.
And I asked him, 
'Where are you going?
This he told me:
I’m going down to Yasgur's Farm; 
gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land 
and set my soul free.' [1]

Nearly fifty, a singer and songwriter named Joni Mitchell was planning to perform at an obscure music and arts festival in Upstate New York. But her agent told her that it would be better for her career if she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show instead. And so that's just what she did. The festival she missed was named Woodstock, and they say that she wept when she saw the reports on television of what it was that she missed. Her boyfriend, Graham Nash, was there, and he told her all about it. So she sat down and wrote a song, and named it Woodstock after the event she wished she’d gone to. This song has been acclaimed by one 21st century author as “the most popular and influential poem written in English” in the past forty years. [2]

A Prayer for Ascension Sunday

Creator God,
we thank you for filling
the vastness of the universe and the inhabited world
with creative power
and for sustaining it with your immeasurable goodness.
We pray for Christians of all churches:
Grant them the courage
of a faith that believes you govern the world,
let them hear your liberating word,
and move them to act on others’ behalf.

We pray for our threatened and broken world:
Turn aside all powers that would destroy it.
Convict all who work
in the areas of science and technology, economics and politics
of their responsibility for advancing human worth.
Grant to all who are committed
to the peaceful coëxistence of persons and peoples
the assurance that their work is not in vain.

We pray for those to whom the heavens seem closed,
whose questions go unanswered, 
and whose lives are characterized by emptiness.
Help those who are bowed down to stand.
Take from the narrow-minded their fear of new horizons.
Open to those who covet the past a glimpse of your future.
Speak your word of atonement to the quarrelsome
that they may dare reconciliation.

We praise you, O God—Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit—
for you care for all you have made,
your redeem our lives,
and you remain present in your world.
Hear these prayers,
for we offer them in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit,
lives and reigns as one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Adapted from the German Reformed Liturgy

Taste and See

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.  
—Psalm 34:8-9


Calvin introduces verse 8 a bit brusquely, saying that in it...

the Psalmist indirectly reproves [people] for their dullness in not perceiving the goodness of God, which ought to be to them more than matter of simple knowledge. By the word taste he at once shows that they are without taste; and at the same time he assigns the reason of this to be, that they devour the gifts of God without relishing them, or through a vitiated loathing ungratefully conceal them.

I felt rather convicted by this, because though this is one of my favorite verses, I tend to think of it (and use it) in reference to the Lord's Supper. This isn't a bad thing, except that this particular usage of the verse has led me away from a more generalized meaning, that being that every bite of food I take (indeed, every puff of air I breathe, every drop of water I drink, etc.) should remind me that all I have is a blessing from God. To eat, drink, breathe, live without gratitude is to "devour the gifts of God without relishing them."

Forgive me for taking, Lord, without acknowledging that yours is the hand that gives. Amen.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Always Give Thanks

I will always give thanks unto the Lord: his praise shall be in my mouth continually.
My soul shall glory in the Lord: the humble shall hear it and be glad.
Praise ye the Lord with me, and let us magnify his Name together.
—Psalm 34:1-3 (Geneva Bible, 1560)

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
—G.K. Chesterton

For what I have received may the Lord make me truly thankful. And more truly for what I have not received. Amen.
—Storm Jameson

Friday, May 11, 2018

Our Help & Shield

Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.
—Psalm 33:20
In my devotions on Sunday morning, I thought more extensively about what it means to wait than I usually do. In Romance languages, waiting and hoping are intermingled. But Teutonic languages also have their advantages, when we think of waiting (in English) as looking forward to, and (in German) as sich darauf freuen (be glad at the prospects of).

And here, in the ten-day period between the Ascension of Christ and the Descent of the Holy Spirit, waiting becomes especially important.
After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.  —Acts 1:3-4a

When I look at Psalm 33:20 in the light of the waiting we do before the Day of Pentecost, I am led to meditate on how the Holy Spirit is our Help and our Shield, for truly, the Spirit is the Person of the Godhead for whom we wait, and who fulfills our waiting. Romans 8:26-27 offers me insight into what this means, for there I read that the Spirit helps me pray, and the Spirit intercedes for me when I am unable to pray. Is there a better teacher in the school of prayer than the Holy Spirit? And what greater shield can I hope for than the very prayers of God?

Teach me as I wait to pray aright, O Holy Spirit, and reassure me that when my prayers fall short, yours will fill the gap; for Christ's sake. Amen.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

You Are Stardust


I'm not a very new-agey pastor. Not by a longshot. But I am rather new-agey when it comes to the Ascension. To me, the old message, "From dust you came and to dust you shall return," was updated on the fortieth day of Easter to, "You are stardust." And so this is the song I always think of on this day...

Ascension Day

Psalm 47. This is what church music is supposed to be:

By the Word


By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.
—Psalm 33:6-12
Genesis 1 tells us that God spoke, and the universe was created. John 1 tells us that that Speaking—that Word—was in the beginning, was God, and was the means of creation. And in between there is this unsung hero of creation accounts, Psalm 33:6—By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.

And this is the theological basis for God's awesomeness. Why should everybody in the world be overwhelmed when we think of God? Because God spoke, and what is came to be (v. 9). Happy is the people whose God is this God. Not some puny vindictive god who apes the political opinions of its worshipers and is limited to their imaginings, but the God of creation. Belonging to this God is inexpressibly wonderful, but we must never forget the words of Jesus: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice (John 10:16).  A voice that can create entire worlds can surely create in me a heart that can see beyond my own self, my own family, my own nation, and include others in my conception of the love of God.

I stand in awe of your creative power, God. Create in me the power to love others as much as I love myself, to make neighbors of people I have not yet met; in Jesus' Name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Why All This Novelty?

Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
—Psalm 33:3-5

There are many places in the psalter where we are exhorted to "sing a new song" to God. Why all this novelty?

Calvin maintains that "new" means a rare or choice song. But we might also take "new" more literally, and accept that the song we sing to God is indeed a new one, one that has not been presented to other beings or powers, one that is premiered, as it were, for God first and God alone.

Teach me something new, O God, that I may sing your praises in language that hasn't been wasted on anything less than the Creator of all that is; in Jesus' Name. Amen.