Thursday, July 19, 2018

To the Rock

From the end of the earth I call to you I call to you when my heart is faint.
Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. 
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.
Psalm 61:1-3

Oh! sometimes the shadows are deep,
and rough seems the path to the goal,
and sorrows, sometimes how they sweep
like tempests down over the soul.
O then to the rock let me fly,
to the rock that is higher than I!

Oh! sometimes how long seems the day,
and sometimes how weary my feet!
But toiling in life’s dusty way,
the rock’s blessèd shadow, how sweet!
O then to the rock let me fly,
to the rock that is higher than I!

Then near to the rock let me keep
if blessings or sorrows prevail,
or climbing the mountain way steep,
or walking the shadowy vale.
O then to the rock let me fly,
to the rock that is higher than I!
 Erastus Johnson (1871)
Whatever my lot, be it wearily sad,
or actively busy or joyously glad;
in each joy and sorrow, my God, be thou nigh—
oh, lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

R.A. Searles

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Out of Bowshot

You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.
You have set up a banner for those who fear you, to rally to it out of bowshot.
Psalm 60:3-4

These two verses are a bit odd, but I think I can make sense of them. In the garden, Jesus prayed that God would "let this cup pass from" him, referring to the agony of the crucifixion. The idea that our difficulties are a lot that has been given to us like a cup of wine, then, is not unheard of, even to those who have never studied Hebrew idioms. But here it is expressed in a psalm which refers to the difficulties God either lets us suffer or sends our way: they are like a cup of wine that makes us "tremble"—which is a better translation of תַּרְעֵלָה (tremor or tremulous) than "reel" in my opinion. I wonder if Bonhoeffer wasn't thinking of Psalm 60 when he penned these beautiful words:

And when this cup you give is filled to brimming   
with bitter suffering, hard to understand, 
we take it thankfully and without trembling,   
out of so good and so belov'd a hand.

The next verse is very different from those which preceded it, and stands in stark contrast to the bitter cup of suffering. I picture Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech when he was contemplating suicide:  

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer 
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, 
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, 
And by opposing end them?

The person of faith, though, has an option that others may not realize even exists. In the battlefield of life, there has been raised a banner, just out of bowshot, which we may run to to find safety. Faith in God may not remove us from the battlefield—indeed it is God's will that we remain engaged—but when we are overwhelmed, we need not give in, and we need not fall. For me as a Christian, the emblem of safety is nothing other than the Lord's Supper. There I eat the bread that strengthens me for the journey, and drink the cup that makes my steps firm.
When the storms of life are raging, Lord, stand by me to uphold me, beneath me to keep my steps firm, before me to show me the way, and above me as a banner of safety. Amen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

In the Morning

I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress.
Psalm 59:16

Verses 16 and 17 are a further demonstration of why Psalm 59:9 is incorrectly translated in most modern versions of the psalms. Verse 9 refers to "his strength"—note the ending on the Hebrew word: עֻזּוֹ. While v. 16 has a different ending, indicating "your strength": עֻזֶּךָ, in v. 17, there's another ending, rending it "my strength": עֻזִּי. 

I don't really want to talk about that this morning, however. I just wanted to show how valuable it can be to look at the Bible in its original language. What inspires me this morning is morning itself. The psalter portion appointed for the day I was born says that "weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning" [Ps. 30:5b], and that pretty much describes what's happening in Psalm 59:16. The danger is real, but even in the midst of dire threat, the psalmist is able to affirm that s/he will be singing for joy at sunrise. The protection offered by God in the time of distress is so real that, even before reaching safety, the psalmist celebrates what's to come.

I suppose this could be dismissed as the power of positive thinking if we were to take it out of its original context. But the context is so fraught with danger, so full of bad news, that it's not exactly possible to accuse the psalmist of "positive thinking" when most of the psalm appears to be so negative. Happiness in God, therefore, isn't found in denying reality, but in incorporating the bad news I experience into the promise of good news to the faithful.

Keep me true to you, O God. Transform me not into a Pollyanna who sees only the positive, but into a David who keeps the faith when all else seems to have gone wrong. If my present is filled with danger, pain, or sadness, help me through your word to remember victories of the past and to look forward to the coming victory in Jesus Christ my Sovereign. Amen.

Monday, July 16, 2018

I Will Entrust His Strength

O my strength [sic], I will watch for you; for you, O God, are my fortress.
Psalm 59:9

This is a very strange verse. At some point, modern translations seem to have agreed that "strength" must refer to God, and that the pronoun should be the first person singular. But the Geneva Bible (and the KJV after it) thought otherwise. Calvin himself preferred this translation: I will entrust his strength to thee... Indeed, the Hebrew should not be rendered as modern translations seem to prefer, for it speaks of "his strength" not "my strength."*

The reason as Calvin sees it is that the psalmist is in Psalm 59 speaking of threat, and in this case, the threat is from Saul. This interpretation seems clear enough, but there's a problem: Verse 9 is the only place where the enemy is spoken of as he. Everywhere else, the enemy is they.

Still, I think I prefer the old translations, which are much closer to the Hebrew. When I translate it the way it appears to be intended, I can acknowledge the strength of another—and sometimes it's a strength that threatens me—but I can hand that strength over to God. God isn't just muscle or persuasiveness; God is an entire fortress of strength.

They are strong, Lord, but you are stronger. I know of their muscle, I acknowledge their silver tongues, but I entrust it all to you. Just as I pray that your will will be done in me, I pray that you will use others to accomplish your purpose. Whether their strength is benevolent, benign, or bad, it is yours to do with as you will. Amen.

*I'll talk a little bit more about this tomorrow.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Benediction for July 15

Around the symbol of our church
are these words of Jesus:
That they may all be one.
We are sent into the world this day
as a living answer to Christ’s prayer,
united in loving thought and service,
and striving for a world where,
through the power of the Spirit,
all acknowledge each other as brother and sister,
children of one heavenly Parent.
Therefore in the love of God,
the grace of Jesus Christ,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we go forth to be the church in the world. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer for July 15

We thank you, O God, for the signs of hope
you grant us on a daily—even a moment-to-moment—basis.
In the glory of creation we see your abiding presence.
In the love of family, friends, and church
we experience your constant nurture.
And in the victories we witness, we still experience your miracles.
We are especially mindful this morning
of a group of children in a country far away
who were reunited with their families as the world looked on.


✑ It is written that he was born when his parents were on a trip to Bethlehem. Since there was no room in the inn, his mother is said to have given birth to him in a stable, where his first bed was a feeding trough. And when he reached out for someone, all he wanted was for his mother to fulfill his needs.

He grew up in Nazareth, the son of carpenter. He was exposed early on to the traditions of his people—even going to the Temple in Jerusalem as a boy. On the way back home, he got separated from his family and so when he needed to reach out to someone for safety, he returned to the Temple. And the teachers there responded, fascinated by this boy’s insights and the intelligence of the questions he asked.