Reflection on Psalm 111

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen by Vincent van Gogh, 1884.

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen by Vincent van Gogh, 1884.

Praise the Lord!
I thank the Lord with all my heart
in the company of those who do right, in the congregation.
The works of the Lord are magnificent;
they are treasured by all who desire them.
God’s deeds are majestic and glorious.
God’s righteousness stands forever.
God is famous for his wondrous works.
The Lord is full of mercy and compassion.
God gives food to those who honor him.
God remembers his covenant forever.
God proclaimed his powerful deeds to his people
and gave them what had belonged to other nations.
God’s handiwork is honesty and justice;
all God’s rules are trustworthy—
they are established always and forever:
they are fulfilled with truth and right doing.
God sent redemption for his people;
God commanded that his covenant last forever.
Holy and awesome is God’s name!
Fear of the Lord is where wisdom begins;
sure knowledge is for all who keep God’s laws.
God’s praise lasts forever!
Psalm 111 (CEB)

It’s pretty popular to wonder and question what the importance of the Church is in today’s world. Often, people are thinking about the shrinking attendance, dilapidated buildings, scientific proofs, and seeming disconnectedness from the larger community and culture. While all of these may be true in one way or another, I think this this Psalm highlights one of the most important responsibilities of the Church. This psalm begins with the phrase, “I thank the Lord with all my heart, in the company of those who do right, in the congregation,” and then proceeds to proclaim some of the wonderful works that the Lord has done.

One of the greatest responsibilities of the Church is to proclaim, praise and acknowledge the works of God.

The Church needs to proclaim (with heavy doses of humility, compassion and love) how God has worked in the past, how it sees God working now and prophetically speak God’s work in the future.

What’s unique about this Psalm from many of the other Psalms is the relative vagueness of the recounting of God’s work. Often, other Psalms will retell, quite accurately, the Exodus story or other important stories for Israel’s history. While many of those stories could be echoed here, the Psalm does not explicitly state what it is recounting. This gives the reader some flexibility with the application of the Psalm.

That’s right, I said flexibility with the application of this Psalm. I think we can get a little anxious in the Church when we start talking about flexible interpretation and application of the Scripture. But, I think that’s exactly what this Psalm is asking us to do.

It’s inviting us, inviting the people of God, inviting the Church, to join into the conversation of Scripture. The Bible as a whole recounts how God has worked with people and the world through nearly 3000 years of history. It is the Church’s responsibility to not only retell the story but to enter the conversation and tell new stories and new workings of God within the congregation and to the greater world.

Retelling the old stories is great, we need history and tradition to anchor us. But, the Church also must to be able to tell the new stories of the People of God. Remaining relevant is not so much about programming, lights, smoke machines, modern worship music, or catchy sermon illustrations. We must be able to tell new stories, apply our lives to the conversation in Scripture and open the world’s eyes to how God is living, acting and moving amongst them even now.

As the psalmist writes, “God’s praise lasts forever,”. We need to be able to add our stories to the other 3000+ years of stories and reasons to praise God.

Prayer for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Cowboy Singing by Thomas Eakins, 1890.

Cowboy Singing by Thomas Eakins, 1890.

O God, you spoke your word and revealed your good news in Jesus, the Christ. Fill all creation with that word again, so that by proclaiming your joyful promises to all nations and singing of your glorious hope to all peoples, we may become one living body, your incarnate presence on the earth. Amen.

Reflection on Psalm 62:5-12

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Oh, I must find rest in God only,
because my hope comes from him!
Only God is my rock and my salvation—
my stronghold!—I will not be shaken.
My deliverance and glory depend on God.
God is my strong rock.
My refuge is in God.
All you people: Trust in him at all times!
Pour out your hearts before him!
God is our refuge! Selah
Human beings are nothing but a breath.
Human beings are nothing but lies.
They don’t even register on a scale;
taken all together they are lighter than a breath!
Don’t trust in violence;
don’t set false hopes in robbery.
When wealth bears fruit,
don’t set your heart on it.
God has spoken one thing—
make it two things—
that I myself have heard:
that strength belongs to God,
and faithful love comes from you, my Lord—
and that you will repay
everyone according to their deeds.
Psalm 62:5-12 (CEB)

With this Psalm we sort of continue our theme of God’s glory from some of the previous Psalms we have looked at recently. This one is not an enthronement Psalm because God is not being portrayed as King and there are no mighty deeds being recounted. Instead, in this Psalm, God is depicted as a place of refuge, safety, dependence and strength. Comparatively, the Psalmist does not put a lot of hope in fellow humans. “Nothing but a breath…nothing but lies” and not registering on a scale sounds similar to the exasperated words of Ecclesiastes.

The Psalmist then points out that violence, robbery and wealth should not be trusted. Let’s dig a little deeper into those words because I think there is a more poetic tie between them all that the translation does not quite make clear. The two Hebrew words behind “violence” and “robbery”, while different, carry similar meaning. “Violence” or עֹשֶׁק (osheq) in Hebrew can be also translated as oppression or extortion. It’s image is of something being taken by force or deception. “Robbery” or גָּזֵל (gazel) can also be translated as plunder. Again the image is of something being taken by force. And finally, “wealth” or חַיִל (chayil) can also be translated as strength, power, and in a positive sense as virtue. So, there seems to be an underlying image of “strength” and even gaining an advantage over a another by exercising one’s strength or possibly even virtue, valor or recognition. It’s easy to point out when violence and robbery have occurred through evil and deceptive practices.

But, what about those who have attained some measure of success through virtuous means? Can an advantage be taken when no laws are broken or when even no malice is intended? Can wealth/power/influence obtained through virtuous means still be used in unvirtuous ways? How might rising to the top of the social/economic food chain change one’s perspective towards those who are at the bottom?

The Israelites in Egypt were initially welcomed and defended as Joseph’s family. But, once time and memory had passed, Pharaoh and those in control began to see and treat them as slaves.

King Solomon created a great kingdom that was (according to the account in 1 Kings) the wonder of the surrounding world. There was great trade and great wealth flowing through the tiny kingdom of Israel and many powerful people came to observe the glory of Solomon’s Temple and Palace. Yet, much of that wealth was built on the backs of Israelite workers and slaves. The pressure was so great that the kingdom would split after Solomon died.

The Psalmist seems to be turning a wary eye to that kind of success. The kind of success/wealth that is either obtained through violence or may breed violence and oppression in order to defend and maintain. Even when it is defended in the name of “virtue”. While these things may seem appealing and fruitful in the world’s eye, there is reason to be suspicious. The Psalmist, instead, points our gaze towards God who should be the source of our security and protection.

Deliverance comes from God..not through force, armies, wealth or even virtue.

True strength belongs to God, and the Psalmist is encouraging us to draw close to God and to let God’s strength be our strength.

When we draw close to God, we draw close to his steadfast/covenantal/unfailing/everlasting love. Which is not deceptive, is not a lie, and has the weight to tip every scale and right every ship that would threaten to throw us out of balance.

(Un)Resolved Theology

"No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now." - Grand Moff Tarkin

“No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now.” – Grand Moff Tarkin

In my year of “embracing the wilderness” I have tried to take stock of where I really am in my life and ministry trajectory. Seeing a counselor will do this to a person. One of the things that has come up to the surface is the realization that I lean in a different direction theologically than any of the churches/denominations I have regularly attended.

Well, than all two churches I have regularly attended.

This has caused me to question my journey a bit. Should I be more conservative? Am I about to go off the deep end? Should I be more progressive? Maybe it’s okay to go off the deep end? A wise seminary professor challenged us to think of our spiritual/theological journey’s as more “orbits” circling around a center (God), who is constantly trying to pull us closer to himself. Moves we make closer to or farther away are not so much about which direction we are heading, but are more about our proximity to the center.

So, my orbit has definitely shifted over the last few years. Whether it has moved closer or father from the center is up for debate and depends on one’s perspective on the conservative-progressive spectrum. Because of that dependence on perspective, I’ve slowly been realizing that I need to hold onto my theological beliefs with more of an open hand than a clenched fist. Hence, the title of this post being (Un)Resolved Theology. I am finding more and more value in being okay with my theology and beliefs being (Un)Resolved rather than cemented and resolute. I get that not everyone will find the same comfort in this as I am. Also, please do not read (Un)Resolved Theology and think I have thrown all my beliefs out the window and have begun my slide down a slippery slope. Allow me to explain myself.

As we grow and learn, we have to constantly weigh the beliefs we hold to see if they still hold up. We must believe that as we grow, our understanding about the world grows and our understanding about God and his work in the world grows as well. When we are young, we are content with simple words and flannel-graph images to support our faith. When we are more mature, those flannel-graph images will not stand up and are often poor representations for the stories that are considered foundational to our faith. If we continue to grip, white-knuckled, on what we believed we may miss out on new understandings and new wonders God wants to reveal to us.

In the first Star Wars movie, Princess Leia drops this challenge to her captors during the scene at the top of today’s post,

The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
Princess Leia

Sandwiched between the unflinching Grand Moff Tarkin and the imposing Darth Vader, Leia points out that their use of force, power, intimidation and violence will not give them what they desire. The tighter their grip becomes, the more they will lose a grip on what they are wanting to maintain. I think the same can be true when we hold onto our theology and view of God with clenched fists and certain resolutions. In order to hold on to what we know, we may resort to violence, power, intimidation and confrontation in order to maintain our sense of security.

Jesus confronts the Pharisees on a very similar issue. The Pharisees were notorious for focusing on what actions would fulfill the Law of God as recorded in the Torah (or Pentateuch, the first five books in our current Bibles). They wanted to appear holy before God in every area of their life so they spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to fulfill the law through their daily actions. This caused them to focus on the smallest details and, at least according to Jesus, miss out on the actual intent and purpose of the law.

“How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters. You blind guides! You filter out an ant but swallow a camel. How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees!”
Matthew 23:23-25 (CEB)

Jesus saw that the Pharisees were holding onto their beliefs with such a tight fist that they worried so much about the small details (“filtering out an ant”) that they missed the big point (“swallowing a camel”). The true purpose of the law, the true purpose of their faith, was slipping through the Pharisees fingers because they were holding so tightly to what they believed.

Predictably, their response was intimidation, power and violence as they conspired to execute Jesus. Their fists were clinched tight, their theological resolution so strong, that they failed to see God moving in amazing ways amongst them.

So, as a sort of (Un)resolution, I will work to keep my theology (Un)resolved. I will try to not miss how God is acting because I refuse to loosen my grip from a belief or theological concept. I hope I can remain open to new ideas, new thoughts and the new world God is constantly working to break into the creation. I hope to remain firmly anchored to the tradition just as much as I can be open to new insights. As my theology shifts and my “orbit” changes, I hope that my understanding of God grows and I will not be afraid.

Because, honestly…God is big enough to handle it all.

This entry is part of the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from #Unco14 focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The topic for January is (Un)Resolved.

Prayer for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Jesus with Disciples, by Ferdinand Olivier, 1840.

Jesus with Disciples, by Ferdinand Olivier, 1840.

Sisters and brothers, let us lift our hearts in faith to the one who hears all prayers and holds close all those in need.

Holy God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring healing to all wounds, make whole all that is broken, speak truth to all illusion, and shed light in every darkness, that all creation will see your glory and know your Christ. Amen.

Reflection on Psalm 139:1-6

The Mothers by Kathe Kollwitz, 1919.

The Mothers by Kathe Kollwitz, 1919.

Lord, you have examined me.
You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
Psalm 139:1-6 (CEB)

This Psalm has taken a whole new spin for me recently. During the recent miscarriage my family experienced, the pastor of our church came and read this Psalm to us in the hospital. My wife and I wept as the Psalm weaved the images of God knowing us to the deepest parts of our soul and knowing us even as we are being formed in the womb. We wept for the life of the child we had lost and were quietly encouraged that God knew and cared for our little Zoey as deeply as he knew and cared for us.

As I read it again for this upcoming Sunday, a new image enters my mind that I’ve never considered when reading this Psalm.

It strikes me this time that this is the heart of a mother.

Now, I know it can be tough for many of us to think of God in motherly ways. The Bible most often refers to God in masculine terms, but there are a few times when feminine and even matronly type words and descriptions are used. Honestly, there are no specific motherly or feminine words in this Psalm, but as I read it through again my mind is filled with the image of a mother.

A mother knows a child even before the world does. She knows the movements, the heartbeat and the touch of her child before anybody else.

A mother examines her child every day. Looking deeply into the beauty before her. Looking for signs of sickness or potential distress. Looking for an opportunity to comfort and heal.

A mother watches as her child sits and stands, lives and moves, runs and rests. A mother is often well aware of what her child is going to do, how they are going to act, because they have so closely observed and know their child.

A mother often knows what a child wants even before words are spoken. When words do come, the first word out of a child’s mouth are often, “Mama”.

An appeal to the one who knows the child more thoroughly than any other person.

The embrace of a mother’s womb is so complete, front and back, that her child is surrounded by her love.

The embrace of a mother’s arms is only an extension of her womb. Her hands wrap around her child, expressing the same love, the same care, and the same concern that was given in the womb.

The deep love of a mother is beyond the comprehension of any child.

Until…the day that the child becomes a mother too.

And her love grows deeper and stronger than she ever fathomed possible.

We Are Not the Gatekeepers of the Ark

Look how cute and how much fun everyone is having. Even though a majority of the world's people and animals have just been killed by a disastrous flood.

Look how cute and how much fun everyone is having. Even though a majority of the world’s people and animals have just been killed by a disastrous flood.

I grew up hearing a pretty clear-cut and clean retelling of the story of Noah’s ark. It was a pretty cute story with all sorts of fun flannel-graph characters and animals on an ark. I mean, it’s pretty easy to cutsey up a story that features all the world’s animals and a small family on a boat. However, I’ve recently been devouring the Bible Study and the Christian Life podcast, and by devouring I mean listening to multiple episodes a day because it’s pretty awesome. They did a series on the Noah/Flood story in Genesis that opened up a flood of new perspective on this story for me (see what I did there?). Today I want to explore one of the thoughts I had while listening to the podcast

The Flood story in Genesis tells us that both “clean” and “unclean” animals were welcomed aboard the ark and into the “new” creation after the flood. God says, “I will wipe off of the land the human race that I’ve created: from human beings to livestock to the crawling things to the birds in the skies, because I regret I ever made them” (Genesis 6:7 CEB). God states that the plan is to wipe out everything from the human race all the way down to the creepy crawly things. Yet, God still chooses Noah and his family (who are all humans) and lets both clean and unclean animals join them on the Ark.

Why does God seem to not stay true to his word and wipe out *everything* like he initially stated?

If there was something unnatural, unacceptable or abominable about the “unclean” animals shouldn’t God have let them be wiped out in the flood as he initially stated?

Or, is there an image here of the extensiveness of God’s grace and mercy that we miss in the cutesy, “flannel-graph” story we might be more familiar with?

Maybe this is a more accurate representation of the Flood story outcome? (from http://www.thebricktestament.com)

Maybe this is a more accurate representation of the Flood story outcome? (from http://www.thebricktestament.com)

Let’s even fast forward to the end of the story. Humanity doesn’t change a lick EVEN after everything has been wiped out. Noah gets drunk and goes off cursing his grandson and things continue to spiral downward from there (much as they did before the Flood). It is actually God who decides to never use a flood to wipe out mankind and chooses to work with them even through their shortsightedness. The story tells us that God thinks to himself, “I will not curse the fertile land anymore because of human beings since the ideas of the human mind are evil from their youth. I will never again destroy every living thing as I have done” (Genesis 8:21 CEB). God also sets the rainbow as a reminder to himself, not humanity, that he has chosen not to destroy humanity because of their wickedness.

I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.”
Genesis 9:13-16 (CEB)

There’s not even a contingency in this covenant. Man has to do nothing and God will refrain from destroying the earth in a flood. There’s no quid pro quo in this covenant…God agrees on his own good nature to not destroy the creation again. There is nothing humanity can do, it seems, to break that covenant.

So, what is this all supposed to mean? One of the things that was pointed out in the podcast was that it is God doing most of the acting, talking and working in the story. Noah and his family are almost silent bystanders (until the drinking and cursing, Married with Children style, later in the story.) God says he’s going to destroy everything, yet he brings both clean and unclean animals into the ark. God says he’s going to wipe mankind off the face of the earth, yet he brings Noah and his family into the ark. God puts a rainbow in the sky as a reminder to himself of the covenant he made with humanity, and sets practically no restrictions on humanity to keep that covenant.

If you haven’t guessed from the title of this post already, it seems like we are not the gatekeepers on the Ark.

God decides who gets in, even after saying nobody will be saved.

God decides what animals will be saved, even after saying everything is going to be wiped out.

God lets clean and unclean onto the ark, even when he regrets making everything.

God decides to never send a flood again, regardless of the actions/wickedness of humanity.

Who are we to decide who is worthy of God’s salvation? If God leads someone to the doors of the Ark, we shouldn’t be checking for tickets. If God brings both clean and “unclean” animals to the ramp, it’s not our responsibility separate the sheep from the pigs. If a natural disaster wrecks havoc and destroys lives, who are we to say that it is God’s judgment because of someone’s wickedness?

What makes us think we can do the same at the doors of our churches? God can lead all sorts of people to the doors or our churches and many are turned away because they don’t look, feel, smell, believe or talk the same as we might. Maybe we don’t dismiss them outright, but holding back a handshake or not making eye contact speaks volumes.

If we believe the Church helps people find the way to salvation as we follow Jesus, our doors and arms should be wide open.

Ultimately it is God’s choice whether the doors remain open or not. And for the time being, it seems, our doors should remain open and our lights on.