Morning Poem, December 13, 2017

Psalm 57: 8
Awake up, my glory; awake psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early.

 

Think of David as he lies on the mountain

He looks at the night sky

Unending, unfathomable, unreachable

The diamond stars

The firmament that declares the glory of God

And he aches

His heart panting like the hart after the waterbrook

At his side are sword, spear and bow

His body is cut from oak, his skin like leather

His mind a blade itself, with razor’s edge

He breathes the open air and the day’s tension dissolves

He rests in the shadow of the wings of the Almighty

.

This man who killed the giant

And tens of thousands

Hears heaven’s choir and plays on his harp

Songs that soothe the savage breast of Saul

His poems are those very psalms

That have charmed and inspired

Over millennia

And he aches

.

At first light, at first rustling of dawn

He turns and shakes away sleep

Here is a new day

He rises, believing the promise

“Awake up, my glory”

.

What is his glory?

One more win in bloody combat?

Or is it that unknowable thing

That all men share with him

That desire beneath all desires

That lesser men have long since forgotten

And forfeited to the unrelenting fates

That lesser men are afraid to confess

.

Does David wake early

Expecting glory in bloodshed

Or does he crave

That his righteousness will shine like the dawn

And the justice of his cause like the noonday sun?

Does he crave that gift, that grace, that dispensation

That is his and his alone?

That unspeakable grace promised to him

When he first came to know himself?

.

Is the difference between him and me

That he believes it will happen

And maybe this very day

And so he wakes early

And takes in hand

Psaltery and harp

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Wine on The Lees

Isaiah 25:6

And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

 

 

If the image of wine settling on its lees (dregs) in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is one that suggests stagnation and accordant ruination, the image in Isaiah 25: 6 seems to be opposite.  That is, in Isaiah the wine that is “on the lees” is “well refined” and fit for God’s “feast of fat things.”   The wine that is “on the lees” in Isaiah is the best wine and better, apparently, for having been kept on the lees!

What can we make of this?   Maybe the best advice would be simply that these two apparently contrary images are not meant to be compared.  They were written at different times and to address different situations and no responsible Bible scholar would waste any time in trying to compare or contrast them.  It’s apples to oranges.

And yet. And yet.  The idea in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is so familiar to those of us who occupy the pews in Middle America.  This is the riff or saw or even cliché that the preachers use to warn us against staying in our “comfort zones.”  We need to get out there and engage the culture, make our witness.  All of that.

I wonder if it might be legitimately argued that the passage in Isaiah may be a kind of counterpoint to all of that.  I wonder if there may be wisdom in allowing Christians to “settle on their lees” and be thereby deepened and strengthened, not embittered.

Not in the sense of becoming complacent or self-sufficient, but in steeping in the gospel and all that it implies.  If you read Rod Dreher (and if you are concerned with the state of the church in modern life, you must read Rod Dreher) you will see constant reference in his prolific posting to the shallowness of the theology in the so-called “Evangelical” churches.  The complaint he cites has to do with the church culture becoming focused on entertainment and hipness and losing sight of tradition and the deeper truths those traditions testify to.  Just a few months ago I heard some people talking about someone who had left a local mega-church for greener pastures because the new church they had found had a better praise band.  Dreher argues – and repeatedly cites research to support – that the generation now rising in the church is all about emotion and little else and that the churches they frequent do little to change this.  In fact, they foster and even exploit it.

Thus, when confronted with any sort of sob story, these youngsters will be quick to abandon any of the church’s teachings on sexual morality.  It’s all about what feels good.  Come on in and turn it up to eleven.

 

 

 

Meditation on Psalm 55

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”

 

I try to read a Psalm a day.  The Psalms, it seems, are fit for daily study in that they each may stand alone.  Other books in the Bible may demand a more comprehensive approach – a consideration of broad context and language – but each Psalm is a story or drama unto itself.

 

So many of the psalms are attributed to David.  Some of those are beautiful devotions, like the 23rd, whose metaphor for God as shepherd is surely one of the high points in the whole book.  But many of David’s psalms are shot through with cursing and complaint.  In reading the Psalms, we discover that, for David, life was a battle.  He is constantly in trouble, surrounded by enemies, suffering betrayals and the consequences of his own wrongdoings; in fear of destruction.  Undoubtedly there is value for the modern man or woman in David’s perspective.  So many of us are insulated from the rough and tumble of life that David lived.  We are not encamped on a desert mountain and wakened by the lion and the bear that threatens our sheep and ourselves.  We are not being chased by a lunatic king who is insanely jealous and out to kill us.  We move from air-conditioned summers to comfortably-heated winters.  Our larders are generally full and our homes secure.

What David’s psalms may do for us is awaken us to the fact that, in spite of the comforts we know, life is a battle.  There is something real at stake; something great that may be lost or gained.  To lose sight of this is to surrender to the status quo:  life simply goes on as ever before, each day is more of the same, and we lift our feet from the ground and simply let the earth spin beneath us.  What difference does our effort make, anyway?

Some may fall into such a defeatist, fatalistic view of life as a result of repeated disappointment and failure.   Some may come to see life as not only unfair, but insurmountably unfair, and finally satisfy themselves with those little pleasures that may be found along the primrose path of least resistance.

This morning’s Psalm for me was number 55.  It is in many ways a typical David psalm.  He is in desperate straits (of course) and is pouring his soul out to God; half wishing for complete escape from life (Oh, that I had wings of a dove; then I would fly away into the wilderness and be at peace) and half wishing for immediate victory in the conflict.

As is his wont, he curses his enemies.  For the most part, there is nothing new here, but as I followed along this morning, one phrase did stand out.  David says of his enemies:

Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.

What can that mean?  What does it mean to “have no changes?”  This reading is from the King James Version which is my starting point for reading the Psalms.  The Psalms are poetry, after all, and there should be a certain majesty, ambiguity, mystery and meter about them.   I looked at several newer translations.  There are lots of variations in the translation of this verse.   NIV: “. . . [they] never change their ways and have no fear of God.”   Some translations seem to attribute the modifier suggesting a lack of change to God.   This is from a newer version of the NIV:  “God, who is enthroned from of old, who does not change—he will hear them and humble them . . .”

Other translations render the verse to say that the change referred to is that change of heart associated with repentance.

As is often the case, I am far more satisfied and intrigued by this unusual and at first ambiguous rendering in the old King James.  “They have no changes!”  Not that they haven’t repented; not that God is unchanging.  (Those two things are true, but this verse is saying something other than that.)

What the verse says to me – and this distinguishes it from the others – is that the enemies of whom David here speaks walk in false security.  The security of wealth and worldly power.  They are comfortable and consequently feel no need of God.  For them, life is not a battle.

How is that relevant to me?  Well, I am not about to sell the house and by a tent and start keeping sheep.  But I might be a little better at recognizing the realities of life.  Life brings us changes.  They are inevitable.  It is not so much that David’s enemies had no real changes.  They were subject to the vicissitudes of life like every other mortal.  But they had done their best to ignore them.  They filled their lives with insulation and diversion and forgot themselves and their real lives.

I don’t have to search for changes, and neither do you.  They are on our plates every day.  Every day we age.  We may grow wiser or simply duller.  Every day our fortunes change.  Look at those who surround us.  How have their circumstances changed and how completely may we have ignored those changes?  What opportunities are lost and which are gained?

A sober assessment of our own changes will indeed teach us new priorities and of our need for God.  Something real is at stake.  Something great may be lost or gained and, although we are active players in this drama, we in our own strength are insufficient to meet the challenge.

Reading The Psalms

 . . . Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me . . .

 

If the Christian life is a personal relationship with God, then the Christian’s journal is the book of Psalms.  There may be fuller and more complete theology elsewhere, but nowhere else in the Bible do we see such a personal and candid conversation with God.  No holds are barred.  We see every emotion:  grief and doubt and disappointment and repentance.  We see joy and triumph and victory and reward and peace.

In the Psalms we see a human being pouring his soul out to God in every situation.  In reading these poems, we find that our experiences are shared and validated.  We are not the first to have great disappointments and frustrations; we are not the first to be confronted with situations and outcomes we don’t understand.  We are not the first to be confronted with our own mistakes and their consequences.

We are not the first to know that all depends on God’s grace – that we have no hope without it.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life

Did you write The Book of Love

And do you have faith in God above?

Do you believe in rock and roll

Can music save your mortal soul

And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?

 

Don McLean, “American Pie”

 

 

 

 

This book seems to set out to tell us where Bob Dylan is spiritually.   Pages and pages of words, more than a hundred footnotes, all with the aim of discovering whether Dylan is (still) a Christian or not.  Isn’t it ironic then, that the first sentence in the preface to the book is this one: “Bob Dylan will not be labelled.”

Maybe “ironic” is not the right word.  Maybe a better word is “paradoxical.”  We Christians know that one quite well.  Something seemingly contradictory, but finally not so; demanding closer scrutiny and holding within its apparent mystery some deeper truth that we might never have gotten to any other way.  For example, we are “in the world, but not of the world.”

Whether you call that sentence in its context ironic or paradoxical, anyone who knows anything about Dylan would have to say this about it: it is a huge understatement.  Dylan has spent his six decades in the public eye doing everything possible to stay out of every category that the world has tried to put him in.  The first and perhaps most famous of these escapes was in the mid-sixties when he traded in his Martin acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and blasted electric blues at the Monterey Pop Festival.  His purist-folkie fans could not believe it – that their idol had broken trust with them, broken all the rules and sided with the impure and juvenile rock and rollers.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

From then on it was one unpredictable turn after another.   Within one or two records after Monterey he was full-on country, paling around with Johnny Cash and using steel guitar in his new songs.

But the greatest shift of all, by almost anyone’s measure, was in the late 1970s, when Dylan confessed to a profound experience with Jesus Christ and professed his own, personal faith in Him as savior and Lord; as, indeed, the Son of God, the Messiah.

What a shock.  This iconoclast, this spokesman for the counterculture, had embraced Christ.  Many, perhaps most, of his fans saw this as treason.  Bob, they believed, stood for, well, everything they wanted him to stand for: free love, the tearing down of the “establishment,” the breaking free from all things religious.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

In fact it became a minor and diverse industry to somehow divorce “our” Bob Dylan from his profession of faith in Christ and from the catalogue of songs he wrote, recorded and sang for the next few years.

In those songs he sounded like a gospel preacher; telling his audiences of the rich and famous and privileged and those who had bought in to the modern idea that all things were relative and that there was no such thing as absolute truth and that the self was the final arbiter, that these very ideas, precious to them, were “earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.”  They could not hide in any identity or any circumstance:

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You might like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

(more later: work in progress)

Meditation on Psalm 123

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you may like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody . . .

Bob Dylan

 

In the Psalm that was our lesson yesterday morning the ancient poet assumes a posture of servitude to God:

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.

 

In commenting on this Psalm, Eugene Peterson writes that the idea of servitude is anathema in today’s age: “Freedom is on everybody’s lips. Freedom is announced and celebrated.” But, he adds, “not many feel or act free. We are a nation of complainers and addicts . . .”

Peterson and Dylan are on the same page here.  We do not reject God in return for freedom or personal autonomy; we simply, in Peterson’s terms, “trade masters; we stay enslaved.”

 

This may be the greatest deception of the hour in which we live.  Our culture, top to bottom – including now the government – exalts the individual as the ultimate authority, the ultimate arbiter of truth and morality.  Thus, today, we hear about one man’s “truth” that may be different from the “truth” of someone else.  Thus, today it is seen as sheer bigotry and closed-mindedness to hold to any objective sense of right and wrong, any sense of morality.  Today, the truth is not what was revealed to Moses and Isaiah and not what is revealed in Jesus Christ; but, rather,  whatever occurs in the mind of each man and woman.  No one can judge; there are no real standards.  Any discrimination is wrong.

This philosophy, which now reigns practically unchecked, is perhaps the principal dynamic in the dissolution of the family and thus the community and nation and finally, and ironically, the individual.

Here is Dylan commenting:

Tell that [that there is absolute truth] to someone and you become their enemy. There does come a time, though, when you have to face facts and the truth is true whether you wanna believe it or not. It doesn’t need you to make it true . . . that lie about everybody having their own truth inside of them has done a lot of damage.

 

We are not the masters of our own fate.    That’s just who we are; it’s just how we are made.  We’re gonna have to serve somebody.

It may be the devil and it may be the Lord

But we’re gonna have to serve somebody.

About Last Sunday . . .

 

 

As so often happens, the best parts of last week’s class were the questions raised.

 

There were several good ones, but the two that stick with me most were raised by Terry and Don.  Let’s take Terry first, for his question is a little more definite.  Although this isn’t a perfect, word-for-word quote of the question, I think it is fair to say that in essence Terry asked whether there is evidence in the Book of Ruth that our protagonist, Ruth herself, had converted to Israel’s God – Yaweh.

That is an important question – the ultimate question, actually – in any circumstance and it is particularly important here – to our consideration of this little Book.  For we are concerned with Ruth’s motives and with the results of her decisions.  We won’t really understand the Book unless we understand what moved Ruth to act as she did and unless we understand the reason for her great good fortune.

So the question – and we’ll be discussing this next Sunday – is what, if any, evidence is there in the text that Ruth had – or had not – converted to Israel’s God before she left Moab?

The second question is broader and not so well defined, but is of ultimate importance for our study.  It was something like this:  “What about the God part of this story?”

Well, yes.  What about that.  I am reminded of our Lord Jesus Christ’s admonition to a group of Pharisees who were (as was their bent) trying to trip Jesus up on the scriptures.  Jesus – as was His bent – stops them dead in their arrogant tracks with this statement:  “You study the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, and they are they that testify of me.”   Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Jesus’ admonition this way:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!

John 5: 39

And our Lord’s words here are certainly words to us as we take up the study of this beautiful little Book of Ruth.  It is a poignant and romantic story, full of heroic and heart-rending acts.  So much so that we might be tempted to take our eye off of the ball here and consider the story only for its human content.  If so, then we might as well be in the public library and not the church.  We read the scriptures because they testify of Jesus Christ and the life we are offered in Him.

Given that, the next, obvious question becomes this: “Where do we find Jesus Christ in this story?”  The short and glib answer would be this:   At the very back of the book where he is mentioned by name as a direct descendant of Ruth and Boaz.  That’s correct of course and also very important; but let’s consider the whole book.  Where do we see Jesus Christ in the story as it unfolds?

Where do we see His character?  And what part of His character do we see?  What in this story is Christlike?   What do we see of His grace?