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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Because They Have No Changes

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God. . . ”  Psalm 55:19

 

Sometimes it pays to have a stack of Bibles, but sometimes you may find that the old standby – the King James Version – gets it right, or at least gets it better than the newer translations.  As you know if you are a reader of this blog, I try to read a psalm every day.  I can’t – or at least I don’t – take all the time necessary for the study of a chapter or book somewhere else in the Bible, but the Psalms are poems and they each may stand at a given reading on their own two feet.  You can read most of them in a few minutes and get at least an idea or two about their import and meaning.

I like to read the psalms in the King James for several reasons.  First, I learned them in that version when I was just a kid and the KJV was still the go-to in churches.  Second, remember that the psalms are poetry and appeal to the emotions.  Although they may not have sounded as formal in their original language as they now do in the KJV, the KJV, given the archaic and strange sound of the language, keeps reminding me that I am reading poetry and not USA Today.  I’ll admit that the newer translations are often clearer and may correct mistakes or misunderstandings that the KJV might cause (I use them for these purposes everyday) something great is lost when the high-emotion, poetic voice of the psalmist is made to read like an instruction manual.  Add to all of that that I still find, now and then, that the real meaning of a passage is best captured in the old translation.  Maybe when the modern translators aim at clarity they eliminate ambiguity that ought to be there.

Let’s look again at Psalm 55: 19.  There, David says of his enemies: “. . . Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”   Here is an example of what I mean by ambiguity.  What does it mean, “they have no changes?”  The very uncertainty of it intrigues me; draws me in.  And so I looked at the verse in other translations.  Here is how the NIV renders it:  “men who never change their ways and have no fear of God.”

Not exactly the same idea conveyed in these two versions.  “Have no changes” doesn’t sound like the same thing as “never chang[ing] one’s ways.”   The newer translation implies a deliberate, internal decision: in spite of everything happening around me, I won’t change my ways. The older version, it seems to me, allows the reader to think of something quite different – changes that are external to the people in question.  It allows the notion that it is not so much – or at least not only – that these men have refused to change their ways, it may be that their surroundings and circumstances have not changed.  They have not been confronted with disorienting changes in their lives and so they trust and carry on in their own strength.  In either case it is true that the men in question do not change internally – do not change their minds – but the earlier translation gives us more room and at least implies or suggests that the “changes” that these men “do not have” are external changes – changes in their circumstances that might awaken them to the fact that they are not in control of their own lives and that they must place their trust in God.

That idea is certainly present elsewhere in the Bible.  We have discussed here in the last few days passages in Jeremiah and Zephaniah that employ the metaphor of wine being left on the lees.  That is, the wine as it aged was left undisturbed and not poured off from the lees or dregs or sediment that settles out of the juice as it ferments over time.  In both of these prophetic passages, this lack of change will bring judgement.  And in both places the changes referred to are not merely internal or mental changes, but are external or cultural.  Jeremiah warns that Moab has been complacent in the peace and prosperity it has enjoyed over generations.  Zephaniah warns the dwellers in Jerusalem:

12 And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

Isn’t it fair to say that here the internal hardness is a product of what the men see outside themselves.  Life has been so regular, so unchanging in their days that they now believe that God does not intervene in the affairs of men.  He does not judge the wicked.  He does not reward the faithful.  The men with these attitudes are to be searched out and punished.  To be taught that God does judge the wicked and does reward the righteous.

 

If that is a fair reading, then the verses in question would certainly seem to speak directly in today’s headlines.  Given the unrelenting cycle of news these days and the seemingly inexhaustible stores of evil in the actions of men and nations it is rather easy to believe that nothing could shock or surprise us ever again.  But I must say that in my six decades I have never quite seen the like of the recent purge of those in high places who have exploited those who were weaker or subservient to them.  Men, powerful, rich and privileged are being brought to judgement.  Men in media – broadcasting, movie making – men in politics; men in religious offices are all being unmasked and brought to task for these long histories of exploitation and abuse.  Surely it can be said of them as they continued in their power and prestige for decades and continued to injure the weak without consequence to themselves that they said in their hearts: The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

What is so striking in today’s news is not so much the criminal conduct itself – that’s terrible enough, but we all knew about it.  Not to say that we knew the exploits of this or that particular star or senator, but we knew that this kind of thing goes on everywhere, all the time.  Men in power prey on the weaker people around them.  Doctors hit on nurses.  Law partners hit on associates.  Priests abuse children.  And the story of the “casting couch” is decades old and no one doubted it.

What is remarkable and unprecedented is the size and strength of the wave of judgement now sweeping the country.  God is not mocked.  One who persists in such exploitation does, finally, reap what he has sown.

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.

 

 

 

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.

Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

 

 

Hey, summer comes along and you switch gears and – in accordance with much protestant tradition – head for the Old Testament to slow things down a bit for the vacation season.  I’ve gone straight for the Book of Ruth.  I am perhaps more of a literary type than lots of Baptist Sunday School teachers.  I am a sucker for Jane Austen and I always keep one of her novels on my nightstand to dip into as I fade off into sleep mode.

You would think that after the first few ( twenty?) times through a Jane Austen novel the reading would be all relaxation and pleasure.  You know – all the real meat of the story already long understood and digested.  No surprises left.

But that’s not my experience.   To steal a phrase from John Sebastian, “the more I see, the more I see there is to see.” In just the last few evenings I’ve been reading middle chapters in Emma.  Chapters where Emma is infatuated with Frank Churchill and is weighing his every word and action as she considers whether she’s in love with him or not.  About this same time, Emma is working to bring poor old Harriet Smith back to her right mind after her ill-fated romantic attachment to the perfidious Mr. Elton.

Austen gives the reader all kinds of clues as she goes along about what’s really going on in Frank Churchill’s mind as he dallies with Emma; clues I missed in the first (and second and on and on) readings.  This book is psychologically dense and sophisticated.

But it is also shot through with standards.  You know – those things that nobody seems to agree about today and that the righteous marchers are now claiming are the remnants of patriarchal oppression, etc.

Here is what Emma finally tells her little friend Harriet to encourage her to stop moping and pining for the lost Mr. Elton who has gone his way and married another (monied) woman:

I have not said, exert yourself Harriet for my sake; think less, talk less of Mr. Elton for my sake; because for your own sake rather, I would wish it to be done, for the sake of what is more important than my comfort, a habit of self-command in you, a consideration of what is your duty, an attention to propriety, an endeavor to avoid the suspicions of others, to save your health and credit, and restore your tranquility.

Oh, yeah.  All of that stuff.  Who can doubt the importance of any of it?  And is this not what the rising generation ought to learn?  A bit of an aside here, but how much of the world’s problems are due in the final analysis to a failure to mature sexually?  I am out of school here, I know, but it sure looks to me like a lot of this terrorist business is fomented among men who, you know, can’t make it work with a woman.  This guy Q’tub or whatever his name was – the guy who was the philosophical inspiration for Bin Laden, et al – his life story (as told in the great book, The Looming Tower) shows that the turning point in his life , the beginning of his radicalization, was when he was rejected by the young woman who was his childhood infatuation.  In popular American culture, we would think of Teen Angel, the black-jacketed, duck-tailed youngster who rebels (motorcycle and all) because “Betty Lou done me wrong. . . .”

Teen Angel ends up with an arrest record or dies one midnight in a railroad crossing accident.  But in the case of the Islamists, all that frustration and rage fits rather squarely into their religion and the result is something like this:  If I have failed to get what I wanted and if I am unhappy, it can’t be my fault.  It must be the world!  It must be that the prevailing system gives women too much freedom – freedom to tempt and to reject men, for example.  Better start blowing stuff up until we can put them all under burkas, where they belong, so we can be pure and happy as men.

Okay, that’s off of my chest.  Now back to Jane Austen.  Look at how Emma considers the action of Frank Churchill in deciding to travel some thirty miles round trip to get his haircut.  Doesn’t really sound like something anyone should get their noses out of joint about, even though thirty miles (by horseback at that time) was much more of an extravagance then than it is now.  But look at the complexity and subtlety of Emma’s analysis:

It [the journey for the haircut] did not accord with the rationality of plan, the moderation in expense, or even the unselfish warmth of heart, which she had believed herself to discern in him yesterday.  Vanity, extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad; heedlessness as to the pleasure of his father and Mrs. Weston, indifferent to how his conduct might appear in general . . . .

In the story, of course, the trip for a haircut was really a cover for Frank’s trip to London to buy a piano for his secret love, Jane Fairfax.  So, his real motives were more complex than Emma knew or could judge.   But that takes nothing away from the validity and perspicuity of Emma’s initial reactions based on what she then believed.

Given such sensibilities, such standards, who among us can stand?   Who could please and satisfy such a woman?  Well, someone who is educated, maybe.  Someone who has learned (been taught) a thing or two about selfishness and the fall of man.  Someone who has read Jane Austen, even.

And all of that points to just those things that the righteous marchers now tell us are the problem.  The education that Frank Churchill – and every man – ought to have is right there in the books and culture that it is now vogue to reject.  The Bible.  The church.  The classics.  In the extended and natural family.  And nowhere else.

And, speaking of the Bible, back to the Book of Ruth in the next post – coming soon.

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?

Getting Ready for Love

 

Philippians 2: 12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

This is my same old coat
And my same old shoes
I was the same old me
With the same old blues
Then you touched my life
Just by holding my hand
Now I look in the mirror
And see a brand new girl
I got a brand new walk
A brand new smile
Since I met you baby
I got a brand new style
“Brand New Me” by Kenneth Gamble, Theresa Bell, and Jerry Butler

 

 

When I thought more about my last post – the whole business about our relationship with God depending on our own honesty, our willingness to recognize and let go of the delusions that we’ve created to protect our own egos – I thought maybe I had made things appear like “Okay, you’re saved, but I’m not having any more to do with you until you get it all cleaned up here.  No more light and no more word from Me until you get your act together.”  I didn’t really say that in the post, but, nonetheless, today I want to actively disabuse any reader of any such notion.

The honesty on our part that is essential to a growing relationship with God is not some bar that God wants to see us jump over before He rewards us with His presence.  Rather, our dishonesty – our false face – is at bottom a withholding of our true self.  This, of course, is a profound impediment to any real relationship.  But even here, God initiates, provides and empowers.  This taking off the mask and the drawing out of our true, vulnerable self is also the work of God.  He will not override our personality and our coming clean involves the exercise of our own will, but God provides the means and the energy.

As I thought this over, I remembered a passage in Rod Dreher’s wonderful book How Dante Can Save Your Life.   What I remembered, unaided by a review of the book or my notes from the book, was his recounting of his years of living according to the sexual morays of the modern, secular world.  In other words, of his being promiscuous.

When he began his relationship with God, he started to understand that what he’d been doing was wrong and he embraced – though not perfectly, at first – the discipline of chastity.  It’s a beautiful story, all in all, and he tells how this resolution – this effort – wrought changes in his life and outlook that prepared him to meet and then wed the love of his life.  His “coming clean” prepared him for a relationship – made entering in to that rewarding and fulfilling relationship possible for him.

Yep.  I was going to talk about all of that.  But when I went back to Rod’s book, and particularly to my kindle notes and highlights, I was a bit overwhelmed.  It’s not that there is something here or there in the book about opening ourselves to God.  The whole book is about that very thing.  I said earlier, quoting Donald Miller, that everyone has a story to tell and it’s not the one they’re telling.  But in Rod Dreher’s case – in this book at any rate – he’s coming very close, I think, to telling his true story.  Close enough to make the book a captivating and worthwhile read.