Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Psalm 95: The Lord Is King

"Come let us sing to the LORD,
let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.
For the LORD is our God
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the caverns of the earth,
and the heights of the hills are his also;
the sea is his for he made it
and his hands have molded the dry land.
Come, let us bow down and bend the knee
and kneel before the LORD our maker,
for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture
and the sheep of his hand."

Psalm 95:1:7

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday.  This psalm isn't used every year for this feast day, but this year it is and we are reminded once again to come and sing to the Lord, the King.

From very early on, Christians have greeted the day with this psalm.  It was St. Athanasius who instructed the faithful followers in this practice and ever since it has been a part of our Morning Prayer liturgy.  The Orthodox church chants this psalm as a part of their Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Contextually, we find it in a chunk of psalms that are very high hymns of praise and acclamation and over and again in these psalms, the psalmist invites us into the singing.

A quick scan of the psalm leads the reader to see why a psalm like this may be used on Christ the King Sunday: For the LORD is our God and a great King above all gods.

I have been writing recently on what it means to be penitential -- that is, to recognize our utter need for God.  I believe that this psalm fits very nicely into this theme.  While it wouldn't be labeled as a "penitential psalm" it does put God and our relationship to/with him in perspective.

As is the custom of the psalmist, he paints a picture of what God has done.

In his hand are the caverns of the earth,
and the heights of the hills are his also;
the sea is his for he made it 
and his hands have molded the dry land.

As the people of God, we believe that God made the earth; that he created all that we see and we ourselves have been formed by him.  In the busyness of this culture, perhaps we need to discipline ourselves more to think about God in this way; but, nevertheless, we can agree that it's a foundation of faith to believe that we are here because God created life.  We also believe that God created humans in his image, thus giving humans dignity and the ability to think and celebrate the good creation.

What is the psalmist's response to these ponderings?

Come, let us bow down and bend the knee
and kneel before the LORD our maker,
for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture
and the sheep of his hand.

The psalmist reminds those of us who sing the psalm of who we are in the mix.  We have a real "out of sight, out of mind" challenge in our faith.  We don't see God and we don't look for God, though God is all around us and makes himself known to us in myriad ways.  The funny thing about seeing God, particularly in the way that the psalmist proclaims - through creation, is that the more that you look for God, the more you find God.  If I take the time to look at creation around me and to consider the work of God in the world, I may not come to it easily, but I will begin to see God.

This can also be said of our worshiping community.  God never promised to make sense.  We see this clearly in the person of Jesus.  Jesus is a peasant who was brought up in a back-water town in the ancient middle east.  He develops a clan that dwindles in his short tenure of ministry.  The dwindling of his followers comes to a climax at his own embarrassing and brutal death.  The teacher that proclaimed that the "last shall be first and the first shall be last" is inaugurated as King of the World and Lord of the Universe through this embarrassing Roman tradition of crucifixion and it is in the event of the third day - the resurrection - in which death and life of all humanity and all time are changed forever.  Our worshiping community gathers in the name of this very Jesus every week.

Most people that you see in church look the same.  However, the work of God through these ordinary people is profound.  It is profound on levels that need not be explained in this blog, but the poor are being fed, the friendless are being comforted, those who are empty in spirit are being filled, the last are first and the first are last.  Our wisdom is being confounded by the Lord of this world each day; when we think we have it figured out, paradox strikes again.  The psalmist sees God in creation, as should we, but what is his response when he sees God?

Come, let us bow down.

The response is one of penitence -- recognizing his need for God.  Bowing down is a sign of surrender.  As faithful followers of Jesus, the Lord of this world, we are going to be confused by the "common sense of the kingdom" which is not consistent with the common sense of the world.  Such common sense as utters phrases like: sell all you have and give it to the poor, you must hate your life in order to save it, and deny yourself and take up your cross.  In light of the confusion, our response is one of faith:

Come, let us bow down.

If Jesus, through his death and resurrection, is calling us to the same kind of life, to die and to rise for the life of the world, how does this affect our daily living?  Being reminded that we are to come and to see God in creation, and new creation, we are partners with God in his new creation through Jesus. This dying and rising for the life of the world is just that -- being partners with God in this new creation.  We are called in this way through our baptism.  We are sustained as a people of God through the body and blood of his Son in the eucharist.  Together, each week we proclaim the mystery of this new creation in our gathering around Word and Sacrament.

Come, let us bow down.

If Christ is King and we are to come and bow down, then nothing about life can be the same.  Where does this begin?

Come, let us bow down.

It begins in the waters and is sustained by the bread and wine.  It is sustained by our faithfulness and obedience which is itself a gift of God's grace.

Come, let us bow down.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Psalm 42:1

"As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
so my soul longs for you, O God."

This past week, the choir at the church I serve sang a setting of this psalm.  It wasn't consistent with the lectionary, but it carried the same plea of the lectionary psalm (Psalm 70).

These kinds of psalms are reorienting my thinking of what it means to be penitential.  A pastor colleague shared with me that he was visiting a family in the hospital and while nothing seemed to be going right for this family, his prayer was something like, "God, we get it.  Do something."

These kinds of prayers seem disrespectful, until we read the psalms over and over again and realize that the psalmist's cry was the same.  "God, I need you."  Like the water that makes up nearly 75% of our bodies, we need you, O God.

What does it mean to be penitential?  Does it mean counting your sins and feeling appropriately guilty for them?  Does it mean gritting your teeth and affecting an emotion of sadness and remorse?  Maybe some of these things will come with being penitential, but I think that ultimately penitence is a deep understanding of our need for God. 

There's a word that is probably more familiar that penitence or penitential - repent.  To repent is to realize our deep insecurity, our sin, and to turn to God.  This is recognizing our need for God. 

Recognizing our need for God comes with practice.  Sometimes, for our own sake, we need to fake this.  Trying praying the Jesus prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," every day in some way or another and repeat it over and over again.  Make this a discipline.  Make it a "go-to" prayer.  This prayer will begin to shape your perception of yourself and your relationship with God.  We fool ourselves if we think we don't need God.  We fool ourselves if we think that we are without sin or insecurity. 

We begin to realize that we must decrease, become less, and pray that God will help us not to make ourselves, our time, our interests the center of the universe.  Longing for God comes with practice.

Speaking of water, I have been on a kick over the last year and it's one that I hope sticks.  I have been trying to drink the amount of water that my body needs, which is about 75 to 100 ounces (which can come through our food as well as in a bottle).  At first, I resisted, wanting something with "taste."  But, the more that I drank and stuck with it, the more I felt the need for it.  I would realize with acute awareness if I hadn't had any water to drink.

So much of our physical and spiritual lives is just nuts and bolts discipline.  God gives us the grace we need to get out of the way of our need for him.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Psalm 90: Autumn Leaves are Falling

Please click HERE to read Psalm 90:1-12

I love autumn.  I love spring.  Winter I get tired of quickly and the heat and humidity can be too much for me in the summer, here in Columbia, SC.  The church that I serve is in a community called "Forest Acres" and for the first year or two that we lived here, I just took main roads to get to church from our home.  Over the last year, however, I have been going through the communities that make up Forest Acres.  This area is just what its name states.  Trees are abundant and in the spring and fall, the colors are vibrant and rich.

Over the last week, there have been a few trees that I have looked at on the rides to and from work (the church).  I have seen green, to yellow, to bright fiery yellow until today when the yellow turns a burnt orange color.  As beautiful as it is, these are the last signs of color and life before the trees are rid of their leaves for the winter months.  Knowing each day that the next day may bring fewer leaves and turning colors, I was saddened today to see that the end is indeed near.

I wrote about Psalm 90 this past February and I was tempted to just submit a "reblog" and be done with it, but I believe that these verses take on another meaning in the fall, particularly in the late fall when leaves are falling, night approaches more quickly and our hearts long for light and warmth.

In these falling leaves we look around and see that our world is changing and is making its annual pilgrimage to the darker months.  In the northern hemisphere, the air is crisper and the night is darker.

In these falling leaves we see the brilliance of color and the dying of beauty.  All things must end.

In these falling leaves we are reminded of the acute brevity of life and often that which we take for granted.

Our rituals are changing.  Perhaps some of us are transitioning from white wines to red.  Maybe you've turned your heat on for the first time on these brisk nights; perhaps you've added that extra blanket.  You come in earlier in the evening.  Or, if you're like me, you want to go to bed at an unreasonably early hour.  We're going from cool and crisp meals to warm and hearty soups.

This is a journey we take each year, but by doing so, we are reminded that life is a series of change and ultimately like the falling leaves, we too will see our end.  We hope that the end is in a period of fiery and captivating, God-given beauty like we see in the trees around us.  But, life is not always so gracious.

Psalm 90, though some scholars term it a lament, is a psalm of hope and promise.  In the falling leaves of the psalm, the psalmist sings of the fleeting nature of life and the certain hope of God as refuge.  While we are daily dying and though some of us may be in the spring or summer of our lives, many we love are in the autumn of our short lives.  There is a promise that holds us all together and that is the sure and certain hope that God is indeed our refuge.  God is our dwelling place, holding us all together; those green leaves full of life and those changing colors to those falling leaves.

Before anything was, God is.  It is God who binds us together from one generation to another.  In Jewish wisdom literature, the preacher talks about the brevity of life and counters it with the necessity of eating and drinking and enjoying all the days that God gives us.  In psalm 90, the impermanence of life is countered by a request to God to "teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."  Jesus says in St. John's gospel that he came not only to give life but to give it abundantly.  Therefore, God calls us to make the most of the time that we have.  Understanding this on a regular basis can come only by the grace of God.

We see in psalm 90 an "ultimate" of wisdom that the psalms can teach us.  It looks at the reality that life is short and not always gracious.  It identifies the unfairness of our days being filled with toil and trouble and just about the time that we're getting used to it, it's over.  Psalm 90 is exactly why the faithful people of God should spend more time with the psalms  --- these are all thoughts that we've had.  We aren't equipped to deal with the reality of life being short and especially of the reality of sudden death.  Somehow, we gain comfort (maybe not today or tomorrow, but at some point) in the fact that God is the common denominator.  From one generation to another, it is God who ties all of this together.  In life, struggle, toil, trouble and ultimately death, it is God's grace that breaks the fall of the descending leaf.  And then, it is God's grace, that though a leaf must fall to the ground every autumn and die, a new bud will break forth as a sign of new life and resurrection.

All of the world shows forth your creation.  All of the world shows forth life and death and resurrection.  May we be faithful in the days you give us.  Comfort us in ways that we need to be comforted and strengthen us in this brief life for the work of your kingdom.  And, when the leaves must fall, by your grace, help us to be received into your loving arms.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Psalm 70: Do We Need God?

Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.
    O Lord, make haste to help me!
Let those be put to shame and confusion
    who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
    who desire to hurt me.
Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!”
    turn back because of their shame.
Let all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
    say evermore, “God is great!”
But I am poor and needy;
    hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
    O Lord, do not delay!

Psalm 70

As we look toward Sunday, we see that our psalm is psalm 70.  When I read this, personally, I am drawn to the last few verses.  Last week was Reformation Sunday/Day (10/31) and this past Sunday was All Saints' Sunday.  Because Reformation is the day that we generally remember Martin Luther's legendary "nailing of the 95 Theses" to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, I felt it appropriate to read these 95 Theses.

Without doing an exposition on the 95 Theses, I am struck by how many times Luther refers to the need to be penitent.  Being penitent is more that remembering our sins and wishing to repent.  Being penitent is more than thinking of ourselves as poor and lowly (which, by the way, if we begin to think of ourselves as "lowly" our lowliness vanishes very quickly).  Being penitent, more than anything, is having a deep, ongoing understanding of our need for God.

As I read Psalm 70 this morning, I can't help but think of how we just don't need God today in American Christianity.  For some, the government is savior.  For others, some vague understanding of self-reliance is key.  There is light for darkness, warmth for cold, and knowledge can be gained more easily than ever.  Little stands in the way of us getting exactly what we want in our culture.  If I want a career that makes money, there are steps that I can take, but I must be committed to those steps.  If I want coffee with a certain flavor, there are abundant places to get said coffee.  I don't have to worry about what I eat at night; more often, I worry about what to have that's not repeating what I already had that day or that week.

In a "treat yourself" world, of which I partake far too often, feasting is replaced with gorging, joy is replaced with mania, comfort is replaced with hoarding, faith is replaced with security.

I wrote yesterday on Facebook about how I wish that it wasn't such a dilemma for Christians to vote.  People say to vote your conscience, but what if your conscience isn't on the ballot?  If the Lord executes righteousness and judgement and we are agents of these, how do we vote accordingly if greed and self-promotion serve as cornerstones of a platform?

The same is the case with this psalm.  How do I write about God calling us to a life of poverty and thus blessing it through Jesus ("Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven") when everything in our culture, in our social and political catechesis stands in sharp contrast?  But, nevertheless, God calls us to be poor, to be penitent, and to deny ourselves.  God calls us not to be self-empowered, but to be empowered by the Spirit.  God calls us to deny things and to need him.  God calls us to deny security and embrace uncertainty, through faith.

When the world says more, we say, "But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God."  If we are followers of this God, through Jesus and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we have to reorient what is so ingrained in our thinking -- to become poor, to recognize our need for God alone.  This is a little easier when we do this together.  None of us are needy in a vacuum.  God is calling all of us to need him, together.  And, over and over in scripture, this is confirmed and the proud American imagination is scattered and dashed down (to borrow from Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1:46ff).

Because we always read scripture for and against other scripture, this kind of need for God is so clearly confirmed in the words of Jesus in the beatitudes (Matt. 5) and in a verse from Isaiah 66 that I wish to conclude our ruminations on the subject:

Thus says the Lord:
Heaven is my throne
    and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
    and what is my resting place?
All these things my hand has made,
    and so all these things are mine,
says the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look,
    to the humble and contrite in spirit,
    who trembles at my word.

Dorothy Day wished to be remembered as one who stood in solidarity with the poor; denying security and making herself poor that she could serve others.