Psalm 128

A pigeon pair with yesterday’s psalm really, reminding the pilgrims to Jerusalem of God’s promise of blessed households, and then wishing upon them the fulfillment of those promises in their lifetime. One for the hard working patriarchs, wishing them reward: fruitful matriarchs, children, and children of children all prosperous and safe.

Of course it’s just an instance of the larger peace of God, the promise to make everything new, to wipe away all tears, mourning and pain.

And the wish, the hope, the purpose in life to make it so now by sharing these promises and praying them for our fellow humans. To wipe away tears, comfort those who mourn and ease pain.

I’ve been working on gentleness. As a naturally passive aggressive person, my goto way of being annoyed is to withdraw gentleness. I can do all the same things, but do them in a way that is attacking and unsupportive.

I can be doing things they literally want and expect in a way that boxes them into a corner of their own inadequacy, or leaves them out on a limb, gives them the rope, sets them up. Sometimes it’s gentler, if it’s got to that, to push back. To refuse gently rather than do aggressively.

When you are gentle, you see people lighten, you experience trust and intimacy. I know how good it is, but still it’s my most common tool to punish people.

So we have God’s character, his promises, we live those promises, to bring the love of Jesus to the world, through the fruit of the spirit.

Done, life solved.

May it be so. Peace.

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Psalm125

Jerusalem as parental hug. To a child, a parent is the most reliable, indestructable good thing on earth. Ditto Mount Zion, the temple, the presence of God. And the mountains surounding Jerusalem are like God’s arms holding us, his surrounding protection and love. And peace reigns.

The reign of evil will cease and lose its influence on the righteous. Anyone not good will be banished along with the evildoers.

I was thinking how that “gated community” image of Jerusalem: it’s just for the perfect, sits oddly with Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies and going an extra mile with them.

The Jerusalem Jesus actually lived in was subject to roman rule, and he surrendered to Caesar what was his, and accepted the death penalty from his unfair trial without fighting back. The ‘sceptre of the wicked’, as the psalm calls it, certainly seemed to be over the land, and rather than banish them, he wept for the citizens because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

Maybe the talk of banishment is an extension of the parental vibe. It’s directed primarily to the inhabitants after all. Parents inevitably say stuff like “if you don’t do your homework, you’ll never get a good job”, and then ban the tv or something. Maybe these aren’t threats, more warnings and corrections, and should be read with the tone of parental love?

I remember being appalled when my eldest brother said he was a universalist, as in, all people go to heaven, when I was a child. He was the one from whom I learned such theology even existed. It had never crossed my mind.

I’d seen those Warner Brothers cartoons where chargers nearly went to hell after death, and had to deal their way back to heaven, and they seemed to accord roughly with the Bible descriptions mum read at night before I went to sleep.

These days I would summarise my belief as “dunno – don’t expect to know this side of heaven”. But I cling to idea that whatever the afterlife is like, it will be fair.

I think God definitely wants us to have the fear of God in us for things… Evil, blasphemy, injustice, cruelty.

He wants us to have an urgency and a mission for the ‘lost’, both physically and spiritually – that I can’t say I’m very good at personally. As its turned out, strangely enough, I have a support role in that, both at work and at church.

And the deeper into the scriptures I get the bigger and less conditional God’s love appears to be revealed as being.

So I’ll enjoy the enveloping warmth of love in this psalm, and live as God has prescribed: at war with selfishness and pride in me, and doing my bit to bring the gospel of judgement and grace to the world. And He can figure out how the new Jerusalem works.

Psalm 121

Climbing that mountain. We’re reading fifteen psalms of ascents. I always envisage these as the soundtrack of the pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. The holy Hill.

I’m looking forward to these as cheer chants for the Christian life. A Christian life well lived should be about improving, becoming more holy, a better person. More loving, more unselfish, more generous.

Loving God with more and more of your heart. As close to all your heart as you can possibly manage.

And it seems the second great commandment will never be at tension. Truly loving your neighbour is, as Jesus says, like it; like loving God. Maybe, done right, it’s a ven diagram where the two circles sit directly over each other.

Anyway the abiding image of these songs is climbing a mountain to see God. Drawing closer, getting higher. It’s work, but it’s full of pleasurable anticipation, high spirits and optimism.

Coming from a bit of time out to summarise the books of the minor prophets which I’ve read so far, this feels a bit like sunshine after rain.

And I’m of a more positive frame of mind than I have been. I have achieved ‘flow’ at work, I feel functional and satisfied. A lot of the self doubt I had has gone away.

So this psalm says lift those eyes to the hills, to the goal and the source, as the feet walk step by step up the incline towards.

God will shade you during the burning day, comfort when things are harsh, and keep those feet from slipping during the darkness, when you can’t see.

Jehovah, watching over you with care, 24/7. I do still have lots to worry about, but clarity on so much that gives me hope.

So to the day!

Psalm 119

Here we go, the longest chapter in the Bible.

22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Jewish alphabet, and each about the law, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I should have read this first, it’s a phenomenal sales pitch for the law.

It’s a prayer, addressed from one individual to God, full of intimate and vulnerable language.

One line summaries of each stanza:

  • You’ll be blessed, aka not forsaken, if you follow the law.
  • Meditate on, delight in, seek & follow the law to stay pure and true
  • Help me keep longing for the law, don’t let me become like the cynics around me
  • I’m low and sorrowful, may the law give me understanding and strength
  • Keep me learning & focused on what is right, the worthless things don’t bring life
  • I’ll boldly and freely speak the law to Kings: keep your promises of love and salvation
  • I’m mercilessly mocked for keeping the law, but my hope comes from you who promises life
  • You are all I need Lord, the world is about your love, the wicked can bind me but won’t change me
  • You taught me though affliction, I had strayed, but now I value the law more than gold.
  • You made me who I am, an example to others, a target for the wicked; and your love comforts me
  • I’m fainting from waiting, blind from looking for your promise, save me from persecution so I can love you more
  • Your word is eternal, boundless perfection, it saved my life before and will again.
  • The law is sweeter than honey, it made me wiser than enemies, teachers and elders
  • Your law lights a path though constant danger, and I’m determined to keep it ’til the end.
  • Only the law is solid, everything else is a delusion that will come to nothing.
  • I’ve lived your law and I’m under attack, it’s time to act on your promises Lord!
  • Your law is wonderful unfolding light. I’m confident of deliverence and cry over disobedience.
  • I’m exhausted, people ignore you, but the lasting rightness of your law withstands all tests.
  • The wicked are near, but so are you Lord day and night, and your word will last.
  • I love you Lord, unlike the wicked, show me compassion
  • Kings persecute me but I obey and praise you all day, and I have peace – how I love your law!
  • I’ve strayed, but not forgotten your law, hear me, save me and so I can continue to praise you.

Some things that struck me:

It’s like a portrait of the god revealed in Jesus. I remember the sense of God’s compassion and justice coming from so many of the laws, as well as weird rules about skin diseases etc. But here we have the full character of God revealed to this person through the law. Gives resonance to Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of the law, it was always pointing his direction.

It’s a detailed picture of the life of a believer. Aware you aren’t perfect. Determined to be obedient, aware of God’s love and relying on his truth, compassion and steadfastness. Finding peace under attack, being grateful for God even in hard times and the sense of revelation continuing to unfold to moments of overwhelming joy.

I liked how it is so intimate, the private prayers of one believer, but clearly with the acrostic structure designed as a teaching tool, an encouragement for many. It’s testimony, not doctrine, and so powerful for that, as the personal feelings about God aggregate.

For all that it is feeling a bit inadequate to my circumstances this morning. My frustration with my oldest son boiled over into ugly anger last night that is unresolved, and is a long ongoing drag on his and everyone’s mental health and happiness. I struggle so profoundly to come to terms with it.

His 27th birthday a week or so ago, with the prospect of him maybe never launching into a life outside his room, and perhaps the death of my fondly remembered youth group aquaintance feed into the feelings of dissatisfaction I’ve been having of late.

Praying for wisdom. I suppose the life of the writer of the psalm was as challenging. The lives of others often seems simpler from the outside. He said God’s law was enough, his portion, but it doesn’t feel it today.

I need to say some of this stuff to him.

Psalm 112

I didn’t look at the commentary yesterday and missed the background to these two Psalms.

They are a pigeon pair, each are twenty two lines long in the original, and both are alphabet acrostics, ie: in the original language, each line starts with a letter of the alphabet in order. Twice through the alphabet.

The great preacher Charles Spurgeon pithily nailed both – as he so often does – calling them the sun and moon. 111 looks directly at the glory of God, 112 sees his glory reflected in the life of believers.

I felt sad at the first couple of verses because it talked about the success of the believers’ children and how wealthy and rich their houses will become.

I’m sensitive about my children but I need to be positive and take this as a promise to trust in their value as human beings and love them for who they are. Other ways, madness lies, for me.

The wealth is relative of course. I can be worrying about making ends meet and still be very much among the richer on the planet…

And the psalm turns out not to be unrealistic about the Love God=#blessed equation, going on to say that that believing in God can make light dawn in the darkness. I took it to mean that even if a believer is in a dark time, the light of Christ will make it better.

The rest of it talks about security in God, which is a thread that links the good and the bad times for believers. It talks about not needing to fear. Even the worst news will not shake us badly because we know god’s love and steadfastness.

You have the confidence to be generous and just. None of the other things people long for will be as rewarding.

Better with God, that what I hear, and so true, better with God.

Psalm 110

Verse 1 throws you into it, it’s one of the most quoted Psalms through the new testament:

The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”

Suddenly there is three: God, David, and “my Lord” – who is David’s Lord, and seated at the right hand of God – just a minute isn’t that in the creed? It seems David had this extraordinary insight into the plans of God, the Messiah, the rule of the whole earth, the destruction of evil. And it is so concise – 7 verses. And confrontingly violent.

He’s put together a bunch of ideas from his time, plus some pure revelation of the Spirit, into a vision of our time now, and our future: armageddon. A vision of the establishment of god’s rule.

I imagine him as an older king, perhaps, sending off fresh young troops under the power of his kingly sceptre to subdue their military enemies, and waiting till victory is reported back. When that comes, he will declare formally that their rule is at an end and that any lands they took are now officially part of his kingdom.

I imagine his mind turning, after that vivid image of the young troops marching off; to god’s Messiah, and how a Messiah would work.

The Messiah will declare kingship over not just Israel but the whole world, and the believers will go ahead like his troops and declare the kingship to God’s enemies until the day when their time of power ceases.

A few of the images also struck me as having similarities with Psalm 23. Like David had some go-to images of God that lasted his whole life.

His rod and staff comforting him as he passed through the shadow of death, reminded me of the royal sceptre here. Both solid symbols of a higher authority.

Being led to cool waters, reminded me of the moment here where the victorious king is calm enough to stop and take a “drink from a brook along the way” in the last verse, an evocative but otherwise odd inclusion.

And the feast laid out in the midst of enemies, the same phrase, the king’s rule being established in the midst of enemies. There’s a time before the enemies are finally gone where they can see, and maybe respond to the inevitability of god’s rule, his invitation.

He’s also pulled in, with the “make my enemies my footstool” line, to my mind, the image of the destruction of the snake, the evil one from genesis. The finality when the foot crushes the head. The commentators said it was a reference to a known ancient practice of a conquering king placing his foot on the neck of a conquered king.

And the new priest. The Messiah is another kind of priest, not the ones they had in the temple. David pulls out the precedent of Melchizedek to show that it is not heresy. He was king of Salem before it was Jeru-salem and was a priest to Abram before there was a priesthood.

God’s plan for the world is so much bigger than David’s kingship and Israel’s religion. Kingship and priesthood meet in the Messiah and are restored/fulfilled/transformed to their true cosmic meaning.

Our job is running around declaring God’s kingship and priesthood, like David’s troops introducing his enemies to the reality of his kingship.

And, though I feel (Monday morning) a bit burned out and confused, to God I am beautiful “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” Isaiah wrote. Turns out perhaps it was an actual question, answered here: “like dew from the morning’s womb”. Such a description for his young troops!

And the day will come when the opportunity to yield to the king is gone and evil is destroyed forever. The bodies will be piled high, it says. I trust in a God whose love and justice are perfect, but I live with that urgency.

May I work vigorously, worthily this week.

Psalm 108

Good triggers.

I’ve suffered a bit of a rising tide of anxiety, a loss of self confidence, and some frustration of late.

It may be healthy – I have some sense of changing, of exploring different priorities in life, too. Sometimes the anxiety is linked to certain triggers of stressful failures and changes in my past. The fear that history is repeating.

It came on when my job situation stabilised. It could a kind of disappointment: certainty brings with it diminished possibility. Or a kind of growing pain: certainty allows the luxury of reflection and reassessment of unhelpful patterns in your life.

Anyway, it’s seems relevant to today’s Psalm, which is two sections of previous Psalms edited together. I recognised it straight away, because both had language and thoughts I was particularly excited by.

Both are about God being big.

The the first was a fugitive Psalm, 58. David, not yet king, hides in a cave, then in the morning has an awesome praise moment seeing the dawn illuminate the full size of god’s creation, as he sings the day in with his harp. Very memorable. I added it to my list of passages that night make a good Christian song one day.

This Psalm, 108, leaves out the cave, so we just get “in the morning I sing with my harp and contemplate how big God is”.

The second, Psalm 60, is from when David was king and fighting back ambitious neighbouring nations, as kings do.

He suffered a military reversal. The campaign was ultimately successful, but in the time of struggle he wrote this Psalm to give his fear, and the fate of the whole enterprise, into God’s hands.

It’s about god’s size, he literally visualised God as a giant using one nation to throw off his shoes and another as a basin to wash his hands in.

When I blogged Psalm 60 this rather comical image brought back lovely childhood memories of giggling at the language when I chanted the psalm as a cathedral chorister “Moab is my washpot”.

Who knows if David was even at war when he made this frankenpsalm. Maybe the conflicts he surrendered to god’s will were just the trials of a typical day at the king’s palace.

They edit together neatly because they are both moments of realising how big God is. Two moments of trusting God, one as fugitive, one as king, that delivered David to where he is now, singing a song in morning, in what remains his habit.

The quality of God that joins these three dots in his life is mentioned in the opening line: steadfast.

So I wake up in a Saturday, and I’m off to a conference at church, to think about a treaty with our indigenous brothers and sisters. And here is this message to think about how big God is, how he has been good in the past, and will be good again.

As I’m feeling unsettled by some stressful triggers, I will remember the good triggers. God has been steadfast to me too; twas grace that bought me safe thus far.

Ecclesiastes 11

I was grumpy yesterday about the abrupt change in tone from philosophical to practical but it works better read together with this chapter, which continues but deepens this direction of thinking.

A certain calm has come over the writer, having been in a spiral that descended in restless logic down to the despair of chapters 8 and 9, he now comes to terms with what can be known and what can’t.

He talks about trying lots of different ideas because you don’t know what will succeed.

He uses metaphors of randomness such as the unpredictable patterns of rain and wind, of a hedging against uncertainty by investing in many different things in life and trees falling random times and directions.

He reminds us of how deeply we don’t know the way of God by saying we don’t even know how we are made in the womb. Mysteries of even our origin are veiled from us. Science has come a long way since that was written, but we are still yet to create new life forms in a womb of our making.

Jesus linked wind and birth images to the experience of god’s presence:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit John 3:8

To me the point is that only the now intersects with eternity. The past is fixed, the future is unknown. In the present moment we have choices and opportunities to affect things which will last. In the present, we have a sense of interacting with destiny, like an eternal being.

He returns to the “under the sun” language but with, I thought, a relatively carefree and optimistic twist:

“Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.

To me this is using a single day, even a single moment, walking out doors and seeing the sun, as a metaphor for life. Life is the now, our time in the sun, the interaction with eternity we know and experience. Use it well.

N T Wright, theologian and for a long while bishop of Durham cathedral had an example that comes to mind of stone masons working on Jigsaw pieces of the cathedral. A plant-inspired column top here, or a curved arch section there, but not necessarily having the master plan or visualising how they would sit in the finished cathedral. So, he says, it is with the eternal work we do on earth, that is stored up as treasure in heaven.

The teacher here can come to terms with questions about why and how we came to be, and the insubstantial darkness over god’s future, by clinging to the revealed wisdom of how to live happily and in accordance with god’s wishes while the sun is bright.

He’s gone from finding God’s wisdom annoyingly limited and incomplete to finding it the best we can get, and valuable for what it is.

Starting back at work after a weeks break, feeling quite negative and unprepared to cope with life, worth repeating to myself as I step out this morning into the sun….

Ecclesiastes 9

The book is roughly divided into observations (1-6) and conclusions (7-12).

After two chapters of relatively random conclusions, including a series of proverbs inspired by the observations, this is quite a focused conclusion.

Within the limits of observable revelation – (‘under the sun’) – with eternity apparent in principle, but it’s specifics obscured by smoke (‘meaningless’):

– death is the great leveler.

– it’s still a good idea to be wise.

The chapter alternates poetry and prose – it’s the same structure as the first 6 chapters of the book. I like it: when you’ve got something serious to say, you should regularly break into poetry/song. It’s not our culture, but it’s a good culture that balances and respects the observational and the reflective, the creative and the scientific.

I think of it as like Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory. Each child touring the factory models a character flaw of mankind, and each episode is summed up in a little song by the mythical factory workers, the oompaloompas.

Though there is a more highbrow precedent in baroque choral works like the Messiah or Matthews passion: you have recitative and dramatic choruses to move the plot along, interspersed with hymns, and arias to reflect on the lessons and significance.

Anyway, the “death” part of the conclusion acts as a an antidote to the improbable neatness of proverbs.

The teacher is clearly a lapsed try-hard, and he’s bitter about the evil of death meaning that the race is not won by the swift, or favour given more to the learned. That like fish in a net, death comes randomly and catches us regardless of how much we do or don’t deserve it.

But to more average folk, who aren’t elite Kings famed for great learning and wisdom, his almost sneering suggestion to enjoy time with your spouse, have a glass of wine and a good plate of food because none of the effort means anything, well to us, it sounds not to bad a way to wait for death.

And the second half of his conclusion moderates his “Homer Simpson” prescription for life – wisdom is still better than folly. He gives an example of wisdom that indeed was not honoured or celebrated, but which he knows however saved many many lives in a city under attack.

The advice adds up to something like the serenity prayer which generations of recovering alcoholics have clung to:

God, grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Chillax, but woke, perhaps? Oh dear! I just reduced the whole book to most cringe worthy church youth group talk! I must make a note for work!

I’m emphasising the chillax/yolo part of the equation today – rolling some public holidays into a week of holiday, off on a car camping adventure with Kelly, woot! And Rennie, (youngest son, 15) is off camping with buddies too.

Psalm 101

Absolutes in a compromised world.

Breakng the pattern of communal praise of the last 10 or so Psalms, today’s is quite a stern first person song of King David.

It comes from the early days of his reign and he is setting standards for it. He wants to be an obedient king, obedient to the love and justice of God. And he’s inheriting a no doubt corrupt and compromised court from king Saul.

He’ll have no part of anything perverse or vile, won’t listen to slanderers or liars, the proud or haughty. He’s determined to weed out, silence and cut off the blatantly wicked, the evildoers. Every morning! he adds, to give it a practical emphasis.

On the positive side he will seek out the faithful, and live among them, he’ll listen to the blameless.

Of course it didn’t work out quite that way. He eventually had to be confronted with his own deceit and evil. And his court was sometimes a hotbed of betrayal and ruthlessness.

Google started out the same way, with the motto “dont be evil”. They mention it a bit less these days. They are struggling with the ethics of artificial intelligence, which has the potential of an Orwellian future if mishandled.

David wasn’t perfect, but he was the best king they ever had. Standards make a difference, even if they are unsustainable.

David also had a huge heart for forgiveness. He forgave people against the advice of his best counselors, when it made poor political sense.

The Chinese government arent afraid to impose zero tolerance standards on their citizens, using modern technology. If you are trying to buy a train ticket, face recognition prevents you if you are behind on your taxes, that sort of thing. The towns of some Islamic minorites have become virtual surveillance prisons.

But they didn’t start at god’s love and mercy, where David did. His boldness in proposing a zero tolerance society is grounded in his humility before his maker. It includes himself.

Is it my age? Absolutes seem increasingly futile to me. Life teaches otherwise.

But a clear eyed commitment to standards, starting with me, in humility? Never too old for that.