Psalm 127

“If the building is not of the Lord, there’s no use in starting the building”.

Verse one was used for an old chorus I recall singing. It had an odd melody that started solemn and then went cutesy and light. The two halves of the phrase were disconnected.

Similarly, the two halves of this 4 verse psalm challenged my brain to see the connection.

The start of the psalm, talks about building houses and guarding the city, and doing it in the Lord’s name or there is no point. And the second half talks about the benefits of having a quiver full of straight arrow children.

Unfortunately, the only way I can connect them makes me a little sad because it’s praising, I think, some of the very things I’m worst at in life.

It’s for people that want legacy.

We have various ways of reconciling our eternal and temporal natures. The grass is always there because it is replenished.Each blade has a life cycle, a circle of life.

But we are more complex than grass. We start to mourn the individual blades, and get invested in whether the blade has a long or short life. Because God had given us the desire to mean something.

And an answer, this psalm says, I reckon, is to invest in your legacy of offspring. Work, build houses, guard your stuff, for them. Have lots of kids.

But do it in the Lord. The commentators made the comment that an arrow isn’t just any old stick. It’s honed, worked, made perfectly straight and for purpose.

As if! I dream of that sort of influence.

That’s where I feel vulnerable. My kids aren’t exactly a quiver of straight arrows. Love ’em, recognise me in ’em. But the closest I get to fine is accepting that they will be what they will be. Particularly the older ones… 26 and 25.  I have a little fading influence over Ren, 15.  But he is such a typical teen – carving out his own identity.

I feel vulnerable, so for me I suppose this psalm is an encouragement.  I need to work at my relationships with the kids, but its in the Lord’s hands. And I could do a lot of stuff: financial support, coaching, moulding, pushing, bullying, encouraging, and it could come to nothing.  I’ll try to remember to pray, turns out that might be the best legacy.

I’ll cling to that!

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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 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 92

How long can this go on?  Psalms 90-92 now form a trilogy of comfort, what a happy part of the book.

We’re on the lyre, singing, of God’s love in the fresh bright morning and his faithfulness as night falls.

His great deeds, his profound thoughts.

Thinking about grass vs. trees.  The evildoers do all look like they are winning… look at that crop of grass, what happened to the cedar and palm tree seeds we planted?  The righteous? Where are they? Fast forward a decade or two… they say there used to be grass in the shade of these mighty trees – hard to imagine now!

Conclusion: the Lord is my rock and there is no wickedness in him: reliable and reliably good.

Can I translate this through my day?  I was down and unproductive yesterday.  A day in the life of a tree, worrying about the thriving grass. A grassy soul.

Begone! Hold boldly onto this positive boost to focus and give of your best. I pray it!

 

Proverbs 12

The proverbs are grouped, a bit. This chapter is mainly about interpersonal behaviour. The proverbs roughly cover principles, actions and words.

The principles include discipline, goodness, nobility, righteousness, prudence, and unpretentiousness. These are contrasted with things like stupidity, sneakiness, disgracefulness, deceit, having a warped mind and pretending to be a somebody.

That last one is one of my faves: ‘Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant than pretend to be somebody and have no food.’

The actions include another of my faves: ‘The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.’ So true! The little things show a persons character as much as the large.

There are about 10 on words in a row. There’s a lot of great ones but I did like: ‘Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult.’ They praise prudence, honesty and kindness.

Towards the end they get increasingly theological, mentioning what will please the Lord as much as what will work practically on earth.

The last is a bit of a leap and talks about the path to immortality. Eternity has a way of peeping around the edges of this very practical book.  Its answering some of the disillusionment of psalms – the ‘why-do-the-wicked-prosper’ moments – by occasionally referring to our choices on earth having eternal consequences.

Its making me aware of how I am at work.  I wish I could take back a mildly raunchy joke I made yesterday.  Equally, when I’m feeling kindness or generosity to people, I leave it unsaid less often.

By the way, I had my beer with the rector, and he had his own beef with the Archbishop’s house project that I felt guilty about bagging a few days ago. He did really just want a beer, he wasn’t about to tick me off!

I’m quite a cheerful, joking sort of person, and I’ll wrestle in a later entry with the issue of the wise person in proverbs being a bit of a stuffy bore in real life.  But putting that aside, I like how it has a cumulative effect beyond remembering each proverb (which is not possible).  Its a vibe thing, it makes your heart and ears tender to the Spirit.

 

 

Proverbs 5

Still doing wisdom for young men – of course adultery is on the list. There’s a lot of it about these days, and from the tone of this, there was then too.

It mixes morality and practicality. It says a life of lusting strangers is foolish as well as wrong. Mostly foolish actually now I look again. But they bolster each other. It is giving you self-talk so you can work on your discipline.

While not an active adulterer thank God, I know all about the temptations of it. I’d hoped it might lessen, but it gets worse in some ways as you age and are tempted to wallow in mourning your youth. All young people start to look poignantly attractive to you.

The writer knows it – he wishes for guys happiness in the wife of their youth. Mind you, Solomon’s empathy on this subject is pretty hollow, if it’s him. Solomon in all his glory never has a wife of his youth like mine!

The negative reinforcement focuses on what a waste of time and energy it is, how it can ruin you, send you broke, and won’t deliver ultimately of the things that will keep you happy. It gets you to pre-visualise the end of your life and think about all that that you may have lost, thrown away for lust.

It has a sense of the aimlessness of both cheaters which I thought was really wise… Both drifting ‘She gives no thought to the way of life; her paths wander aimlessly, but she does not know it.

Mainstream society has largely thrown off the shame of sex outside marriage, but the underlying wisdom of this has held true in that most people spend the majority of their lives in monogamous relationships even so.

Cheating is still regarded immoral because few can deny the pain it causes in service of instant gratification. On the other hand there is little patience with dysfunctional relationships, hence the serial monogamy.

I do think the Christian ethic of the infinite value of every soul has a lot to contribute to expectation management in relationships. If you just toss relationships aside as they go bad, you are putting off learning to love. Chemistry is a flawed ideal for long term relationships, compared to love.

However, I also have known many relationships so bad I accepted they needed to end.

Casual sex remains almost completely irresistible to a lot of people for a while, but also for most unsustainable.

The urge is way strong, but the repetition seems to mean you have to be a little bit mad not to want after a while move on to something richer and deeper. And I mean all the other amazing stuff other than sex life has to offer, as well as richer and deeper for romance.

It ends with a warning that God is watching, knowing all. But it seemed not so much a threat as a reminder of the inevitable.

When five year olds have chocolate around their mouths, after being left alone in a room with chocolate, and they say they have no idea what happened to the chocolate …that is how our double standards, our sophisticated rationalisations over lust, look to God.

To me it has the same impatient ‘can’t we just skip the bullshit?’ tone when Adam and Eve cover themselves with leaves after listening to the devil.

It’s a great chapter, very helpful.

Psalm 73

I’m back to Psalms, Book 3.

New year’s Day and a wonderful journey of encouragement to kick off the even more than usual uncertainties of 2019.

My key verse, a great one for someone getting to the cardiac arrest years of life:

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

I’ve made mainly unstartling doctor’s-advice type new year’s resolutions: less alcohol, more exercise sorts of things. Maps say I can ride bike to work faster than bus, keen to give that a go.

The narrative of this psalm is a common theme of many of them, though here expressed in a particularly touching, relatable way.

The author says his feet nearly slipped, he nearly lost his foothold, because he envied the arrogant when he saw the prosperity of the wicked.

You could swear he spent too long on Instagram before he sat down to write: “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.

This is their reward for laughing at God, living for greed and cheating their fellow humans. Sigh

Holidaying in Wentworth Falls, a beautiful place in the middle of blue mountains national Park, you think about your feet not slipping.

I couldn’t look at the sight of 20s-something tourists, foolishly cavorting atop Katoomba Falls. Dancing on wet rocks, in water that, less than a metre from their feet, plunged spectacularly down to the valley floor.

But I didn’t turn my eyes from Pirramirra, or Whispering Pines, spectacular mansions, slices of heaven on earth carved out by some seriously wealthy people, private paradises fenced off so I could only crane my neck and glimpse.

The second scenario is the dangerous one for me. A big component of my longing to hear about job prospects hanging over from 2018 is the sweet promise of financial security. My wife finishes her course this year and may even find work herself.

A few dominos fall the right way, we could be more prosperous this time next year than we’ve ever been. Hard not to feel that dream would fix everything. Tantalising, but surely resistable for someone who’s just read Job? And psalm73:

“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” Tick.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” Double Tick!

Keep your mansions I’m not without temptation, but I know who I want to be in 2019.

Job 19

The skin of my teeth.

I was with my brother at a rousing performance of Macbeth yesterday that emphasised its qualities as popular entertainment.

The are similarities with Job. Their literary quality and the number of phrases and ideas coined so perfectly that they have stayed in common usage. This chapter, where job rebukes Bildad and friends for adding to his sufferings, and urges them to examine their own lives, is the source of the phrase ‘by the skin of my teeth’.

It comes during a very Shakespearean (or was Shakespeare Jobsian?) extended metaphor about skin and flesh. God has made him skin and bones, he’s survived by the skin of his teeth, now his friends are attacking his flesh as God has, but he has the consolation that he will see God in the flesh.

My brother and I discussed the book of job, as brothers will, and he mentioned the amazing ‘I know that my redeemer lives’ verse. Talk about a spoiler alert… It’s in today’s chapter, flowing directly after the passage I’ve just described.

And it still made my hair stand up. This startling messianic revelation. ‘I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

Why suffering? Suffering is the amazing mysterious ingredient by which God brings love with justice to the world. It has thrown Job into hope in the living God in ways his friends could not understand. God’s suffering in Christ absorbs all suffering. Job knows his will pass and his flesh will see God his redeemer.

How is that here, in this book? Its all so much to process. Prayers of praise and thanks, I think.

Psalm 37

A sermon, a testimony, of wickness vs righteousness, by David.

Apparently it was an alphabet song, so each short stanza starts with a different letter in the original language. It’s easy to imagine even from the translation, there’s a bunch of two line verses which form matched pairs.

It’s in three rough sections:

A bunch of proverb type observations about the blessings you get by being righteous, then a similar bunch about the futility of grabbing the opportunistic advantages of evil.

Then a third section with a more preachy attitude, comparing the two, urging the audience to be righteous. There’s often a ‘but’ structure, as in ‘the wicked seem like they are succeeding, but they won’t in the long run’.

It’s wrapped in advice not to fret, at the start and returning to finish. So the context is worrying that believing in God’s law isn’t working. It’s an optimism song, the poetic equivalent of one of those ‘keep calm and carry on’ posters from world War Two.

The Psalms I’ve been reading seem to be grouped, in the last 7 we’ve had 4 praising God, from a time of comfort or more desperate times, then 3 now about persevering, the daily choices to be godly.

Looking back on life and seeing God’s greatness and saving power, and living in the present and reminding yourself to make good choices. Gaining confidence for the future.

It’s simply the Christian life in songs. Though it’s not simple, and you need at least 150 of them to keep singing yourself out of temptation.

Saw first hand the drought, the effects were everywhere as we came down inland back to Sydney on our driving weekend. I’ve had some context at work with the pastors and chaplains trying to give spiritual and physical relief. Intervening at the brink of suicide. It’s not simple.

I’m tempted to feel ‘seen one Psalm, seen ’em all’ but the temptation to despair or apathy is a visceral daily struggle. It doesn’t come naturally. We need constant reminders to praise and trust God.

1 Chronicles 19

Another battle story. There is not much of God’s in this.

David is depicted as a sensitive king who didn’t pick the fights.

His commanders are some of the great men described in earlier chapters. They make the only mention of God in the chapter when they call on his will to be done as they go into battle.

The tactics show their faithfulness and God’s hand, arguably. The attacking army got a big mercenary army to bolster their forces and surrounded them on both sides.

It ought to be a military disaster but David’s army is supremely confident and simply splits into two fronts, attacking backwards and forwards. It never seems to occur to them that they might lose, and the enemy are so spooked that both sides run away.

That is a tell tale signal of God’s hand, his favourite way of ensuring an outcome in a war is to scare one side into running away. But it’s not explicitly attributed to God.

I feel, cautiously like I might be moving in the direction of victory over my own struggles with my procrastination over things that scare me. Pray for strength and a sense of responsibility.