Psalm 138

“it’s the potatoes” ” no, it’s the way they’re cooked” “no, it’s the potatoes” “no, it’s the way they’re cooked”.

When I was a child I sat through this tedious ad for Smith’s Crisps so many times, waiting patiently at the TV for the next segment of Road Runner or some such. It was supposedly an argument between two painfully exaggerated Irishmen about what makes Smith’s Crisps the best. Oh, and I think they said “praitees” instead of potatoes. Good grief.

Anyway, this psalm of David reminded me of it, because he suggests God’s decrees are more famous than he is. His decree being his love for the lowly and undeserving, including David. “It’s God” “no it’s his love” “no, it’s God” “no, it’s his love”…that means he’s worthy of praise above all the other so called ‘gods’.

David praises Jehovah above all others because of how he engages: this God answers, and the answers embolden him. With one hand he fends off enemies, with the other he lifts David up. He preserves him from trouble.

Out course in just as many psalms David says “where are you!” “Why have you abandoned me?”.

Or “I will wait. Patiently”

Monday morning, which will it be for me today? Everything peachy, everything a disaster, or somewhere in between? (There are a few a few “meh” psalms, but not many… I suppose “meh” doesn’t lend itself to songs).

I’m a bit anxious about work, but excited for the opportunities. I’m determined to function with family, I’m in an organisation mode for things like mess, bills etc, which is good, and very variable.

I had a good break away with Kelly that reminded us how much we love each other’s company, and what relaxation feels like.

Is it him, or his love? I’m certainly sticking with Jehovah!

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Psalm 137

Oh it’s that psalm. Not merely a hit for Boney M, as if that weren’t distracting enough (…by the rivers of Babylon…) but also the one that ends with the happy thought of violently killing the infants of your enemy.

Is it the lost 3rd verse of the song? In the Boney M recording session the producer said “is it just me or is that bit about smashing baby heads not working?”

Kelly, my wife, quotes this verse to Islamophobes, you know, who say Islam is an inherently violent and bloodthirsty religion. It’s not hard to characterise Christianity that way too if you want to, by digging out verses like this. She studies with a number of Muslim believers and she says in practice their culture of empathy and hospitality puts many a Christian to shame.

The commentators ultimately conclude that this verse is an old testament thing. We’re taught better in the new testament.

But even Jeremiah taught them not to be like this. In chapter 29, his letter to the exiles told them to become functioning citizens of Babylon, to prosper, have children, and wait out the prophesied 70 years praying blessing for the nation they were sent to.

However the memory of what they have lost is still too raw for them here. The images of the Israelite’s own children being dashed on the rocks would have been seared into the memory of the exiles, it was standard procedure for conquering armies, including the Babylonians.

The Israelites weren’t even particularly planning to personally execute this cosmic revenge. They were recalling the prophesy of Isaiah that the Babylonians would suffer that on their day of judgement at the hands of yet another Empire.

So watching their children killed, among other horrors, then dragged off to a foreign land and told to sing a joyous song …they instead allow themselves the joy of imagining the same fate eventually being visited on their captors. It’s still not exactly “love your enemies”, I agree, but I can see the temptation.

The psalm is poignant. The people subjugated and in a foreign country, remembering Zion, weeping, and having their culture laughed at. Reminiscent of Jesus being given a crown of thorns and called king of the jews. Promising not to forget God and Zion, but seeing no tangible hope, bitterly remembering their “frenemies” neighbouring Edom goading Babylon on, enjoying their destruction. Ending with the memory of their children being mercilessly slaughtered.

I suppose it’s the sadness of judgement. The Israelites have suffered it, the Babylonians will suffer it. Death, violent or gentle, sooner or later will come to us all.

And those who are left will struggle with the spirituality of raw emotion as Israel does here.

Wild thoughts will either turn you to God or harden your heart, maybe making a God of revenge.

The Israelites are presently channeling their intense homesickness into promises to never forget Jerusalem, their spiritual home. But I think, over time they will learn to sing their songs to their children in the strange land.

In fact, that’s a strong speculation of how the book of Psalms came to be. That it’s a portable temple of words. Prayers, not stones, so they can love God with hearts not rituals.

The Israelites here appear have the wisdom to allow God to judge the cruelty of Babylon, but not yet the grace to forgive it, not to indulge in judgement as shadenfreud.

There’s a lot to learn about sadness, guilt and rage here. Sanctifying our emotions is complex work. God doesn’t want emotionless robots. Jesus was not a picture of that. The firehose of emotion is to be channeled by wisdom towards deepening our capacity for love, and sharpening our priorities.

Psalm 136

His love endures forever. This is a chant, a groove. In this song “His love endures forever” is an phrase that endures forever… In a 26 verse psalm its repeated 26 times. HLEF.

I really want to write music based on this one, and maybe make it like one of those Gilbert and Sullivan pieces, where there is a tradition of writing in new lyrics for the current times.

Maybe it would work better rhythmically if it was “forever his love endures”. “Endures” is an enduring word, it stretches out.

The interposed lines run though God’s saving acts. Exodus. The Israelites can never get enough of exodus.

First we get God’s greatness: God of Gods, Lord of lords.

Then his creation. These are beautiful and elemental: earth, sun, moon, land and sea.

Then exodus. Same order as the Bible really.

Then.. us. He remembered us, freed us, gives every living creature food.

Give thanks to God in heaven!

I’m feeling thankful and proud of the report of the first NAIDOC (week celebrating indigenous culture) morning tea in the Queensland office.

One of our team was there and she was so excited, many of the workers, the people from properties, accounts etc felt moved by the explanation of, and support for the theme: Voice, Treaty, Truth. There were tears. They hung around just talking about it for a long time.

His love endures forever!

Give me wisdom to talk to my children Lord, give me and Kelly happy times. I’m having trouble remembering all the blessings we’ve had because of the challenges we face, may love endure.

Song of Songs 8

The blaze in every soul.

This is the chapter I return to the most.

I was moved, I always am, by the culminating praise of love itself:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.

Followed by the wonderful ownership of her person and her sexuality by the girl: “my own vineyard is mine to give”. I love that passage, it’s one of my favorites in the whole Bible. It says it all about who and what God created us to be. About the nature of his love for us.

It’s one of two books of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. There’s so many things it barely mentions.

It only incidentally refers to marriage, but it is all about monogamy. Passion is jealous, and the giving to each other is absolute, it has no place for casual sex.

It’s not prudish, no sir-ee… but it’s prudent. It acknowledges what unique greatness is unleashed, and what is at stake, when one loves deeply and completely.

And it has more in common in some ways with God’s love than earthly relationships. How often is he described as a jealous God? We’re told to “love him with all your heart, mind and soul”.

This book is all about young love: the blaze of romantic obsession, the power of attraction, delight in the newness and overpowering nature of it all; the yearning.

It doesn’t talk about the different beauty of long marriages: that survive hardship and changes, that bring up children and learn to adapt as life throws u-turns, that forgive failure and weakness, and face getting old, undesirable and sick together.

It made me sad and conflicted. I had to force myself to read it. I’ve loved it, but I had to take it slow, in doses. It’s made me feel inadequate, second best. I haven’t been in the mood, so to speak.

What does it mean for my relationship, which is at a very different phase? It’s a bit like the crummy feeling other people’s perfect lives on Instagram can give you.

I’ve had lot of valuable thoughts about God’s love, but maybe just as valuable is remembering and rekindling some of the intensity of that first love with my life partner. It’s certainly made me think about that. Complex feelings at the intersection of spirituality and physicality.

The open ended invitation at the very end, to come away and be like a gazelle and a young stag on the spice laden mountains… Maybe the whole thing has been a remembrance? Maybe that invitation is for us who need reminding of what it is to be young.

Song of Songs 7

The third long description of the girl’s beauty. It was described in 4 and 6, though this flows on from 6, so it probably counts as one super long description.

Indeed in the last verse of 6 she started dancing and she continues into 7. The praise is still not so much visual as multi-sensory and emotionally evocative…

He calls her tummy a mound of wheat and her navel a glass of wine because she’s satisfying like fine food and drink to him.

Her nose gives her a strong, regal bearing, but I’m guessing isn’t literally shaped like the tower of Lebanon, looking towards Damascus.

But compared to last chapter it gets decidedly physical. This is all about the delights of her body the sight, the feeling, the scents, the joy of being with her.

Today’s musical comparison is Ravel’s Bolero… The book is reaching its climax, so to speak, a slow build at least over these two chapters to the place where he leaps into the dance with a declaration that he’s going to climb the palm tree of her body and grab those coconuts, those bunches of grapes, her breasts, and she responds with a “yes drink deep of my wine”.

They talk of spending the night in countryside budding with spring: vineyards, pomegranates, Mandrakes and delicacy. … Her vineyard became a garden became countryside, villages, bursting with spring life.

Reminds me of that great John Donne poem about his love and he in bed as the sun rises. Other than their love ‘nothing else is’. He first tells the rising Sun to go away and bother someone else, but when it hits their room full on:

“Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.”

Love is the centre of the universe.

Song of Songs 5

Classic rom com material here. When telling a story of love there has to be incident. Misunderstandings, mis-timings, love thwarted, gratification delayed.

Her beloved comes to her door as she lies in bed “asleep but with heart awake” and she has pause… Must she get up, put on robe and walk around getting dirty feet?

Something about him thrusting his fingers through the hole of the door latch however, makes her heart pound for him. We’re a few centuries before Freud, but even the usually reticent commentators observe that the original language has quite obvious double entendres at that point.

She gets up, but too late he’s gone. Queue yearning for love lost. She searches for him, and this time is assaulted, she beaten to the ground and her robe taken. Is it just me or echoes of Christ?

“What’s so special about this guy?” A chorus of friends asks. I visualise the “tell me more, tell me more…” refrain from Grease.

She responds with “hopelessly devoted to you”. A long section where she compares him with every wonderful thing on the planet. A phrase in that section “altogether lovely” got thrown into the middle of a classic Hillsong song “here I am to worship”.

It’s a cliche to mock overly romantic “Jesus is my boyfriend” Christian songs. I recently stumbled across a quiz where you had to guess whether phrases came from contemporary Christian songs or Fifty Shades of Grey. It was remarkably difficult.

The connection between romance, marriage, sex, and the love of God goes deep however, because I suppose God’s love is so great that every kind of love we experience is a glimpse, an aspect of it.

The description of marriage, two become one flesh, from Genesis is employed as an insight into the profound mystery of how Christ loved the church by St Paul. He plays with ideas of the separation of flesh and spirit within parts of Greek philosophy, but this older text, proudly taking it’s place in the canon of scripture begs to differ.

The desires of the flesh can enslave us, for sure, we see it everywhere. But God’s abundant blessing overflows to the pleasures of this life, and they are part of our experience of his love.

The yearning, the pounding hearts, the extravagant appreciation of another, the intensity of passion. It is all of, and from, God, and it’s wonderful. And I’ve lost quite a bit of it.

May I be mindful, may I be joyful, and appreciate the wonderful women I have to share my life with – couldn’t imagine someone better for me, that’s for real. We’re both surviving ATM. She’s under more pressure than me. The stoic times can chip away the joy. But when it ends, let it end, not become the normal.

50 Shades of Grey or Contemporary Christian Music Lyrics? A Quiz

Song of Songs 1

A supercut of us.

I’ve had a week off. Haven’t quite been able to face this book, though in abstract I’ve been looking forward to it.

I’m feeling somewhat burdened, old and unromantic, so the celebration of passionate young love is a poignant contrast to my mood. A little intimidating, to be honest.

I gather the book has no discernable structure. But neither does love, in the moment. I like Lorde’s song “supercut” for that, “in my mind, I see a supercut of us”. The highlights of love are recalled as a montage of flashing glory. If you edit out narratives of pain, boredom.

Chapter one sets the tone of focusing on the moments of delight, yearning and passion. It’s wild and uninhibited.

It has dialogue like a play: he, she and friends, but there is not debate, all are goading each other headlong towards an affair. The banter is rhetorical: why would you waste a passion such as this on timidity?

It seems like first love, but the girl is not a glashouse flower. She’s been a responsible family workhorse, tanned from the sun from tending the vineyards. It’s set up as a metaphor, now is time to tend her own vineyard, her time to harvest her own pleasure. A bit of ‘me’ time.

She is the pursuer, getting advice from the chorus of friends where to find her love. And she’s successful, if I understand the phrase “our bed is verdant” correctly.

Though could also be literal vegetation as well and the bed a metaphor, since it ends with the cedars and fir trees being their room.

God, apparently, will barely get a look in, by name. But the context, the Bible, forces it to be about the spirituality of passion and attraction.

God gave us all this. I’ve been reading my sister in law’s memoir of growing up and escaping her rule bound, relentlessly negative evangelical faith. This book wasn’t in her Bible, surely?

Has mine lost it too? What gave me pause?

Father, help me find passion and joy around me

Ecclesiastes 6

“The few and meaningless days we pass through like a shadow”

This chapter doubles down on the themes of wealth and destiny. Wealth being pointless if you can’t enjoy it.

He contemplates a world where a rich person can die unloved and unnoticed, and says bitterly that even a stillborn baby would be better off, because, essentially, at least they never knew disappointment.

Seriously bleak stuff.

And on destiny he gets Job-like, thinking about the inequality of God and man. We can’t change our destiny, we can’t argue the case with God. He’s bigger than us. We’ve nowhere to turn.

Then the closing verses have the line I quoted at the top: we slip through life like a shadow. The last chapter wrapped up with a bit of a neat formula for living that would provide a degree of comfort. This chapter won’t give you an inch.

The authorship question is interesting here I think.

If it’s Solomon, talking like Job, it’s a poor-rich-guy narrative. So sad to live in luxury, and have everything you want!

But if it’s the later period, post exile, it is written by and for a broken people after a period of hideous persecution and cruelty towards the Jews. That would make this a work of post traumatic despair, like Dadaist art after world war One, or the cynical film noir of Hollywood in the late 1940s, or the lost-soul-of-Europe existentialism of Jean-Paul Satre, Camus and Kafka.

If it’s Solomon himself, I suppose it’s a rare journey, since as we are perhaps experiencing now, long periods of peaceful prosperity tend to numb people to spiritual matters.

I thought that as I watched a news item puff piece reporting on Easter. Lots of montages of kids looking for chocolate eggs. We appropriate the innocent delight of kids to feel good about life, but if we’re telling them Easter means no more than extra serves of chocolate, are we doing them a favour? The complications of life are hurtling towards those sweet, open little faces.

Do we have a theory of a meaningful existence to give them to replace the ones – and I include lots of religions in this – we are perversely overlooking? If you’re gonna dump religion, what else have you got? Long weekends? Chocolate?

Either way life works out: reaping a windfall from, or being buried by, the random injustice of this world, both undermine your peace and give you no lasting sense of security.

But actually, fear not! Love and justice triumphed.

At Easter, Jesus conquered death.

Proverbs 22

Oh my goodness, break in pattern! Ch.22 starts following the same pattern of two line proverbs we’ve had for 10 chapters or so.

But after verse 16 we start “the sayings of the wise” which are 30 choice sayings, with a little introduction and a slightly longer form, averaging 4 lines.

Why introduce the change in pattern mid chapter? Who thinks of these chapter divisions anyway?

Google say they date from the 1500’s when the bible was first printed. Apparently these sayings are a bit of a wrap-up of what has gone before, a greatest hits or summation. I still would have started a new chapter.

And the first 16 verses of proverbs are pretty much gold, too. Including, after my complaints about the pro-bribery verses, a condemnation of bribery/trying to buy influence:

One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth
and one who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty.

I suppose the observational nature of much of this wisdom is a defense against the unrealistic optimism and neatness of some of the formulas. Like its saying, yeah, short term, bribes might do the trick. But long term, ill gotten gain will ruin you. If not in this world, from an eternal perspective…

Rich and poor have this in common:
The Lord is the Maker of them all.

Its one of the few places in the bible where you get specific childrearing advice:

Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.

As for the sayings of the wise, we get the first 6 of thirty.

They are clearly targeted at the elite. I tend to read them as applying to me, but I am from the a middle class which wasn’t such a thing in the ancient world. It was rulers, priests and working class.

So the advice on not moving ancient boundary stones sounds excellent, but I’m unlikely to be in a position to take it.

I’m not in a position to crush the needy in court even if I felt like it, so I don’t have to be told not to. However, with adjustments, I can relate deeply to the endorsement of a meritocracy and mercy for the poor. Clearly however, the poor weren’t the audience, rather those in power who get to decide how the poor will be treated. Actually having been at the mercy of the courts and debt collectors a few times in my life, I’m grateful that this is the standard.

It’s really important to look below the specifics reading this book. Love, compassion and humility motivate most of it. And in execution, a large dose of pragmatism.

Proverbs 10

Oh that’s right, we’re in proverbs. Random two line gems of wisdom. I’d forgotten after the nine chapter introduction.

They are so random yet similar, the format is so repetitive, that I panic a bit at how to make sense of them. They seem wasted, they don’t sink in.

Just read and let the spirit lead.

This chapter doesn’t contain the saying ‘pray as if you never planned and plan as if you never prayed’ but it is a good description. Sayings of diligence and blessing are side by side.

As I read I think I really must catch up last year’s tax, big refund would be a help. And I’ve got to be more diligent and organised at work. It’s not weak to be patient and loving.

The most memorable I found was ‘hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.

So I’ll just let the wisdom flow, directly and simply into my life. Maybe this book is like the parable of the sower, throwing out handfuls of seed and seeing what takes root.