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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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 2

Won’t be able to do this one justice, so many beautiful familiar images, so many keepers.

Two basic metaphors through the chapter.

A banquet under the banner of love. Together in a close embrace, abundant and frank natural imagery: she’s lilies, he’s an apple tree. Deliciousness, intimacy, joy, love, feasting. Time stands still, the moment is suspended together.

Strengthen me with raisins,
refresh me with apples,
for I am faint with love.

Then running: he’s bounding over the hills to reach her, her lover coming to waken her, at her window all urgency because… just because winter is over and spring has come. Because there is nowhere to be in the world but with each other running though nature like stags and gazelles.

He asking her to catch the little foxes that may ruin the vineyard, just as she probably literally did. More running. This time chasing away anything that could threaten their vineyard of love.

Two contrasting metaphors: stillness and urgency, it reminds me of a stream with pools and glistening rills.

Then I think of the songs I’ve sung from this: “he bought me into his banqueting table, and his banner over me is love… My beloved is mine and I am his…” Singing it in Sunday school! How dare they!

It is a picture of perfect love, an unsustainable dream of love. It’s a love that is actually dangerous in this world… The girl warns us not to stir up love like this before we are ready. The connection of joyous physical intimacy and complete trust is the ideal of romantic love. It takes people to divine places.

But you can’t fake that, and being addicted to the divine, trying to wring it out of imperfect relationships is more than they can bare. It’s a dream that has shipwrecked countless lives. Looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song goes.

Your can’t make your partner God, no one is that great. If it is to last you learn to live with their flaws. So this uber song, song of songs, puts you in a frame of mind that the holy spirit exists to answer: being able to imagine more perfect love, but being unable to attain it.

Which is how the writers of that Sunday school song about dream sex dared.

Psalm 109

The right place for anger

…is prayer. This is apparently the strongest of the imprecatory Psalms. Fancy word for wishing disaster for your enemies. There’s a lot of theological hand wringing about what to do with them. Glad I don’t have to decide when to sing or read them in church!

David was famous for his honour and mercy in practice. He was never harsh enough with rebellions started by his own children. And of course he rewarded Saul’s staggeringly unreasonable, mad behaviour – randomly throwing spears at him etc, with mercy on several occasions where he could have easily had vengence. There are lots of examples.

This Psalm contains a long series of curses on an enemy and his family, and the hope that his enemy will be judged by a really mean, evil person. The curses are exceptionally strong:

Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children

Been re-watching some game of thrones episodes, and it’s worth remembering that a lot of the staggering cruelty and betrayal that made the series the most talked about television is simply drawn from history.

Our go-to embodiment of evil remains Hitler or possibly Pol Pot. Seems the ancient world had plenty of choices, who may have had a lower body count, but were more extravagantly sadistic.

This Psalm is written as a prayer. David takes his exceptional disgust and frustration at his enemies to God, which is what I take from this Psalm. It’s venting, and trusting god’s justice.

In a small way I’ve been lashing out a bit more than usual, a product of self doubt I think. It’s a good reminder. God is ready and willing to hear all that stuff. He knows we think it anyway. Trust God for fairness. The well of anger in your heart, laid on the altar, stops owning you.

Proverbs 31

Another named author, King Lemuel takes over for the last chapter. Or possibly half of it, not sure.

There’s speculation Lemuel is another name for Solomon, which would make the opening warning from his mother, Bathsheba, not to waste his energy on women just too rich in irony, given the trajectories of both their lives.

The advice on drinking which follows is really wise. I’ve been challenged about it since working for the Salvos, which are an unfashionably temperate organisation.

The gist of the passage is that drunkenness is inconsistent with a king’s responsibility.

There’s also lots of good reasons why Salvos too would want a strong hedge around alcohol, given the work they do particularly with addicted people. In an era where church hypocrisy is being constantly exposed, it’s a sign of commitment, sincerity and being set apart.

It’s a barrier to how deeply in the movement I can participate, but I’ve been very welcomed. I feel there is room for me.

The passage is honest about what excessive drink is good for… It neither glamourises or judges it:

Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.

Finally, this section emphasises the obligation of those in power to have compassion and ensure justice for the vulnerable.

It’s a Monday morning, and I’ll have many opportunities this week to be part of just that in my work and church life, it’s just great!

The second half of the chapter is a famous description of the wife of noble character. These days it instantly brings to mind my mother, at whose funeral verses from this passage were read.

She was in some senses more than this description – it doesn’t refer specifically to the value of a wicked sense of humour, kindness or emotional supportiveness, all of which she had in spades.  I don’t think its intended as an exhaustive recipe for a perfect woman. And as for:

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Yes yes!

Reaching the end of Proverbs, I’m thinking so much of it is a “for instance”… specific reactions to a specific sets of circumstances, from which we are to learn models of how to respond, rather than literal lessons.  If Kelly, my wife, ever literally acted like the wife of noble character I would become confused and demand my real wife back. The thrust of this advice is to to look beyond the shallow to the things of deeper value. To be looking for a true life partner, not a decoration.

Yeah, its sort of sexist that the whole book appears to be directed specifically at young men, even though its theme – how stop being a fool – is a bit redeeming on that score. And as an older man, I’ve thought helpfully about how to live well, and contemplated how difficult and ongoing is aligning our thoughts and actions to the love of God.

Proverbs 18

On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.

This is a picture of the world with the blind leading the blind, the shepherdless sheep for whom Jesus wept.

Our gossip goes deep into our attitudes. We speak and speak, incurious, determined not to let facts contradict our beliefs. Spouting opinions for the sheer entertainment of our own voices being heard.

It’s a chapter about damaging words and thought patterns. Physical illness is less the enemy of our soul than our minds:

The human spirit can endure in sickness,
but a crushed spirit who can bear?

Rich people build up their secure domestic compounds but the security those offer is illusory. In the centre of it all, the actual solid rock:

The name of the Lord is a fortified tower;
the righteous run to it and are safe.

There’s good stuff in the world, it’s not damning or abandoning of it. It’s a competition. But there is an assault of foolish ideas coming at us.

Think carefully, be a source of wisdom to the extent a human can, it starts with your heart.

I can’t always talk God in every interaction I have with my children or people at large. But I can always strive for wisdom.

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 83

A frustration-with-enemies Psalm.

The enemies of Israel grow stronger, and this is a plea for God to stop being silent and let them know who is Lord.

He had a different plan. We know he is Lord not because he has stricken all the enemies of Israel, but because from Israel came a global saviour, Jesus.

But there are still enemies, grumbling and conspiring. How much should I hate them?

My favourite metaphor in the psalm is the anticipation of Israel’s enemies losing their power, and being like tumbleweed, life chaff. So insubstantial that the wind blows them away.

When I look at the list of enemies in the alliance plotting against Israel, they have proved thus. None are still world powers, most are footnotes of history.

We pray for God’s will to be done on earth, which is not so very different from this psalm.

I actually work at not feeling too culturally threatened by God’s enemies.

The assurance that God is in control controls a xenophobic reaction to how comfortable people are with openly mocking God these days.

These palms should be read as Psalms reaching for faith and confidence, not fear and revenge.

Their ‘downfall’ could be coming to know God’s grace. That would be my preferred method of their destruction as enemies.

We all come to terms with passing time.. their downfall might be after my time on earth is done.

I feel at work for the salvation army and at church in glebe, we are battling a tide of indifference and growing malice towards Christianity. It’s not global, mainly western countries.

I’m going to brainstorm the sign for our church next week. How to approach a message to my suburb. It’s been populist comfort, it’s said ‘lay down your burdens’. But what next ‘destruction is nigh’?

Psalm 82

A strange setup, God on a council of Gods, comparing the way they judge.  The polytheistic language sparked intense speculation about what it was referring to, commentators went crazy.

Jesus quoted this psalm when he was accused of blasphemy.  He said essentially, if the scriptures can call these people gods – and it would probably have included some of those who were accusing him at that very time – how much moreso can I claim to be God.

The message of it is about the nature of God.

The earthly ‘gods’ have the wisdom, the word and authority of God, but they remain ignorant and corrupt. The ignorance of those in positions of power in human society shakes the foundations of the earth. Its hard not to relate to that, given we have some spectacularly bad world leaders at the moment.

God’s judgement defends the weak, fatherless; upholds the cause of the needy and oppressed; rescues them from the wicked.  That is the right use of authority.

These people are like the gods we have before we know God, they exercise the authority of God, but do it in a broken way.  The plea is for the one God above all to spread his authority across all nations.

I have little authority, so all I can do is pray and hope, and vote responsibly.

And do what I can. I’ve been messaged by some of my new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends about the Yarbun festival coming up to coincide with Australia day.  They are looking for support, they are still an oppressed minority in Australia, and I must address my response carefully and respectfully.