Psalm 146

God is eternal, God is good. It’s another praise psalm, and it’s a simple formula. And it’s beautiful.

His eternal nature is compared to human rulers. Even the best of them are a bad bet for your faith, because they pass away, their power fades. Not so God.

His goodness is very much in terms of care for the weak, vulnerable, unexpected, marginalised. At the heart of this boisterous cheer leader chant for God is compassion, gentleness. That’s the beautiful bit.

Less beautiful was the Donald Trump rally yesterday where the people chanted “send her back” about a Congress woman who was originally a refugee from Somalia.

No matter how far you go, beyond citizenship all the way to Capitol Hill, at any moment you can still be hated as a foreigner if you aren’t white. Thrown out of the circle of acceptance. If you have an opinion people disagree with, your race and origin can always be used to attack you.

We watched a sad documentary walking though the racist booing for over a year of Adam Goodes, an indigenous footballer who was made Australian of the year, he played a legendary 375 Premier league matches, but skipped his retirement parade on the field because he anticipated being booed so much. As Australian of the year he expected he had a platform to represent indigenous causes. The acceptance was withdrawn by the crowds when he tried to have a voice.

The Lord watches over the foreigner, says David, upholds the oppressed, lifts up those who are bowed down, sustains the fatherless and the widow. This is our God, it’s who I want to be, my crowd!

Give me a head full of praise today. I’m not going into work, I’m heading off to go bushwalking with my son, a little school holiday escapade. Let my praise be natural, not preachy, but clear and honest.

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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 94

…. And vengence for the wicked.

This Psalm goes a step further from the visions of safety and triumphant goodness of the past few Psalms. It recognises shocking, abusive, exploitative cruelty.

As if God’s wouldn’t know about this. He who made the ear wouldn’t hear, who made the eye wouldn’t see.

It sets out 2 paths. One of discipline and one of destruction. Blessed is he who is disciplined.

The behaviour that brings about the destruction of the wicked: opportunistically killing the vulnerable, is the discipline that almost overwhelmes the righteous.

The wicked will band together, take charge and seem to be winning, but have no doubt that you’ll want to be on god’s side.

I’m quite down at the moment, and I can relate to the idea that both the paths are a bit miserable. It’s not fun being disciplined.

It sounds silly in this cosmic level of things, but as a family we just keep hitting obstacles at the moment. My wife at one point had no phone plan, home internet or bank access. Plus her study portal access was out. Kids have health and employment issues.

All these expensive things happened: printer broke, dishwasher, I broke a window, couch legs broke… It went on. You know when you feel like you can’t seem to win a trick?

And it’s true that when you are feeling sorry for yourself, the triumph of evil is particularly testing.

My faith should be stronger, but it’s tested by these things.

It feels good to review it, set it out. I’ll pray.

Proverbs 30

An  odd chapter.

Its from a different author, Agur of whom nothing is really known. The tone is instantly wilder and blunter, the consequences of foolishness more extreme than in previous chapters.

It explicitly claims to be God-inspired ecstatic utterance, and it says lots of great stuff, but much I barely comprehend as well… and its only 30 verses or so… such an exhausting book this one!

He is a good example of humility, his wisdom is not his own, it comes from God and from God’s creation. He realises how great and unknown is God – some powerful poetic images reminiscent of Job: the Lord’s hands gathering the wind and wrapping the waters in his cloak. How can we compare? He includes an intriguing reference here to God knowing the name of his son – impossible now for Christians not to think of Jesus.

He treasures God’s words, and he asks for contentment: neither to be poor nor rich. Both lead us into temptation. He wants just his daily bread, which for me illuminates the lords prayer as a petition for moderation and contentment as well as for basic needs to be met. Give us enough, not less, not more.

We’re working through issues of contentment as a family at the moment. Its a wonderful thing to pray for.

He then speaks of groups of people which displease or ignore God – in other translations they are called generations: a generation who invent their own standards of goodness and righteousness without reference to God or inherited wisdom; a generation who are violent and attacking.

I found it oddly encouraging to hear of generations so long ago going to the dogs.  We tend to think the latest generation is the one that is going to hell in a handbasket, but it has always been thus.

Sure, it not great to see wide scale foolishness, evil or ignorance. But it doesn’t mean God has lost control.  Its a generation, it will pass.

It concludes with a bunch of lists of observations from nature – generally 3 or 4.  Its a poetic device similar to our “et cetera”  or “for example”. A list with some specifics that is not exhaustive.

Its encouraging you to look to the world to learn of what is good and what is wrong. Honestly, this was the bit where I really started to loose comprehension.

He lists things that are:

  • never satisfied – including the grave and childlessness;
  • too amazing for him – including young love’s passionate eroticism, which he finds far more amazing than casual uncommitted sex
  • things that make the world unbearable – basically women, servants or employees that rise in the ranks… I really didn’t get that one, he’s finding social mobility or equality offensive?
  • things that are small yet wise, humble things in nature with impressive achievements, like ants. This kind of undermined the previous point, but was well made.
  • things that have stately bearing – such as a lion, or a greyhound. OK. As a proud Italian Greyhound owner, I can only agree!

Lastly a general warning about evil and stirring up trouble.

So a mixture of stuff that I found helpful and stuff that is hard to access for me now – culturally remote.

I got feelings of God’s size and power, and the sense that despite the randomness and evil we often see around us, God is in control.

I need it. A drumbeat of sadness still underlies the shock of the massacre in New Zealand at the hands of an Australian gunman.

Such a peaceful, tolerant society!  Chosen because they had the effrontery to make diversity work, to punish them for having compassion and love.

He’s failed, but at an insane price.

I sat in church this morning and thought about how easy it would be for someone to walk in and slaughter us if they wanted to try and break a society that would allow us to flourish.

 

 

 

Proverbs 29

Whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe

Its a simple promise, but the only solid one we have. Reeling today after the killing and wounding of almost 100 muslim worshippers in New Zealand by a white extremist. Live streamed on social media.

The bloodthirsty hate a person of integrity
    and seek to kill the upright.

Waleed Ali, Australia’s most public muslim said on his news show that he had been at prayers in his mosque at the same time as the massacre, and conveyed what a vulnerable disconnected place you are in, lost in meditation about God. They were lambs to the slaughter. He said that he will be there next Friday too, like clockwork.

So its hard in this light not to read these wisdoms as a list of disaster, of corruption.

An angry person stirs up conflict,
    and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.

Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint;
    but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.

The corruption of so many of our institutions has come to light of late, the church and paedophilia, the scale of the bank’s greedy self serving, the growth of hard line, polarised politics, …Michael Jackson (I mean we sort of always knew about him, but how were we so tolerant, so willfully blind?  How foolish are we?)

By justice a king gives a country stability,
    but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.

If a ruler listens to lies,
    all his officials become wicked.

An Australian senator released a press statement blaming immigration for violence against muslims hours after the massacre.  Or you could choose not to kill them?

Deep and heartfelt, praying for wisdom – the fear of the Lord, departing from evil. Comfort for those who mourn.

 

Proverbs 23

13 of the 30 “sayings of the wise”.

The longer form of expression compared to the two line formula of the bulk of the proverbs lets them be more intense. This is a series of fairly sharp prohibitions.

Most start with the words “do not…”

God isn’t mentioned much, but every word drives you to him. A drum beat of the commandment “I am a jealous God, you will have no other gods but me” lies under all of them. It’s a list of other gods.

In worldly terms you can be massively successful or a complete drop kick and be serving other gods.

You can be mixing with the wealthy and influential, devoting your life to hard work to gain wealth for yourself.

You can align with hard, cruel people, you can become a hard ass yourself, you can be driven by your jealousy of what other amoral people obtain, you can enrich yourself at the expense of the vulnerable.

You can live for sex, for food, for substance abuse. A life of reckless over indulgence.

The last extended poem about making wine your God is accurate, funny and knowing:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup,
when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights,
and your mind will imagine confusing things.
You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
lying on top of the rigging. “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt!
They beat me, but I don’t feel it!
When will I wake up
so I can find another drink?”

All of these things lead to a range of life outcomes, from success to failure, but have in common that they replace the true God.

Only in the the true God will your soul find rest:

Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.

I feel very sad for my family again. Everyone has struggles. I pray for wisdom. This passage has joyous accounts of having wise children. I pray that my children will be wise! May I be wise.

Psalm 88

So bleak, so sad.

This psalm’s only moment of confidence is in the first verse. ‘Lord, you are the God who saves me’.

From then on its sadness, abandonment, sickness, loneliness and complaint that God won’t hear, ending with: ‘you have taken from me friend and neighbour, darkness is my only friend’.

Unlike the hardships in David’s sad Psalms, these aren’t big military or political problems, these are personal. He seems to have a life long chronic illness, he’s alone, quite physically repulsive and near death.

He’s terrified of death, and in the most intense passage he wonders whether God will be there after he dies.

This guy is beat. He has not had as much of God revealed to him as us, he has only questions, not any assurance about the after life.

Yet here he is, telling God all about it. God’s righteousness, faithfulness and marvellous deeds are a given.

So as well as sad, it’s also a psalm of exceptional faith. All the observations about his painful soon-to-end life would, you’d think, lead you to conclude there is no God, but that’s not considered.

He asks where God is? Is he listening? He doesn’t doubt he’s there.

This is the saddest one I’ve read, but in some ways one of the most encouraging, even shaming, in a good way.

Feeling bad this morning because I made my daughter really angry and I’m not sure if it was fair. I pray for her, for wisdom.

Psalm 80

Sometimes the answer is ‘no’.

Its a psalm/prayer about the fall of the Northern Kingdom, which never was restored. When it fell, the few faithful jewish people immigrated and became absorbed into the Southern Kingdom.  Most lost their identity as a chosen people of God.

God is called Israel’s ‘shepherd’, the only other time in Psalms apart from 23.

Israel is compared to a vine planted from Egypt, It has been glorious, but now the vineyard is unprotected and has been overrun by strangers and its grapes stolen.

Its a plea for God to shine his face on them. For his anger to stop. For him to be the shepherd, to tend his vineyard again. To restore them.

The King of the Northern Kingdom, is compared to a branch of God’s vine, a Son of Man, God’s right hand.

But we know that only the prophets carried on God’s word in that time, none of the Kings were faithful.

The answer was ‘no’ until Jesus came, of Galilee in the former Northern Kingdom.

A melancholy return to work today. The daughter of one of the workers, who as a baby got a brain cancer diagnosis a year ago has died.  It was inevitable, but its also an unimaginably sad occurrence.  The memorial is Friday.

And the head of my department is not out of his medical issues, he’s been ordered two months off. Before Christmas, he was described as having a blood clot in his lung, now they have found multiple blood clots apparently.  I don’t really understand, but it doesn’t sound good.

I’m the sole survivor of a branch that has ceased to be, with no news of employment prospects. My supervisor is the wife of the guy who is so unwell.  She has 3 kids, her own job and worries, and is 1000 km south in Victoria. She has a lot to deal with.

I have stuff to go on with, deadlines in fact. But its not exactly an optimistic new year welcome.

Feeling adrift and somewhat forgotten, I’m braced for the answer to be ‘no’ to continuing to work here after my contract extension to Feb expires, and braced for the answer to be slow.

That’s how it goes sometimes.

Psalm 42

I love this, I have a long history of singing it.

I was a cathedral chorister, and we did a gorgeous lush version I’ll link below. I also wrote a pop song version.

The psalmist is in exile and miserable. Longing for God. I remember I wrote my song version at a time when we weren’t happy in our church and we weren’t going much. I really felt the words, played it over and over on piano.

He expresses the longing as a thirst, like a deer desiring a brook. I love that because it’s both necessary and beautiful, the image of serene sensory comfort and deep sustenance.

It has a water theme. Instead of a brook his only sustenance is his own tears.

Then he describes his life events like being plunged beneath a waterfall or a wave breaking over him. Violent water, not sweet sustaining water.

Part of the violence is mockery over being deserted by God and he says ‘deep calls to deep’ which is rich and a bit mysterious.

For me it evokes that Jonah feeling of being plunged beneath the waves and, when all else is stripped away, even hope of survival, the depth of God’s love being there still with you during the moments you think you might drown.

He fondly remembers going to the temple, he would have been bereft to be cut off from it.

The sons of korah, author of the psalm, were temple musicians who memorably sang confusion on their enemies in a great military victory of faith during the reign of Jehoshaphat in chronicles.

But he’s aware it’s the living God, not religion, who quenches spiritual thirst. Still so true, still the one unique thing church can offer – comfortable seating, aircon, live music and friends can be got many places.

The commentator mentioned the contradiction of calling God your rock and saying he’s forgotten you in the one line. That’s the psalm right there, not so much a psalm of doubt so much as how you continue to relate to God out of deep deep misery. It aches with longing and sadness.

Feeling adrift, buffeted, abandoned and drowned by life, deep calls to deep, both anguished questioning and poignant cherishing of God.

Sigh!

Isaiah 16

A frustrated pronouncement against Moab. It’s a small county, proud, lots of connection to Israel. He can see it being swallowed up by the big empires, he compares it to a baby bird thrown out of its nest, confused.

He pleads for it to restore it’s relationship with Israel, but knows it probably won’t. He tells the Israelites to shelter and comfort any Moabites who escape.

The church should still comfort the weak and downtrodden, even if they are philosophically opposed.

Their sin is pride, Isaiah’s sadness is being able to see how weak they are when they can’t or won’t themselves.

This quote in the commentary I read summed up the dilemma “Whenever pride is not broken by humility, it will have to be broken by justice.”

You sense that same dilemma in Jesus’ tears over Jerusalem, just before the people called for him to be crucified. It is the motivating sadness of Christianity.