Monday, January 31, 2011

Songs of Joy

He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

Psalm 126 v6

I almost read this psalm by accident as I had started reading Psalm 125. However as R.E.O White* pointed out, in the NIV Commentary, 126 recalls Psalm 85 which I have just studied. The Psalms have never been a focus of inspiration for me. They can't be said to be contemporary nor are they a reliable source of theology. "The Lord is my shepherd", sounds wonderful but what does that mean to me? But now I'm reading the Bible as a book that cross-references itself from beginning to end. It's fascinating to read each passage as if looking through the fragment of a shattered window. As you look closely through each shard you see the same picture that you would from a single pane but from a unique angle. To read Psalm 126 simply as one of the songs of ascents as they are collectively known (120 through 134) is to lose its significance. What it does is present two views of the same scenario in two stanzas.

"When the LORD [restored the fortunes of] Zion"**

Reads: 'How wonderful it is to be back in Jerusalem after all those years in Babylon. How honoured we are, among the nations, that God should be so good to us'.

"Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negev."

Reads: 'Here we are back home but what a mess!' The Negev dried up in the summer so this is a picture of arriving back with the water cut off, no electricity and the house trashed. Isn't this like having a great time at church then, on returning home, arguing over whose turn it was to do the washing up and guess who forgot to defrost dinner. When you sang how God provides you weren't thinking of a frozen chicken. It's about the now but not yet - its like viewing a house and saying it has potential.

The psalmist doesn't scold the people for being downcast - it appears to be a disaster - but encourages them, saying its OK to weep but don't let that stop you sowing for when the rains come (and the streams of the Negev fill up again) because then it will be too late. What you see with your eyes is the same home you saw in your dreams. Hold on to, and live, the promise because it will come to those who are faithful.

* (Elwell, A.E [ed.])

** alternative taken from the NIV notes. The main text reads "When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion..."


Elwell, A.E. (1989) The Marshall Pickering Commentary on the NIV (Psalms by R.E.O White)
Marshall Pickering, London

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Forgiveness and Trust

Love and faithfulness meet together;
Righteousness and peace kiss each other.

Psalm 85 v10

Though not stated, this psalm appears to refer to the exiles from Babylon and the conditions in which they find themselves. They had been exiled for turning their back on God and for over 50 years were forced to live in a country that was alien to them in every way. Yet on account of his faithfulness (not their righteousness), God brought them back to their homeland. What God didn't do was fix the mess they'd left behind. It was one thing to look back at the glory they had squandered; it was another to honour God's grace and repay him for giving them a second chance.

"You expected much but it turned out to be little", says Haggai the Prophet. Why? "Because of my house, which remains a ruin". How often have we heard, "I will do anything you want if you will do this for me", only for that person to renege on their pledge once they have what they want. True to form, the exiles first concern was to settle in and once they were happy, God would have his wish too. It's not that God was happy for them to live in squalor while he lived in a palace but that the self-seeking, me first attitude was alive and well despite the lesson of exile.

"You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins", declares the psalmist, but "forgiveness is not all", says R.E.O White*. If you've stolen sweets from the cupboard and been found out; if you've shown remorse and been given permission to take another but grab a large handful you will probably be permanently barred from that cupboard even if the forgiveness stands. Forgiveness isn't given so that you can sin again but to give you the chance to change your ways without the guilt of the old sins hanging over you. That you've been barred isn't a sign that you're not loved, it's a sign you can't be trusted. Forgiveness of sins is probably the most popular (and most utilized) aspect of the Christian message. The building of trust (or honouring God) probably doesn't make it into the top three.

The psalmist continues, "I will listen to what God the LORD will say; he promises peace to his people, his saints - but let them not return to folly". Thankfully, not only does God forgive, he also forbears. Otherwise this statement is redundant. We now hear the beautiful words with which I began this article. The psalmist has married love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace. To love God is to be faithful; peace does not exist without righteousness. "Faithfulness springs forth from the earth and righteousness looks down from heaven". We now have the complete picture.

Only when our love and faithfulness is blessed by God's righteousness will we have peace. It's perfect symbiosis. It's the rhythm of life, God and his people in perfect harmony. "The LORD will indeed give what is good".

* (Elwell, A.E [ed.])


Elwell, A.E. (1989) The Marshall Pickering Commentary on the NIV (Psalms by R.E.O White)Marshall Pickering, London

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (c) 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.

Capturing the Moment

Your average family photo has a group of people smiling into the camera. You can usually identify the year, give or take a few, by the d├ęcor, hairstyles and clothes but beyond that it's not very enlightening. The snap that stands out usually, as we say, captures the moment. A freeze frame, its not so much a statement as a scenario that invites you to answer all the questions that it poses. What is that person thinking? What came before? What happens next? The moment is the subject and everything else is incidental.

Life is rarely rehearsed, though we would often like to take a peak at the script, but is usually posed. We think about how we dress, days are usually planned to some extent, we have protocols for how we interact with others, especially those we don't know and surprises are not often welcomed unless they are ones we would have approved of had we been informed. It's normally in times of crisis that we find ourselves frozen in a perpetual moment. These moments are the ones that get played back, like a scene from a movie, each time you find yourself removed from the stage to be a spectator of your own life, where the moment becomes the subject and you, merely an actor.

In times of personal tragedy you find yourself in a surreal world where everything is fluid, where you can pick out characters and events but there is no order or continuity. In other crises the world is merely distorted as if viewed through a fish eye. Sometimes there is an uneasy calm where you can assess the situation knowing that all hell will break loose once the camera starts rolling again. My life has more than enough freeze frames interrupting the continuity that would otherwise help me rebuild my fragmented and disordered life.

When life follows a pattern you need only make small corrections and minor repairs to maintain your lifestyle. These can be done on the fly, as it were. When the fabric has been removed and the structure dismantled you need to continually assess the progress and rework your strategy. The temptation is to dream of the completed project and despair of the numerous and often onerous tasks that seem to make such a small impact on what you would like to achieve. Yet if ignored, they can bring your life crashing down. At the moment I feel like I'm caught in an ambush with events to the left of me and my own folly to the right.

The choices appear to be despair or resignation. But I wonder if there is a third way - illumination - to take advantage of the freeze frame and examine what came before and, in the light of that, take charge of what comes next. The world seems to be divided into victims and survivors. Ironically, it's the victims who merely survive (if they don't perish). What if I could tell my grand kids, "that was the turning point of the war, when the penny dropped and victory was secured".

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On the Ledge

I can fully understand why people turn to drink. Life is sometimes like standing on a thin ledge, looking into an abyss. There is no way forward, you can only sidle along the ledge that appears to narrow in the only direction you can take. There are two options: to fall into the darkness or make your way along the ledge. The simplest option is to give up and fall but you can't change your mind once you have made that decision. On the off chance that, by some miracle, another alternative should present itself you have left yourself no recourse. The ledge is the best option only because it's the least bad. There's no telling when it will give out or how many sideways steps will be required to get you to safety. There seems a third option though it's no option at all.

When there's no real alternative you're forced to escape reality and find refuge in the havens of the mind. When the storm steals every semblance of peace and stability you must find a harbour to regain your equilibrium - to study the maps and calibrate your compass. But when the captain refuses to take charge you must throw caution to the wind and take any course rather than remain in the maelstrom. Anything is better than being faced with the stark realities of despair and destruction. Hope isn't a far off glimpse of future happiness but a slender thread that barely keeps you this side of sanity.

When you're on a well-worn path with kerns to let you know that others have been this way and the odd sign to confirm the route, you can enjoy the journey and imagine the welcome that awaits you at the journey's end. With provisions and a coat to keep you dry you can enjoy whatever the weather brings you and take note of sights that line your way. Whether you have planned the journey or - in the case of the one on the ledge - it has been forced on you, you cannot guarantee the outcome. We all face an uncertain future to some degree but the one on the ledge can't enjoy the present, the time in which we all live. Some live by faith, none live by hope.

For those that would turn to the bottle or other means of escape, the future holds no promise and seems a prospect more cruel than being stranded on the ledge. As Solomon said, "whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie." Wherever you are going you must start from here and until you can accept where you are you will not truly begin your journey. Make no promises to the one on the ledge except that others have been on that ledge and survived. It's a horrible place to be. "To be, or not to be" someone famous once said.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Context is Everything

The Message of Ecclesiastes

"Meaningless! Meaningless! Says the teacher."

So begins the book of Ecclesiastes. The teacher opens himself up to all that life has to offer - no holds barred - and comes to the conclusion that there is no meaning in anything we experience or accomplish. From dust we come; to dust we return. On the surface it appears to be a rather pessimistic view of the world. The feel good factor eludes us as he concludes that the whole duty of man (humanity) is to 'fear God and keep his commandments'. Not what you'd call 'a laugh a minute'.

Unfortunately, by taking the pessimistic view we deny ourselves the opportunity of discovering the keys to unlock the very meaning the teacher appears to despair of. We've been drawn into the dragon's cave, dark and dank, with scattered remains of those who came only to plunder his treasure. But hidden amongst the gloom are sparkling gems that provide the keys we are looking for.

It's a year since the disaster in Haiti. Thousands of people lost everything they had. Many escaped with only their lives. What meaning does wealth and fine living have when faced with such suffering. Yet for us life continued as normal. We continue to work for a better life - nicer homes, the latest mod cons, planning holidays and pursuing careers - but are all of these meaningless?

"Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best".

Woody Allen

Sex without love may be enjoyable but its empty and meaningless.

"Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you..." says the teacher.

It's only within a loving relationship that sex receives meaning. Only within that context will it find fulfilment.

Life is a blank page. A journey without purpose is a road to nowhere. A gift without someone to receive it remains in its wrapping. The message of Ecclesiastes is not morbid or pessimistic. The teacher tells us to put our lives in context - "It is now that God favours what you do". Don't envy those who have more than you, prettier than you or better than you. Be ambitious, yes - but not for its own sake. Plan for the future but wait for it. Build your life on stuff and it will sink. Build first then put stuff in. If what you do counts for nothing, that's because context is everything.

How Can I Repay the Lord

How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me?
I will lift up the cup of Salvation
And call on the name of the LORD

Psalm 116 vv12&13

Psalm 116 begins, "I love the LORD, for he heard ... my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live." The psalmist cries for help, acknowledges his deliverer and wants to know how he can show his gratitude. To become a disciple of Jesus is to be called to service but where does our motivation come from? Jesus doesn't promise a long life, fame or fortune; in fact he promises trouble and persecution. "Escape from the frying pan", he cries, "I have a fire waiting for you!"

When people ask for work they often list their qualifications and aspirations and will explain how working for you appeals to them. They seem to think that telling you what they want will make then attractive as employees but fail to grasp that its what they can give to you, not what you can give to them that makes them attractive. When we come to God our CV makes dismal reading. We have no qualification or experience to offer. We cannot make God richer or more efficient and who would give us a reference? Yet he is looking for people who seek first his kingdom and righteousness. What a hopeless situation. Fortunately God meets us where we're at and rescues us from a self-serving and hopeless situation.

He understands our selfishness, that if we have what we need we will forget the one who gave it to us. Its one thing to be half full and for God to fill us up; its altogether different to be bone dry and be desperate for God's mercy. When he hears and answers us in our state of helplessness we connect on a deeper level. Its in gratitude for what God has done - not with any confidence in what we can do - that we ask 'How can I repay the LORD.' It's the cup of salvation that gives us confidence as we call on his name and it's in the name of the great I AM that we face whatever lies ahead. "But he who has been forgiven little loves little", (Luke 7:47).

The Mindset of a Shark

Its no accident that when God created vulnerable creatures he made millions of them and taught them the dance of life. By moving in unison and in a coordinated formation he made them appear to be one large unit behaving in a way that makes sense to them but confuses the enemy.

For a hungry shark a shoal of fish presents an opportunity of abundance but if he falls for the trap of thinking there are many fish to catch he will overstretch himself and in his misguided strategy he will simply be overwhelmed and end up with nothing. Fortunately for the shark he was not endowed with intelligence. Instead God gave him cunning.

The shoal has no fear of the shark. At worst it will deplete her numbers by a few; at best it will give up in frustration. But the individual fish has no such luxury. By shear weight of numbers it is more likely to survive than perish but one on one with a shark, who has little appetite for the dance, it has no chance.

The whale on the other hand - who has intelligence, cunning and great power - terrifies the shoal into behaving as individuals and gorges at will. We don't have the power or resources of the whale so we need the cunning mindset of the shark. We need to recognise the abundance of the shoal (the opportunity is in front of us) but realize we can only catch one fish at a time. When we lock on to the fish we are targeting we are more than capable of winning. The problem is, they all look so similar, appealing and abundant.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Sorrow and Laughter

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of the fool is in the house of pleasure." Book of Ecclesiastes chapter 7.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." The Gospel of Matthew chapter 5.

There's a difference between being sad and morbid. You will also notice the difference between those who have their own iCloud and those who carry a sadness that speaks of experience and depth. In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians he begins by praising the God of all Comfort who comforts us in order that we can comfort others. We all wonder why there is so much suffering in the world but little is to be gained by wishing it were not so; if it is to be part of life then we can at least be dressing its wounds. And if the best qualification for tending to the hurting is to understand their pain then so be it. The morbid person, on the other hand, sympathises with your misfortune in order that you will sympathise with his. Ironically, the one who most often asks the question doesn't listen to the answer. He's like a beggar in the street with his own pot of pennies for you to transfer to his begging bowl.

On the face of it, the passage from Ecclesiastes seems morbid but it's doubtful the 'house of pleasure' the teacher is referring to would be a tea party or wedding reception; more likely a gambling den or brothel. I don't believe he is advocating a permanent state of gloom but laughter is an expression of a joyful heart regardless of the situation. When Jesus speaks of the blessedness of mourning he recognises that a true mourner (not one feeling sorry for himself) has a measure of the gravity of his condition. True sorrow can be rewarded by true comfort - not to fill your begging bowl but to complete what you lack. Its true that laughter is good medicine and its good to laugh in even the darkest moments but laughter and sadness are not the extremes of our experience.

The prophet Isaiah talks of the 'oil of joy for mourning'. That's not a quick joke to put a smile on your face or a tonic to make you feel better. He's talking of a deep joy that doesn't depend on circumstance or which side of bed you got out of. Pour water over someones head and it will dry but oil sticks. In our quick fix culture we are all too quick to offer a bucket of water to make the miserable person happy rather than having the oil of gladness at hand to alleviate suffering and the oil of joy to comfort those who mourn. Everywhere we look someone is offering a fix but none of us really have the answers. Rather than seeking to be surgeons we should rather be nurses, taking care of those around us and leaving the surgery to him who made us and who alone has the cure.