Sunday, May 15, 2011

Psalm 6 (6): The Lord Accepts my Prayer

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 6 ===

Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the LORD has heard my weeping.
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

Who is my enemy? Jesus reminded the Jews that they were taught to hate their enemy but love their neighbour. It was God's plan they should be set apart for him and the only way they could do that was to have a completely different lifestyle to their neighbour nations. Their neighbour nations practiced idolatry and witchcraft. They sacrificed their children, had little value for human life and were generally reprobates. This was not the pool where you would choose the mother of your children. So wherever Israel conquered they were to put to the sword every one of the inhabitants to rid the land of evil. This sounds like ethnic cleansing but the Jews were often reluctant to carry out the task. These were promiscuous and fun loving people - this was party time. But God had already called time on their debauchery - this was the morning after - clear up time. These enemies that David speaks of are not those he has fallen out with - they are enemies of God and everything God stands for.

But who is my enemy? Your enemy is not the mugger who wants your wallet or the colleague who steals your promotion. Your enemy isn't the politician who takes an opposite view to you on government policy. Your enemy is whatever stands between you and God. You can be your own worst enemy. It could be your lifestyle choices, your attitude, even your religious zeal. More importantly, your enemy is God's enemy. What does God hate? God hates oppression, injustice, apathy, greed, abuse and self-interest. Seek first the kingdom of God because that's where he rules in righteousness. Sit where he sits and see with his eyes. Feel his pain and weep with him over the sons of men. Feel the heat of his anger as he looks upon oppression and injustice. If you have a heart for God you will say, like Isaiah, "Here I am. Send me!"

Prayer

Lord, may our hearts burn as we look at the world through your eyes and teach us to love our enemies but hate yours. Let us see and worship the God of both the New and Old Testaments because you are unchanging. Help us to see the logs in our eyes without being obsessed with them. May we know your unmerited favour so that we can extend that grace to others.

Verse

"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the alter. With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sins atoned for."Then I heard the voice of the LORD saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here I am, send me!"(Isaiah 6:5-8).

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (5): I am worn out

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 5 ===

I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.

There are no requests here, no plea for mercy or deliverance, no statement of faith, no occasion for dialogue. There are times when we have no wish to listen to reason or examine cause and effect. You would suppose that you know better than anyone what you are going through yet you can only see it from the inside and untangling reality from your perception is an almost impossible task. When someone casually asks how you are you might weigh up how you are doing financially, emotionally, professionally, arriving at an average where negatives are cancelled out by positives and you end up with a simple "OK". But David throws out all reason and appears to lose any sense of proportion. At first this appears to be a full-blown pity party but despite David's lack of objectivity we can see where his anxieties lie. His eyes grow weak for fear that he will be overtaken by his foes. In plumbing the depths of his emotions he arrives, not at objective truth, but at an understanding of where he's at and, therefore, where he must begin his recovery.

David was not a perfect king by any means but he was a man of integrity and depth. Before God he was prepared to face his demons and admit to his weaknesses. It's the way of kings and despots to be arrogant and dishonest. They feel they have to portray a man of strength with no weaknesses even though their people know this isn't true of any man. When people see you face life's difficulties with an honest and open heart they are more likely to respect you when tough decisions are to be made. It's said that Jesus was a man of sorrows yet we are prepared to follow him to the ends of the earth.

Prayer

Dear Lord, please bear with us when we open our hearts, even when they are filled with bitterness and lies. On the cross you bore all our sins so you know, first hand, all that burns within us and motivates us to do good and evil. It was not we who sought you out but you who sought us out so that we cannot claim to have found your grace by insight or sound judgement. While we were deep in sin you pulled us out. Father, lead us into all truth so that we can face life with integrity and sound judgement. Keep us from being arrogant and conceited, always having hearts open to you, so that we can be corrected and encouraged in the knowledge that you are our strength.

Verse

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation - if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. (Colossians 1:21-23).

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (4): No Praise from the Grave

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 4 ===

Turn, LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?

Notice how directly David speaks. He doesn't plead for God to deliver him or put in a request for God to answer when he gets time or has the inclination. But we should not imagine that David is presumptuous or, as the name it and claim it preachers would have it, is merely drawing on his account. For all the respect that David has for his Lord, the case is too urgent to shrink from pressing God for an answer to his troubles. He knows God is his deliverer and there is no one else to turn to. Better that God be angry at his impertinence than to test him with pathetic ifs. When he answered Job directly after days of listening to his defence of his own righteousness, God didn't demand that Job be silent, he said to Job, "Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me." God had listened to Job already and was prepared to hear him again. It was Job's humility that would not allow him to reply.

So did David think, "if God's love is unfailing why does it feel like he's deserted me? If he wants my praise why would he let me die?" Some would quote Paul, "To live is Christ to die is gain"; if our praise in heaven is to be more glorious than our less than perfect praise here on earth, what does it matter whether we live or die? Firstly, David doesn't have the benefit of Paul's wisdom nor the revelation that came with the death and resurrection of Jesus. David believed he would rest in Sheol with his fathers, a shadowy place that was a kind of refugee camp for dead souls awaiting their resurrection. Even the New Testament doesn't make it clear where we will be between death and resurrection. Paul says that we will sleep which suggests that David was about right. In any case, if salvation is merely a ticket to heaven why do we have to hang around here when we could be living it up beyond the pearly gates.

It's wrong to suppose that, because of our fuller knowledge through Jesus, we really see eternity much different to David. The only world we know is the one we live in; our only point of reference lies within this world. We still live in much the same world, neither in the paradise that Adam knew or the paradise that Jesus promises. This world will be swept away some day and any chance to praise God from here will be gone. Let us support our team even when we seem to be on the losing side because we will eventually be rewarded.

Prayer

O Lord, remind me of how precious life is, not just the sanctity of life itself but how precious each moment is. Let us not compare the life to come with our low expectations from this life because that would be a pointless comparison. Let us be a people who don't simply yearn to be in a better place but cry out to you to make our lives better in the place where we are. Let us not settle for being survivors but to live in the fullness of what you have done for us but then to know success in your terms not as the world would define it. We want to praise you throughout eternity, beginning at now.

Verse

I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:9)

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (3): Lord How Long

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 3 ===

How long, LORD, how long?

A recurrent theme throughout the Psalms, this sentiment is echoed throughout scripture. The first words we read in Genesis are "In the beginning"; the penultimate phrase in Revelation is "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus" (it is settled - we only await your coming Lord). We know God started it and have faith that God will finish it but even though God's revelation is completed and sealed it still awaits the finale. There's more to come but we must wait patiently. When Jesus was first presented at the temple he was welcomed by the prophetess Anna. She had been married for seven years when her husband died. Now at the age of 84 she saw what she had been waiting for her whole life. Moses, the only man who ever met God face to face, was 120 when the Israelites finally reached the Promised Land only to be forbidden entry. Abraham who alone was called the friend of God was 100 when his wife bore his child of the promise.

You often hear preachers telling listeners to claim their healing, their inheritance, their prosperity, their job or whatever it is they are praying for. These so called anointed preachers claim to have a hot line to God yet their ignorance exposes the truth that they don't know the God they preach. They wrongly assume that the new covenant, instituted by Jesus' death and resurrection, means that everything is theirs to claim here and now. They claim to honour Moses and Abraham and are forever referring to them yet they claim that their own experience of God is greater because of their greater revelation. They are modern Gnostics promising a superior relationship with God through revelation. There is no room in their thinking for long suffering, patience, failure, persecution or adversity. They are quacks and peddlers of God's word, tricksters and illusionists, deceived and twice damned. They preach a false gospel and would deceive the elect, if that were possible.

There is no real answer to the question, 'how long?' God doesn't treat us like pawns and it's not for us to wait for God as if there is a set time for everything; that if we hold on it will surely come to pass because God has willed it. I no longer pray to know God's will, I pray for wisdom, help and guidance in the knowledge that I have God's Spirit within me and as I learn to walk with him I hope our hearts will begin to beat as one. Jesus said that he and the Father were one and that he did the will of he who sent him yet from the Gospel accounts we see a man who is no automaton following instructions but one so close to his commander that no instructions are necessary. Yet in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus submitted himself to God's will against every other voice to the contrary. The waiting was over; now was the time.

Each of us will have a garden experience where time is no longer the issue - when everything is racing at the speed of light and you are being asked to make a decision that will have eternal consequences. We must learn to use the "how long Lord" times as preparation for when the "what - NOW?" arrives. Life seems to come in teaspoons and buckets and there's no point in wishing for jugs.

Prayer

Dear Lord I believe that what happened on the cross was complete in itself for you said yourself that it was finished. Yet if you had not risen again we too would indeed be finished. You went to the Father and sent us a comforter because for us the work had only begun. You foresaw hardship in the form of persecution and being children of God we are also disciplined in order that we should be conformed to your likeness. Father please do not test me to my limits for I can bear far more than I care to, but allow me to share in the long suffering of your Son that I may share in his glory.

Verse

When times are good be happy; but when times are bad consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. (Ecclesiastes 6:14).

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (2): Lord Have Mercy on Me

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

=== 2 ===

Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.

It may be that David was physically ill. If so, this was either life threatening or so debilitating that David felt compelled to ask for mercy. We all know how paralysing a headache can be - that it can cause or be made worse through stress - so we hardly need to know the detail of his discomfort to understand his anguish, only that he is deeply troubled. That the Psalms don't rhyme has nothing to do with the translation; Hebrew poetry often uses repetition to emphasis a point. Here we see a theme repeated twice but from a new perspective each time.

David is faint, in agony and deeply troubled, everything you would associate with a severe illness, but just as illness causes distress, so does distress manifest itself in physical symptoms. We hear much these days about holistic medicine whereby the whole body is treated as a combination of physical, mental and spiritual. Modern medicine acknowledges that a person's state of mind can have a significant impact on their physical wellbeing. It's been said that the majority of cases seen by a GP have a significant psychological dimension and increasing numbers of surgeries have been employing specialists to meet needs that have now been recognised as genuine.

In biblical times it was common for illness to be thought to have a moral connection and the word disease (dis + ease) suggests being out of sorts with yourself and your environment. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 Paul says, "May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless." Many have used this to justify their view that we are made up of three distinct parts but I'm sure that Paul means our whole lives. Both Jesus and Paul argue that it is not your body that's evil (even though its wasting away) but what is in your heart. We think of the heart being our core being yet in Hebrew scripture, that which is rendered 'heart' in English often means intestines (our gut), which is where we feel things most deeply. We will have a resurrection body but if God only saves our soul what role will our body have? Jesus, after his resurrection, had a spiritual body that could disappear through walls yet eat a fish. We acknowledge Jesus with our mind yet scripture says nothing of the brain. There is clearly no biblical systematic theology of man in a physiological sense.

David clearly sees every aspect of his life as merely an expression of where he is in his relationship with God. His life force is fading; his frame is crumbling; he is struggling as a person. As we shall hear later, he feels oppressed by his enemies. Whatever ails him, his LORD is the remedy. If God were to write a prescription the remedy would be shalom - peace, healing and wholeness that can only come from knowing God who will enrich his life in every way.

Prayer

Lord, in a world that divides families, communities and nations - prescribe shalom for my life. Restore what has been broken by others and by myself. You have promised healing for the nations; ignore my craving for physical health when it would make me complacent and unmindful of the suffering of others. Have mercy on me Lord for you alone can bring true restoration.

Verse

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9)

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Psalm 6 (1): Lord Deliver Me

Thoughts from Psalm 6 in six parts (Each section begins with the verses I will comment on, followed by a prayer and a concluding verse).

= Introduction =

Turn O LORD and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
No one remembers you when he is dead.
Who praises you from the grave?

Not every Psalm entitled 'A psalm of David' can reliably be ascribed to the king himself but this one bears all the hallmarks of this resilient yet vulnerable, confident yet contrite ruler of Israel. It seems to be in the darkest times we meet face to face with our maker, when we have a true heart-to-heart - as if we have to come to the end of ourselves to find the beginning of God. Psalm 6 finds David at this place but the scenario doesn't present a jelly of a man pleading for mercy. Rather, we see someone who, even in the depths of despair, has a quiet and undying confidence in a God who is not to be served in blind allegiance. "Test me in this", says the LORD (from the mouth of the prophet Malachi). "Press hard after God" others have said.

=== 1 ===

LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.

In John's Gospel we read of a man born blind. The disciples ask whose sin it was that resulted in his blindness. It was generally accepted that suffering was a punishment from God. Job's friends had no doubt that his troubles were the result of sin that he would not admit to and it may be that David had his own detractors who were more than happy to say "I told you so". It's not clear where David sees his troubles coming from, but what is clear is that he believes God to be sovereign.

If this is from God, David wants assurance that he is not angry with him; it's one thing to suffer and another to have God as your enemy. In Samuel 24, David sins against the LORD and he has the choice of being humiliated by his enemies or being struck by God. He decides to "fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men."

Whatever its origin, David takes his suffering to God because he knows that God will deliver him. His only fear is that God is angry and vengeful; but if this is the case he has no recourse anyway. Why fear men who act on a whim when you know exactly where you stand with God. Why fear men who may condemn you but cannot ultimately deliver you. Its best to cut out the middleman: forget the monkey; speak to the organ grinder. David knows that in all things God disciplines him for his own good but first he must settle accounts.

Prayer

LORD, if I have caused you to be angry or occasioned your wrath, please forgive me because I cannot stand against you. If you are against me I have no hope. If you will forgive me, by all means rebuke and discipline me because I know that I will benefit in the end. Prune me so that I will bear fruit; polish me so that I will reflect your glory; teach me and I will be wise.

Verse

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Proverbs, 27:6)

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Exceptionally Ordinary

There are numerous times when I have vowed to press on with my foot to the floor only to find myself stalling at each bend. It's an easy thing to take a long view on the destination and make good initial progress, pumped with adrenaline and inspiration. Many fall at the finish unable (or unwilling) to make the last bit of ground but more die in the middle. Corpses pile high in the side streets and cul-de-sacs of life. Unmentioned to the starters and forgotten by the finishers, they are an embarrassment and only leave an unpleasant smell. What do you say of someone who aborts when the job is half done, for whom there is no return on the investment - a write off - a liability - collateral damage.

Life is an opportunity but while for some it's a revolving door, for others it's a quarter light. The vista may be the same but some need to stand closer to the window to see it. I'm not speaking of those who don't realize their potential but manage to get through life without causing any visible damage. I'm speaking of those who just run out of steam, the bright starters who take wrong turns or take on one too many hills. I'm thinking of myself, stalling at yet another bend and wondering how the gearbox has managed to survive, not that I was a bright starter.

If life were simply about bright starters, good finishers and urban casualties it would be a sad story indeed. We enter the world naked and exit alone but no one passes through without their life touching someone else's. No one can say they were successful entirely on their own. To be alone is a measure of failure on someone's part. We look up to the successful for inspiration and try to learn from other's mistakes in order to make the finish line with dignity and a sense of achievement. We hope that our children take the right path and make the most of every opportunity.

I can't see the finish line from here and it all started so long ago. I seem to keep heading down cul-de-sacs but there always seems to be a path at the end leading to another way. The 23rd Psalm is the favourite of many - "He makes me lie down in green pastures" - but when you walk through the "valley of the shadow of death" the path is hard to follow. Its not a route you would choose to take - failure and loneliness are heavy weights to carry - but it's the way of the common man and the lot of many who fall by the wayside. The lost don't look to the successful; they find strength in the humanity of fellow strugglers, the frequenters of cul-de-sacs. They are inspired not by those who are ordinarily exceptional but who are exceptionally ordinary.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Listening

I have a friend who is facing some difficult questions and trying to make sense of relationships. Life never stands still and as much as we'd like to rewrite some of our story we can do little more than paint over the painful bits or reconcile the first chapters with a good ending. I don't know if she is trying to make sense of the twisted thinking that causes people to choose a life of mutual abuse, searching for a strand of reason in the dogmatic assertions of self and institutionally appointed leaders of religious groups or listening to the latter as a distraction from the former. But she seems to have an appetite for engaging with people with unorthodox, and sometimes destructive, takes on life.

I suspect she is hoping to put all her experiences together in a kind of patchwork, which may look chaotic at close quarters but makes some sense when viewed from a distance, in the third person as it were. My fear is that by exposing herself to people who are seeking to influence others, however removed she thinks she is, she is exposing herself to indoctrination or even antithesis whereby she is building a mind map filled of road blocks without signs giving alternative routes. Living a life of avoidance can be as damaging as living profligately.

We can't avoid meeting people who seek to impose their beliefs on us or who are so narrow minded that everything they say is a mantra but when in close proximity to them or their ranting we need to be sure our moral compass remains true. We should not avoid people who we disagree with, who hold opposing beliefs or whom we find difficult to argue with. We shouldn't dismiss, out of hand, personal attacks or critical opinions that are directed towards us. In truth there may be no justification for such an attack but there is probably an underlying reason, which may have nothing to do with us. We can be sure that our perception of self or others is never entirely accurate.

If we allow ourselves to double think every conversation and consider every point of view, afraid that we might be too dogmatic or opinionated, we will be so compliant that our opinion will count for nothing. In most circumstances to be 90% right is more than acceptable and probably too self-assured. We should all be 'of an opinion' but not be so opinionated that we cannot be corrected. We should all have beliefs that we vigorously defend against all but the most convincing of proofs. And cherished beliefs that we never surrender. We should seek to have an answer that can justify our position and a respect for the opinion of others even when they can't.

You always have the right to your opinion so long as others have a right to theirs. The right to speak carries with it the obligation to listen.

In decent

I've recently been accused of not being decent. On my online dictionary it's defined as: conforming to the recognized standard of propriety, good taste, modesty, etc; in other words (or one other word), proper. It's a surprisingly subjective definition in that not only does it depend on something that's commonly (if not universally) accepted but also on our own preconceptions of what is acceptable and, to some extent, on context. It would be considered indecent to walk through the streets naked but minimal coverage would render that person acceptable on a standard British beach. On a nudist beach a fully clothed person could be considered improper whereas a partly dressed person might draw criticism in any of these contexts.

We sometimes ask, "What would be the decent thing to do?" and it could be the case that none of those being asked fulfils the criteria yet there is no presumption of condemnation that being indecent would suggest. Often when someone is told, "make yourself look decent" the assumption is not that they are indecent but that to present themselves in public in their current state would render them so. If we take it to mean 'proper' then we are either questioning the person's suitability for a purpose or if they are the real deal. Is that person the proper candidate for a specific role and are they what they claim to be? To legitimately call someone 'not decent' either begs more questions or gives the accused just cause to offer a defence.

Being told you are not a decent person is quite unpleasant and I would suspect that even people with skins of the thicker variety would wince a little when being confronted with such a charge. One reaction is to justify one's self but proclaiming, "I am a decent person" has a hollow and hypocritical ring to it. It seems as though we can add to our honour or remain anonymous but once our character is impugned we are indelibly marked. It seems to be peculiar to the human condition that praise is pleasant and motivating but transient and fickle. You're only as good as your last success but mud sticks. The test of character is not how well you can wear praise but in being able to bear ignominy with dignity; also to be able to own criticism without accepting condemnation.

The very fact that to be decent requires us to conform to some arbitrary standard of behaviour (prescribed by society in a general or even intimate sense) means that we are not free to judge or justify our own decency or propriety. We must stand before our peers and make our case. As a species we are gregarious and no matter how much we claim not to care what others think we are, not one of us, an island; at least not without a bridge or shallow moat. The answer to shame is therefore not to burn our bridges but to build better ones. Not to retreat into hovels of despair or patch up the tears but to build new houses and weave new coverings. Despite its meanness and baying for blood, society is poorer for having victims and outcasts and as satisfying as it is to be judgemental it hurts the giver more than the receiver. Forgiveness may be a bitter pill to swallow but it brings healing and has a sweet after taste.

Be it Geronimo (thorn in the side of imperialist America) or Oscar Wilde (deviant, shunned by polite society) villains often become heroes in the end who, on balance, leave a legacy, which enriches more than their sins (perceived or real) impoverish. We need the moral courage to be open to the rehabilitation, not only of ourselves, but also those we deem to have acted improperly. It's not for us to forgive those who have acted in such a heinous manner as to sever every connection with moral society but where there is a connection we have an obligation to reach out rather than pull away. We need to live in the hope that good will win in the end; not that the wicked are punished but that society is redeemed.