With glad cries of deliverance

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Saturday

Psalm 32

7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

It’s a sweet verse, a memory verse, the kind you might keep in your pocket through the day or find inscribed in a cross-stitch on the wall. It’s the kind of promise added to photos of mountains and sunsets and sent around the Internet or posted on the overhead screen at church. We need such verses. We need the promise. We need the reminder. “You surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”

But the verse doesn’t stand alone in this psalm. The author has just finished describing his distress, declaring that: “Day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me.” The poet’s life had become arid and brittle: “my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer”.

Though he now finds himself surrounded by joy, he has seen affliction. He has walked those paths where the life of the Spirit withers. Where some bitterness, anger or sorrow occupies the heart, where some hidden sin or open defiance pushes us away, where misfortune darkens the spirit, or where the ordinary burdens of life suck us dry.

The poet finds the root of his particular spiritual wasteland in himself. He is the one who has closed himself from God. He is the one in whom some unacknowledged defect of character or fault of conduct has robbed him of life’s goodness and joy. But he exults that the God of mercy has brought him back. So he sings and sings rightly that God surrounds him with deliverance.

It is important to keep in mind the whole of this psalm and not just the one verse of triumph. The American adoration of success often makes it seem like the Christian life should be an endless stream of victories, but the journey of life is a complicated one. Things happen. Sometimes terrible things. Sometimes we bring these upon ourselves. Sometimes not, as Job knows so well.

We live entangled in a fallen world, but the poet reminds us not to be swallowed by it. These great and precious promises of deliverance stand side by side with the acknowledgment of arid days. They do not judge us when we fail; they call us toward the light. And they remind us that even the driest days and months and years are yet surrounded by the joyful cries of creation’s first light and the empty tomb.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEsprit_nomade.JPG By Hamdanmourad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Lift up your heads

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Watching for the Morning of November 29, 2015

Year C

The First Sunday of Advent

So much of our imagery of the end of the world seems to describe “the end of the world.” We get stuck on the four horsemen of the apocalypse and forget that the whole narrative of Revelation drives towards the vision of the New Jerusalem – the making new of the world. Maybe that’s because “the end of the world” is so common in our experience. The loss of parents, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a job – they all contain elements of a life that will never be the same, life that seems irrecoverable, life that seems at an end.

I remember how often I tried to remind my girls that some catastrophe at school or at home – a broken relationship, a broken toy or spilled milk on a report – was not “the end of the world.” But even there, “the end of the world” is equated with disaster – just a bigger one than whatever misfortune has just occurred.

Though Christianity recognizes how deep and stubborn is the rebellion in the human heart, how prolonged the labor pains might be in the birthing of God’s new world, it is about God’s world made new – restored, freed, healed, redeemed, saved. Those are all the words at the center of Christian faith, not the dark woes of apocalypticism.

There is a stunning realism in this religion accused of being “pie in the sky” – a realism about the darkness that lurks in human societies, and the wastes and wraths of our sorrows. Kings go to war, bombing villages and destroying ancient communities, disrupting food and water supplies, leading to disease and death long after the sword has passed through. Leading to the suffering of children and innocents. Leading to the birthing of hate and revenge. Leading to the birthing of despair. There is realism in Christianity.  The central story we tell is about a brutal torture and execution of an innocent man.

But the end is not the grave. The world belongs to God and not to suffering and death. We were created for joy not sorrow, for meaningful work not slave labor, for union not divorce, for a life with God in the garden not hiding in the bushes. We were created for life not death. And though we yield so easily and completely to the powers of death (revenge, hate, neglect, cruelty, greed, bitterness, and the darkest nihilism) we are creatures born of the breath of God in whom we can also see all that is glorious about our made-in-the-image-of-God humanity: love, tenderness, laughter, play, kindness, care of strangers, sharing of bread, coming to the aid of those in need.

So on the first Sunday of the year our eyes are on the horizon – not because the world ends in whimpering and silence, but because it ends in joy. And the God who comes on the horizon of history is the one who has already met us lying in a manger, and at a breakfast barbecue on the shore of Galilee.

The prayer for November 29, 2015

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Make us ever mindful that our lives move towards your Grace,
that we might be faithful children of hope;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The texts for November 29, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
– In the aftermath of the national catastrophe when Babylon’s armies came and crushed the nation, destroying Jerusalem and the temple of its God, the prophet rises, daring to declare that the LORD’s promise to Israel is not voided. That God will yet fulfill his promise under the banner of a true and faithful king.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 25:1-10)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” – In place of the appointed psalm, our parish sings the song of salvation from Isaiah 51 where the prophet declares that the faithfulness of God is more enduring than earth and sea and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-11 (appointed: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more… so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” – Though Paul writes from prison, his eyes are on the fulfillment of God’s promise to establish his reign of grace and life and writes his beloved congregation, rejoicing in their faith and urging them to faithfulness.

Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” – Reading now in Luke at the beginning of a new church year, we start with eyes turned toward the horizon of human history and the promise of the ultimate dawning of God’s reign over all creation.

 

Image: Filippino Lippi, Archangel Gabriel in the fresco of the Annunciation, Carafa chapel.  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Answered and unanswered prayer: Two thoughts on Psalm 116

Wednesday

Psalm 116:1-9

File:What will the day bring? (5124379114).jpg1 I love the Lord,
because he has heard my voice
and my supplications.

There are many for whom there is no deliverance. Many whose loved ones perish. Many whose pleas fall to the ground. Many whose days are spent in want. Many whose nights are spent in darkness. This is the problem with answered prayer. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those whose prayer has not been answered.

It is bittersweet when the friends of the childless become pregnant. It is bittersweet when the unloved see couples kiss. It is bittersweet when the abandoned see others embraced.

Perhaps bittersweet is all we can hope for, trapped as we in a broken world, trapped as we tend to be inside our own selves. “I am glad for you” even as I feel the pang of my own disappointment. Maybe this is why we find it easier to speak our needs in church rather than our thanksgivings; we don’t want anyone to feel badly when the prayers of another are answered.

But isn’t this what the rite of confession means when it says, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”? We are prisoners to our selves. I filter your good news through my own bad news, and it robs you of your joy and God of the glory due his name.

Grace happens. Some prayers do get answered. Some are healed. Some are saved. Some are given work and families and joy.

And to whom shall we give credit? Luck? Fortune? Chance? Is God not the author of all grace? Is it right to be silent when such a gift is given? Is it right not to praise the one who is the author of such sweetness?

No, the problem is mine, that I am trapped within myself. I need a deliverer to call me out of myself into the joy of God wherever the world is touched by the life and grace of God.

Psalm 116:1-9

3The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
4Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

I don’t know whether this translation carries enough emotional power for the poet’s complaint. ‘Snares’ and ‘pangs’ and ‘Sheol’ make it all seem a little distant, a little abstract, a little theoretical. I wonder if we shouldn’t be talking about the bony hand of death dragging us down. The fearful shadows swallowing all hope. Drowning in despair.

There are moments when you get tired of fighting, when you are ready to surrender, ready to give up and slip beneath the waves. And then comes the fear, the fight, the will to live, the desperate prayer for help, and the hand plunging beneath the water to haul you up again into the air.

The poet’s song is a deep and profound praise. God is not a god who helps those who help themselves; God is the LORD who reaches down to snatch us back from the grave. God is not the patron of the privileged who do not have to wrestle with demons; God is the LORD who joins us in battle. God is light – not so much the radiant peace as the flaming sword to deliver us from the eternal night.

There are people who fight terrible spiritual battles. Some survive. Some do not. But all are saved. And if some did not survive to give God the praise, then we would not know this God who empties the grave, this God who yanks us back from the realm of sorrow into joy, from the realm of shame into grace, from the realm of death into life.

It is because of the testimony of some, like this psalmist, that we can see light upon our path and the joy of surprising grace. It is because of those whose prayers are answered that we know that all such prayers shall ultimately be answered. Healing awaits us.

 

Photocredit: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (What will the day bring?  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The dry bones shall live

Saturday

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, detail of the Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

Jerusalem is in ruins. Looted. Charred. Desecrated. Abandoned. Some have been taken into bondage in Babylon. Some have fled, scattered to the winds. Some are bones drying in the sun. For some four hundred years the kingdom of David had survived. Now it is no more. The God who led them out of Egypt has either perished or abandoned them.

“Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”

We have been there. At the place of despair. At the place where the future is lost. At the place where hopes and dreams fail. It may be the death of a child, a parent, a brother, a wife. It may be a fire, a storm, a flood. It may be the loss of a career or health. The collapse of a marriage, a family. We have all been there. Or will be there. And what shall sustain us in that day?

12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

The prophet bears a promise that Israel shall return to the land, a promise fulfilled when Cyrus arose and overthrew Babylon and let all its captured peoples go. But the promise of new life, new breath, transcends that single moment in time. It connects with all those other promises of God that show God to be a God who makes a path through the sea, who provides bread in the wilderness, who rescues the oppressed and lifts up the broken. It connects to that great promise that a day shall come when the Spirit is poured out upon every heart and all creation set free from its bondage to death.

There will be days in the wilderness for all of us, but the promise abides: the dry bones shall live.

The worship of the community on Pentecost is festive, but the day bears a profound message. The promised Spirit has come. The life we await is begun.

Photo: By Deror avi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Vanity of vanities

Wednesday

Ecclesiastes

2Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,Fallen_leaves
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

This is the only Sunday in the three-year cycle of lessons that we read from Ecclesiastes.  It’s not the kind of book that lends itself to the way the Revised Common Lectionary uses the Old Testament.  Most Old Testament readings either match the Gospel in theme or serve as a foil.  So, this week, Jesus speaks about the folly of the rich man and the danger of possessions, and the despair of Koheleth (the voice in Ecclesiastes) at the futility of amassing wealth serves as backdrop.  But there is more to this work than is illuminated by using it as a set for Jesus.

Vanity of vanities.  The word translated ‘vanity’ refers to air or breath: fragile, insubstantial, fading, empty.  Doubling the word is a Hebrew form for the intensive.  So Israel’s holiest place is the “holy of holies,” and this term for utter futility means the greatest emptiness.  When Koheleth says “Vanity of Vanities!  All is vanity,” he cries out that life is completely meaningless.

It’s not a comfortable thought.  But sometime or other, we all think it.

We skip around in Ecclesiastes to pull out a set of verses to complement the Gospel.  What we skip is an observation that the world keeps on turning; the years run on; one life is replaced by another in a never-ending cycle; “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Human labor is a futility.  What we build passes away.  And the author struggles with that fundamental human question: “What’s the point?”

What’s the point of wealth if it passes out of my hands to another?  What’s the point of learning if we all end up in the grave?  What good are the pleasures of life – wine and song – if we are destined for dust?  Is there meaning in living only for the moment?  What good are we if the memory of our lives passes away forever?

Maybe this frightening despair, this profound questioning of all that occupies our daily life, is part of the reason we avoid this book.  Only it’s not just despair.  There is deep and disquieting truth here.  If we are living for work, for home, for family, if we aspire to fame or greatness, death robs us of it all in the end.  And sometimes before the end.  A career can crash and burn over a text message.  Tragedy can steal loved ones.  Fame is fickle.  Disease random.  And our recent flirtation with another great depression reminds us that wealth itself can be ephemeral.

Does it make life meaningless?  Do we therefore “eat and drink for tomorrow we die?”  Grab what pleasures we can and worry not about those left behind?

Or does it drive us instead to the source of life’s meaning: the God who created humanity and placed us in a garden to tend and keep it?  The God who showed his face in Jesus and bids us find in him our true life?