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Sunday, February 28, 2010

I’m Afraid, But…I'm waiting

It isn’t certain that all of the psalms attributed to David (either 73 according to the Hebrew Masoretic text or 82 by the Greek LXX) were actually composed by the shepherd king. Some of these psalms of David may have been (and probably were) written by some other unknown and unnamed individual. But for the moment, let’s assume that they were, as tradition asserts, written by that famous son of Jesse. Let’s make that assumption and allow it to affect our interpretation of these psalms

And let’s compare David’s Psalter with ours…let’s compare David’s songs of witness to some of the songs in our Salvation Army songbook.

Our songs are bright, cheerful, songs. Few of them are written in minor keys. No… Our songs are happy, happy, happy all the time. According to our songbook, we’re going to smile, smile, smile and not frown, we’re going to be happy all the day. We may have been in a bad place and in a bad way before, but now that we have been saved from sin we have no worry, no pain, no fear, no doubt. For example:

From song #316 “Sunshine” by Richard Nuttall:
Sunshine, sunshine, shining along our pathway,
guiding, guiding, just where the Saviour would go;
Shining, shining, when all the way seems gloomy,
Jesus lights our way up to glory with sunshine rays.

From song #367 “We’ll All Shout Hallelujah” by Charles Wesley:
We’ll all shout hallelujah
as we march along the way
We will sing redeeming love
With the shining hosts above
and with Jesus we’ll be happy all the day.

From song #394 “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart” by Rufus Henry McDaniel:
Since Jesus came into my heart,
since Jesus came into my heart,
floods of joy o’er my soul
like the sea billows roll,
since Jesus came into my heart.

From song #395 “At the Cross” by Herbert Howard Booth:
At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light
and the burden of my heart rolled away;
it was there by faith I received my sight
and now I am happy all the day.

From song #801 “God’s Soldier” by Harry Reed:
We’re going to fill, fill, fill the world with glory
we’re going to smile, smile, smile and not frown;
we’re going to sing, sing, sing the gospel story,
we’re going to turn the world upside down.

I have, of course, been a bit selective in choosing these particular songs. There are some that are less ‘sunshiny’ than these, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Our song book is filled with these victorious songs of joy – and this is not surprising for an army assured of its salvation and its victory.

But what has always – always – even from my childhood – bothered me (and dare I say it? – Offended me) about these songs is their almost aggressive cheerfulness. Honestly… anyone who is this exuberantly cheerful all the time is either using some sort of pharmaceutical or is being dishonest with him/herself and the world around. No one – not even our Lord and Savior, the son of God, Jesus of Nazareth - was always happy.

Now if we look briefly at those psalms attributed to David we’ll find something rather different:

Psalm # 3 was written as David was fleeing from his son Absalom, who had usurped his father, the king and had attempted to kill him – not exactly a “happy all the day” kind of psalm.

Palm #6 Yahweh, let your rebuke to me be not in anger…
Have pity on me, Yahweh, for I’m fading away,
heal me, Yahweh, my bones are shaken,
my spirit is shaken to its very depth,
but you, Yahweh, - how long?”

Psalm #13 How long, Yahweh, will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you turn away your face from me?
How long must I nurse rebellion in my soul,
[and] sorrow in my heart night and day?
How long is the enemy to domineer over me?

Psalm #22 My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?
the words of my groaning do nothing to save me
My God, I call by day but you do not answer
at night, but I find no respite.

I am, again, being selective here. There are other psalms that are filled with joyful praise, but these few (and there are many more) should serve to illustrate the fallacy of thinking that our lives – if we are good Christian men and women – will be continuously cheerful with never a moment of doubt, or despair, or anxiety or fear.

Our particular psalm for this morning is Psalm 27 – which in the translation that I am using (The New Jerusalem Bible) is entitled “In God’s company there is no fear.” This, I think, is not a particularly apt title for the psalm, for it seems to me that the psalmist (David, as we assume) is afraid. Listen to him:

Yahweh is my light and my salvation
whom should I fear?
Yahweh is the fortress of my life,
whom should I dread?

When wicked men advance against me,
to devour my flesh;
they - my opponents, my enemies,
are the ones who stumble and fall

Though an army pitch camp against me
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
my trust will never be shaken.
(Psalm 27: 1 – 3)

I hear the psalmist praying this nervous prayer as a charm against the dark and a blessing against evil. It’s not that the psalmist is cheerful and confident. If he is brave, it is bravery in spite of his fear. And if he is confident, it is confidence in spite of his doubt. If he has light in his darkness, he knows that that flickering, faltering light comes from God.

But this isn’t without question; this isn’t without an “if”. Listen to the psalmist pleading desperately for God to hear him:

Yahweh, hear my voice as I cry
pity me, answer me!
Of you my heart has said,
‘seek his face';
your face, Yahweh, I seek;
do not turn away from me.

Do not thrust aside your servant in anger
without you I am helpless.
Never leave me, never forsake me,
God my savior.
Though my father and mother forsake me,
Yahweh will gather me up.
(Psalm 27: 7 – 9)

If we take it as an unquestioned matter of fact that God is omnipresent – in all places at all times – and that God will never leave us nor forsake us, we should be able to do without this kind of prayer – this prayer of desperation. Yet David cries out to God in earnest desperation, “Please, God, don’t leave me all alone!”

But why is he so desperate? Why should this man who is described to us as the “man after God’s own heart” be so fearful that God would abandon him to face his enemies all alone? Shouldn’t he have been singing “We’re going to smile, smile, smile and not frown”? Shouldn’t he have been confident and joyful and victorious? Didn’t he know that God is good and that God is faithful and strong?

Or to push the question further – Why did Jesus, hanging from the cross outside Jerusalem, scream that same question into the sky with his dying breaths, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

It isn’t a weakness to admit fear. It isn’t a failure to admit doubt. It isn’t a sin to be desperate. Again, hear this: It isn’t a weakness, a failure, or a sin to be. I think that it may be a weakness, a failure and/or a sin to pretend that we’re never afraid, or that we never have a moment of doubt, or that we’re always confident.

The idea that the Christian life is some sort of sunshiny, rainbow scented, marshmallow wonderland is not at all what the bible describes. The life of faith is not without distress and discomfort and fear, though I can understand the impulse to describe it like that. We want our faith to be credible. We want our belief to be desirable. We want people to look at us and see that our faith works. So we sell it. Perhaps we over sell it. We emphasize the blessings and we diminish the struggle. We make our faith into one of those before and after weight loss photos…

But I worry that this is the wrong way to go. If we sell our faith as being “happy all the day” and we tell people that “everyday with Jesus is sweeter than the day before” what happens when they (or we) come into a difficult time. What happens to our faith if we expect sunshine and roses and instead we find ourselves surrounded by enemies or dealing with illness? Our faith has to be – it must be if we’re going to be honest with ourselves and with the world around us – something more than a glossy advertisement with all the problems airbrushed out of the picture.

We have to be willing to admit that we’re afraid. We have to be willing to face our doubts. We must be willing to admit that occasionally we have doubts. Unless we think that our faith is different than David’s.

Because the psalmist David struggled. He despaired. He wept and he grieved and he shrieked out into the night shaking his fists into the skies for God in heaven to hear and to answer him. He was desperate for the presence of God in his life. The presence of God was the one thing that gave him any sense stability in a life of upheaval and danger

Yes. There was trouble in David’s life. There was danger. There was turmoil and strife. Some of it was of David’s own making. Some of the difficulty he faced was the result of his own poor choices. Some of it was the result of enemies who pursued him. But through it all, David knew where he could go for help.

One thing I ask of Yahweh
one thing I seek
to dwell in Yahweh’s house
all the days of my life,
to enjoy the sweetness of Yahweh
to seek out his Temple.

For he hides me under his roof
on the day of evil,
he folds me in the recesses of his tent,
sets me high on a rock.
(Psalm 27: 4 – 5)

David didn’t deny the fact that he faced trouble. He didn’t dismiss his doubts. He didn’t pretend that he wasn’t afraid. Instead he sought the presence of the one who could comfort him, and assure him. David sought the one who could protect and defend him.

When David began this psalm “Yahweh is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear?” He wasn’t saying that he wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t pretending to be fearless. The Psalmist was praying with quivering knees to the one who could come to him in his fear.

He is desperate for help, desperate for relief, desperate for comfort and protection and he waits. He waits for Yahweh. He can’t force it. He can’t hurry it. He can’t but wait. David waited for God to come to his aid. He waited for God to hear him. He waited (though maybe not patiently) for God to answer him. The psalmist waited because his hope was in the Lord. His hope was in the One whose presence could give him comfort and who could calm his fears.

When we are confronted with our fears – and we will have them – we can share the psalmists prayer “Yahweh is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear,” not because we are fearless, but because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Let us wait, and let us hope in the Lord.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Who Am I, Really?

I've been wondering about this recently.  Who am I?  Really?   

One might expect that I'd have some sort of answer to that after 34 years, but I must confess that sometimes I'm not really sure.

I could tell you what I think of myself  - and knowing myself as I do, I should warn you that this would probably be inaccurate.  On some days I am filled with confidence bordering on arrogance.  I am smarter, quicker, sharper, and measurably more clever than those around me.  And handsome too.  Other days I am convinced that I am a sham.  A phoney. A hypocrite fearfully wating to be exposed in my lies and depravity.

Obviously, I am not a reliable witness.  So to answer this question 'who am I, really?' I could turn to the perception of others.  But this, too,  is complicated.

Depending on who you ask, I am either a trouble making rabble-rouser intent on bucking anyone in a position of authority and should not be entrusted with any responsibilities or I am a warm and compassionate leader with exemplary qualities that make me a fine Christian role model.  Of those divergent opinions, I am much more conditioned to hearing the former.  One person with a measure of influence on my position and status described me as a 'psychopathic deviant' (his very words). 

I recently had a performace review with my Divisional Commander.  As the day of the review approached I became increasingly nervous and apprehensive.  I was used to these reveiews being confrontational and acrimonious.  I was used to attacks and condemnation disguised as a performance review.  But this one was surprisingly and refreshingly different.  My DC said very kind things, gave me higher scores than I anticipated and shared encouraging comments.  I was shocked. 

I don't think that I've changed all that much between these reviews, yet the gulf between them was immense.  I was told that I am percieved as a good teacher, an efficient officer and as being a kind and patient father to my two children.  Where did this come from?  Why am I now percieved so differently?

In addition to this surprising review, another unexpected comment left me stunned. 

Before dating and marrying my wife, I, for a short time, dated her college rooomate.  Funny story there, but now's not the time for that one.  Anyway.  She has for the past several years been a missionary in central Asia. Currently she is back here in the states for while and so she took the opportunity to spend an afternoon with my wife to reconnect and share experiences and memories and whatever it is that women do when revisiting old friends.  During that visit she shared with my wife that she measures potential suitors by how they compare to me.   Yikes.  I don't know what to do with that. I know the mistakes I've made as a husband and as a father.  I can't imagine anyone using me as a yardstick.

I don't know how to be as good as people think I am.  And I don't know why some people think I am as awful as they do.  I don't trust my opinions of myself - they're overinflated in either direction. So...

Who am I, really? 

I'm still working on that one.  Ask me again in another 34 years.

This essay, by the way, should not be construed as a sort of passive-aggressive attempt to fish out compliments and encouragements from freinds and family.  It is what it is and nothing more.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Psalm XXXVI (from the Red-Zone City) - SOLD

I've just recieved word from the editors of that they are intrested in publishing another of my poems:  Psalm XXXVI (from the Red Zone City) .

You can find it there on February 22, 2010.  Huzzah!

As the name of the site implies - it's on the wierd side.  They like the strange and supernatural. The dark and mysterious and creepy. If you imagine King David trapped in the Interzone (a la William Burroughs ) and writing a psalm there - you won't be too far off.

Check it out.  Maybe drop a comment afterwards.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Teaching and Trading Art

In about two weeks I'll be teaching a painting class at the Salvation Army Northern Division's Creative Arts Retreat.

Now I know this of myself:  I'm not much of a painter.  I'm no great shakes.  I won't revolutionize. I won't scandalize. I won't shock the art world.  I won't create a scene or a movement or a school. 

But I do enjoy what I do.  

Take for instance these cards.  They're 2" square (more or less) ATCs (Artist Trading Cards) that I made for my freind, Dena, who is hosting a swap of these little gems.  Her artsy-fartsy friends from across the country (and even a few from that socialist paradise, Canada) are sending them to her  - and she will in turn, shuffle them and mail them back out to everyone who participated in the swap, everyone getting a few of someone else's work. 

I made these on heavy watercolor paper using white acrylic paint (apparently I can't follow instructions) that I mixed with powdered pencil lead to make a steel / blue/grey color.  Brown and white paint were added later as accent and detail.  I also used cut outs from old and new magazines, old photos and cartoons, and scraps of pages from an old dictionary.

The theme of the swap was "Dictionary" and Dena asked everyone to use actual pages from a dictionary - not a photocopy or a scan, and to include the definitions as part of the art, though none of mine have a complete entry.  (See what I mean about instructions?)

These ATCs are pretty ephemeral.  They're not going to hang in a museum someday.  They're not going "to be worth something someday."  ((By the way --- don't say that your artist friends when they give you a painting or a drawing.  Seriously.  It should mean something to you today.))  Most likely these little squares will be put away at the bottom of a drawer, or in a box at the back of some dark closet and never recalled.

But I think they do look nice.  I like the texture of them.  I like the ragged layers of overlapping colors.  I like the torn edges and the blurring between foreground and background.

I like the sense of nostalgia.  (what a dork.)

But all that aside.  I'm supposed to be teaching this stuff to a class in 17 days.  I don't know who will be participating yet.  I imagine that it will be little old ladies who want to paint pretty flowers and birds.  (or perhaps they'll want to paint "happy trees" with Bob Ross.  I miss that guy)  And I'm afraid that I'll have to disappoint them.  I don't paint like that. 

This is the kind of thing that I paint. I paint more like those anti-art artists, the Dada-ists than good 'ole Bob Ross with his happy trees and happy clouds.  So this will have to be the kind of thing that I teach.  

I've submitted my supply list for the class - asking the participants to have the usual: canvas boards, paints, and brushes, etc.... for the class. 

In addition to those, I'll be bringing a bunch of my my crud: old magazines, books, newspapers, and the like.  These I'll share with them.  I'll show them how I rip and tear and cut and glue these bits into my paintings.

And then, if they decide that they like that kind of work, they can continue it on their own back at home.  If they don't like it, well that's okay too.  They can go home and paint pretty trees and sad clowns on their own. That will be just fine.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Falling Into the Mountain and Praising God from Far Away (Psalm 138)

Speed leaving without warning
I need someplace to sleep tonight
blowing in the rocking of the pine.

So sings Black Francis – the pseudonymous leader of the post-punk The Pixies – in the song “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons.” He described the song as a being about a little bird who went to sleep and dreamt that he had travelled to the Olympus Mons of the rusty red planet Mars. (Obviously, this is not your typical Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-and-Roll kind of song.)

Speed leaving without warning
the sunlight is going
into the mountain
I will crawl
into the mountain.

Sun shines in the rusty morning
Skyline of the Olympus Mons
I think about it, sometimes.

Why does this little bird dream of the Olympus Mons of Mars? Well, wouldn’t you? The volcanic Olympus Mons (Latin for “Mount Olympus) is the largest, tallest mountain in the solar system – three times taller than measly ol’ Mount Everest.

Sun shines in the rusty morning
Once I had a good fly
into the mountain
I will fall
into the mountain
I will fall  (1)

Once I had a good fly. I think about it sometimes. This place I’ve not yet been, this place I’ve always known. What is this homesick longing for a place I know, but haven’t seen? How do I describe it to you?

Mountains are frequently used in the bible (and in cultures all around the world) symbolic home of the gods – Mount Olympus being the home of the Greek gods. In these lofty and rarified locals we come in contact with the supernatural. The mountain is a symbol of all that is transcendent - a symbol of all those things that exceed our experience and the limits of our understanding, a symbol of the unknowable. (Is it any wonder that the little bird dreams of the Olympus Mons? What better symbol of the transcendent unknowable approachable only in dreams?)

In the bible we find God high and mighty on his mountain, THE mountain at the edge of the world. There’s even a sense in scripture that the Garden of Eden was located on this mountain. To climb the mountain is to reach towards God, to return home.

King David seems to have experienced this kind of longing. In Psalm 138 we find the king far from home – perhaps he’s on a military expedition of some kind. He is surrounded by a foreign culture, by pagan kings and by their plethora of gods and goddesses. He is dislocated in place and time. He is troubled. He is lonely.

And here in this strange and uncomfortable place surrounded by danger and trouble the little bird King David sings a psalm of praise:

I will praise you, O Yahweh, with all my heart;
before the gods I will sing your praise.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
and will praise your name for your love and faithfulness
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.
When I called, you answered me;
you made me bold and stout hearted.

If the author is, indeed, King David (and there is scholarly debate about it) then this “holy temple” toward which he is bowing would be the tent that he established in Jerusalem for the Ark of the Covenant. Several of the psalms attributed to King David refer to this “temple.”

Unlike the later, permanent temple built by David’s son, King Solomon, this tent that housed the Ark of the Covenant was approachable. When David became King of Israel, he brought the Ark to Jerusalem and set it up in a tent that he had specially prepared for it. One might have expected David to establish the Ark in the Tabernacle of Moses which had been set up in Gibeon, but he didn’t. Instead, he brought it to Jerusalem and he instituted worship before the Ark. He provided for singers and musicians to praise the Lord continually in the tent. And what is especially striking is that there was no veil in this tent; so the praise, worship, and intercession continued before the Ark — in other words, directly before the Throne of God. The people who came to the tent to worship could actually approach the throne of God without barrier.

King David –far from home, encircled by enemies and surrounded by idols and shrines to pagan gods – bows down toward home, toward Mount Zion and the Ark of the Covenant. He orients his entire body towards the place where he knows that he can come into direct contact with God, and he praises that God with “all his heart.”

King David knows that even though God is Transcendent – that God is above and beyond anything he could ever know or hope to know – he knows that God is also Immanent; he knows that God is close and that God is near. He knows that God is here and now. And this gives him strength. This emboldens the troubled king to confidence.

God is Transcendent – He is far removed like the snowy peaks of the Olympus Mons – and at the same time God is Immanent – close and near and approachable, like the ark in the tent David established in the city of Jerusalem.

Though Yahweh is on high, he looks upon the lowly
but the proud he knows from afar.
When I march amid my adversaries
you will keep me alive before the fury of my foes.
Stretch forth your left hand
and give me victory with your right hand.
Yahweh will fulfill his special purpose for me;
your love, O Yahweh, endures forever –
do not abandon the work of your hands.

Even far from home David knows that God is near to protect and to defend him – this would have been an unusual kind of faith in the ancient near east, when gods and goddesses were presumed to be mere local entities. Stronger gods might have a larger sphere of influence, of course, but the gods stayed home. They had their city or their country and that was it. If you left their area, you left their protection and blessing. Yet David is confident, even far from home, even surrounded by powerful enemies and the symbols of their gods, that Yahweh will hear him, will answer him, will protect and defend him.

“Distance of place cannot hinder God to show mercy to his, and so judge the wicked though they think that he is far off.” (2)

Those lofty and arrogant kings who thought they could crush David, those who thought they could overwhelm the servant of Yahweh because he was far from home would be brought low by the hand of God. But this isn’t a cause for celebration for David. Instead he wishes that they would come to recognize for themselves the goodness as well as the power of Yahweh.

May all the kings of the earth praise you, O Yahweh,
when they hear the words of your mouth.
May they sing of the ways of Yahweh
for the glory of Yahweh is great.

David wishes that these enemies that surround him and oppose him would come to worship God with him, that they would join him in his praise of Yahweh. He prays that they will discover for themselves this God who is both Transcendent and Immanent, this God who is powerful and merciful, this God who is on high, but who takes notices of the lowly.

Sun shines in the rusty morning
once I had a good fly
into the mountain
I will fall
into the mountain
I will fall.

And having fallen down into that mountain, I will, with King David, praise the God who lives there.

(1)“Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons” by The Pixies, Words and Music by Black Francis (Charles Thompson), from the 1991 album Trompe Le Monde, Elektra Records

(2)from the Geneva Bible Notes

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Feeling Far From Home

I've been thinking about hills and mountains for the past couple of days.

It started with a song by The Pixies - "Bird Dream of the Olypus Mons" from their Trompe le Monde album.

The Olympus Mons (Mount Olympus), found on the planet Mars, is the largest tallest mountain in the solar system - three times taller than Mt. Everest!

Speed leaving without warning
i need some place to sleep tonight
blowing in the rocking of the pine

speed leaving without warning
the sunlight is going
into the mountain
i will crawl
into the mountain

sun shines in the rusty morning
skyline of the olympus mons
i think about it sometimes

sun shines in the rusty morning
once i had a good fly
into the mountain
i will fall.

This song is about a little bird who goes to sleep and has a dream that he's traveled to mars  But more than that, I think it's a song of longing, and of wanting to be in the right place, the good place.  It's a great song.  One of my favorites. You should check it out.

and that song led me to thinking about Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.

And then I started into preparations for next Sunday's sermon - which will come from Psalm 138.  It's one of the Psalms of King David, written, apparently as he was far from home, perhaps on a military expedition. 

I give thanks, O Yahweh, with my whole heart,
before the gods I sing your praise.
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name
for you have exaulted your name and your word above everything.
... For though Yahweh is highs, he regards the lowly
but the haughty he perceives from far away.

I don't know yet where the sermon prep will take me.  I'm feeling a little melancholic - or homesick - or je ne sais quoi.  I feel a bit like Gonzo in the Muppet Movie who sang, "I've never been there, but I know the way.  I'm going to go back there some day."
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