Saturday, September 20, 2014

Length of Days

Not enough hours in the day.  Ever said that?  Sure you have.  And maybe you were faced with an impossible task that you weren’t sure how you were going to get done.  There just aren’t, you argued with yourself or your boss or your co-workers or the elements of the universe, enough hours in the day!  And you were right.  There weren’t enough.  You didn’t get done, or you got it done and weren’t satisfied with it, or you got an extension, or you just bailed.  There aren’t enough hours in the day.  Frustratingly true.

Or maybe you were in a moment of sheer bliss, of joy unknown, maybe you were enjoying yourself to such an extent that you almost forgot that there was a deadline, there was an end point, a gotta run other places to be and other people to see kind of moment and you didn’t want it to interrupt the beautiful moment you were enjoying.  There aren’t enough hours in the day, you sigh, as you head off in different directions.

That’s just kind of our lot, isn’t it?  Not enough hours, not enough days, not enough life.  That is just the way it is, and we make do as best we can.  Right?  La Donna went off for family weekend with Maddie at Wittenberg today.  I wanted to go too, but I’ve got a wedding.  So we do a divide and conquer kind of thing.  She goes with Maddie this year and I get to go to DePauw next weekend for Rhys’ family weekend.  Except I can’t stay because I’ve got to come back for some big shindig here at Aldersgate on Sunday the 28th (can’t think of what it is at the moment).  (Just kidding Marlane!)  Plus, Maddie texted La Donna to say that she shouldn’t come before 11am since she has stuff to do and then she will have to leave by noon tomorrow because the sorority recruitment days are starting and Maddie is on the team or something. Whew.  Not enough hours in the day.

So, do we have a remedy for this?  Does our text for the week fix all our time problems and allow us to just relax into the lives we’d really like to be able to live?  Are we handing our Harry Potter “Time Turners” in church on Sunday that will allow us to fiddle with the time and space continuum?  Uh.  No.  Sorry.  But maybe there is something here we should pay attention to.  Take a look.

Proverbs 3:1-6   My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments;  2 for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you.  3 Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.  4 So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people.  5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.  6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

“For length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you.”  That’s that one that caught me.  For length of days.  Is this a promise of longevity?  That if we ... what?  Not forget the teaching?  Keep the commandments then we will have longer days?  That would be great.  Wouldn’t it?  Longer days and many years.  Now, this is a message that would sell really well out there in the world.

Except we know it isn’t true.  Or isn’t true in the way we might first think it is true.  I’ve performed too many funerals for keepers of God’s commandments to state that it is a prescription for longer lives.  I’ve sat with families as days slipped away in the care of their loved one and known that their days aren’t any longer than mine or anybody else’s for that matter; including those who wouldn’t know a commandment if it wore kilt and played the pipes in front of them.  (Yeah, that was my nod to the failed attempt at independence for my beloved Scotland - course I don’t know which way I would have voted anyway.  There weren’t enough hours in the day to debate it.)

So, what does it mean, then?  If it isn’t about giving you more hours in a day or more years in your life, then what is it promising?  Most of the commentaries say it is promising eternity.  It’s about heaven, they argue.  It’s about the Kingdom of God and the invitation to dwell there forever.

And who can argue with that?  Or better yet, who wants to?  That is a promise that has sustained God’s followers for centuries.  The idea that eternity in heaven, however we want to depict that realm, is on offer to those who keep the commandments has invited folks to live godly lives throughout history.

Proverbs is about wisdom, divine or holy wisdom that shift the focus from the dog eat dog, just getting by, only in it for myself kind of wisdom to something higher, something broader, something deeper than what we sometimes settle for in this world.  The ability to surrender to a higher presence, to set self aside and seek the good of all or at least some more, is indeed keeping the commandments of God.  And the motivation of heaven is and has been a powerful one.

Yet, I’m not sure that Proverbs chapter three is talking about heaven.  It seems much more about this life, this world, this walk than it does about some someday yet to come.  The result of following this wisdom, of keeping these commandments is that we will become people of good repute.  That’s not a heavenly quality.  That’s a now kind of thing.  We want to find favor with God and people.  We want to be known by God and people We do.

The other promise is that we will find straight paths.  God will make straight our paths.  Which doesn’t, I don’t think, mean that God will run interference for us, keeping the bad things out of our way, smoothing out the potential bumps in the road, keeping the corners, the intersections to a minimum.  No, that isn’t the promise.  Rather that when we choose to walk in the wisdom of God instead of our own wisdom, we will find contentment.  We will find joy, even on the bumpy parts, even as we stand at the intersections agonizing over which direction would honor God more.  The joy is in the attempt to honor.  The joy is in the desire to be where God is, to walk in God’s way, to be filled up with the fullness of God.

Which, not to make a circular argument, is how it all starts anyway.  By filling ourselves up with the fullness of God.  Proverbs tells us to wrap ourselves in loyalty and faithfulness.  To mark ourselves as those who love like God loves.  Loyalty is the translation of hesed which is sometimes translated as steadfast love.  It is an attribute of God.  Faithfulness is also a God quality.  So, we wrap them around our necks like a woolen scarf on a frigid day.  We write them on the tablets of our hearts - whether android or apple.  Windows tablets anyone?  Windows might be better because through these attributes we see God, and we see God in what we do or say, how we life each day, each hour of the day.

There aren’t enough hours.  Unless each one is filled with the Presence of God, the awareness of God.  Unless each one is an opportunity to acknowledge God and God’s claim on our lives, God’s praise on our lips, God’s joy in our hearts.  So maybe the promise is not for more hours in the day to fill, but more fullness for the hours we have, for the days we have.  Maybe the promise isn’t an endless number of years in this life, but a life full of years of endless presence and joy.  The abundant welfare promised in Proverbs 3:2 isn’t about safety or security or ease or comfort, but about the sustaining presence of God in all our doing, all our living, all our being.  Our souls are cared for because we live in love, we live in presence.  We live in joy.

Oh, look at the time.  I’ve got to run. ... But at least I don’t run alone.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

New Every Morning

Bertha is no more.  She is an ex-Bertha.  She’s joined the choir ethereal.  She pushing up the daisies. Bertha has ceased to be.  Sorry, had to channel Monty Python and the dead parrot sketch for a moment there.  But it was in a good cause.  We are celebrating the demise of Bertha the boot.  La Donna had her appointment with our orthopedic doctor (thanks Dr. Almdale) and he managed to follow the script and say she can get rid of the boot.  So, Bertha is no more.  (Actually, we’ve just put her away since the record of this family and injuries is not all that good, might as well save her for a resurrection day when we’ll need her support again.)

Whew, glad that’s over.  Of course I’m not nearly as glad as La Donna is.  She is the one who had to wear the boot.  She is the one who had the broken foot in the first place.  She is the one who suffered, so release is all that much more sweet for her, I am quite sure.

But then we all suffered, had to pick up extra jobs, had to pitch in and help out (not that we hadn’t before, just had to do more), the crazy dogs were deprived of their beloved mom’s company on their early morning walks (early, early morning walks - just sayin’), we all occasionally got stepped on or kicked.  Yeah, we all suffered.  And now we’re good.  

Except, she still limps a bit.  I’m still walking the crazy dogs.  There is some swelling.  And we are still puzzling over Dr Almdale’s quote “there is a difference between clinical healing and radiographic healing.”  Um, what?  Well, the x-ray still shows a break.  A break that might or might not be there.  It doesn’t hurt, clinical healing - but it still looks broken radiographic healing.  “If I was just going by the x-ray, you’d be back in that boot.”  What?

There’s healing and there’s healing, apparently.  Just like there is suffering and there is suffering.  Some suffering never really ends, and some healing isn’t as complete or definitive as we would like it to be.  Sometimes when we are healed we still limp.  Sometimes when we suffer we can still sing praise.

Lamentations 3:21-26  But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;  23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."  25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.  26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. 

Lamentations.  Not big on anyone’s bible hit parade, I suspect.  In fact I kinda cheated here and dug around and found just about the only positive verses in the whole book to focus on for this Sunday.  Not really fair of me, I admit.  And, frankly, it kinda dulls the meaning of the verses when you take them out of the context they are in.  Don’t get me wrong, these are great verses and we love them.  Even get to sing them.  I quoted the chorus to “Great is Thy Faithfulness” in last week’s late night bible study.  The steadfast love of the lord never ceases.  I mean, who could argue with that?  Who would want to?  God’s mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  And then Jeremiah, or whoever it was that wrote the book of Lamentations (I know, those biblical scholars have to question everything, fo heaven’s sake) says I’m sticking with God!  No matter what!!  OK, he said it better: The Lord is my portion (my inheritance, my choice, my will, my choosing, my peeps, my homie - never mind), therefore I will hope in him.  I’ve cast my lot in with God, I’m not bailing now, he says.

Good stuff, right?  Of course it is good stuff.  But out of context it is just good stuff.  Just nice to know, thanks for that word, gotta run and get back to my life stuff.  Out of context it is comforting, assuring, nice ... yeah nice.  But since when have you ever known a prophet to be going for nice?

Back up a few verses.  Verse 1: I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath.  Verse 4: He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones.  Verse 11:  he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate.  Verse 17: my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is.

All right, all right, we get the point!  Most of us reading this today don’t know suffering.  Lamentations was written to express the deep despair and pain from the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE (Before Common Era), which was then followed by the fifty year Babylonian captivity.  The brokenness of the people is hard for us to fathom.  The suffering endured seems almost incomprehensible for us.  
And yet not really.  Not if we open our eyes.  Not if we look deep within our own soul.  We have felt abandoned by God.  We have felt punished, cast out, broken by choices or circumstance.  And we have walked alongside those who’s suffering makes us weep in empathy and despair.  The young widow who’s husband went on a mission of rescue and never returned.  The family whose child was killed by a drunk driver.  The widow whose husband succumbed to an agonizing bout with a cancer that ate him away to nothing.  The marriages wrapped in abuse.  The children who never measure up to a parental ideal.  The young mother who can’t seem to get over the strain of giving birth.  The lonely widower who is afraid of an empty house.  The family stressed to breaking points by caring for a parent who has become someone unrecognizable to themselves let alone anyone else.  Need we go on?  Have we touched on your story?  Your pain?  And don’t demur saying mine is nothing compared to all these.  Pain is pain, suffering is suffering.  Your wounds are unique to you, even as we are all wounded.  The question is do those wounds define you?

But this I call to mind.  Jeremiah, who had wounds aplenty, reminds us that to get beyond our lament requires an effort of mind and will.  It takes a step of faith, first and foremost.  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.  Is this the same Lord that shoots all the arrows of the divine quiver into your vitals (v.13)?  And is it really God who is directing all this pain, breaking all these bones, tearing us to pieces, walling us in?  Or is that just our experience, someone to blame, kind of thing.  Or is it that if God isn’t causing all this bad to happen to us then who is in charge anyway?  Are we alone in the universe?  Are we on our own?  Is there no one on our side after all; it’s us against the elements and the elements have the upper hand most of the time?

But this I call to mind.  It takes an act of will to turn from the kind of thinking that breaks us down.  It takes a coming to worship and letting the faith of the community wash over us.  It is surrendering of solutions, and simply choosing to put one foot in front of another.  It is saying, I don’t have all the answers, heck, I don’t think I have any of the answers.  But I choose to live in faithfulness anyway.  It is the admission that crawling into a hole and pulling it in after us sounds like a real option many days.  But instead we go on.  Baby steps, perhaps.  Limping perhaps. But we go on.  And we go on believing that God’s mercy never ends.  And that we have made our choice and so we will live that choice even when it doesn’t seem to make any sense or get us anywhere.  We will make that choice, again and again.

How often?  Every morning.  Every morning, we renew our faith.  Every morning we grab hold of God’s mercy.  Every morning we climb up into God’s lap and we weep and laugh and catch our breath to go on.  Every morning we go on, because we believe that one day we find our way home.  God isn’t new every morning, we are.  Our faith is.  God’s mercies are newly caught, newly felt, newly embraced.  Every morning.

I’m glad she’s better.  Glad she’s boot free and walking - limping.  But will also continue to serve and love and help and heal.  And walk the dang dogs as long as I need to.  For her.  Faithfully.  With joy.  Sort of.  Not really.  But definitely faithfully.  Count on it.  Every morning.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Once More With Feeling

La Donna is feeling well enough to notice the mess I’ve left the house in.  So, we know that is a good thing.  Right?  Of course it is a good thing.  It means she feels better and has gotten to work tackling the cleaning jobs that she and Bertha can handle together, without too much trouble.  Bertha?  Yeah, that’s the name she gave her boot.  

In case you missed it, my wife La Donna fell and broke her foot a few weeks ago on her way down the hill to walk the dogs one dewy morning and has been reluctantly obedient to her orthopedic surgeon on how best to heal from this mishap.  But she hasn’t been happy.  Obedient, but frustrated.  Following instructions but counting the days.  Taking it easy but - now anyway - noticing all that she ought to be doing.  And the envelop is being pushed.  Just sayin’.

No, I give her credit she has been very good. Much better than the kids and I expected.  Both of whom, I should mention, kids I mean, abandoned her in her hour of need.  Though they did step up and help out while they were here.  But Maddie was heard to mutter the night before I drove her back to school something to the effect of “I’m glad to go back to college, this housewife stuff is hard!”

There were a couple of moment where we all longed for how it used to be.  When there was a mom to take care of us.  When we didn’t have to worry about whether anyone was going to find the lost sock or prepare a table to fill hungry bellies or have the solution to any of a number of those pesky domestic disputes and conundrums.  We just wanted it to go back to the way it was before the fall.

Psalm 85:1-13  LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.  2 You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. Selah  3 You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.  4 Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.  5 Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?  6 Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?  7 Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.  8 Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.  9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.  10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.  11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.  12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.  13 Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps. 

The superscription to this Psalm is interesting.  It is one of those that doesn’t say “Of David.”  Most scholars don’t believe that David wrote all the Psalms that say “of David” on them anyway.  And that it really came to mean in the style of David, or kinda like the ones David used to write, or they were done by the King David Tribute band or something.  But Psalm 85 says something different.  It has three different statements: To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.  You’d think that “A Psalm” would be a bit unnecessary, but then I guess some folks need to be reminded.  To the leader might mean that this Psalm was a commissioned work, that it was dedicated to a leader, who had served well.  Or who exemplified the kind of faithfulness that Psalm 85 calls for.  Truth is we don’t know.

But it is the middle one that is the most interesting: Of the Korahites.  We could spend a lot of time tracing the biblical history of this family, but it wouldn’t really serve the purpose of helping us wrap our arms around Psalm 85.  Suffice it to say that the Korahites have a checkered history in the Old Testament.  Korah was from the line of Levites, servants of the priests and of the holy, but who was among those who decided they could do better.  He was a part of those who rebelled against Moses and his leadership.  

Yet, somehow his children survived, escaping the punishment that came to Korah.  And they became known as warriors, fighting alongside David when he was swept to power as Israel’s greatest king.  These Korahites or Sons of Korah as they became known were not remembered because of their skill with sword or bow, however.  They were like David in another way, not just able fighting men.  They were also musicians of the highest caliber.  David appointed them as leaders of worship for the people of God.  They were singers and instrumentalists and truth tellers.  A Psalm, you see.  Not just music, not just words, but a Psalm, an act of praise but also a declaration of faith.  A claim to the traditions of the people.  But also a pointer into the future, a word of hope in dark times. 

Which maybe means that the first superscription - To the leader - might not mean that it was a dedication to the leader, but that it is an instruction to the singers, to the congregation.  Maybe it means “look to the leaders!”  Look to those who go before, look to those who’s history might not be perfect, who had to climb out of some difficult times.  Look to those who might have known the anger of the Lord they served.  Who might have known what it was like to feel abandoned.  Look to those who know what it is to be revived.  Look to those who lead the singing.

That’s our story, isn’t it?  That’s the song we sine.  Of being restored and then losing it, of being revived and full of life and then being drained and dead on our feet.  That’s our pattern too, not just the people of the Old Testament, but us, right here, right now.  Don’t we cry out for restoration again and again?  Don’t we bump up against the walls of our own making, the walls of our own doubting, our own wandering, don’t we get lost in the maze of trying to walk each day and satisfy all the hungers within us? 

So, how do we climb out of those pits?  How do we turn around from the wrong paths?  From the desperation of the everyday?  By remembering.  That’s why we follow the leader, that’s why we sing the songs of faith.  Morning by morning new mercies I see, all I have needed thy hand hath provided, great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.  We sing those songs because they were true.  And because they were true, and because they will be true.  And the great joy of Psalm 85 is that because they were true and because they will be true, they are true.

Compare English translations of Psalm 85.  You’ll find that while my favorite translation says “will”  – He will speak peace ... Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet ... righteousness and peace will kiss each other ... Faithfulness will spring up from the ground ...  righteousness will look down from the sky ... The LORD will give  ... our land will yield ... Righteousness will go before ... and will make a path.  It is a hope, a promise, a not yet in a world of striving and often failing, a world of conflict and brokenness, a world of division and hatred.  Kissing seems out of the question.  Singing seems out of the question.

And yet, I’ve been kissed before.  I have sung the songs of faith.  You have too.  There is connection already.  Other translations make it present tense.  Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.  11 Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. From the NIV.  Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed.  From the New King James.  Unfailing love and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed!  From the New Living Translation.  

Why the confusion?  Because we can’t always tell. Because even while it seems absent, this righteousness and faithfulness of God, it also seems really present.  It is in the air around us, coming up from the ground beneath us.  If we look.  If we pay attention.  If we live in hope and confidence.  If we attempt to be as faithful as the one who shows us faithfulness every single day, every morning., then we will be restored, then we will be alive.  Even as we walk in darkness.  Even when we feel like we have failed the one who loves us more than we can imagine.  The very essence of God - steadfast love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace - will seep into our bones and become the aspects of love that can define us.  Will become a song on our lips and in our heart.  Look to the leaders, the singers of songs and be revived, be restored.

And we who are broken can get up and walk along the path of righteousness.  And maybe, soon, walk the crazy dogs too!  We live for the day.  Sing it again.  Once more with feeling.