Saturday, February 25, 2012

Singing a Psalm

Psalms are important for several reasons. First, since psalms are really a hybrid of poetry and song, you need to slow down when you read one. Imagine letting each line taking several seconds to read so it sinks into your mind, heart and imagination. Second, I recently ran across this thought from Eugene Peterson, “The prayer life of Jesus was formed, as the lives of all praying Jews were formed in the first century, by the Psalm - those 150 prayers that gather everything in our lives into a responsive believing and obedience to God.” (The Jesus Way, pg. 218). As we open our hearts and imaginations to the psalms that very action is prayer.
Today, the psalm I selected is Psalm 2, not usually one that makes our Top Ten Lists of the best loved psalms of all time. But Psalm 2 is one of the most quoted psalms in the New Testament. Portions of this psalm are found in Matthew 3:17; Acts 4:25-26 and 13:33; Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5; 2 Peter 1:17; Revelation 2:26-27, 12:5 and 19.15. So, I encourage you to slowly and in with a savory pace read this psalm.

Why do the nations conspire,
And the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the Lord and his anointed saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
And cast their cords from us.

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
The Lord has them in derision (contempt)
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
And terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
Today I have begotten you. (note the echoes of Jesus’ baptism)
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage.
And the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
And dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
Be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
With trembling kiss his feet
Or he will be angry, and you will
Perish in the way;
For his wrath is quickly kindled.

Happy are all who take refuge in him.

So, my first response that this psalm is, really? Why is this the most quoted psalm? Why not the 23rd or the 121nd? Or I really like the psalms about making a joyful noise. I think part of the reason why this is quoted frequently is because it takes God’s presence in the world seriously and that God has a deep connection to all of Creation that God formed - from the earth to the trees to the humans and our ways of organizing ourselves. Second, while what often jumps off the page are the violent images, there is a promise that God will stay connected and in relationship with us, even when things go badly. In the book from Eugene Peterson that I quoted at the start of today’s devotion, he makes the claim that we can get so wrapped up in only seeing the sin and naming the brokenness that we miss the grace and where God is moving in reconciling ways. I think about that in my life. This last week my mother has been in the hospital, there have been lots of ups and downs. To be sure, it is a difficult situation. But also, within that reality, the support from the people at church has been sustaining and a true blessing. Within that reality, the woman my brother is dating is a nurse to help us sort through the medical information. Within that reality, I have felt God’s presence. It does not erase the difficulty, but it does offer a sacred refuge that the psalmist speaks about. I encourage you over this next week to read and reread this psalm. I would enjoy hearing your response to this psalm as well. What goes on in your imagination after reading it four or five times over the coming days? What questions and insights come to your heart?

May the traces of God's grace this day and week offer you a refuge and strength and a reminder of God’s promise now and throughout our Lenten journey. Amen.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Grief

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping
Psalm 6:6

This week I have two funerals on two consecutive days. This is unusual for me. But, it gives me time to think prayerfully about how we do and do not deal with grief in our world.

Most of us are uncomfortable with grief. This is in spite of the fact that every single day we encounter moments of loss and the grief that comes with it. Often these are little things. Maybe we notice that our body is not healing as quickly as we'd like. Maybe we are facing a job transition. Maybe we notice that our kids seem older. Maybe we see a co-worker retire whose wisdom we always appreciated. Maybe a friend moves out of the community. Then, of course, there is the grief we sense when someone passes from this life into the next.

The psalms are full of honest emotions in response to heartfelt grief. Especially the one listed above. Another translation of the passage is that the psalmist bed is literally afloat in his tears. It can feel that way. Often it is in the night when the emotions we spent all day trying to push down finally find their way out in the form of tears or exhaustion or even frustration we direct at those closest too us.

Even if our own life feels calm right now, we need only turn on the television to see images of violence and bickering or brokenness that might also cause our hearts to well up with grief. When you don't allow space to recognize the grief for what it is, when you don't allow your heart the opportunity to express that grief, you know that sooner or later you can no longer push down the emotions.

I am grateful that the psalmist spoke these words. I am grateful that in trying to work my way prayerfully through two funerals this week I ran across these words. I encourage you to get out your Bible and read the whole psalm. Think about some of the places right now where you feel like you have lost something. Think about some places right now where you feel like you have gained something new. Think about where the traces of God's grace might be found in both.

For me, God is found when we gather to celebrate a person's life, entrust that person to God's everlasting care and then go eat Jell-O salads and cookies together. For me, it is found when I notice my kids are older and I notice while they don't need the same care they did two years ago, they still need a dad. For me, it is found when I name aloud and ask for God's strength to sustain me in the midst of honest, heartfelt grief. I pray you will sense the traces of God's grace this day and throughout the week to come.

Blessings and peace.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ordinary

It has felt like an ordinary, average week. Trudging through the days with my trusty to-do list on my desk, checking off items, and generally immersed in the everyday-ness of life. That feels true around the church where the nearest sacred day (Easter) is a little less than two months away, but also feels true at home where the routine of making lunches, doing homework, and the day in, day out common events have worn a rut in our lives.

Don't get me wrong, I love schedules. I like the orderliness of it all. To be honest, it makes me feel like I am in control, because I know what to expect next. Yet, I also like serendipity and some surprises every day.

This week was short of surprises. Usually, when I think of traces of God's grace, those surprise moments are the ones that rise to the top for me...like cream. But when it is an ordinary, average week; when nothing in particular seems to distinguish itself from the to-do list, what then?

Is God found in moments when I am trying to brush out the snarls in my daughter's hair...taking care but rushing to get out the door? Is God found in the same spaghetti meal we've had several times this winter already? Is God found looking at the same computer screen, checking email, going about my daily work?

Often what I read talks about finding God on the mountain tops of joy or in times of difficulty. But what about a week like this, where life has taken on the motto of a turtle: "slow and steady wins the race"?

I am still processing this...as you might have already guessed. But, something in me says that God created all that is around us and within us; the promise is of God's presence in all times and places. And "all" means that even in the midst of an ordinary week filled with leftovers and life as usual, God is there. Maybe because I have gone through this week with a "been there, done that" kind of outlook, I have missed some of those serendipitous moments. Perhaps there was a faintness in the midst of the ordinariness.

Come to think of it, last night my wife and I started laughing so hard over a silly joke about vacation until my stomach hurt. Come to think of it, at a meeting on Monday night, people started to share where they had seen God's grace in their lives...even people who don't usually talk. Come to think of it, the sun is shining today and the ordinary gray of a February day is not the norm. Come to think of it...well actually...I pray by now you can fill in that sentence for yourself with a trace of God's grace you've experienced.

May those traces continue to offer you hope, peace, joy and love of God in the midst of these ordinary winter weeks ahead.

Blessings and peace.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Faithful Seeing

Mark 6:47-56

The often quoted and somewhat misleading cliche is that, "Seeing is believing". It is phrase shaped by the Enlightenment where what could be observed through the scientific method was believed to be closest to the truth. What the phrase misses is that what we see, experience, taste, and touch can have an emotional impact on how we see and what we believe.

A quick example: both my kids are now playing basketball. I love both my kids, but they could not be more opposite in their personalities. Every Saturday, my wife or I trek down to the Y and cheer on our kids. It is a blast. But what do I see when I watch my daughter who constantly passes the ball and has yet to try to take a shot? What do I see when my son races for every rebound? What I see is an extended reflection of what I am coming to know of both their personalities. In some ways, what I believe can impact what I see or at least what I am willing to see.

The disciples six chapters into Mark's gospels have seen a lot. People being healed, Jesus being welcomed with open arms, Jesus being shooed away, and they have even been sent out two by two and saw amazing things in their interactions with others. Last week, they saw over five thousand people be fed with five loaves and two fish. I don't know about you, but that is more than I usually see in a year. It is a lot to process.

In the passage above, Jesus causally walked on water like he is out for an evening stroll. And he seemed surprised that his water-walking would awaken fear and trembling in the eyes of the disciples. I must confess that I am with the disciples on this one.

Remember, that John the Baptizer had been killed just before the feeding. In their grief, they were about to go to a deserted place to be alone, to remember, and to comfort each other. But before they could get away a crowd gathered and Jesus felt compelled to teach. Then in the moments after the twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered, Jesus told the disciples to get in the boat.

I image their minds were swimming, afloat and adrift with countless thoughts and deep emotions. And so, when Jesus came walking past, I might have joined in the screams of thinking it was a ghost. Strange things had been happening, the disciples were exhausted emotionally, spiritually, and maybe even physically.

I am not sure why this caught Jesus off-guard. But it feels like the disciples and Jesus were not on the same page. Jesus wanted them to understand, for the proverbial light bulb to go off. The disciples wanted to understand, but A and B were not leading to C.

I think this happens in the church, in our work, and in our families. Someone sees the situation one way; another person sees the situation another. Trying to work out the tension between what is seen, or just trying to find words to communicate can be a challenge. Hence another cliche about "seeing eye to eye." Over the next several chapters, the disciples and Jesus keep trying to work through how each understands the other. Like all relationships that are meaningful, it takes work and there are moments of pure joy and disagreements.

I encourage you this week to be aware of what you are seeing. Who are the faces in the crowd at the grocery store? What do you see when you look around the dinner table? What about those pictures on the wall, what do you see? What do you see when you look around the church? How do you make sense of that?

I don't think I can see clearly all the time. But then again, life is not a test we have to pass. Sometimes out of moments when we get things wrong, when our vision is blurry, when we just fail to see something plain as day until later on, there can be great learning.

I pray that as you notice what is around you, you would also notice traces of God's grace stirring in your life in a way that makes a difference.

Blessings and peace to you.