Psalm 28 – Lifted Hands or “Uppy Daddy”

With every ask, their hands are thrust high into the air as they seem to will themselves upward. Sometimes the call is filled with joy and anticipation and other times the call is made in a voice fraught with anger, pain, sadness or weariness about the day’s battle. If you’ve ever had a child standing at your feet, neck craned upward, hands grasping for an invisible ladder, then you know the lifted hands of which I speak.

As I read and reread verse 2, I’m caught up in the imagery of my small children. Reading commentary about lifted hands speaks to having clean hands before God – it speaks to our cleanliness in approaching this holy God. While I appreciate the insight, I’m stuck with an intellectual understanding. Frankly, lifting hands in my culture is loaded with self-consciousness as I try to determine which hand position in my church setting is most appropriate based on the Tim Hawkins guide. But the lifted hands that come with the call for “uppy daddy” emit deep longing and emotion.

Every request for “uppy daddy” is a deep cry for mercy. The request itself assumes that the place they desire to be cannot be attained by their own efforts. The psalmist lifts his hands toward God’s Most Holy place. Now, that can feel odd to us – thinking about lifting our hands to a church building – but God’s Most Holy Place was the place where the fullness of the presence of God was found. The call is not to be in a physical location, but to reach out and touch the very presence of God. And yet, sometimes, to only be in the presence of someone we love leaves us longing for more – more depth, more intimacy.

My kids can be in immediate proximity to me – even touching me! – without needing to go “uppy daddy” and yet they request it regularly. To me, this lifting of hands with a cry for “uppy daddy” has everything to do with maximum intimacy. There is something powerful about facial proximity – about our faces touching – that communicates an intimacy deeper than hugs or hand-holding ever could. There is something powerful about being lifted into a position that I could not otherwise achieve. And as I approach God with lifted hands and a heart that cries “uppy daddy” I might just find that the intimacy I long for is consumed in gratitude.

Psalm 27 – Faces

I opened Your words and my heart cried 

“Seek his face!” Your face I will seek. 

I sought your face 

– it was for sale. 

12 ½ for him and 205 for Jim. 

When it was no longer for sale

it held still before my eyes 

still like a picture 

hung in a museum. 

I sought your face again and I found it dirty.

You passed north through the waters

and still your face looked dirty 

– it was always that way. 

Vinegar and Kerosene for your baptism

pesticide to anoint your head. 

I sought your face again and beheld it. 

Yes I held it seeing what Elijah saw. 

And then you were gone. 

Even as I held you, you were hidden.

How did we get here?

I beg when I seek your face

May it not be 

at the expense of yours

Psalm 26 – Baseball Cards

How are baseball cards like the Psalms? That’s a question I never thought I’d ask! My brother and I collected baseball cards growing up – we loved baseball cards. During our childhood, we accumulated more than 20,000 of them. But we collected baseball cards very differently than most. Some sought and bought the best and most valuable cards. They would then organize them neatly in a pre-arranged way taking great care not to produce even the slightest mark of imperfection. And while we desired to get valuable cards, we were much more interested in the experience of baseball cards. The anticipation and surprise of opening a new pack and then the imagination of how to arrange them. We used them for indoor baseball games. We used them to create batting lineups for our daily trips to the empty lot next to our house. We even used them to decorate our bedrooms. The result is a collection of baseball cards defined by the bends and creases collectors work so hard to avoid – but man – if those creases could talk…

I know you’ve already put this together with how it relates to the Psalms, but in case there are gaps to fill…

In reading Psalm 26, I had an interesting realization. That realization was that I read the Psalm differently depending on how I’m feeling that day. In short, it does what good poetry does – it makes you simultaneously satisfied in your soul and deeply frustrated. It makes me feel the way I did when a baseball card was accidentally creased irreparably – satisfied with the playing and frustrated by the damage. The range of my emotional responses to Psalm 26 lines up like this: 1) Repulsion (because this Psalm can read like a man groveling to God to vindicate me by seeing how holy I am and how wicked they are), 2) Admiration (at seeing an author in close connection with God pouring out his heart), and 3) Fighting Elitism (as I recognize in me a desire to be elevated above other people). There are surely more, but hopefully this helps to illustrate what God is unearthing in me.

What I find in myself is the tendency to treat the Psalms like a stuffy baseball card collector. I identify the category that this Psalm fits into, neatly arrange it with the others and never open it. This type of arranging satisfies my image, but can never satisfy my soul. When we pull out the Psalms to wrestle with the emotions they produce in us, there’s bound to be frayed corners and deep creases. My hope is that frayed corners and deep creases tell the story of pain, joy, delight and ultimately, intimacy, just like a baseball card.

Psalm 25 – Wrestling

I really like the idea of the Psalms. That it expresses the full range of human emotion, is powerful in its ability to speak to the human experience. But I think it is safe to say that we are partial to the positive psalms – since they appear on everything from mints to blankets (I know some of you have been hoping to wrap yourself in that trendy throw embroidered with Psalm 109:9-10, but my hunch is that you won’t find it). It is a lot more comfortable for the Psalms to remain at arm’s length. It is far less desirable to actually experience the rawness of our own human emotion as depicted in the Psalms. Psalms 25-27 are three such Psalms.

It began in January 2020. I felt unfairly criticized for a mismanaged task. Not only did I feel criticized, but I was degraded and shamed by my boss (see v.2). In my 20 years of working with various bosses I had never been treated that way and I wanted to quit on the spot.

But I couldn’t. I had no other job to go to and I wasn’t going to leave my family in a lurch financially. I decided to hang tight and see what I could do to improve the situation. It was hard. The culture was not conducive to it and then a pandemic had us all working from home. 

As I read this Psalm now looking back on this situation, v.15 accurately describes how I felt. I had to trust God as he was the only one who could release me from the situation I was in. I was content and the days moved along, but in my reflections, I see clearly that the emotions described in vv. 16-18 also fit me. I felt lonely and disconnected from my peers. My heart was troubled often as I longed for things to be different. And I felt the distress of my emotions as I wrestled to distinguish what were my sins in this situation.

In April, when a new job opportunity came along with a group of people who love Jesus, it felt like God had seen me and offered a gift. I started in that role in June of 2020 and in some ways I find myself struggling to fully receive the gift. I think I also wrestle with the faithfulness of God. Not everybody who longs for a healthier situation – whether work, family or otherwise – gets one. Even as I write this, I wonder if what God is offering is a two-sided invitation. On the one side is to accept the gracious gifts of God knowing that he loves me. And the second side is to invite others into a relationship that offers healing because of Jesus.

A Great Light

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone. (Isaiah 9:2, ESV)

As we close the chapter on another Advent Season and another year (some would say the “mother of all years”!), these words from the prophet Isaiah echo again the hope of the world: that Light has come, and darkness cannot overcome it (see John 1:5).

I don’t know about you, but for me this historic year, 2020, has seemed particularly dark. It wasn’t just learning to live through a pandemic, as the streets became quiet and everyone holed up in their houses, scheming to find a source of toilet paper. As church went online and group meetings became Zoom meetings, we all felt the darkness of isolation. There were many adjustments for all of us, and we’re still reeling as COVID makes a strong comeback surge during the holidays. I hope that the most important lessons we are learning are that we are resilient, that we need each other, and that our God is faithful and still in control even when things look darkest.

It’s been awhile since I shared any thoughts on this blog because it has been a year of personal darkness for me. I started the year as a brand new retiree, looking forward to beginning a new chapter – a new adventure. I was finally free of the day to day grind of earning a paycheck, and I was looking forward to the chance to try some new things: writing more, learning the cello, working on landscaping our new place.

What darkness did I hit then? These opportunities were real, and in one sense, all I needed to do was pursue and grasp them. In one word, I ran into myself. Some sage once quipped, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I had never found that truth more true! Through work done in change groups, I began to understand – finally – just how stuck I was, how bound I was by childhood trauma that I had carried all my life. It became clear how my early life responses to that trauma had played out over decades, causing me to make really bad choices and hurt those I loved. Living in that space of supposed safety had actually insulated me from true love – true relationship with God my Father and with everyone else important in my life. Those fight or flight responses that helped me survive early trauma had only set me up for failure in adulthood, in everything from relationships to vocation (or lack of!).

So, when I thought I was set to enjoy a grand new adventure, I actually was given the opportunity to finally face myself. And there is some scary stuff in here that needs to come out and see the light of day to truly be healed. I am working now on leaving behind old coping behaviors that were supposed to protect me (and maybe did in the very beginning) but only destroy me now, at age 61.

Is there light then? “Ya, you-betcha!” my wife’s Norwegian forebears might have exclaimed. Is there still work to do? Yep, lots. Is there hope? Astounding and unlimited hope! As long as I keep trusting, pressing, fighting. Running to the danger, into the darkness. Because as I run toward it, not away from it, the darkness will surely shatter.

I’ve seen a Great Light.

Advent 2020 – A Toy Faith

It’s the Christmas season. In my household this always brings much anticipation and it brings out the season’s decorations – including the kids’ toy nativity set. As I write, the stable lies on its back on my living room floor bursting with animals, wise men, a bale of hay and an angel lying on top of it all staring me dead in the eye. Tomorrow it will be moved – of that I am sure. Where it will be is yet to be seen. The entire contents may be moved in one motion without thought given to whether or not it can be moved in such a manner.

This same type of toy movement occurs when their toy vehicles go on rescue missions, look for buried treasure or find themselves on adventure in the great indoors. The rules of play state that the toys bend to the story, not the other way around. The story is not interrupted because that truck can’t fly, it’s model is simply upgraded whether an oration introducing the upgrade is provided or not. And here’s the thing – every other play participant now plays with a built-in assumption that the truck flies. 

It makes me wonder about the words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew chapter 17 and verse 20, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” God created an entire playground that we call “Earth” for the people he loves. And while he included with it several scientific laws, Jesus demonstrated that the created space also bends to THE story – his story. 

I read this verse in Matthew and I tend to think “what mountains do I need moved in my life?” But this isn’t really about us and the mountains we can move. There have been many times I have tried to include my story into the play that my kids were engaged in and they flatly reject it. Here I am trying to move a mountain into a story where it doesn’t belong.

As I think about Christmas, I picture my kids on Christmas morning. Their faces wild with anticipation and their eyes brightening with the excitement of new gifts and new worlds to explore that haven’t even been invented yet. I wonder what limits will be stretched and which scientific laws will be suspended. And I ponder, what kinds of mountains will they yet move?

Psalm 24 – Ascent

Relationships are problematic. I’m struggling with the reality that there’s nothing to accomplish. Growing up, I played sports. I really liked to play, but the idea was also that I’d get better and we’d ascend heights in order to accomplish some goal and I had the privilege of attaining some lofty goals. In the work environment, the objective is to start in a career and, as you get better at that career, you ascend. Perhaps there’s a corporate ladder to climb or maybe other objectives laid out in front of you. Relationships are not like this. Relationships may involve 2 or more people working together toward a stated objective, but this isn’t really what relationships are about. 

I don’t really have anyone to play catch with at the moment so sometimes I grab my baseball glove and a baseball. I throw it up into the air and I catch it. I’m not any better (or worse) at it than I was 10 years ago and there’s no championship at the end of the road. In fact, there is no road. There’s a trust, a comfort, and a delight built over many years. Perhaps, you say, this is quite odd that I’d compare a relationship with playing catch with myself. You’re quite right, actually. Except that in both, ascent can’t be measured. 

When I think about this King, the thing that makes him the most glorious of all isn’t that he’s omni-everything (which he is), but that he’s omni-everything AND he’d lay that aside in order to descend. [I would argue that descent is the natural outflow of one who is actually omni-everything]. Every other god demands ascent – with the same probability of success as a man with two shattered femurs ascending Kilimanjaro. I even realized that I view a relationship with Jesus in this way – that being a Christian means I’m supposed to get better at life to ascend to… I don’t know… something – as if that’s the purpose of this relationship.

When I descend to pick up my glove, its ascent must follow. Not because of what it has done for me – am I not the one who animates the ball and glove? In the same way, when Jesus descended, his (and our) ascent must follow. Not to become champions above others, but to be with him. After all, is it not his Spirit that animates us?

Psalm 23 – Green Pastures

I played high school baseball on a field located in a bowl. I’m thankful for the field I played on because home plate and the infield used to be in right field. There’s a reason we wanted the old field to be in right field – we wanted as few balls hit there as possible (imagine a baseball moving along the ground at 70+ mph taking a sudden 45 degree right turn and you get the picture). Our team put in a lot of work on that field to take out the bumps and make it look nice. Even so, at my 3rd base position far away from right field, I was still liable to take a ground ball to the throat.

This is not a problem on today’s major league fields. They are meticulously manicured and, man, are they green (except for the dirt – still brown). But thanks to this article, I learned this wasn’t always the case. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud reading, “Groundskeepers at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium (former home of Major Leagues Baseball’s Cleveland Indians) didn’t even bother with grass – for many years they painted the dirt green.”

How badly do we long for those green pastures? You know, the ones like Thomas Kinkade painted for us (also available as a religious throw blanket – you can’t make this stuff up!). Enough to spray paint the dirt. Enough to spray paint the lawn in a drought. 

I want life to be easy. I want it to be all green pastures and quiet waters. In Jesus, I have all the water I could ever need to produce green pastures in my soul and here I am still climbing over the bodies of my fellow man for the last green spray paint on the shelf. I guess I figure as long as I have money for green spray paint, I lack nothing. 

Psalm 22 – Favor

It is grasped as easily as a gust of wind.

It comforts like the snuggle of a colic-y baby.

It is exposed in a lover’s embrace.

And with voices raised, it is buried 6 feet under fury’s wrath.

.

The need of the hour is resurrection.

Not to fly away.

Not some sad morning when this life is over.

Now,

.

incarnated among us is the Favor of God.

Why does favor look like that?

Disfigured, disjointed, parched, hopeful.

.

Secure as flesh pounded nails.

Penetrating as thorns through matted hair.

Smiling like lashes viciously striped.

Lavished like blood saturated soil.

Singing staccato notes in suffocation.

Stripped of pretense like a king on a cross.

.

Disoriented

Soul-Gripped

Elated

Intoxicated

Joyful

Incomprehensible

.

Uncontrollable laughter

.

When the stone was rolled away

And the Favor of God rose.

As the morning sun breaks the dawn

He breaks our hearts.

.

Greetings, you who are highly favored.

Psalm 21 – Power

By Aaron Elder

Power is a paradox. Those with the strongest pedigree and longest list of qualifications are, often, the least qualified. What should produce confidence breeds insecurity. What promises protection enlists the Secret Service for its own. When it is wielded it diminishes and when it is given away it grows.

This is not a pointed critique at any particular leader. I’m not even claiming I could do it better – especially as the stakes get higher. I just don’t know if we really understand what power is for. If even for a noble cause, we think power is to be obtained and maintained by our own efforts. We think we could make better decisions.

Let me burst your bubble – you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. It is precisely this moralistic superiority that proves the point. There is only one power play that ultimately impacts the lives of men – to lay it down. To give it away as quickly as possible.

In verse 13, the psalmist says, “Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength! We will sing and praise your power.” What makes the power of God praiseworthy? This God showed us what power looks like. His laws level rich and poor. He defends the alien, orphan, and widow. He left his throne to dwell among us. His very coronation as king took place as he hung lifelessly crowned on a cross. His first act as king was to die for his people so that they would have access to that which they could not obtain on their own.

Jesus came not just to accomplish our salvation for some future life. He came to show us how to live this life. He has given us access to the power of God – how will we give it away?