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.

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?

Psalm 20 – Refrain

By Aaron Elder

Call: May the Lord answer you when you are in distress

Refrain: What if he doesn’t?

Call: May the name of the God of Jacob protect you

Refrain: What if he doesn’t?

Call: May he grant you help from the sanctuary

Refrain: What if he doesn’t?

Call: And grant you help from Zion

Refrain: What if he doesn’t?

Call: May he remember all your sacrifices

Refrain: What if he doesn’t?

Call: And accept your burnt offerings

Refrain: What if he doesn’t?

Call: May he give you the desire of your heart

Refrain: What if he doesn’t?

Call: And make your plans succeed

Refrain: What if he doesn’t?

Call: May the Lord grant all your requests

Refrain: What if he doesn’t?

Sometimes I wonder if who I worship is not Jesus, but JeZeus. Wise, fair, just, merciful, and prudent. So far so good. He’s also wildly unpredictable. The decisions made are anybody’s guess. When kindled, his anger is unbridled and irreparably destructive. He needs to be appeased. If not appeased the call will not be answered as my refrain drips like a disparaged soul with no sacrifice left to offer.

This kind of relationship is exhausting. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that many break up with this god. 

Now, Jesus. Jesus is different altogether. From his love – how shall I refrain? Not even if he doesn’t.

Psalm 19 – Doing

By Aaron Elder

It was 6:15 am on a Monday. My three year old is my typical early morning companion and this morning was no different. Her first daily request (banana) had been devoured and her second (oatmeal) was warm and ready. But she wasn’t. She climbed down from her chair, walked over to me, looked up and said “uppy daddy.” I lifted her up and as I did, it registered that I had more time than usual this morning. Instead of carrying her somewhere to accomplish the next task, I just stood there holding her. She offered no instructions, content to be held.

A sort of rest started to settle in. Then just as quickly, the desire to make this into some magic moment came in with the grace of a bull in a china shop. I tried to make the moment and in a flash the moment was over. She wanted to play in her bed with me in the room and so I sat and read Psalm 19. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech… They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (vv. 1-2a, 3-4a).

I’m apt to read these words and add them to my proof-text stockpile. But my brief “uppy daddy” moment made me curious. To this point in my life, I’ve not really taken to nature. I think it’s the fact that it doesn’t really do anything. My wife loves being outdoors and I keep waiting for that magical outdoor moment. If you were to ask me, “Aaron, what exactly are you waiting for?” I’d likely respond by saying, “I’m really not sure.”
I have been lured into the desire to be entertained and to feel good at all times. It’s a bit like a china shop in that it requires constant anxious attention to maintain its perceived grandeur. At the same time, there is nature, doing nothing – day after day. While it is doing nothing it is speaking. When I dare to listen it lets loose a bull in my china shop. I watch in horror as every piece falls to the ground, then soon become bewildered as nothing actually breaks. When the bull is finished, I, on hands and knees, carefully study each dish and find this marking on the bottom of each: “Corelle.”

I’m devastated that it isn’t china because outside of the thrift store there isn’t a market for Corelle. My world has turned completely upside down and, at that moment, there’s not much to say. When I’m done speaking and I’m done doing, then maybe I’ve got something.

Psalm 18 – Delight

By Aaron Elder

It would turn the world upside down if we let it. How do I know? Because it did for the apostles. Perhaps the greatest obstacle we face as humans is fear. We fight against it individually and we experience it as the primary motivator from leaders – government, schools, churches, employers. John writes that perfect love casts out fear. But honestly, the word “love” in Christianese has become tainted for me. It has been reduced to a description of actions that are “in the person’s best interest.” It has been virtually divorced from delight.

Maybe I’m just jaded, but for all of the sermons and talk about love, it is still undergirded by fear – the titanic is sinking, don’t be left behind, the devil is always after you, have you done everything you need to do (to gain favor by faith and not by works)? Judgment.

If you’ve ever experienced genuine love, it always comes with delight. The type of love and delight is either disarming or disorienting depending on your life experiences.

When God came to dwell among us, it was a cause for rejoicing. Why? In a world of mythology, it was not good when the gods came to earth. When this God came to earth, he came because of love, to show favor, to show delight.

Jesus delighted in his disciples. Jesus delighted in the outcasts. I would even venture to say that despite frustrations, he delighted in the religious leaders. The fact that Jesus delights in me is hard for me to embrace. Some of this is personality, some is upbringing, some is a product of the national and ecclesial cultures in which I exist. I expect that I’m not the only one for whom this is hard.

I think it is so hard because so few of us have experienced true delight ourselves. While we bear the scars, God wants us to intimately know his delight. His delight is for us and it goes beyond us. He is delighted in this world that he created. He is delighted in both the ins and the outs in equal measure.

Jesus brought with him a new kingdom. Not a kingdom formed out of fear, but one of delight. This is the kingdom we’re invited into and to participate in.

Psalm 17 – Tickets

By Aaron Elder

In her poem “Promised Town,” Jessica Greenbaum writes, “You hoped your string of tickets would last all day, or someone’s parent, protectively wandering the Fund Fair, would buy you more because as it worked out, they cared for you. Those were the two hopes.”

We all live life like we have tickets at a fair. But we have options in how we use those tickets. Some are convinced it is only a matter of time until the rides falter. Lest they experience some tragedy, they look longingly but never ride. Some are concerned that others will steal their tickets. They protect them diligently, and even in the rides they choose their joy will be stunted, overshadowed by concern for thieves. For some it will become a competition to see who can obtain the most tickets. The comparison will consume them and they will experience nothing of the fair itself.

Friends, the infinite God created a world of beauty and adventure – he even became a man to ride the rides with us and rose from the dead to renew the fair he made. My observation is that I’m often so wrapped up in the tickets that I never ride! I figure that the more tickets I have, the more control I have over the fair’s economy. The more tickets I have, the more influence I have over which rides are good and bad and who gets to ride. And while everybody else is angry at my stingy selfishness, I’m congratulating myself on being a good steward.

Jesus came to blow the doors off the fair. He doled out tickets to those who couldn’t afford even one. He knew that no matter how many tickets those 5,000 took (and used), that he had a parent waiting at the Fund Fair to give him more.

What about me? Perhaps I’ve forgotten who built the fair in the first place. Perhaps instead of hoarding or gloating there is another way. Perhaps I can freely give my tickets away because the ticketmaster does likewise. And perhaps instead of simply being words on a page, I’d get to experience the reality that… as it works out, my father cares for me.