Psalm 32 – Elusive

I have found writing about forgiveness to be elusive. 

I want it to be simple. It is. And it isn’t. 

Because right thinking is the god I worship

 confession says, “I believed wrongly” 

and the experience of forgiveness says, “Now I believe rightly.”

While I boast in forgiveness

It remains elusive to those who seek it

Because their thinking is wrong about how many angels fit on the head of a pin.

Is it true that he is blessed whose sins are covered?

Are they covered by the shade of my border walls?

Or detained in a warehouse without the sun?

With no light to shine on them

These walls hem in my shame.

And so… I pass my sin to you

But like a tree in the storm crashing down on your home

Those roots are stuck with me.

There’s at least one thing to understand

It will remain elusive

While I elude my fellow man

Psalm 31 – Rights

Let me start by saying that I like rights. People should have rights. We should fight for the rights of other people. But when I look at the world around me, we get weird about rights. We are reluctant to give up any rights for the benefit of others and woe to you if a right should be altered in the least! As I read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, I see a man entirely stripped of any rights he had. Without consideration of true justice, Jesus was tried in a kangaroo court where his sentence was more constricting on his breathing and more uncomfortable than a mask – he was attached to a tree with nails where he would die from suffocation. After several hours on the cross, as Jesus struggled for his last breaths, the gospel of Luke in chapter 23 and verse 46 records “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’” (NIV) If you’re like me, you read this as an interesting but (perhaps) unimportant detail to the story. Not anymore.

The thing about quotations during the period in which the gospels were penned is that the single quote we have in our hands represents much more than the words we see on the page. Jesus’ quote from Psalm 31:5 may actually indicate that he quoted the entire Psalm with his final breaths. At a minimum, the quote would have been recognized by every Jew because many had the entire OT memorized and those listening would have clearly understood the context and the reason for which he quoted it.

So I’m reading along in Psalm 31 and I come across verse 8. If Jesus didn’t actually quote this part, there’s no question he knew it was included in the context. “You have not given me into the hands of the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place.” (NIV) What spacious place is he referring to here? Perhaps it was that spacious piece of tree to which his feet were affixed. This Psalm is loaded with phrases as stunning as verse 8 when we understand them as being spoken from a man suffering from a (literally) excruciating death. 

If ever a man had rights to be defended, it was Jesus. He created everything! And we know that Jesus freely gave up every right in order that the many might live. Sometimes I cling so tightly to my rights that I’m willing to sacrifice your life in order that I might preserve my own privileges. Perhaps what I ought to do is memorize Psalm 31 (at least verse 8) and recite it every time my rights are challenged.

Psalm 30 – Lament

Lament has been a frequent topic of conversation at our church during this season. The social distancing mandates have led to isolation for many and the death count is sobering if one stops to consider it. Many are eager for their own lament to be turned into dancing. But I had a thought… Do I care about the lament of my fellow man?

I am indebted to Chabad.org for insight into Psalm 30 as the Jews closely tie this Psalm to the story of Esther. She and Mordecai pleaded with God (and the King) and the plan of Haman was turned upside down as he ate the fruit of his own scheme. But while Mordecai, in particular, fully trusted in the faithfulness of God, the annihilation of the Jews was a done deal according to the law Haman had prescribed. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like to be a Jew during that time.

What would it have been like to feel as though those in power were out to destroy your livelihood? To scatter your family? Or to remove you from your family forever? Every day to walk out of your house to go to work or school or to the store unsure if you’d make it home that night? To meet a public official not knowing if this one was for you or against you? Today might be the day I didn’t get to play catch with my son or tuck my daughter into bed – not today or ever again – simply because my culture is different from the majority. 

The story that Psalm 30 is tied to happened roughly 2,500 years ago. I type this on my sofa in the wealthiest, most “Christian” nation in the world seeing that this is reality for my black and brown brothers and sisters in my own country, state, county, and town.

This story should be unsettling. I find myself asking, “What will it take for me to care more about the lament of my brothers and sisters being turned into dancing than my own lament about affirmative action and wearing a mask?” With our track record, why don’t we just make Haman king rather than keeping him hidden from sight? I guess as long as political careers are more important than the lives of people, we won’t need to.

Psalm 29 – Hiding

“Sometimes I run, sometimes I hide…” these words are from a lesser known Britney Spears song titled, “Sometimes.” I give you full license to judge my music selection as I have now quoted from the lyrics of two pop divas. Despite that, these words do describe a tendency in my own heart to run and/or hide from God just like Adam and Eve.

If God sits enthroned over the flood why do we have devastating natural disasters? If the Lord gives strength to his people why are we experiencing a worldwide pandemic? What often follows this line of questioning is a profanity-laced tirade about the injustice or indifference of God amidst human devastation. And while God is ready and willing to receive it all, I often ask these kinds of questions to mask the questions I’ve learned not to ask.

Like this one: If the Lord blesses his people with peace, why do I struggle with anxiety about anything and everything? The thing is… I don’t have to tell you which questions I’m referring to – you already know them because you’ve been waiting for permission to ask them. 

Here’s good news: you can ask them. An important part of this is finding a group of fellow believers willing to wade into the deep end with you. And as I read the rest of Psalm 29 (vv. 1-9) I’m left with this question: If this God can’t answer my questions, who can?

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.

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.” (NIV) 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?