Meek Expectations.

February 23, 2011

Dear reader, I have made a discovery! I have always thought of ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ as a very New Testament saying, but guess what? It’s in the Old Testament! Psalm 37:8-11 reads:

8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
   Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
   but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
   though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
   and delight in abundant prosperity.

Who knew? Well, maybe you did, but I didn’t and I’ve enjoyed discovering it.

I’ve always found that phrase, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ (or the land) a bit tricky. What does it mean? I mean, the meek couldn’t exactly rise up and take the earth by force because then, well, they wouldn’t be meek! In fact, Eddie Izzard puts it a lot better than me (if you don’t like swearing, sorry!):

haha… now where were we…or yes the meek shall inherit the land. You see the thing Eddie isn’t really getting is that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, loves a bit of paradox. It likes to make you go, huh? The Beatitudes are all like that, turning things on their head. The poor get a kingdom? That doesn’t sound right! And here is Psalm 37 too we’re being reminded that all is not as it seems. We’re told don’t worry about the wicked, yes they look they’re in control and triumphant but, you know what? When all’s said and done they’re not (watch our David Cameron!). And it’s the meek that will inherit the land. An unexpected outcome, no? Because God is not subject to the ways of the world. Oh no siree!

And today, for a change, all of the psalms I’ve read (36-38) speak to each other on this point. Psalm 36 begins with a criticism of ‘the wicked’ but then contrasts this with the ‘steadfast love’ of God saying “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings”. Here even those called ‘wicked’ have a chance; an unexpected outcome again. (and if you, like me, find ‘the wicked’ a difficult term then perhaps think of them who have turned from God for the time being, rather a group who you have a right to judge). Psalm 38 is an appeal to God from one who is facing his own brokeness and sin and seeing that enemies are lining up to rub his nose in it, but who turns to God even in his iniquity, trusting that he won’t be forsaken, whatever his circumstances now. So even when things look rubbish, God can still be trusted, another idea to induce a ‘huh’?

The blessing of the meek and the declaration of hope in God whatever the circumstance is a call to vision beyond our sight.

Can we really believe in a world that different? Jesus did… Oh us of little faith.

 

Photo from flickr.

Advertisements

A great set of Psalms today! 29 is pretty awesome, or at least it communicates God’s awesomeness very well. The NRSV entitles it “The Voice of God in a Great Storm.” Pretty big stuff. I shall, however, pretty much just write about the penultimate verse of Psalm 27, because it’s the one that’s going around in my head. This may be partly due to the fact that I know a Taize song that uses its words, but also because these words are gloriously hopeful.

 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
 in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)

Other versions replace “I believe” with “I remain confident in this” (NIV) and “I’m sure” (The Message). The Taize song I love also uses ‘sure’. I like that.

The whole of Psalm 27 oozes confidence in God’s protection, love and justice. But this verse in particular has is something of such promise of it. When I have sung the song before I have almost thought of ‘the land of the living’ to mean the afterlife, but aren;t we in the land of the living?

Today I read these Psalms in the park I live near. The sun was setting on the frozen lake, families were walking and talking together. And this verse just seemed so perfect. Yes, I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. I shall see his Grace and creativity and mercy here, now. Not in only some promised land, but in this tarnished world.

For those of you who don’t know Taize (get to know!), I wanted to share the song with you. There are a few youtube videos of it being sung in the taize commnity, but none are as joyous as the one below, which was filmed on the underground in Belgium! I see the goodness of God in this video, in the smiles and the “alleluia” shouted on this busy tube on this busy day. May you see it too, in this land of the living.

Happy third day of Christmas, dear reader. I hope the first and second were suitably splendid. I went to a beautiful midnight service on Christmas eve. Wonderful. And, as you may have noticed, I took a little break from this blog. It wasn’t planned but it sort of just happened, you know how it is. I am glad I did too. It has helped be to see the fruits I am reaping from writing this blog, I’m sure I’ll write more about that another time. Another ‘note on the process’, perhaps.

For now, though, I shall ease myself into things with a note on Psalms 24-26. Well Psalm 24 to be more precise. Well Psalm 24:7-10, to be exact. For some reason I had made up this rule that I should try to include as much of what I’ve read in my blog each day, but we all know blanket rules about reading the Bible don’t work. Psalms are all individual poems and contriving to lump them in together doesn’t make me insightful, it makes me a clever-clogs. Plus, this blog is about my experience of reading the Bible in a year, and in my experience there are phrases, verses, images, that jump out when I read and there was one today:

7 Lift up your heads, O gates!
   and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
   that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is the King of glory?
   The Lord, strong and mighty,
   the Lord, mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, O gates!
   and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
   that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
   The Lord of hosts,
   he is the King of glory.

Really, I could just talk about verse 7 (and 9). There is something relentlessly joyous in this call to open up to the ‘King of glory’, something deeply rousing too. I can’t put my finger on why this language seems to stir something in me, but it does. “Lift up your heads, O gates!” who is the psalmist talking to here? Gates don’t have heads. Are we the gates? The gates of God, the gates for God. Are we the ‘ancient doors’? Do we need to lift ourselves up to God fully? Well, yes, of course we do.

I love the imagery of ancient doors being opened up to let God come in. I imagine huge heavy iron gates, scattered with rust and cobwebs. I imagine giant stiff hinges being reluctantly moved after centuries of inertia, creaks echoing all around as they are heaved out of their locked positions. And I imagine floods of light, light that has peeked through keyholes and cracks, falling in all around as the doors are opened.

I really feel that this is so much what worship is. Not only praising God, but also opening to God. Some of us Christians like to lift up out hands when worship, and more to lift up our heads. Is this a small gesture of a deeper welcoming, and a more passionate looking to God? I hope so.

And a worship song comes to mind as I read and reflect on this. It’s by a guy called John Mark McMillan, perhaps you know him, I think his most famous song is ‘How He Loves Us’. This song is called ‘Skeleton Bones’ and has so much imagery that resonates with passage I’ve picked out today. It begins ‘peel back our ribs again and stand inside of our chest, we just wana love you, we just wana love you, yeah’. As it builds to the chorus we are called to “separate those doors and let the son (sun?) of resurrection in” and then it bursts into “come let us adore the son of glory dressed in love, open up your gates before him, crown him, stand him up.” Wonderful stuff, I think. And just a hint of a reference to O Come All Ye Faithful in the chorus, so perfect for the season.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

All in One. (Psalms 21-23)

December 16, 2010

Reading Psalms 21-23 it seems that they are ordered according to their fame. 21 is not one I know well, though it contains one of my favourite phrases; “the steadfast love of the Most High”. Then we have 22, famous in Christianity especially for its opening words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But even those are eclipsed by 23; “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Surely one of the most well known verses of scripture both within and outside of the Church. And rightly so, Psalm 23 is a thing of true beauty, or perhaps beautiful truth.

Sometimes I find it tricky reading these pieces at the same time. Each Psalm has a different mood. Not only that, but each of these has a different take on God.

Psalm 21, like many others, follows the formula of praise of God followed by affirmation that His justice will reign. I often find the latter section challenging, with its conviction that God will “find out” and “destroy” his enemies. The picture of God we are given here of strength and power (21:13). His is a mighty judge, a just warrior.

In a way Psalm 22 reflects a similar vision of God. The latter half of the Psalm speaks of God as one who rescues, a God before whom “all the families of the nations shall worship”. But for me the profound value of this Psalm is found when it is connected with the words of Jesus on the cross in the gospels (Matthew 27.46, Mark 15.34). The question as to why Jesus, who is fully God and fully man, would cry out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” has troubled many, even leading them to dbout their entire faith. I have heard it answered in many ways, but it wasn’t until I was told that this was a direct quote from the Psalms that it made sense. It is even suggested that Jesus said the whole Psalm on the cross. By including this saying the gospels Matthew and Mark are affirming that Jesus’ death on the cross is part of a wider vision; one which will lead to “deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying he has done it.” (22:31). What wonder, that our God has been afflicted, persecuted, has cried out just as his people do. And that he did all this for us.

And then we meet him as a Shepherd. When I read and reflect on this Psalm it’s like my soul is exhaling. “he makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” The imagery of safety and peace seem to surround me as I read. God leads, and when he does “goodness and mercy” follow us; how wonderful. And so we see yet another facet of God; comforter, protector, pastor. In John 10:11 we are told by Jesus that he is the good shepherd and that “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”. Here again we see how the gospels interact with the Psalms to communicate the depth and breadth of God found in the person of Jesus.

When I acknowledge this breadth I see that there is no conflict between these Psalms. Rather they come together to bestow a richness to our ideas of God. And the more open we are to God’s complexity, the wider and deeper our relationship with Him will be. We can never know all of God, but we can always know more.  And that man on the cross, that baby in the manger, communicate to us that he is not only mighty but merciful, not only fearsome but fragile, not only just but gentle but  just. He is All in One.

This whole process is really changing the I think about and interact with the Bible. Books I thought I’d loathe I’ve turn out to love and books I thought I would write about until the cows come home, not so much. This is beginning to be the case with Psalms. “Yes, David, we get it, the Lord your rock, your fortress etc, and yes we know he delivered you from your enemies. Change the blooming record!” I don’t think I’d ever noticed how militaristic some of the psalms were, but reading them the day after Joshua and Judges seems to bring that side out of them. Like in Psalm 18 (by far the longest of today’s psalms) where we told about the “God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me” and with whom David can “crush a troop”. Great stuff. Psalm 20 does put this is a context though; “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God” (20:7). David’s joy in His victories is because God has delivered him, not because he is great himself…which is something at least…

But I’m being stubborn, Psalm 19 is exquisite and has nothing to do with earthly victory. As the NRSV puts it, it focusses on “God’s glory in creation and law.” It begins with that famous phrase “the heavens are telling of the glory of the Lord.” And later it becomes an ode to the law:

 The law of the Lord is perfect,
   reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
   making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
   rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
   enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure,
   enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
   and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
   even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
   and drippings of the honeycomb.

I love this stuff! The beautiful poetry, the elegant outpouring of worship it’s inspiring. But then I think, is this allowed? Can I just pick my favourite psalm and ignore the other two? Shouldn’t they all be equally edifying? But they’re not. Not in this moment, any way. And we all do it. “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23, coming soon to a blog near you) is as famous as famous can be, but I can’t remember ever hearing Psalm 20 in public. Should we just admit that there are some bits of the Bible that just really hit the nail on the head? Have we already created a hierarchy within scripture? The bits we read and that bits we leave to one side, maybe look at occasionally, thank you very much…

Having said all that, last week when I was reading the psalms I skipped ahead to Psalm 18 (cheating I know, I’m just too keen!) and the words of verse 6 really comforted me. So perhaps there is just a time and place for each verse, each Psalm, each book. If this process is teaching me anything it’s that I won’t get what I expect from scripture. I’m loving reading Job in a way I never thought possible, and actually looking forward to reading the letters of Paul despite their rather baffling nature. Though now I’ve said that I’ll probably struggle with them both this week! The important thing is that my assumptions about certain parts of the Bible are being challenged. Okay, so Joshua is still “the one with all the killing” in my head, but it’s more that that too.

This book is not predictable, even when you know the stories. And that’s why we love it, isn’t it? 

Forgive me loyal blog readers! I come to you ashamed of my grave failure. A combination of uncooperative internet connection and non-existent inspiration means that there was a great gaping hole where yesterday’s blog post should have been. But fear not; I have returned!

Yesterday around this time I began to write about Joshua 11-15. If you’ve read my other posts on Joshua you know the deal by now. I made dry comments about the rather barbarous tone of this book but tried to restrain from another “what’s going on with all the killing??” rant. I then made a joke about not wanting to ever have to read them passages out in church. They’re full of long lists of unpronounceable names. Then I racked my brains for something more substantial to say…

It was difficult. I tried going down the ‘cultural context’ route; this text would have been important to those who it was written for, affirming their right to the land in which they lived and the faithfulness of their God. But I’ve said that before. When it came to bringing something out for myself, or even better for all of us, I was stumped. So I decided to think it over and finish later. And conveniently forgot.

The truth is I still haven’t thought of anything, nothing genuine. I’m sure Hebrew scholars could tease out a morsel, even a gem, from these chapters. Perhaps you can (please share) but I can’t. But that’s okay. I’m not writing this blog to feign wisdom. So I will share with you that there are parts of the Bible that simply don’t inspire them and even make them think “what is this crazy book?” as a friend of mine put it last week. And I think it’s okay to admit that there are parts of the Bible that leave you cold or confused…though somehow not finding inspiration here still feels like failure.

The poetry of the psalms is even more sublime when contrasted with the drawing of land boundaries and lists of victories in Joshua 11-15. I feel that just by reading Psalms 6-8 I hear the voice of God saying “see, it’s not all bad!”.

In these songs of supplication and praise, beds are drenched with tears, refuge is taken and God’s majesty is praised. Quite a rollercoaster. That such stark contrasts of emotion are established as scripture soothes my anxiety at my own varying responses to the words and promises of God. They show me that I don’t need to choose between showing weakness and confusion and affirming the strength and glory of God. Quite the opposite; in David’s vulnerable, impassioned cries I am exposed to a raw and direct relationship with God. The intimacy of these words beckon me closer, closer to the Beloved to whom they are addressed.

Perhaps this is the problem I have with book of Joshua. It describes the people of Israel when they are invulnerable. It is the story of an unrelenting victory. Though God and his promises are constantly mentioned there is little time for personal doubt,or even rejoicing. These people are on a mission, and they are winning. How can I empathise with that? How can I connect with that? I like my heroes flawed and my plot lines fraught. I like songs of salvation and supplication, not inventories of conquered territory. I doubt I’m alone in this.

And it’s okay. The book of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament weren’t all written with one purpose. Why do i expect to get the same things from Joshua as I do Psalms? It almost seems arrogant for to expect to be granted a new revelation each day. The scripture is not my servant. I am God’s servant. I am reading the Bible and writing not to be served but to better serve.

So perhaps it is I who needs to move from the ridiculous to the sublime From an attitude of entitlement to God’s wisdom and an openess to God’s words and a willingness to be confused or comforted.

I’ve heard a preacher say that the Bible should read us, rather than us read the Bible. If it was reading me today I think I would be exposed as someone who wants to find something to say about everything, but who is truly blessed when rendered speechless.

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth!”