Psalm 10 Sin

Psalm 10 articulates an ancient human dilemma:

If God is good, then why does evil exist?

If God is powerful, then why doesn’t God do something?

So maybe God is not so good.

OR maybe God is not so powerful.

Theodicy is the name theologians use for this conundrum.

But most of the rest of us just ask: WHY?!?!

I wonder how many people have turned away from faith because of these unanswerable questions. I say “unanswerable” because we won’t find The Definitive Answer this side of heaven but still each of us answers the questions some way or another. Here is how the Psalmist grapples with the question.

Naming the Reality that Can Be Seen

In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor.

Those greedy for gain renounce the Lord.

Their ways prosper at all times and they think in their heart, “We shall not be moved.”

They lurk that they may seize the poor; they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

They think in their heart, “God has forgotten; God has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

I could easily use these same words to describe my own world in 2018. This is what America looks like to me, how the world turns on its tilted axis. The world is not “straight” and “true” according to my gut assessment of how things “ought” to be.

Questioning  God

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

And so the Psalmist – and I on so many difficult days – challenge God. “Where are you? Why won’t you act, intercede, interrupt this madness? Why don’t you DO SOMETHING!”

Some Christians believe it is sinful to question God. They would say such arguing shows a lack of faith. But I say – along with the Psalmist – that challenging God shows an immense faithfulness. We call upon God to keep promises, to bring light and order into the darkness and chaos. We want God to be God.

This profound faithfulness of asking, seeking, knocking is grounded in our faith that God IS indeed God. That God IS at work in the world. That God IS bringing justice and righteousness and shalom into being. Even if we can’t see it. Even if generations of believers won’t see it fulfilled or completed. We hold on to hope, confidence, faith that God knows, that God sees, that God keeps promises.

Naming the Reality that Cannot Be Seen

But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
    that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
    you have been the helper of the orphan…

O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
    you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed…

Here is the Psalmist’s answer to our painful theodicy. God IS good. God IS powerful. God IS just. God IS at work in the world.

Maybe instead of asking: “why doesn’t God do something,” a better question would be: “why don’t WE do something?”

So let us stay busy participating in the divine work of goodness and justice. Wherever we are, with whatever power we are given, in whichever challenges we encounter.

Psalm 104 Creation

You are wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent.
You set the beams of your chambers on the waters.
You make the clouds your chariot and ride on the wings of the wind,
You make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken.

How lovely is this!

Psalm 104 celebrates both creation and the Creator. As the Genesis stories affirm, creation is “good,” the gift of a good and merciful Creator. Both Psalm 104 and Genesis 1 picture the Creator as existing outside the cosmos, bringing all things good into being. Like a poet or an artist or a sculptor – not as a part of creation but as its originator.

And yet, at the same time, both Psalm 104 and Genesis 2 picture the Creator as intimate with all that is created. In the second Genesis story, God molds the human from the humus of the earth, breathes the breath of life into its nostrils then walks with the man and the woman in the cool of the evening. In this Psalm, God rides on the wind, cavorts with Leviathan and feeds all the creatures from a benevolent hand.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

The cosmos is set into motion so that the days and the seasons endure; the plants and the creatures endlessly procreate. Creation continues re-creation of its own accord.

And yet, at the same time, all things are held together by the spirit, breath and hand of the Creator.

The poet of the Psalms sees the world as any typical ancient would have understood it. The cosmos exists in three tiers – the dome of sky above, the chaos of the sea with the underworld beneath, but the table of the earth is set firmly on its foundation of pillars keeping it safe and firm.

The stories of Genesis also frame creation from within this ancient cosmology. None of this is written to be science. It is all mystery and gift.

As you read Living in The Story for Week 2, remember to read all these texts as poetry. The Genesis stories, the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Prologue of John, the soaring singing theology of Colossians – all these biblical works speak a truth which is deeper and broader and larger than any facts. The poetry of creation continues to shape even us within the rhyme and rhythm of the The Poet of The Story.

The poetry of the earth is never dead.

John Keats.

Psalm 119: We Begin with Faith

The ancient Hebrew tradition says God spoke to Moses in fire and cloud on the mountaintop and wrote “the ten words” with the Divine Finger.

Torah. The Law. The Word of the Lord. The ordinances. The statutes. The precepts.

Psalm 119 celebrates the Law of the LORD.

Happy are those who walk in the law of the LORD. (Psalm 119:1)

The Way.

I run the way of your commandments,
for you enlarge my understanding. (Psalm 119:32)

There is one way that is God’s way that provides “a large space” in which to dwell and the “liberty” to journey to our true humanity.

This Way is “right” and “true” and “good.”

Other ancient traditions have held similar understandings. 600 years before Christ, the philosophy of The Tao developed in China.

This “tao” literally means “way” “path” “road.” There is a way within the cosmos, way of perfect balance; the natural order of things, the foundation of the universe. The Great Way.

Think of Torah, Law, Word within this framework.

 

Think of faith as trust in this Way and submission to this Law.

We begin with faith.

Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Hebrew Psalter. The length comes from its form: it is composed as an acrostic based on the Hebrew alphabet.

In the first stanza, each line begins with the letter “aleph.” Each line of the second stanza begins with the letter “bet.” And so on. (Get it? alpha-bet!)

The poets of Israel believed that in all of life – from “A” to “Z” – the Way of God is ordered and trustworthy. That creation is “good.” That light and darkness exist in perfect harmony.

The teachers of Israel taught that the whole of life is founded upon trust in the Law of the Lord. That every challenge of life can be overcome by faithful obedience to God’s Word. That true life, right life, good life comes not through the mindless obedience to rules, but rather through the grace and mercy of Yahweh who sustains all creation.

Let your mercy come to me, that I may live;
for your law is my delight. (Psalm 119:77)

We begin with faith in THIS God.

 

Feature image courtesy of heartlight.org.

Week 48: November 26 – December 2

In 48 weeks, you have read through the entire Bible and now this is our final week of reading.

We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly – the story of us humans throughout history. We’ve seen the amazing grace of the Author of The Story – an overarching narrative of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness for all generations. We’ve seen how our own stories in 2017 are folded into The Grand Story of the One who is The Beginning and The End, the Alpha and Omega.

Thank you for joining me on this journey as we have considered together the mysteries of Scripture. Take a break. Breathe in the beauty of Advent. And then consider beginning Living in The Story again in January. Every time we read, we discover something new. The mystery, beauty and truth are unsearchable.

Habakkuk

Zephaniah

Haggai

Zechariah

Malachi

Psalms 22

Psalms 102

Mark 15-16

Ephesians

Helpful information for Week 48: The Prophets

The Historical Settings of the Prophets of Israel

Living in The Story final blog.

The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God

The Historical Settings of the Prophets of Israel

Years listed are B.C. Dates are approximate; scholars best guess
Information summarized from The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII
805Assyria defeats Damascus opening the way for a growing luxury class with economic and religious excessesJonah

Amos
745Political unrest in IsraelHosea
735Syro-Ephraimite WarIsaiah of Jerusalem
732Damascus destroyed by Assyria; Israel becomes a vassal stateMicah
689Babylon destroyed by Assyria
626Babylon gains freedom from Assyria;
Josiah’s ‘deuteronomic reform’
Jeremiah
604Babylon controls Syria and PalestineNahum
Habakkuk
598/597Babylonians besiege Jerusalem; first deportationEzekiel
587Jerusalem falls; second deportationObadiah
582/581King of Judah assassinated; third deportation
550Cyrus of Persia threatens Babylon
538Babylon surrenders to Persia; Edict of Cyrus allows first return of exiles led by Sheshbazzar. Temple rebuilding begins and then haltedSecond Isaiah
522King Darius of Persia
Temple rebuilding resumes
Haggai
Zechariah
516/515Temple completed and rededicated
458Ezra travels to JerusalemMalachi
445Nehemiah travels to JerusalemJoel
333Conquests of Alexander the Great
175/164Rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanies and the Maccabean revoltDaniel

Week 47: November 19 – November 25

We have two more weeks left in our Living in The Story journey. For these two weeks, we will read all the Minor Prophets. This is not hard. They are designated “minor” because of their short length, not because they are less important than the Major Prophets.

Suggestion: Plan to read one book of prophecy per day. Ponder again the work of the prophet: not prediction as much as speaking forth God’s word and interpreting current events in light of God’s overarching will.

There is both judgment and comfort here. May we be open to hear each as they apply to us, to the church and to the current events of our world.

Hosea

Joel

Amos

Obadiah

Micah

Nahum

Psalms 128

Psalm 129

Psalm 145

Mark 13-14

Colossians

Justice, Kindness, Humility: Micah and Mark

Week 46: November 12 – November 18

Nehemiah was cup bearer for King Artaxerxes living in the capitol city of the Persian Empire. He received this word about his countrymen who had escaped captivity and remained in Jerusalem:

“The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven…”

Nehemiah petitioned the king and was appointed governor of Judah with authority to rebuilding and bringing order.

Nehemiah’s first-person story of returning to Jerusalem is filled with intrigues, plots, gradual successes and witness to the difficult work of rebuilding. Rebuilding not just a wall and a city but also restoring the religion and culture of a people who had lost their way over many generations.

Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest worked together alongside many persistently faithful Jews against the hardship and persecution that has characterized this people of God throughout the centuries.

On a day of re-dedication, the story says:

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Jews to this day summarize their history with this clever saying:

They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

Nehemiah

Psalms 10

Psalm 13

Psalm 17

Mark 11-12

Philippians

Ezra and Nehemiah

Ezra and Nehemiah

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally considered a single literary work called Ezra. Although this work was separated into two books by Origen (3d century Common Era) and Jerome (4th century C.E.), the division does not appear in Hebrew Bibles before the 15th century.

At the beginning (1:1–3) and end (6:22) of Ezra, the text asserts that Yahweh had brought about both the return of the exiles to Judah and Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple through the favorable actions of the Persian kings toward Israel. Cyrus’ own decree permitted the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of its vessels (6:5), and Darius reinforced these privileges and added to them a curse against any who would attempt to countermand them (6:6–12).

In the Ezra-Nehemiah chronicle, captives were released and sent back to their land with the looted treasures from Solomon’s Temple. The “Ezra Memoir” names Zerubbabel (called governor) and Jeshua the priest as the leaders of this initial effort of rebuilding.

The Persian authorization to rebuild includes not only the work on the Temple, fostered by Cyrus and Darius, but also, because of the mention of Artaxerxes in 6:14, the rebuilding of the walls as well (the term “house of God” in Ezra-Nehemiah may include both the temple and the refortification of the city).

According to the present text of Ezra-Nehemiah, Ezra came to Jerusalem in 458 B.C.E. (Ezra 7:7–8, the 7th year of Artaxerxes) and Nehemiah in 445 B.C.E. (Neh 1:1, the 20th year of Artaxerxes). Nehemiah’s first stay in Jerusalem lasted 12 years, to 433 B.C.E. (Neh 5:14), with a second stay at an unknown time and of unknown duration (but before the end of Artaxerxes’ reign in 424). In 445 Ezra read the law at a public ceremony at which Nehemiah was also present (v 9). All of these dates assume that the Artaxerxes to whose reign the chronology of both Ezra and Nehemiah is correlated is Artaxerxes I (465–424).

the dedication of the Temple in 515 B.C.E.,

the return of Ezra in 458 B.C.E.,

the governorship of Nehemiah, 445–433 B.C.E.,

and his second visit to Jerusalem, no later than 424 B.C.E.

Nehemiah’s first-person story (The “Nehemiah Memoir”) says he was cup bearer for King Artaxerxes living in the capitol city of the Persian Empire. He received this word about his countrymen who had escaped captivity and remained in Jerusalem:

“The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven…”

Nehemiah petitioned the king and was appointed governor of Judah with authority to rebuild the walls and bring order to the city. (The “cupbearer” attested throughout centuries of Persian history and legend was generally a favorite and trusted youthful official.)

The Ezra-Nehemiah story is filled with intrigues, plots, gradual successes and witness to the difficult work of rebuilding. Rebuilding not just a wall and a city but also restoring the religion and culture of a people who had lost their way over many generations.

Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest worked together alongside many persistently faithful Jews against the hardship and persecution that has characterized this people of God throughout many centuries.

On a day of re-dedication, when the priest Ezra read the Law to the assemble people, the story says:

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

As I write this, sisters and brothers across the globe are faced with the deep challenges of rebuilding. In 2017 a trio of hurricanes devastated parts of Texas, much of Florida and all of Puerto Rico. Raging fires destroyed forests, homes and businesses all along the West Coast. Back to back earthquakes shook the foundations of Mexico. Wars in Syria, across the Middle East and in Africa continue to force people from their homeland. Rebuilding a life takes a lifetime of work.

Jews to this day summarize their history with this clever saying:

They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

May the joy of the Lord be our strength!

 

Several portions of this article are quoted from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. (Quotation noted with italics.)

Outline of Ezra-Nehemiah

I. Return from Exile and Rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 1–6)

II. The Initial Work of Ezra in Seventh Year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7–10)

III. Return of Nehemiah and Rebuilding of Walls of Jerusalem (Neh 1:1–7:72)

IV. The Climax of the Work of Ezra and Liturgical Responses (Neh 7:72–10:40)

V. Further Acts of Nehemiah; Related Matters (Neh 11:1–13:31)

 

Image from Aleppo, Syria by The Independent, 2016.

Who Is My Neighbor?

2017 was a tough year for hurricanes. America was hit by a back-to-back trio of hurricanes that left our whole nation reeling. But besides all the devastation, there were numerous heartwarming stories about people helping people.

In Houston, after Harvey, Mattress Mack opened up his furniture store for anyone who needed a place to stay. Families hung out on his sofas. Men, women and children slept on his beds. In an interview, Mack said he was moved by his faith. “I had to do this. What else could I do?” he asked.

In Florida, after Irma, as in South Texas, churches, mosques and synagogues opened their doors for their neighbors. Restaurants reopened as quickly as they could and cooked up huge meals to deliver to rescue workers. One millionaire couple opened their mansion for several days to house 70 foster children whose shelter had flooded.

In Puerto Rico, after hurricane Maria, Michelle Narvaez waited in line for an hour in order to buy groceries at twice the normal price. She brought her supplies home, cooked everything she had (because she has no electricity to refrigerate) and shared it with her neighbors. Then the next day, she would go back to the store and do the same thing all over again.

The helping ministry for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Week of Compassion, has been working overtime helping our neighbors who have experienced floods and fires and famine across the globe. I am so proud of my denomination for these impressive acts of compassion in Christ’s name.

It is powerful witness when neighbors reach out to help one another across all our typical differences and divisions. Animosities fall away in the face of disaster.

Compassion builds bridges. Even if it is just for a while.

So my question is: How can the church become a real force to shape our world for compassion all the time? Not just during a crisis, but every day?

Luke tells us about a conversation between Jesus and a shrewd lawyer.

A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?”

Here is Jesus’ answer:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Do you see how Jesus flipped the lawyer’s question? Instead of “who is my neighbor,” Jesus asked: “will you be a neighbor?”

The lawyer began well. His answers about loving God and loving neighbor are spot on. Except, I think, for this: the man seemed to believe that love is a noun.

Jesus’ parable, however, teaches us that love is a verb.

Love God. With heart, soul, strength, mind. Every thought, every feeling, every action, every ounce of our being is to be shaped by and powered by the love of God.

Or maybe I should say it this way: everything we are and everything we do is to be powered by God’s own love

When Matthew and Mark tell of a similar encounter, Jesus calls these two loves “commandments.” The greatest commandment is to love God. The second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.

So have you ever wondered why God commands love? Isn’t love a feeling, an emotion? How does one command our emotions? Someone tells you: don’t be angry; don’t be sad. Or: Snap out of it. Be happy. Are you able to control your feelings so easily? I’m sure not. There is no way deep human gut reactions can be commanded.

But the kind of love that God calls for is not a feeling; this love is not just an emotion. Love is a verb. The commands are for complete allegiance to God and acts of mercy to others.

One of my favorite phrases in this little story says our hero was “moved with pity.” The man did feel something. His heart was broken for the broken man crumpled at his feet. Pity-Compassion-Mercy moved his heart. And then moved his hands into action. He couldn’t do everything but he could do something. He did what he could.

Love is a verb.

So who is my neighbor? Anyone who needs mercy.

And who is the neighbor? Anyone who does mercy.

We call this little story the parable of the Good Samaritan because it highlights the differences and divisions that normally operated between Jews and Samaritans. Any Jew hearing Jesus tell this story would have been shocked to see the despised, half breed Samaritan as the good guy. But they also would have been aghast at the hard heartedness of the priest and the Levite in this story.

Any faithful Jew, even to this day, prays the Shema every morning and every evening:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.

The religious characters in our story must have prayed these words over and over again throughout their life. But maybe they were only words to them. Maybe they believed love is a noun. Evidently every ounce of their being had not been shaped and powered by the love of God.

Or again, shaped and powered by God’s own love.

I say it this way because we humans have zero ability to truly obey these two core commandments. In our broken, bent-into-ourselves self-centeredness, we can never muster enough love within ourselves to fulfill these commands.

So that brings me back to my original question: How on earth can this broken body of Christ ever hope to become a real force shaping our world for compassion?

Only by this:

By allowing God’s love to love through us.

By permitting God’s love to transform our heart, soul, strength and mind.

By opening ourselves up to the love that is the very being of God and letting this movement of love move us to action.

Only then will the body of Christ break through its crippling paralysis and navel gazing and become transformed into a movement of welcome and compassion and mercy.

Only then will the church be able to give witness to the gospel.

The gospel. Remember what the gospel is: “God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son.”

Love is a verb. If God acted with such mercy and compassion for the whole world, then what should be our own response to this good news? Love God. Love neighbor.

Our world is starving for love. We are inundated with animosities and divisions and fragmentation; with hatred and violence and disdain; with blame and shame and apathy and hardness of heart.

All around us, neighbors are yearning for love and acceptance and hope.

Who will show them mercy? Who will be their neighbor?

Amen.

Week 45: November 5 – November 11

Ezra, Revelation and the New Jerusalem

The book of Ezra tells the story of Israel’s return from Exile in Babylon and the early reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezra was a priest, a descendant of Aaron, who was given responsibility and authority by King Artaxerxes. In his record, he relates some of the challenges the people faced.

The first temple is referred to as Solomon’s Temple and this replacement is called the Second Temple.

This week we complete our reading of the book of Revelation. These final chapters offer the vision of the New Jerusalem “coming down from heaven.” This holy city is not created by the work of human hands; rather it is gift and grace from the hand of the Creator who is “making all things new.” In the New Jerusalem, there is no temple because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb…”

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

It sounds odd and even hurtful for us moderns to hear Ezra’s condemnation of the religiously mixed marriages he saw and his demand that the returned exiles should put away their wives and children. Here is an example of the high standard for purity and holiness that was expected of God’s people. The lines drawn between Israel and the nations was stark; crossing those lines, they believed, would lead to unfaithfulness and a defilement of the whole people.

Even in the New Jerusalem, we see the expectation of purity and total allegiance to the One True God. Anything “unclean” will not be a part of the new creation.

Please take this as comfort and reassurance. The Lamb who is Temple and Priest and Sacrifice is making US new. You and I and all creation are being refined like gold and made fit for the Kingdom of God.

Ezra

Psalms 67

Psalm 69

Psalm 70

Mark 9-10

Revelation 21-22

Behold, I Am Making All Things New