Friday, January 13, 2017

Psalmn 137: "Oh, rats!"

I was in for a not-so-pleasant surprise the morning I went to the home of my vacationing son and family to feed their cat and check on things. As I rounded the corner after fetching mail, my eye caught sight of a critter.  Backing up to look closer, I can truthfully say I’m glad it was dead! We’ve had an occasional mouse at our house, and they’re barely bigger than my thumb. This was no mouse. My city has had increasing complaints about (ugh) rats, and this was one of them. With my hand in one plastic grocery bag as an improvised glove, I pushed it in another grocery bag, tied a knot, and dumped it in their trash.

Psalm 137 expresses a dead-rat sort of disgust. It comes at an interesting point in the book of psalms. Right before, Psalm 136 has risen in a crescendo of ways to give thanks to God for His enduring love. After singing that, the people were on a spiritual high.  But at one point in history—one that happened long after the “Exodus” events of Psalm 136—the Jews weren’t singing much any more. God had judged their disobedience by allowing the Babylonians to conquer them and march them more than a thousand grueling desert miles away to that pagan land.

Talk about being homesick!  Their captors mocked them, saying, “Sing your old songs about your temple in Jerusalem.” No way could the Jews do that. They’d never stand for pagans making fun of the songs dearest to their hearts. So they hung their harps on trees and kept doing their slave work, their distaste for their captors growing by the day.  They may have been transplanted in Babylon, but they weren’t rooted there. Their hearts still yearned for their homeland and Jerusalem, “my highest joy.”

They had as much love for the Babylonians as for the Edomites, a wretched tribe in their homeland that had cheered the Babylonians on as they captured and destroyed Jerusalem. (The minor prophet Obadiah similarly scolds Edom.) The Jews’ disgust got quite ugly, in fact, wishing a horrible thing—murder of Babylon’s infants, its next generation—by the future nation that would conquer Babylon. Where was the Jews’ compassion? On the other hand, the Jews had probably watched the Babylons slaughter Jewish babies as part of their sick military practices.

I don’t like Psalm 137 or any of the other “imprecatory” or condemning psalms. But they present a sobering reality: that those who oppose God will someday pay the price of their sin. Today, ancient Babylon is ruins. Edom’s fortresses are desolate. God judges evil. Romans 2:6 says he will judge every person “according to what he has done.”

But here's the hope: through the death and resurrection of Christ, we can have our lives transformed.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:5)

Friday, January 6, 2017

Psalm136: An ancient 7-11

When morning broke the other day, what a fashion show the sky put on! Correction: what a show God provided! I thought of the third verse of Psalm 113, one of many written entirely to praise God:
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,  The name of the LORD is to be praised. (v. 3)
My husband has become an early riser, thanks in part to an old codger cat who scratches the wall by our bed for its 4:30 a.m. breakfast (the first one). After that, it’s too noisy for me to sleep much longer, so I stumble out.  Like a diesel engine on a long-haul truck, I need some warming up.  A lot of warming up! And that morning, a tangerine and hot pink sky provided a wonderful wake-up treat.

It’s easy to praise God for beauty on earth and in sky. But I once had a hard time figuring out a psalm just a few pages over, #136. Over and over it says, “Give thanks to the LORD….His love endures forever.”  For a while I decided it was an early Hebrew version of modern praise choruses referred to by wags as 7-11s (for seven words sung eleven times).  Plus, the bulk of the praise went to a trying, bloody time of history: when the Hebrews left Egypt and fought their way to the Promised Land.

Start the cameras.  Zoom in on men, women and children in a worship setting, led by priests and designated musicians. They live in times of oral history. This lesson has several chapters:

*Before creation—God always was, the Highest and the Only (vv. 1-3).
*Creation—“God” is the explanation for the universe, our solar system, and our planet with its divisions of day and night (vv.4-9).
*The Exodus—One special man’s clan went to a foreign land where they ended up slaves. Then God miraculously plucked them out of there and sent them to a new homeland (vv.10-15).
*The Conquest—Yes, there was bloodshed. This was no longer Eden, but lands filled with vile and violent people (vv.17-22).
*God’s Continuing Care—God provided freedom and food for the refugees(vv. 23-25).
And what’s the big lesson of this history? To thank God (v.26) and declare the enduring nature of His love.

Of course, this wasn’t the end of Hebrew history. But in retelling history to that point, the psalm provided plenty of praise-God material. Bible scholar Derek Kidner observed that the Hebrew translated to English as “give thanks” really means “thankfully confess” or “acknowledge gratefully.” As such, it raises the question that Bible teacher James Montgomery Boice articulated: “In our worship of God, are we consistently and joyfully thanking God for his many great and kind acts toward us?” (Psalms Vol. 3, Baker 1998, p. 1180).
It’s not just about tangerine skies.  It’s about courage when life is hard, gratitude for God’s help (often delivered via people who push us deeper spiritually), and anticipation of where all this is going in God’s perfect plan. The last stanza lifts us to eternity:
Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.

Will there be tangerine sunrises in that “forever” place with God?  Why not?

Friday, December 30, 2016

For crying in the sink, Part 2

“Oh, for crying in the sink!”  Though my dad’s been gone nearly forty years (he would have been 101 this year) I can still almost hear his “sinking” expression of frustration when doing home repairs, especially on the family washer and dryer. Never from him did I hear cursing, forms of "hell" or crude derivatives of deity terms that amounted to taking the Lord's name in vain. He was different from many of his era.

Sadly, today I hear foul language in common conversation far too much.  Even from the church pulpit I've heard people use slang terms incorporating God's Name (think: OMG and its relatives). I cringe to hear it.
As for Dad's silly saying, I grew up assuming it went with the image of a frustrated, bawling person leaning over the bathroom sink while copious tears went down the drain. Then recently, wondering if I might be wrong, I researched both library and internet sources for possible origins. One source thought it might be a modified oath, vaguely changing the words “Christ’s” and “sake.” But swearing and taking the Lord’s name in vain just weren’t in my dad’s spiritual DNA.

Still, it’s interesting to me that a blog I wrote about the phrase (July 17, 2010) became the fourth most frequently accessed entry in the eight years I’ve written this column. If the readers were searching for origins of idioms, I’m afraid they didn’t find an answer, as that blog discussed the different types of human tears.

Sometimes I wonder: do we make too much fun of tears? When I read psalms and other Old Testament passages, I keep running across leaders of those times crying a lot.

 “All day long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” (David, Psalm 6:6)

“Hear my prayer, O Lord, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping.” (David, Psalm 39:12)

“My tears have been my food day and night.”(“Sons of Korah,” Psalm 42:3)

Jeremiah and Lamentations drip copiously as the author weeps over his nation’s poor choices,
These folks weren’t crying in the sink.  They were crying before God.
Sometimes I do that, too. I am so bewildered, hurt, frustrated or grieving that there seems no other appropriate response. But I don’t stay there.  I remember another promise:

Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him. (Psalm 126)

This psalm is subtitled “A song of ascents” and was one that pilgrims sang as they “ascended” through the hills to Jerusalem. It recalled the miraculous return of a remnant of Jews after a long captivity in Babylon. God sees our tears, but He sees beyond our tears, too.

Crying in the sink?  No--in this case, crying with the saints. And that can be a good thing.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Timely thoughts....

I first wore this watch as a freshly-minted high school graduate, having moved up from cheap watches to my first “dress watch,” a gift from my parents. I remember going to the jewelry store with my dad so he could be sure it was exactly what I wanted. That was more than fifty years ago, and when it recently stopped working, we took it to the only man in our area who works on fine watches like this.  He’s semi-retired, working out of his home, but takes to his workbench decades of expertise. We’re thankful for him!

So why talk about an old watch when Christmas is just around the corner?  Maybe because the phrase “the time came” in the Christmas story made me think twice:

While they [Joseph and Mary] were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. (Luke 2:6-7a)

When “the time came” for our daughter to have her first baby, my husband could hardly wait for the news of the birth. That call came just a day before the official “due date” (how often had I said, “Babies come when they want, not when they’re due”?).  Of course, we hurried across the state (a half-day trip) to meet little Eleanor. When I walked into the bright, welcoming “birthing suite” where she was born, I couldn’t help but think about how multiple millions of women have experienced the birth process in far less sterile and welcoming circumstances. Mary was one. I can only imagine Mary’s mother’s angst as her very pregnant daughter climbed on a lumbering donkey to make an arduous trip to Bethlehem with Joseph for the capricious “census” the Romans had ordered up. That wasn’t Mamma’s Plan A, but it was God’s Plan Perfect.

In a filthy stable, far from home, Jesus was born, and all the predictions about a Messiah’s birth collided with celestial perfection. Born of a virgin. In Bethlehem. Announced by an ecstatic praise performance by untold numbers of angels. All in God’s right timing, to a discouraged nation suffocating under Roman oppression—a pagan culture that unwittingly provided the roads and common language to help spread the message Jesus would bring. 

Jesus’ birth wasn’t the only “perfect timing” of God’s plan for us. Fast-forward three decades or so to Jesus, gathering His disciples around Him for hard teachings about the end of “time” as we know it. They were ready for the world’s mess to be cleaned up and Jesus to reign. (Things haven’t changed much!)  But He had a different message, telling them to be like servants on the alert for their master’s unexpected return home:

You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Luke 12:40)

That had to be a “scratch-your-head” comment. He stood or sat before them, delivering this strange message about a “coming back.”

Increasingly, that’s what I think about at Christmas—not the manger-infant, but the mighty, invincible God who says He will return to this planet for a final judging and reward time that will blow our minds apart.  A new heavens and a new earth. New purpose, new roles, new relationships. Purity restored.
In the meantime, I wind my repaired watch every morning, to keep the day's seconds and minutes ticking along.  I try to remember: Christ's second coming could be today. Am I ready?  "Be patient and stand firm," James, the Lord's earthly brother, wrote, "because the Lord's coming is near" (James 3:9). Nearer now, most certainly, than when he wrote!

Friday, December 16, 2016

River of delights

Over the years, probably millions of photos have been snapped at this spot in the Tumwater Canyon in Washington’s Cascade mountains. Even though I’ve taken several of my own, every time this view communicates something to me in a different, worshipful way. Just days before, three dear older friends died. This being autumn, the season of dying, the brilliance of dying leaves and the shush of the waterfall came together to remind me of the cycle of life and the plan of God in all.

A few days later, this river scene returned in my memory as I read Psalm 36:

They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights.  For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. (Psalm 36:8-9)

The river of delights.”  “The fountain of life.”  “Light.” All these gifts of knowing God are ours, revealed in God’s creation and articulated in scriptures. And the Psalms articulate them so well.

Do we prize them as we should?

In a collection of essays compiled by Judith Couchman, titled One Holy Passion (Waterbrook, 1998) there is an amazing story told by Anne Wilcox about a dissident Soviet Jew who sought to leave Russia for freedom in Israel. His wife was able to leave, but he was detained and finally imprisoned. Through long years of Russian prisons and work camps he lost all his possessions except a miniature copy of Psalms. Once, when he refused to give it to authorities, he was punished with 130 days in solitary confinement.

Twelve years after he bid goodbye to his wife, saying he’d see her soon in Jerusalem, he was allowed to leave the prison. But as he started to walk away to guards to those who’d take him to Jerusalem, the guards tried one last time to confiscate his copy of Psalms.  As Wilcox retells it, he “threw himself face down in the snow and refused to walk on to freedom without it.  Those words had kept him alive during imprisonment.  He would not go on to freedom without them” (“Words of Life, Words of Delight,” p. 67).

Are the psalms for you a “river of delights”?

Which has been meaningful to you lately?  I’ve love to hear from readers in the comments area.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Jammed up

On either side of this pile of tree debris, a mountain river danced over rocks. The conglomeration, however, had disrupted flow so much that the river seriously eroded the bank close to the area’s highway. Wildfires visit this area yearly, meaning dead trees that could add to fire danger must be felled and removed. I wondered if floods and landslides had dumped some of these into the river where they locked and created a jam.

The Old Testament’s King David didn’t enjoy forests like those where I live in central Washington, but he apparently had some experience with hard rains and flash floods. In Psalm 124, he reflects on a close call with his enemies, comparing it to a violent water event:

If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, they would have swallowed us alive; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. (124:2-5)

The actual crisis is left undescribed. With enemies ready to pounce and destroy, David’s warriors might have run out of food or weapons. Maybe they were considerably outnumbered. Somehow, in this impossible situation, they escaped a devastating battle. And David gave glory to God:

Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. (v. 8)

 In presenting Christ to non-believers, we rightly emphasize the love of God and His wonderful plan for our lives. But our walk as Christians requires combat boots. Satan is always about, wanting to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). For now, the stage for life is a broken earth, not a perfect heaven. We’re people “in process” under God’s wise instruction.  Paul Billheimer, whose book Don’t Waste Your Sorrows (CLC/Bethany, 1977, p. 44) considers the role of trials, observed:

If God’s net purpose in saving an individual is just to get him to heaven, He would probably take him to glory immediately.  But God wants to prepare him for rulership in an infinite universe that demands character.  Progress in sanctification, in the development of God-like character and agape love, is impossible without tribulation and chastisement.

 So yes, in our life’s journey, we’ll likely encounter stubborn, clogging logjams disguised as difficult circumstances and problem people. They’re not there to stop us, but to remind us that “our help is in the name of the LORD!”

Friday, December 2, 2016

Just passin' through

I have a weakness of wanting to photograph beautiful places—at least, according to my definition of “beautiful.”  So when my husband recently decided we needed a “date-drive” to see the fall colors, I made sure I took along my little digital camera. Sometimes a setting brings a scripture to mind and I have to ask him to stop.  So it was with this bend of a river in the Eastern Cascades of Washington state.  The prophet Isaiah didn’t have the privilege of beautiful mountain scenery, as I do, but what he wrote in chapter 43 certainly fit what I saw:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And then when you pass through the rivers,

They will not sweep over you. (v. 2)

For months, I have had that verse on a sticky note on the upper ledge of my desk. Isaiah had in mind the crossing of the Red Sea as the Hebrews escaped enslavement in Egypt. You don’t need Hollywood’s technical team “holding back the water” to realize this miracle (Exodus 14) had to be of God. It was also a demonstration of God’s love for people who had lived under unbearable treatment by Egyptians. I didn’t face, as did the Hebrews, slaughter coming up behind me. But in navigating life’s unknowns and hard places, I’ve known times when I had to go forward in raw faith for God’s provision and intervention.  

This photo doesn’t show what’s around the next bend, and that’s part of His wisdom. Faith means a step-by-step dependence on God, trusting His love and protection.

After you finish reading this blog, open your Bible to beginning of Isaiah 43.  If you haven’t already, take a highlighter to the verses that speak to your heart. Don’t leave out verse 4.  Its truths about God’s character are marked in my Bible with a red asterisk:

…you are precious and honored in my sight…I love you.