Search my heart…

One of the psalms appointed for this evening was Psalm 139. This is the one that talks about how we cannot escape God’s presence, and that we are fully known by him who made us marvelously. There is no possibility of slipping through the cracks, being forgotten or abandoned, not even the tiniest moment in which he is not fully with us.

Then there’s a brief section in which the psalmist asks God to slay the wicked, and proclaims how much and how perfectly he hates the enemies of God.

And then — then is this:

Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my restless thoughts.
Look well whether there be any wickedness in me
And lead me in the way that is everlasting.

In the Old and New Testaments there are stories of those struck down for various offenses against God, from offering strange fire or getting bored with manna or lying about how much one donated to the church… and yet here the situation looks different.

Here it looks as though God is most gentle and forbearing, perhaps even smiling compassionately at the irony, at the psalmist’s blindness to the wickedness of hatred, even so-called righteous hatred, and at his ignorance of God’s plans for his enemies — plans to invite them into the kingdom.

Dear Jesus, quite frankly, I wish those other stories weren’t even in the Bible. I’m not really sure what to do with them. It is hard to be certain that you are with me, and for me, as this psalmist describes, and that I am in no danger of being struck down like those others, who seem no more wicked than I am. As long as it is possible for you to strike anyone down, it is easy for me to fear the same danger, even at the foot of the cross. Teach me your ways, show me your paths.

Psalm 65

The Mission St. Clare website offers the following opening sentence for today’s evening prayer:

Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Psalm 141:2

Sounds like it’s written in exile, a time when it was impossible to have the regular temple service. The psalmist asks that his prayer could take the place of the appointed incense offering and burnt offering. It also makes me think of how Israel found ways to continue worship when the temple was destroyed.

There were two psalms appointed this evening — several verses from the second one, Ps. 65, struck me.

2 To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
3 Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.

“Our sins are stronger than we are” — in our own power we can’t do anything to overcome or outweigh our sin. Instead we look to God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. (Is the sacrificial system implicit in this passage? Or is it instead arguing that God does not require sacrifices to enable him to blot out sins? Perhaps this psalm is also exilic, quietly disregarding the discontinued sacrificial system…)

4 Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
5 Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.

Calling God the hope of those who are far off indicates the broad availability of salvation; referring to those he chooses indicates that some might not be chosen. I admit I hope it turns out that all will be chosen, all drawn to his courts, to be satisfied with him, although I have not yet found the arguments for universalism to be entirely persuasive.

7 You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.

I wonder, did the disciples, and those who heard about it, think of this psalm when Jesus calmed the storm?

Sin

When I was in therapy with Joe Bauserman, from time to time we would get talking about sin. (Joe was one of the most integrated people I’ve known — not just a psychologist who happened to be a Christian, or vice versa; not just plastering psychology with Christian jargon, nor just applying Bible verses as psychological band-aids.) Sometimes he would tell me I wasn’t yet ready to talk about sin — too many misconceptions and too much baggage getting in the way of understanding. Sometimes he would talk about how, fundamentally, sin is about waywardness — as in Jeremiah 2:

5 Thus says the Lord,

“What injustice did your fathers find in Me,
That they went far from Me
And walked after emptiness and became empty?
6 “They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’…

13 My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me,
The fountain of living waters,
To hew for themselves cisterns,
Broken cisterns
That can hold no water.

In my parenting journey, I have come to think of sin in children quite differently than I used to, which has led to questioning the doctrine of sin in general. Continue reading

Law and law

Psalm 40 was appointed for this morning. Some folks will know it from the U2 song – it’s the psalm that begins:

I waited patiently for the Lord, and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.

Just a few verses later is this one:

Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; my ears You have opened; burnt offering and sin offering You have not required.” Ps 40:6

We talk about how anyone who thinks they have received a word from God should test that word against Scripture, because God will never reveal anything that is contrary to any word he has given in the Bible. Isn’t this why Peter hesitated when, in his dream, the angel told him to eat of the unclean animals that the law forbade? Isn’t it why Hezekiah refused to ask for a sign when the angel commanded him to? (It was Hezekiah, right?)

How then can the psalmist argue that God has neither required nor desired the temple sacrifices, which were (so it says) indeed commanded by God?

But it seems Scripture itself affirms that Hezekiah and Peter should have obeyed the angel instead of Scripture, and the biblical letters do testify that the apostles were right to declare that the Gentile Christians must not be compelled to obey the laws that marked Israel as set apart from the nations… How much simpler it would have been if, when God gave the law in the first place, he’d not said that it was to be a permanent statute, unchanging forever.

How do you trust Scripture when either God changes his mind and goes back on his earlier words, or else the Scripture writers ascribed the wrong things to God? And how are we to judge the testimony of those who claim to have heard from God, if what they have heard is contrary to any part of Scripture?

This morning’s lesson from Galatians contributes to this discussion.

It begins with Paul arguing that even in covenants between people, it’s not okay to change or dismiss it once it’s been ratified. Paul is talking about the promise to Abraham, which was given before the law was given; therefore, he says, the law does not negate the promise. That’s not what the law was given for – it was given “because of transgressions” – to reduce the expression of evil? To name sin as sin, thereby declaring everyone a sinner, until the time of Christ should come, bringing the promise to fruition?

Again… why not make it explicit, when the law is first given, that it will serve a temporary purpose, and give the sign that will indicate that its time is over? And again, what did Jesus mean when he said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it?

If at some times “the law” refers only to those markers of distinction, such as food laws and circumcision and temple sacrifices, and other times “the law” refers to God’s standard of moral and spiritual righteousness, such as the Ten Commandments, it would be nice if the biblical authors had made it clear each time which meaning of “the law” they intended.

Chosen

The psalm this morning, part of 119, included this verse (54):

Your statutes have been like songs to me wherever I have lived as a stranger.

Which got me thinking about how one function of the Law, particularly things like circumcision and food laws, was to mark Israel as different from the surrounding peoples — the chosen people, God’s own people. When in exile, or just traveling in a foreign culture, it can be comforting to run into reminders of your own culture, especially anything that you particularly value about your own culture, and/or that seems particularly righteous or good or true or beautiful. So here we have a Law that is righteous in itself, and that also comfortingly reminds the sojourner of his status as one of God’s chosen.

(What it means to not be chosen is a subject for another time; for now I’ll just say that Israel’s chosenness is to involve mission — it is not supposed to be insular.)

I also liked this verse (68):

You are good and you bring forth good; instruct me in your statutes.

What is certain (ha ha — of course this belief is subject to doubt and fear as well) is God’s fruitful, redeeming goodness. What is less certain is our understanding of him, of his law and grace and salvation and justice and mercy, of ourselves and of others, of time and history, and of everything else — but we don’t need to figure it all out before we are counted faithful or welcomed into the covenant family. Let us persist in bringing our requests — including requests for understanding — earnestly and honestly before God.

Getting it right

Tonight’s psalm is Ps. 44. One of the things that strikes me is how confident the psalmist is that Israel has done nothing wrong — that they are keeping the covenant just fine. I don’t remember any stories about a time like that, when faithful Israel was given over to enemies. I remember a lot of stories of opposite moments, when Israel, caught up in idolatry, the worship of false gods, and also failing at social justice, was given over to enemies.

Also, verse 5: “Through you we pushed back our adversaries; through your Name we trampled on those who rose up against us.” There’s quite a bit of this sort of thing in the OT — an us and them mentality, in which God’s having a chosen people is about making them victorious at the expense of all other peoples, instead of being about the chosen people being a vehicle for the blessing of God to flow to all other peoples. That strand is also throughout the OT, though. I’m not quite sure how they fit together. In the one strand there’s a sense of judgment against idolatry, falsehood, injustice, and so on; and that’s good, because those things are not good. If only that strand didn’t so often take the shape of us vs. them. Anyway, my first thought on reading this verse was maybe these are the people who will say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord, what about all the stuff we did in your Name,” and he’ll say “I never knew you.” (How do the universalists deal with that passage, by the way?)

The Gospel lesson is the second half of Mark 5. It includes one of my favorite stories, especially in light of what I was talking about yesterday. The woman with chronic bleeding who touched Jesus’ robe? And he makes a point of seeking her out and giving her his full attention, face to face. It’s still just a single moment… but he could have easily just kept on walking. The frame for this story is the story of Jairus’s daughter. Why does Jesus tell the people she is not dead but sleeping? It’s a lie, right? Or did he know something about her illness that we and the people did not know?

One of the things I have been noticing lately, in the Mass and the Office, is the prevalence of the word “mercy.” This is a good word to have prevalent, a word dear to those who feel the need of it.

Longing

In tonight’s Evening Prayer, the appointed psalms were 42 and 43. Many evangelicals will know 42 from the “As the deer” song. The two psalms are linked by a refrain that occurs twice in 42 and once in 43:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

This evening, it’s the longing that strikes me — the ardent desire for God, to be forever in his living presence, to see his face.

It reminds me of two other psalms — 63, particularly as sung by Matthew Ward of Second Chapter of Acts, and 27, particularly as in two songs: “The Lord is my Light” by John Foley, and “One Thing Have I Desired” by the Maranatha Singers. (Wish I had a recording of a folk group doing this one! Funny how odd the original sounds when you’ve learned a piece through churches and other groups.)

On a side note, I was just searching YouTube earlier today for a folk mass setting of the Gloria that I remembered singing with my college roommate and the folk group at her church, and it turns out it’s by John Foley, too: “Glory to God.” And he also wrote a piece our church sometimes sings — “One bread, one body.”

The Gospel lesson this evening was Mark 5:1-20 — the story of the man who, possessed by a legion of demons, lived among tombs screaming and breaking chains. Jesus cast out the demons, who then entered a herd of two thousand hogs and hurled them into the sea. (Did Jesus make any reparation to the owner of that herd? He’s the one who gave the demons permission to enter them.)

Reading the stories about Jesus is sometimes a troubling endeavor — so many people never got near him, never had a conversation with him, only watched and listened from a distance. Many had one fantastic blessed encounter — and then nothing more. This fellow is one of those; he “was imploring Him that he might accompany Him,” but Jesus sent him home to tell his story instead (Mark 5:18b-19a). Mission work is important… but isn’t it more important to have Jesus himself? How glad I am that I live in the days after his ascension, when his earthly limitations no longer apply. It’s true that, in this life, I will never see his face or hear his voice or feel his touch, but I will also never have to watch him walk away to minister to others, leaving me behind.