20160831

All The Noise Is Vain

O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you. — Psalm 39.4, 7

How do you put Christ at the center of every longing, joy, and cry when you have what you want? It’s one thing to cry out to God when life is falling apart—another thing entirely to look to him when everything is going as planned.

As an infant Isaac Watts “nursed on the steps of the Southampton jail where his father was imprisoned as a Dissenter,” the Poetry Foundation notes in the now famous hymn-writer’s biography. Had Watts’ life stayed in a state of poverty at the fringes of society his music and recorded prayers could be explained as a grasping for help from any place he could find it.

Yet Watts’ life excelled far beyond his unstable beginnings. After his formal education concluded, The Poetry Foundation continues, “Watts was to become a prominent educator whose textbooks and educational theory were republished in Britain and America for more than a century.” He also published four volumes of poetry, 750 hymns, hundreds of sermons, and seven books that span a number of fields.

In all his success, Watts grounded himself in the scriptures and prayer. His book The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament provides a glimpse into this world. Watts’ interpretation of the words of Psalm 39 reveals the power of success moored to to the transcendent glory of God:

Teach me the measure of my days,
Thou Maker of my frame;
I would survey life’s narrow space,
And learn how frail I am.

A span is all that we can boast,
An inch or two of time;
Man is but vanity and dust
In all his flower and prime.

See the vain race of mortals move
Like shadows o’er the plain;
They rage and strive, desire and love,
But all the noise is vain.

Some walk in honor’s gaudy show,
Some dig for golden ore;
They toil for heirs, they know not who,
And straight are seen no more.

What should I wish or wait for, then,
From creatures earth and dust?
They make our expectations vain,
And disappoint our trust.

Now I forbid my carnal hope,
My fond desires recall;
I give my mortal interest up,
And make my God my all.

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 3 (Listen – 4:41)
Psalm 39 (Listen – 1:49)

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20160830

The Price of Restoration

Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good. Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me! — Psalm 38:20–21

Evil is more than the sum of present circumstances. When we reduce the idea of evil down to its discrete occurrences we not only underestimate its profound power in our world, but risk missing the ultimate solution.

  • If evil is simply the events that fill our news apps each morning, then the solution is simply the return of stasis to an off-balance world.
  • If evil is a material problem, then it has a material solution. Each time there is a mass shooting in the U.S. science runs to explain the cause in terms of psychology and biology—the message is clear: solve the problem in our genome and tragedies go away.
  • If evil is just the fringes of humanity run amok, then we are able to deal with it on our own through governance and jurisprudence.

Christianity depicts evil in all its darkness. Evil is not an illusion; it’s deeper than circumstance—piercing our hearts and wounding our souls. Evil is spiritual before it is material—making each of us victim and perpetrator of its sting.

And so the intellectual exercise begins: if God is truly good, he must not be powerful enough to stop evil. And if he’s truly powerful, he must not be good enough to care.

The authors of Scripture depict God not only as good and powerful, but as sacrificial. Evil runs so deep in our world that the solution—the restorative power of the cross—tore the trinity apart.

Yet rather than holding the cross and resurrection as a miracle that ushers in global restoration and re-creation, recent misconceptions in Christian theology have reduced Christ’s sacrifice to a mechanism that establishes individual merit before God. This view essentially holds individual atonement as its own category—relegating “the problem of evil” to an intellectual exercise that is as complex as it is unsolvable.

We can turn our eyes to him who has paid a price we could not pay, and offered a solution we could not generate; or we can shake our fists and blame him for the evil we see. Though if we were to pronounce a sentence appropriate for a God that would create this kind of world we find he has already served it.

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 2 (Listen – 1:38)
Psalm 38 (Listen – 2:14)

20160829

What Shall Be

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. — Psalm 37:5–6

Dedicate yourself to God and he will act. But what happens when he doesn’t? How are we to understand God in a world riddled with injustice and unanswered prayer?

“In our culture we imbibe an understanding of language that is positivistic,” Walter Brueggemann explains. “That is, we believe that the function of language is only to report and describe what already exists. The usefulness of such language is obvious. It lets us be precise and unambiguous. But it is one-dimensional language.”

As a collection, the Psalms represent a wonderfully textured worldview and theology. An individual Psalm looks at God with profound faith—“the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord!”—while another crumbles in utter despair—“O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?”

Ultimately the Psalms move away from the language of simplistic belief, developing a robust and buoyant understanding of God that embraces his majesty moving over time, and through his people, to restore the brokenness of our world. “Save us, we pray, O LORD! … The LORD is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us.”

We can choose to read the Psalms as representative of faith in an ancient culture—an ancient time when simple faith was possible—but there is a richer way of understanding them. In the Psalms we find the language of heaven. We glimpse, if for a moment, the glory of what God has already started and will be faithful to complete. Brueggemann concludes,

In using speech in this way we are in fact doing in a derivative way what God has done in the creation narratives of Genesis. We are calling into being that which does not yet exist.

The bold symbolic use of language in the psalms is restive with what is. It races on ahead to form something new that never was before. This language then with its speech of liberation is dangerous and revolutionary, for its very use constitutes a threat to the way things have been.

The language of the Psalms permits us to be boldly anticipatory about what may be, as well as discerning about what has been.

Today’s Reading
Ezekiel 1 (Listen – 4:47)
Psalm 37 (Listen – 4:21)