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Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Focus Scripture: Psalm 25: 1-10 On three of the first four Sundays in Lent, our focus reading is a psalm, not always the preacher's first choice for a text. Taking a longer look, however, we can see great value in entering not just the psalmist's inner thoughts and prayers, but the prayer life of Israel itself. We find that we are not so very different from our ancestors in faith in a place and time however distant from our own. Like many psalms, this week's reading includes both prayer addressed to God and faith claims about God. Also, at times, within the very same psalm, it feels as though the psalmist is going in more than one direction emotionally and spiritually. While the lectionary reading includes only the first ten verses of Psalm 25, it's helpful to read the entire psalm to sense the range of emotion it expresses. Sometimes the psalms shock us with decidedly "un-Christian" prayers for vengeance, but we usually edit out those troubling phrases for public prayer. We're missing the point, however, when we avoid the raw honesty of the psalmist's "cry of the heart." Today's psalm, of course, only asks for protection from foes who hate the psalmist with a "violent hatred" (v. 19). One wonders at times whether we're hearing from an extrovert who's processing out loud, or from an introvert who has written down the deepest struggles of his soul. In any case, Brian Erickson observes that the psalms "read more like monologues than conversations, exercises in spiritual eavesdropping" (Feasting on the Word). If we set aside all judgment and preconceptions, and approach the reading humbly and openly, we hear the inner heart of the psalmist at work, struggling with fear, anger, frustration, and distress, and then climbing to a secure place of trust, close to the heart of God. The psalm moves back and forth, at one moment complaining about the "wantonly treacherous," and then turning abruptly to humble prayer, asking to know God's ways and to receive God's mercy. If we're really honest, wouldn't we admit to the same sort of mix of conflicting feelings in our own inner life, if not in our prayers? Perhaps we're tempted, or trained, to keep our prayer life "proper," that is, polite to the point of being dry, sterile, and at times, even obsequious. We're convinced that we've got to avoid saying the wrong thing or using the wrong words, let alone showing the kind of emotion that might roil within us. We keep a cap on our feelings and our inner thoughts, even while we long to draw close to the One who formed us and knows us in the depths of our being. Feelings are things that we handle with exercise, therapy, medication, acquiring things, any number of distractions. But prayer is for proper thoughts and acceptable feelings, just praise, just thanks, just certainty. It's no wonder then that we don't emerge from prayer strengthened and renewed and that we're not drawn back, again and again, to regular times of prayer. What better time, then, than the season of Lent to examine our prayer life for its honesty in expressing our deepest hopes and beliefs about God? Lent: that time when we might make some "extra" room for God and pay some extra attention to our spiritual life. Advent doesn't feel the same as Lent, and it easily gets lost in the bustle of Christmas preparations around us. But Lent happens at the bleakest time of year for many of us, when nature is brown and rainy and chilled, and the snow (up north, at least) is getting old, very old. We know spring, new life, is coming, but it's hard to remember what its warmth, its greenness, feels like when late winter weariness bears down on us. The setting is right, then, for a wilderness mindset, not the beautiful wooded wilderness we want to preserve but the stark, barren wilderness, the kind where the Hebrews wandered and Jesus was tempted. Even if nature around us and our living conditions themselves don't conspire to put us in the wilderness physically, we sometimes attempt during Lent to create a kind of harsh and austere time period that trains us, conditions us, to greater spiritual health, much as we might go on a strict diet or a demanding exercise regimen for the health of our body. Unfortunately, most of my childhood memories about "giving up" things for Lent are about the amount of time I spent thinking about those very things! Spiritual disciplines can slide into programs to make ourselves acceptable in God's eyes, purer, better – another kind of achievement to pile on the others. However, Valerie Bridgeman Davis introduces the season of Lent with the observation that during Lent, in our efforts at spiritual discipline, we might learn something about "human nature and God's graciousness. We learn that even when we want to do right, we struggle internally." This is about what happens inside us, and our inner life deserves and demands our attention and time. "But," Davis writes, "we would be narcissistic and individualistic if we do not also experience the forty-day's journey as a time to pay attention to the world in which we live. The fast that only seeks to heighten our personal piety is not as desirable as the fast that will call us into prophetic action" (New Proclamation 2009). And that may strike just the right note for our Lenten disciplines. The world does not encourage us to tend to our inner spiritual life, in fact, it does everything it can to distract us from such efforts. If Lent inspires us to focus our energy and attention on our relationship with God, perhaps we will indeed draw closer to God, and when Lent is over, we'll want to stay in this new place. Or perhaps we will discover that we have made room for God right where we are. The psalms are a good companion for us as we set out into the Lenten wilderness. Thousands of years later, our hearts respond to the words, "To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, O my God, in you I trust," as well as "All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness." And yet we also look around and feel pressed down and wonder why others are against us, or why people are treacherous, or why violence rules in the world. Perhaps we find that polite, evenly worded prayers don't work as well in that case as a raw cry of the heart that goes in more than one direction and speaks with harsh honesty. The psalm's prayer for protection from enemies might seem a bit of a stretch for us today, when our faith rarely puts us in danger. What sort of spiritual enemies do we face? Daniel Schowalter suggests that "the greatest battle most Christians will ever fight is within themselves: a battle between self-interest and God's interest." We're in a war of sorts, caught between the call of God and the demands of a world that rewards "self-promotion," not weakness: "Being humble in the twenty-first century is often interpreted as being weak, and weakness is too often thought to be intolerable" (New Proclamation 2006). What does it mean, in this setting, to offer up one's soul? Is it a temporary offering, or is a lifelong, wholehearted gift? Concentrating on "gift" is a good way to begin our Lenten practice, recalling the great gifts of God's love in every age. That's what the psalmist does: he remembers God's steadfast love "from of old," not just in his own lifetime. This is a deep, inner-life, close-relationship love or, as John Hayes puts it, "Between the worshiper and the Divine lies the passion of God's love" (Preaching the Christian Year B). For the most part, we're familiar with our Christian faith, but Lent originally was a time for new converts to prepare for baptism at Easter. It was a long, hard road to this new life. Brian Erickson challenges us today: "The early Christians used the same evangelical strategy that Jesus did: brutal honesty. And so rather than entice prospective recruits with the many benefits of the Christian path, they highlighted the great costs. God's ways are not our ways. Following Christ cannot be a part-time hobby. Faith is more than dogma and discipline; it is also direction" (Feasting on the Word). One is reminded of Bonhoeffer's "cost of discipleship," and one also can't help but wonder how our new member classes and evangelism ministries would be transformed with this early-Christian strategy! This brings us back to the psalmist's prayer, asking to be shown the paths, the ways, the truth of God. Those ways are not easy, even for modern, apparently comfortable Christians, for our spiritual practices and disciplines prepare us to walk a long and sometimes lonely path. Reaching past our own wants and needs to care for the world God loves, to work tirelessly (even when we're tired) for justice for God's children (all of them, not just some, and certainly not just for us), to risk and to share and to love, to change ourselves and the way the world does things...all of these practices shape us, mold us, fashion us into more faithful people. We can't stay in our rooms, or remain wandering in the wilderness, but must set out on the paths of God. Erickson quotes Frederick Buechner, who writes, "If you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are." And, Erickson observes, "Lent is a time to choose who we will be and whose we will be" (Feasting on the Word). Additional Reflection on Genesis 9:8-17: We are especially prone, in the church, to concentrate on what we are doing or not doing in our relationship with God or, for that matter, what we are doing (or not doing) in the world. One of the tasks of the pastor and preacher is to call us back, to remind us that it's not all about us, but about God. It's about what God is doing and has done not only here and now, but in times long ago and in a future we cannot even dimly see. The Noah story of destruction is a difficult one for preachers (not to mention church school teachers, unless they domesticate it with cute pictures of the animals riding in the boat, without mentioning the death and destruction that necessitated the ride; Noah and his boat are a theme for toys and nursery decorations!). These early chapters of Genesis have marvelously diverse images of a God who on the one hand tenderly makes clothing for Adam and Eve and takes walks in the garden at evening time, and yet on the other hand orders the destruction of all living things in the wake of sin and wickedness. However, this text is about remembering and reminding, and about relationship. Even God needs to be reminded, in this case by a beautiful bow (ironically, an ancient weapon) in the sky, of a promise God makes out of tenderness and compassion. This is not Noah's idea, the text indicates. God initiates the whole plan, the promise and the bow and the reassurance it offers. Yes, Noah has offered a fragrant offering after landing on dry ground, but God is the one who comes up with the idea of a promise, along with a reminder in the rainbow. Our Lenten readings will say much about the relationship of humans and God. What does this story tell us about our ancient ancestors and their view of the world? Their view of God? The first thought that occurs to God after Noah's offering is a resolution never again to "curse the ground because of humankind...nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done." Do you believe that God needs to be reminded of that promise, or of any promise God makes? Readings in future weeks will speak of covenant in terms of Israel, but this covenant, this beautiful moment of reconciliation and peace, is a universal one with all peoples and with nature itself, all living creatures. The blessing is for all, too, a renewal of the blessing at creation, along with the command to exercise dominion. At the beginning of our Lenten journey, how does this text speak to us about our relationship with God today? How does it call us to remember our relationship with the earth and with all living creatures? The Noah story is one of power and the checking of power. What power do we have over nature, and how have we used and misused that power? What do we need to remember in order to be in right relationship with God, with the earth, and with all peoples? What vision of reconciliation might we hold out to the world, as people of faith?


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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