The War Within

 

This is a mashup of a whole bunch of psalms I wrote a little while back. There are few scriptures other than psalms and a little bit of my own writing. It is a lament for the pride I carry in my heart and the fact that I have many conflicting wills opposing one another inside my soul. It is a plea to God to bring peace to the chaos and unite my soul as one house so that I may have only God’s will guiding me and I may live in peace.

 

Be merciful to me, my God,

For my soul is a house divided against itself

I oppose myself at every turn

My adversary pursues me.

All day long he twists my heart;

    His schemes are my ruin.

He conspires against me

He lurks at the door hoping to take my life;

Do not let him overcome me;

    In your anger, God, bring my pride to ruin

What can my enemy do to me?

He trembles in fear of the Lord

Whose eternal word I praise

So when my heart overflows with terror

And floods my soul with useless worries

And causes me to doubt what is eternal

And beckons me to have faith in what is fleeting

And I find myself worshiping idols

And putting my trust in the works of human hands

And human honours

And human victories

I cry out to you:

 Lord Lord!

Record my misery;

    list my tears on your scroll—

    are they not written in your book?

Do you not know the anguish I bring upon myself?

You have searched me, Lord,

    and you know me.

    you are familiar with all my ways.

For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

My heart was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your love knew my undivided soul;

Each moment of my life was written in your book

    before this battle began.

Where can I escape from your Spirit?

    Where can I flee from your presence?

If I could go up into the stars, you would meet me there;

    if I swam to the bottom of the sea, there you would be waiting also

There is no shadow which can hide me from you

For even the darkness of night shines like the morning sun in your eyes

Lord, hear my prayer,

    listen to my cry for mercy;

The enemy pursues me,

    he makes me live in darkness

like those long dead

Search me, God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

In your unfailing love, silence my enemy

See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.

God is our refuge and strength,

    an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we must not fear, though the earth give way

    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

For, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,

it remains only a single seed.

But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Come and see what the Lord has done,

    the desolation he has caused in my heart

He makes wars cease

And unites divided houses

    He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;

    he beats swords into plowshares

And throws the weapons of war into the fires of Hell

The Lord says, “Be still, and know that I am God;

Why are you crying out to me?

Do not be afraid.

Stand firm and you will know deliverance from your suffering

    Praise my name in your heart

And I will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;

  He prepares a table for us in his house

Where enemies dine together

and their cups overflow with goodness and mercy

There is a river which sings for joy in the house of the Lord,

    This river brings life to the tree in the garden

Which heals your soul and lifts the curse

Taste of this tree and your heart will be unbroken

And your mind will be made quiet

And your house will be made whole

So I make this vow to you, O God;

With an undivided will –

   To bring you offerings of thanks,

Love for all creation,

And compassion for my enemy.

There is only one thing I ask from you, O Lord,

this only do I seek:

that I may dwell in your house

all the days of my life,

For you have delivered me from death

    and my feet from stumbling,

that I may walk beside you

in the light of life.

Free as a Bird

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Jesus went around teaching from village to village.

Calling the Twelve to him, 

he began to send them out two by two.

These were his instructions: 

“Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.”

Mark 6:1-9

In the Gospel reading from Mark we just heard Jesus lays out some pretty clear and also very stark instructions for his disciples. He permits them to own sandals, a shirt, and a walking stick but nothing else. He instructs them to have no money, to stay as guests with other people, and to simply shake the dust off their feet and move on if people will not hear them.

Imagine what life would be like if we all, as disciples of Christ, lived the way he instructed those first twelve disciples to do. I think so often we forget that Jesus didn’t really call us to be comfortable, safe, and content. He never promised to make life easy and take away all our sorrows. He did promise, however, to give meaning to our sorrows and discomforts and to show us what is truly valuable in life.

You have to have a lot of faith in God to walk around with nothing but the most basic clothes and a stick. You have to really be ok with whatever God is going to bring you. It means you have to submit your comfort in exchange for His will. And I think this is one of the most essential things Jesus tried to teach us. He tried to show us that when we are living the truly holy life our values shift.

We no longer define good and bad as easy and hard or pleasant and painful. Jesus definitely showed us that what is good is not always pleasant. After all Good Friday wasn’t a very comfortable scene. But he does direct us as to what we should consider good (that is after we let go of our selfish need to be happy and comfortable all the time). He teaches us that faith in God and compassion for others is what the true good is.

To be a poor, wandering disciple of Christ (especially in those times) would have meant living almost like a wild animal. And that is disconcerting for a lot of us. Wild animals are constantly having to deal with things like the weather, predators, wondering where their next meal will come from, and never knowing what happens in the season finale of Dr.Who.

To us, in our comfortable little human world, it seems like a very difficult way of life. But our comfort comes at price, doesn’t it? We are constantly having to be clever. If you go by what the guidance counselors in high school say you have to have your whole life planned out by the time you’re 15.

We have taxes to file and bills to pay, we have to get the oil changed in our car and make sure the kids get to hockey practice, we have to get our hair cut and make sure we still have time to keep up with the walking dead. We put all our effort, our thinking, our love, basically our entire lives into maintaining this comfort we hold so dear. So where in this busy life do we have time for God?

I think that the passage from Matthew we read really holds true in our modern world. It is a beautiful reminder to live life one day at a time and to have faith in God and what he has in store for us. Jesus beckons us to live like the birds and to be more like the flowers in the field. He tells us that the natural world around us has it all figured out. It’s humans who have gone astray.

We have done everything we can to pretend we are above the rest of life. To create a space for ourselves that elevates us above the world God has made. What hubris! What arrogance we have to think that, out of our own cleverness, we have left the world behind and climbed our way up into Heaven. But we all know what happens when people try to build a tower up to God. The higher we climb, the harder we fall. And we can see that in the world now. Our modern world is a sort of tower of Babel and I think it is going to crash pretty soon.

I would even go so far as to say that we have become afraid of the natural world. Have you ever slept outside in the grass like a deer? Does that idea sound scary and weird to you? Would you ever drink water out of a stream like a bird? When did we become so far removed from this beautiful world God created for us?

And why can’t we just be comfortable and happy with life as it is like all of God’s other creatures? How did I ever get to the point where I can stare blankly into a fridge full of food and still feel like there is nothing to eat in the house? I am definitely not living life in the way Jesus told his disciples to.

I think the story of the fall in Genesis really illustrates this as well. Adam and Eve were living just like all of God’s other creatures. They were naked and eating the fruit they picked off the trees around them. It wasn’t until they tried to be more than God made them, to gain the knowledge of good and evil, that they were disconnected from the world around them and made to feel naked in their own skin and unsatisfied with who they were. God tells them as they are being exiled that from now on they will have to reap and sow in order to eat.

Well, agriculture is something we take for granted now, but there was a time when it was the epitome of human advancement. Reaping and sowing fields would have been to them like all our high-tech devices are to us today – a symbol of human ingenuity. I think that our expulsion from the garden is a metaphor. We are still in the garden, but we just see it differently.

The story of the fall is a commentary on the doubled edged sword which is our crafty nature. It helps us to ask the question “Is what we have gained worth what we have lost?” But there is another symbol in the story which is also important. God placed a flaming sword to prevent humanity from ever returning to the garden.

This means that whether we like it or not we can never go back to an existence without the knowledge we have now – we can’t unlearn. We made our bed and now we have to sleep in it. Luckily Jesus came to show us a light at the end of the tunnel. We may not be able to go back, but if we follow his example then we can move forward into the Kingdom of Heaven. We can learn to reconcile our cleverness with the natural world and realign our mental state so that we can live in harmony with nature once more.

To follow Jesus would have meant renouncing the highfalutin life of the Pharisees, the Romans, or the Egyptians and living more like a sheep in the pasture. Shepherds were very common then, not so much today.

But we can think of them like cowboys. In a lot of ways cowboys were the American shepherds. They lived out on the land with their livestock and weren’t involved in the pomp and circumstance of the people in town. Aside from the guns, liquor, and brothels they lived a life much more like what those first disciples of Jesus would have lived.

It makes me think of Johnny Cash, he sings an old cowboy song called “Oh, Bury me Not”. At the beginning of the song he adds a prayer (that I’m assuming he wrote but I don’t really know). My son and I recite it often before bed. I think Johnny Cash really does a great job of expressing that interconnection with nature that we are missing in our modern world.

With a poetic flare that I could never hope to emulate he describes what I think is the ultimate mystical experience. That is to completely be a part of the natural world and eternally grateful for a simple life. I would like to share it with you:

Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow

I loved creation better as it stood

That day you finished it so long ago

And looked upon your work and called it good

I know that others find you in the light

That sifted down through tinted window panes

And yet I seem to feel you near tonight

In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains

I thank you, Lord, that I am placed so well

That you have made my freedom so complete

That I’m no slave to whistle, clock or bell

Nor weak eyed prisoner of wall or street

Just let me live my life as I’ve begun

And give me work that’s open to the sky

Make me a partner of the wind and sun

And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high

Let me be easy on the man that’s down

Let me be square and generous with all

I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town

But never let them say I’m mean or small

Make me as big and open as the plains

And honest as the horse between my knees

Clean as a wind that blows behind the rains

Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget

You know about the reasons that are hid

You understand the things that gall or fret

Why, you know me better than my mother did

Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said

And right me sometimes when I turn aside

And guide me on that long, dim trail ahead

That stretches upward toward the great divide

So as you go about your life I encourage you to look upon every bird and every flower the same way Christ did, as perfect and in harmony with God’s will. Take our Lord’s advice and follow the example that they set for us. It is through and in nature that we come to understand God and ourselves. And it is only when we finally come to remember that we are a part of nature that the Kingdom of Heaven will be realized. All around us the natural world of God’s creation is singing praises to the heavens in perfect harmony with one another, it is our task to join them and praise God in unison with all creation.

eden

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

-Matthew 6:25-34

Job and the Wisdom of Suffering

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The Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

 “Who is this that obscures my plans
    with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?

-Job 38:1-7

The lectionary readings for today included one of my favourite passages from one of my favourite books. In my opinion, the book of Job is often misunderstood, underappreciated, and too often ignored altogether. It is a beautiful theological treatise on the nature of suffering and the human condition.

I would like to give you a very brief overview of the events in Job leading up to where our scripture started. The book starts with some information that we as the readers have, but Job and the other characters in the story do not. This a common literary device used in ancient Hebrew story telling – and we need to remember it as we go through Job, otherwise we can get lost in what the characters are saying and lose sight of what the book is telling us.

The opening scene shows us a glimpse of Job, he is a man without fault, one who has committed no sins, who loves and supports the people around him, and who worships God sincerely and regularly. God himself attests to the fact that Job is blameless and without sin.

One day, God’s heavenly court assembles with all the angels – and Satan is among them. All throughout the story, God is portrayed as a judge and heaven is understood as a court of divine law which distributes justice upon mortals.

God asks Satan what he has been doing, and Satan replies that he has been wandering over the earth exploring every part of it. Based on God’s reply we can assume he was checking up on people to see if they were righteous or not – for God asks Satan immediately what he thinks about Job.

God thinks Job is the best thing since sliced bread and Satan admits that Job is a great man – but suggests that it is only because God has given him such a good life. Satan argues that if God were to take away all the pleasures he has given Job that Job would curse him to his face.

Now I’m going to interject here for a moment – there are a couple essential pieces that we need to recognize in what just happened. One is how God and Satan interact and relate to one another. We have a tendency to think of Satan as God’s enemy, one who desires evil in the world.

We often have an image of a heavenly battle being waged between Jesus and Satan as if one was Darth Vader and the other was Luke Skywalker. And I will admit that there are parts of the Bible where one could get ideas like that.

But not in the book of Job. In this story Satan acts more like a prosecuting attorney in God’s court, in fact the name Satan means adversary, or one who opposes – that’s why Jesus called Peter Satan in the Gospel reading we heard today, because Peter was opposing what Jesus said and trying to lead him astray from what God wanted him to do.

In this story, God and the angel Satan are colleagues discussing the case of Job – judge and prosecuting attorney – and Satan does nothing without God’s permission.

The other important note to be made in this prologue to the story is the casual way a deep theological issue is introduced. That is – the question of the relationship between suffering and righteousness.

We all have experienced the fact that when we are suffering it is harder to be good. If you’re sick and had a long day at work you are more likely to grump at your partner when they leave their clothes on the bedroom floor.

But – If you’ve had a great day and you’re feeling well, you are more likely to be generous and clean up after them.  Our righteousness is completely tied up with our happiness. And this is the first piece of evidence Satan uses against Job.

“Of course Job is righteous, you’ve given him everything he could ever want, make his life hard and then we will see how righteous he truly is.”

These important pieces from the first chapter are information that we have, but Job and his friends do not. They do not know that God has declared Job to be righteous, they do not know that Satan and God are working together to test Job’s righteousness, and the do not know why God would allow any of the terrible things that are about to happen Job.

And terrible things do happen to Job. Satan and God together destroy Job’s life. His family is killed, his fortune in stolen, his body is covered in rotten scabs and disease. He goes from having the perfect life to a life of physical and emotional turmoil, poverty, and depression.

Job contemplates suicide, he wishes he had never been born, and he questions God’s goodness. In short, he has a very human reaction to a terrible turn of events. Eventually he finds himself sitting in a pile of dust on the ground, he’d torn his own clothing, and he’d covered himself in ashes and he had cut himself many times with a shard of broken pottery.

He was in the midst of a depressive and self destructive episode.

This is how his friends found him when they came to check up on him and most of the book consists of the conversation they all had together, Job and his three friends. I wish we had time this morning to go into detail about the conversation they had, but our time together is short.

So I’m going to skim over most of it and summarize the main points. His friends try to console him. First they join him in his pit. They cover themselves with ashes too and they sit in silence with him for seven days and seven nights. They wait with him there until finally Job is willing to talk.

Their conversation starts out with good intentions, they want to help Job get out of his depression and the advice they give him is meant to do just that. Unfortunately, they are completely wrong in just about everything they say to him.

The main theological point they use is one we often hear today – it is one I’m sure you’ve heard your friends and family use and one you may believe yourself. In our modern culture we’ve taken the word karma from the Eastern traditions and Westernized it to mean – what goes around comes around.

If we see someone cheating and stealing their way through life and then one day someone cheats them and they are left with nothing – we might say “well that’s karma for you”.

Or if you know someone who is kind and humble and hard working all their life you might have this unshakable feeling that all their goodness will one day pay off and they will get their reward.

While this is actually not even remotely what the ancient Indian yogis taught as karma, it is still a belief so inherent in the human psyche that people as far removed in time and space as Eliphaz the Temanite in the book of Job and Oprah Winfrey have claimed it to be true.

But that’s not real life – bad things happen to good people and God makes the sun shine on the righteous and the wicked alike. We all know it, and Job knew it, and that’s what this book addresses.

But all Job’s friends were convinced that he must have done some great awful thing in order for God to punish him this much. There must be a reason that Job suffers so greatly, he must have accumulated some bad karma somewhere because he is really getting hit hard.

Even though Job insists that he has done nothing wrong they come at him with more and more theological arguments to prove that he is a sinful man deserving of his punishment. They even use a common Christian belief as well, they say that all people are sinful and worthy of God’s wrath, they say that simply being human may be enough to justify God’s judgement and subsequent punishment of Job.

But Job refuses to accept these answers. He continually laments that God’s court is unjust, that it is not fair that he has no attorney to represent him in God’s court. And then God himself comes to speak to Job, after all his friends fail to bring him any wisdom.

As one of his friends was discussing the power of God to control the thunder and lightning an actual thunderstorm appeared where they were sitting and out of this storm God spoke to Job. And this where our lectionary reading began. Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?”

God accuses Job not only of speaking words with no knowledge to back them up – but more importantly he says Job has obscured his plans. As the readers of this story we are thrown back to the beginning, we remember that God has already declared Job to be righteous, his goodness is not in question.

It is the underlying cause of his goodness which God is testing. All of this has not been a punishment for sin, it has been a test to see if Job can maintain his righteousness in the face of great suffering.

Anyone here who has ever been a teacher knows that when you tell a room full of kids you’re giving them a test they groan and complain and say that you are trying to punish them. That’s certainly the kind of kid I was.

But every good teacher, and every wise student, knows that tests are not meant to punish, they are meant to help us grow. Teachers give us tests so that we can learn where our weaknesses are, so that we can allow our strengths to come to the surface.

God says Job has obscured his plans because he has been asking the wrong question all along. All their theological debates about why God was punishing Job were built on a faulty premise – Job, and all his friends, were working with the assumption that God was punishing Job and so their theologizing had come to nothing.

God asks Job if he was there when he laid the Earth’s foundation, if he understands who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst from the womb, if he has seen the gates of the deepest darkness, if he knows the way to where light itself resides.

And Job is faced with a stark realization. He is just a creature and God is the creator. All of their discussions searching for wisdom were lacking one essential quality – they presumed to approach the wisdom of God.

The same God who binds the chains of the Pleiades, who watches as the doe bears her young and counts the days until it’s birth, who makes the laws of the heavens, and by who’s wisdom the eagle takes flight.

Job is dumbfounded when God asks him by what authority he questions the dictates of Heaven. And so Job responds with the only reasonable response one could give. He says “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”

He admitted that all his theologizing, all his well thought out arguments that he wanted to present as his case in the court of the Lord, all his complaints that he knew were justified were all chasing after the wind – they amounted to nothing.

Then he realized that he was understanding God based on the words others had spoken about him instead of basing his opinions on an actual experience of God.

In the comfort of his peaceful life he had never bothered to demand an appearance in God’s court, he had never felt the need to seek God in the midst of the storm, he had never felt the need to see God.

But once he left behind that life of comfort, he was forced to take a long hard look at the understanding of the Lord he and his friends grew up with and accepted. Job’s friends were speaking back to him his own assumptions, assumptions they inherited from their culture and not from a real experience of God.

Up until this incident his ears had heard of God and that was enough for him, but now, through the chaos of the storm, he had seen God with his own eyes and understood his place in the natural world. So, sisters and brothers, must we allow the suffering of life to open our eyes.

They say that which does not kill you makes you stronger – but sometimes it can just leave you crippled. The choice is yours, you can argue with the Lord of Heaven and Earth or you can look around you at the trees and the lakes, the night sky and the rising sun, the changing leaves and the crocuses in the spring, and you can accept your place within God’s beautiful creation.

Let the hardships of life refine your love. Thank God for the opportunity to deepen your faith. And welcome, with heart sincere, the cross your saviour bids you take. And know that God is not punishing you, the trials of life are not the vengeance of a cruel God but the mercy of a loving God.

They are a gift which leads from the cross to the resurrection. They are the means by which we are saved and, if you choose to open your eyes and see God, they lead us into a life we never dreamed possible. After Job had his encounter with God he prayed for his friends, even though they had blamed him for his ruin.

He prospered and had a long life with many children. The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. And, if you can humble yourself before the God of all creation, you will come out of your hardships more blessed than you were before.

The correct response to great suffering is an appreciation for the beauty of creation and the majesty of God’s handiwork. Through suffering we join in solidarity the condition of all creation, just as Christ joined, in solidarity, with our condition. In suffering our eyes are opened to the immensity of life and we are taken out of ourselves and into something greater.

I saw a great little meme on Facebook the other day which read “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.” Now, I’m not suggesting we should enjoy pain and seek it out like masochists…but we can definitely find meaning in it because if we don’t our lives will have less meaning but the same amount of suffering.

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Then Job replied to the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.

My ears had heard of you
    but now my eyes have seen you

-Job 42:1-5