Songs of Ascent: Arrival

INTRODUCTION

I remember the first trip that I had planned for myself. I was traveling to Victoria, BC to visit some good friends. There was a lot of preparation for this trip – I was in the midst of intense planning that didn’t seem like it could afford two weeks off. There was paper work to get in place and meetings to happen. A couple of days before I left, a meeting happened that jeopardized the whole project. My journey to Victoria started in a state of confusion, being overwhelmed and wondering if God was truly with me. I imagine that is how some of the Israelites felt as they journeyed from Meshech and the desert to Jerusalem. A journey that started with the Israelites asking hard questions, proclaiming “woe is me” and wondering where God was in all of this as Jerusalem stood far away.

After a five hour flight, the plane descended into one of the most magnificent sunsets I have ever seen. The sun glistened on the waters and the colours of pink, orange and purple were brilliant – so brilliant that I can still picture that moment in my mind. Once landed, I was greeted by my friends who ran over to me. I had arrived – and it was wonderful. I remember being so filled with happiness that I was practically jumping for joy. I had made it in my journey to Victoria and it was good.

Today’s Psalms of Ascent are ones that celebrate having reached Jerusalem and how good that was. I invite you to turn with me to your pew Bibles.

PSALM 132

We begin today by looking at Psalm 132. This psalm stands out in the Songs of Ascents. It’s a longer psalm than the others and doesn’t seem to be a song in the same way. It seems to be a reenactment of a story that the Israelites had known well (2 Samuel 6-7). David had been trying to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The Ark was where God was believed to dwell. When the ark was present in a person’s home, that family was blessed. When the ark was present in battle, that nation would be strong. It was considered holy – so holy that irreverent acts led to death. David struggled to bring this ark to Jerusalem, which is what the psalmist is referring to when he asks God to remember how David was deeply oppressed and brought low by this task.

David also wanted to build a house for the Lord – a Temple. Let’s pause for a moment. The psalmist tells us that David swore to the Lord, that he vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob:

“I will not enter my house

or go to my bed,

I will allow no sleep to my eyes

or slumber to my eyelids,

till I find a place for the Lord,

a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.” (NIV)

David had decided that God needed a house. And David had decided he would not rest until God had a house.

The plan seems well-intentioned. Let us go into His dwelling place; Let us worship at His footstool (NRSV). It would be a place of worship. Where the priests would be clothed with righteousness and the godly ones sing for joy.

The story in 2 Samuel (7:5-7) tells us what God thought of this plan. God gave a vision to Nathan the prophet:

Go and say to My servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt, even to this day; but I have been moving about in a tent… Wherever I have gone with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel which I commanded to shepherd My people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built Me a house of Cedar? (NRSV)

David’s plan is backwards. God had always directed where the Ark of the Covenant would go by the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day (Wilcock, pg. 241). God does not need David to build a house for Him. Instead, God has chosen Jerusalem to be his resting place. God has chosen to bless the people of Israel by making Jerusalem his home.

And it is good. God will abundantly bless Jerusalem with provision, satisfy the needy with bread. God will clothe the priests with salvation and the godly ones will sing aloud for joy.

I wonder… are there times in our own lives when we insist on doing things our way and God has other plans? Perhaps God wants to bless us with his presence and more than what we imagined and we need to surrender our own desires and plans to God.

Psalm 132 also points forward. During God’s response to David, the Lord makes three references to the future leadership on the throne of David. First, he says Of the fruit of your body I will set upon your throne. Second, that his sons shall sit upon your throne forever. And that in Jerusalem, the Lord will cause the horn of David to spring forth. This latter reference also means to blossom, perhaps playing on the words to spring forth. It is a reference for giving birth. There is also a reference to preparation for God’s anointed one – which is sometimes translated as Messiah.

Here we see a reference to the coming of Jesus. God will bless the line of David and through David will bring the anointed one, the Messiah. Through this Messiah, the enemies will be clothed with shame but the Messiah’s crown will shine. This coming of the Messiah will be good. The Lord will make his dwelling place among the people for ever and ever. The hungry will be fed, the searching will be blessed. There will be singing and dancing in joy among the godly ones.

PSALM 133

Arriving in Jerusalem, with God abiding there and promising to send continual blessings through the anointed one is a glorious thing. What a different place the Israelites are in from the beginning of their journey! Here we move into our next psalm. Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! The Israelites prior to this journey would likely have been scattered. Jerusalem would be a point when all the Israelites would gather together in community.

Imagine for a moment how good it feels when someone returns to the church for a visit after moving away. It is a time of rejoicing and celebrating in one another’s lives. It’s a time to catch up and see what God has done. Now imagine the joy that would be experienced if all Christians came and gathered together to share what God has done in their lives and to celebrate each other. How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!

The psalmist likens this joy to two different images. The fragrant oil upon Aaron’s head is spilling over his head and down past the edge of his robes. This image of Aaron’s beard may be strange for us. For the Israelites, they would have connected themselves with the patriarchs, with family lines. The image of precious oil coming down Aaron’s beard was a poetic way of saying that the line of Aaron and all who are connected with him are blessed.

The second image is the mountain of Hermon which experienced significant air moisture and dew. The unity of the Israelites gathering was like the dew of Hermon overflowing and coming down upon the mountains of Zion. The dew is so great that it cannot be contained.

Here as the Israelites journey up to Jerusalem, the blessings of God are coming down. The psalmist mentions this coming down of blessings three times, giving us a sense that this community is overflowing with blessings and goodness (Wilcock, pg. 244).

PSALM 134

And now the Israelites have gathered in blessed community and much like we are gathered here today, they gathered to worship the God of all blessings. So I invite you to say psalm 134 with me.

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord

who minister by night in the house of the Lord.

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary

and praise the Lord.

May the Lord bless you from Zion,

he who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

The journey ends with a call to worship – we are to bless the Lord. Day and night, we are to thank him, to praise him, to worship him.

And the Lord who made heaven and earth blesses us. The Lord that brought us safely to this day and to this place of worship, blesses us. The Lord who brings us into community, blesses us.

APPLICATION

How do we bless the Lord? One author writes that “to bless God means to recognize his great richness, strength, and gracious bounty and to express our gratitude and delight in seeing and experiencing it” (Piper). At the end of morning prayer, the leader says “Let us bless the Lord” and the rest of us respond “Thanks be to God”. In our liturgy, we recognize that all that we have experienced in worship has been given to us through God’s grace.

How do we bless the Lord in our everyday lives? As we attend to our jobs that demand much of our time? As we care for our family members day and night? Or perhaps some of us here today are called to bless God in the midst of want and need – whether that be needing a job or wanting a family or something else? How do we cultivate gratitude in our daily lives?

How do we become a community in which all people are welcomed into our midst and experience the precious oil and the dew of Hermon over flowing? Is our community one in which the stranger, the outsider can find a home? People who are not like us? Who look different? Act different? Believe different? The journey of ascents was likely for Israelites – but the horn of David, the one whose crown will glisten – came for all people. Christ came so that all may experience the blessings of God. After all, this is God’s home and God will decide who will dwell in his holy house.

CONCLUSION

Today, as we end our time with the psalms of ascents, let us look back over the past few weeks and the journey that God has taken each of us individually and as a church collectively. Let us celebrate and bless the Lord for all he has done and for bringing us to this day, to this point in our journey. Let us give thanks for His presence that he blesses us with. Let us give thanks for one another and the beautiful community we have here. And let us worship the Lord in his house today and every day. Amen.

He went away grieving: A reflection on Mark 10:17-22

He was shocked and went away grieving for he had many possessions. The Gospel of Matthew tells us this man was rich and the Gospel of Luke tells us he was a young ruler and so this man has traditionally been referred to as the rich young ruler.

It was custom in those days to seek a teacher who is both educated in the scriptures and draws in a crowd by their teaching to ask them what they might do to inherit eternal life. This wasn’t so much a reference to the future as to the here and now. A typical teacher would answer by giving their take on the law and in particular the commandments and would invite the inquirer to follow their sect (NT Wright).

This young man didn’t quietly seek Jesus. Instead he ran to him and knelt in front of him. Here is a man who understands that this Jesus is someone special. The rich young ruler was there to ask Jesus what he thought of the law and what kind of movement he was leading.

I can imagine Jesus playing with the rich young ruler to see how much he really understands when he calls Jesus “good”. Jesus replies by asking, “Why do you call me good? Only one is good and that is God.” This is more than about words. It is about Jesus’ divinity. By claiming that Jesus is good, did the rich young ruler realize he was claiming that Jesus was God?

Jesus then answers his question – you know the commandments:

You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother

The rich young ruler says that he has been keeping these commandments since he was young.

Jesus loved him. There is something admirable about someone who is trying to keep the 10 commandments and is seeking the truth. Then Jesus gazes deeply into the young man’s eyes with a piercing love that sees right into the soul. “You lack one thing”

Notice which of the 10 commandments Jesus did not mention:

  • Putting God first
  • No idols before God
  • Not taking God’s name in vain
  • The sabbath
  • and covetousness

Once again, Jesus gets at the heart of the matter. The rich young ruler was so attached to his wealth that he couldn’t sell everything to put God first and follow Jesus.

So the rich young ruler went away deeply sad.

He relied on his own wealth too much to rely on God.

Afterwards, Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” and that it will be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”

The problem here is not the wealth itself. I know many faithful and wealthy people who serve God and who use their wealth to generously fund God’s mission around the world. The problem is not what you have in your bank account.

The problem is the attachment to money. The problem may not even be related to money. The problem is relying on something other than God.

Probably searching their own hearts, the disciples ask Who can be saved then? If a rich young ruler who is following most of the commandments and seeking the Good teacher cannot be saved because of the wealth is there any hope for me?

Jesus replies: With people it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God.”

So what about us? For some of us, this is our second worship service we are attending today. We try to live a good life, though we admittedly do not live a perfect life. We seek God in prayer and His word. If you and I sat down with Jesus today and asked what we must do to inherit eternal life, what would he say as he lovingly peers into our souls? What would he say to you that you need to hear so that you could trust him more?

Perhaps because I have been a perpetual student, I’ve been protected from the attachment to wealth. But I am not protected from doing things on my own strength.

Often in ministry, I am tempted to think and act as if it all depends on me and that I must care for the person out of my strength instead of looking to the God who cares for the person more than I ever could. I rely on myself, my gifts, my strengths, my skills and sometimes forget all together that really it is only God who can transform, heal and change a person. As I imagine Jesus lovingly peering into my soul as I reflect on this passage, I imagine him saying to trust him, to lean on him, to forget myself.

I might walk away deeply grieved and saddened for this often seems impossible for me.

But I know this is not the end of the story. For God is in the business of making the impossible possible. All we need to do is trust and to follow Jesus. We need to take that next step. For the rich young ruler, it was to sell his belongings. For me, it might be to remember that God is the only one who saves.

The sad thing is that the rich young ruler walked away. He just couldn’t do it. He didn’t ask for help. He just walked away in grief.

May we let Christ peer lovingly into our souls and speak to what we lack. May we also turn towards Christ in response instead of walking away. May we see that God takes what is impossible for us and makes it possible in him. Amen.

Giving All

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A group of kids taping their written prayers to the walls of a church in Toronto

The other day, I watched the documentary “Jesus Camp”. It’s about a radical group of Christian fundamentalists in the US and how they train up their children. It’s not a movie for the faint of heart – I had to watch it in two parts as there was much that was troublesome. There was also much that I know all to well. So I don’t recommend the film. But it’s made me think, which of course, is the purpose of documentary.

One of the key pastors looks at how radicalized muslim youth are trained from a young age and indoctrinated with values and ideas about the world as well as a belief system that leads them to want to sacrifice themselves in acts of violence for the sake of their pure radical vision. She looks at Christianity and how watered down it can become, how lazy we can be about our faith and points to the muslim example that we should be at least as radical as they are. That we should train our children that the Christian faith is worth dying for. That fasting and prayer are important.

Her tactics are wrong. But she has a point.

Did you know that one of my devout Muslim friends gets up at 5 in the morning to pray? I have trouble getting up early enough to pray before I have to go out of the house and I don’t have to get up nearly that early! And this isn’t the only time that she gets up to pray. Conversations with my Muslim (and for the record, a non-radicalized one), taught me about a religion that took prayer and fasting very seriously – perhaps more seriously than many Christians, including myself.

Another couple of Muslim friends have taught me about generosity. Even though I was an employee, they showered me with generosity, often topping up my pay check, offering me food, giving gifts. They also offered listening ears and encouragement in everything that I did – whether that be school work or Christian work.

Meanwhile, I am trying to finish up a course on Church history and have been reading about some of the great people of our faith. Some of them would give up everything they had to go and live lives of prayer in the desert. And some had a lot to give up!

I disagree with the methods of “Jesus Camp” and the theology that it tried to indoctrinate the children and youth with. But I wonder, in 2016, how do we be – and raise up – people who would give everything up for Jesus. People who love Him with their whole hearts, minds, soul and strength who would devote all that they are and all that they have to Jesus. People who would serve those who are abandoned, unloved, hungry, poor, alone. People who stand out and whose lives point to Jesus in all that they do.

Trusting God

It was one November night. I had a long day at school. I was tired. And I got a Facebook message: “Can you help us?”

I put my school work down, grabbed my phone and a book, and hopped onto the streetcar to meet with a family in crisis. And I entered a story that truly broke my heart. And as I have watched it unfold, I have shed many tears and had sleepless nights thinking about the people involved and wondering where the heck God was in all of this mess.

As my heart continued to break and I became more entrenched in the story, people who love me kept telling me that I need to entrust this family to God.

What?

Sorry, but I know all to well what that can look like. There is a reflection in the Celtic Daily Prayer (Book 2) that I’ve been thinking a lot about as I feel like a whole community gets it.

Once you’ve heard a child cry out to heaven for help,
and go unanswered, nothing’s ever the same again.
Nothing. Even God changes.

But there is a healing hand at work
that cannot be deflected from its purpose.
I just can’t make sense of it, other than to cry.
Those tears are part of what it is to be a monk.

Out there, in the world, it can be very cold.
It seems to be about luck, good and bad,
and the distribution is absurd.

We have to be candles, burning between hope and despair,
faith and doubt, life and death, all the opposites.

William Brodrick

It’s true – once you’ve heard a child cry out to heaven for help and that cry go unanswered, nothing’s the same.

And yet I am to entrust the people I am called to serve to God?

In the past week, I’ve felt God saying to me that I need to learn to trust him, really trust him, with the people who I care about – trusting that he loves them more than I ever could. Knowing that he sees the big picture and I only see a glimpse. That he knows what is infinitely good for them – and for me – which is something that I’ll never be able to see with the limits of my finite mind. And that I need to learn this if I want any hope of serving in ministry without burning out.

And so, with fear and trembling, I’m doing things a bit differently this semester. I’m taking a full slate of courses. There are details to figure out. Like how I’m going to pay for them! But God has always provided so I’m not that worried. But there are five awesome courses on scripture, prayer, preaching, integration and evangelism.

And I’m pulling back a little bit from full time ministry. I’ll still be heavily involved. I just won’t be as obsessively involved as I was last term. I won’t have the time to constantly check up on people (when it was needed or not). I will have to learn to entrust them to God.

Revisited: New Year’s Resolutions

Two years ago, I sat at my computer to create a rather ambitious list of resolutions that I knew I’d fail at least one of them by day 2 if not before. That wasn’t the point. The point was to try to reorient my life and make lasting changes of the heart and not just behavioural changes. I knew I wouldn’t succeed – and as I read my list today, I think there is only one that I have consistently maintained over the two years.

Two years later, it’s time to revisit these goals. Some of the goals are impossible even when trying my best. Some goals need to be tweaked to be made possible. Some goals need to be added.

So here we go.

1. To maintain a rhythm of Daily Morning, Mid-Day, Evening and Compline Prayer

2. To immerse myself daily into Scripture

3. To read a book a month and to jot down a few notes of each to be compiled at the end of the year

4. To write every day – whether this be a blog post, a journal entry or a paper – something to keep the writing juices flowing

5. To pray for our political leaders.

6. To accept whatever comes as if it comes from God. To joyfully give thanks in everything, even those things that I do not like or do not understand.

7. To stay on top of readings for school and assignments.

8. To create to do lists and do what is on the list

9. To exercise regularly. To provide a physical outlet for stress and frustration. To lose weight. To increase health.

10. To be gentle with myself. I am quick to say “It is what it is” in refering to other people’s situations but am never that kind to myself. To say to myself only what I would have the courage to say to a friend.

11. To write notes of appreciation and gratitude

12. To make my own coffee. I’ve ‘adopted’ local coffee shops as a way of living missional in the neighbourhood. But the cost of coffee this way is high and my budget is small. I can buy coffee grounds from local stores.

13. To make sure I schedule at least one coffee with a friend each week.

14. Make one new meal a week. I love to cook. Like really really love to cook. I need to do it more.

15. To eat breakfast.

16. To keep Sabbath. Even when it’s hard.

17. To go unplugged for 24 hours at least once a month.

18. To keep my place organized so that I am prepared to offer hospitality at the drop of a hat.

19. To save money. I live under the poverty line but I still seem to have more than I need.

20. To buy what I will eat, and to eat what I buy.

21. To support local businesses.

22. To designate a time each week for chores. I no longer have the luxury of laundry in my own place. And the work I keep meaning to get to seems to take a long time before I actually get to it. But I prefer a tidy kitchen and it’s easier to keep it as such.

23. To snuggle with my beloved cat and bunnies each day, and to enjoy being loved unconditionally by this creature God has given me to care for.

24. To decrease packaged foods or foods with preservatives or other additives.

25. To increase how many foods I will purchase fair trade.

26. To only buy used clothing and dishes. To replenish the stock at second hand stores with items that I no longer use or don’t fit.

27. To only buy books for school.

28. To stay on top of paper work. To file my taxes on time. To catch up on my taxes. To replace my ID when it needs to. To change my address. To file paper work. Basically to be organized.

29. To drink more water every day.

30. To travel somewhere outside the province.

31. To say no if I can’t do something or don’t want to. To weigh each opportunity with what God is calling me to. To remember that the need is not the call.

32. To give generously of my time and resources, remembering that to whom much is given, much is expected.

33. To worry less. To trust that God is with me and that He is big enough to take care of the details of my life.

34. To go to some live music every month. The city has lots of free opportunities along with opportunities that are low in cost.

35. To get outside every day, if only for a walk around the block or to the coffee shop.

36. To remember and acknowledge people’s birthdays. On time.

37. To feel fear or anxiety – and to do it anyways. To take risks and to congratulate myself for doing so. To try new things.

38. To regularly learn about the saints.

39. To wash the dishes before bed.

40. To freely give, and to freely accept,  knowing that all good things are God’s to give and receive.

A Light in Darkness

December 24, 2015 1 comment

 

IMG_0654.jpgThis was a message I shared at a gathering that marked and remembered that Christmas is difficult for many.

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I belong to several Facebook groups and decided to share that I was gathering with some friends tonight to mark that Christmas is difficult and to welcome them to join us. Between the various groups, I got over 100 likes, comments and private messages. Christmas is hard for many people.

Hallmark, TV and the stores try to sell us a story that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year – that if we by the right present, hang out with the right person and wear the right clothes this Christmas will be the best Christmas we’ve ever had. And if you can’t do this – Santa will. I remember feeling shocked at a modern Christmas song that says that Santa is the answer to the prayers I’ve had all year. A bit of a strange thought to think that Santa knows my inner desires that well and rather disappointing to think that Santa – the great giver of gifts – will put something under my tree that is the answer to prayers of deep longing.

For any of us who are struggling with loss, depression, estranged relationships, poverty, illness and a whole host of other things life deals us, that kind of Christmas is empty and leaves us wanting. To quote the Grinch – maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe it’s about something more.

I’ve been thinking about the story that is the reason for the season. One of the words of wisdom we read talked about the life-light coming into the world. Christians believe that was Jesus. But what I love about the words that follow the ones we read is that God in Jesus moved into the neighbourhood. God subjected himself to be born of a woman – an unmarried Mary. Stigma and judgment still exist today when a young girl becomes pregnant but back then a woman could be killed. Without Joseph keeping his commitment to marriage, Mary and the baby would have become destitute. He was born in a manger which I am sure looked different than our tidy nativity scenes. I worked on a horse farm for a few years and while these horses were well kept, the barn stunk and I went home smelling like the stinky barn. The first visitors to great this life-light were a bunch of shepherds – people who were so poor they had to sleep out in the fields with their sheep. More than that – they also stunk and were so dirty that the temples would forbid them from entering.

Jesus had a messy start to life – not quite the beginning we would expect for God coming to earth. But the messiness didn’t end there. Around age two, Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt because the king in charge felt threatened by this young child and was out to kill him. Jesus as a young boy taught in the temple and his own parents didn’t understand him. He healed the sick and fed the hungry and the religious rulers of the day plotted to kill him.

Jesus lived in the darkness that we live in. He knows what it is like to hurt, to be sad, to be alone. He knows what it’s like to not have a roof over his head. He knows what it is like to be misunderstood by his family. He knows what it is like to be rejected by his friends. He knows political injustice that kills innocent people because of unfounded fears.

As Sufi poet Rumi says, The wound is the place where the light enters you.

I believe that Jesus came to earth as a helpless babe in a stinky manger worshipped by the outcasts and lived a life as light in the darkness so that wherever we are at, we can know a God who understands our deepest pains and longings. I believe that as we open our wounds to a God who knows us and knows what we are going through, the light enters us.

But more than that – Jesus was not overcome by the darkness of this world. The religious and political rulers of the day had their way in putting him to death on the cross. But he overcame death in his resurrection. The light overcame darkness.

And I believe that the light can overcome the darkness in our own lives. That as we let the light into our wounds, that light will fill us and we will become light. We will have opportunities to be light and show light to others walking in darkness. In the end, darkness does not win.

So we gather tonight, in brokenness and pain as Christmas draws near. As Leonard Cohen sings, there’s a crack, a crack in everything. We are not alone in our brokenness. But let us remember that while that crack is there and we may not be able to do anything ourselves to change that – the crack is where the light comes in.

Make my heart to grow

There is a prayer in the Northumbria Community that I really love called Saranam (Refuge). Whenever it comes up in the monthly cycle of prayers and meditations, I pull it out and put it on my Facebook.

Make my heart to grow
as great as Thine,
so through my hurt
Your love may shine,
my love be Yours,
Your love be mine,
saranam, saranam, saranam.

Today is different.

Today I realize God has been answering my prayer.

Today I realize I’ve prayed a dangerous prayer in a sense.

Over the past few months, I have been continually made aware of brokenness in our world. Families struggling to make ends meet. People struggling to get to today’s end.

Stories that I cannot write on here. Stories that are not mine to tell.

Stories that break my heart. I mean – really break my heart. Stories that make my heart hurt so much I cannot help but let the tears pour out.

Stories that take me to the end of my knowledge and experience and then push me beyond.

Stories that I wish sometimes I could wake up and find that the world is a happy place after all.

I prayed for this. Not in these words. But I prayed that God would enlarge my heart to make it as big as his. Through this prayer, I’ve asked God to show me – really show me – what he sees in the world, in the lives of those around me. I’ve asked for a heart to hold what He holds.

And that is why it is a dangerous prayer. For I have wept more tears in the past few months than I can ever remember. This glimpse I have into my portion of the world is heart breaking.

And maybe the only thing that is comforting as my heart keeps breaking is that found in the God who is revealing these things to me – his heart breaks. He understands. And he is big enough to hold my heart as it breaks while he shows me what I need to see for my heart to grow as big as his.