Think Again

Often at night I lie in bed and remember You,
    meditating on Your greatness till morning smiles through my window.
You have been my constant helper;
    therefore, I sing for joy under the protection of Your wings.
My soul clings to You;
    Your right hand reaches down and holds me up.

-Psalm 63:6-8 The Voice

Sometimes relief from the exhaustion of wrestling with worry and anxiety is a matter of replacing intrusive thoughts that recycle disappointment and diminishing hope with better thoughts, like thoughts of God’s greatness, of dreams fulfilled, of joy in the morning. Sometimes when our hearts ache and start to slip down the slope of dismal forebodings, our Helper and Protector gently suggests it’s time to change the diet of despair we are feeding our souls.

Sometimes, it’s not the time to escape into denial and thoughtlessness. Sometimes it’s time to have another thought, a better thought, a Holy Spirit-breathed thought. Sometimes it’s time to think again.

By the Waters of Comfort

Relieve and comfort all the persecuted and afflicted;

speak peace to troubled consciences;

strengthen the weak;

confirm the strong;

instruct the ignorant;

deliver the oppressed from him that spoileth him;

and relieve the needy that hath no helper;

and being by us all, by the waters of comfort,

and in the ways of righteousness,

to the Kingdom of rest and glory,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

-Jeremy Taylor

I sat in a waiting room this week. I knew before I got there the wait would be long. The day after Christmas and New Years holidays were over had a fun-is-done back-to-business feeling at the medical lab. It may have been business-like, but there were so many feelings swirling about in that room.

Legal measures taken to protect patient privacy are trumped by thin curtains between beds or loud conversations between patients and a masked receptionist behind a plexiglass wall. It reminds me of a scene from the old comedy show “Get Smart” when secret agents are covered by a “cone of silence” which required them to yell because they couldn’t hear each other. When the plexiglass wall of silence is in the middle of a crowded waiting room, all pretense of privacy is gone.

Some people are mortified at having to explain what is in the sample bottle they are dropping off and they avoid eye contact with other humans for the rest of the day. Others don’t seem to care. In fact, some people give their information freely (and repeatedly due to the impediments to communication). Then they take a number, sit down, and look for someone to tell their troubles to. There are a lot of troubles expressed in a crowded waiting room at the hospital lab in the week after the holidays.

I’m not good at blocking the sights and sounds out. I’ve been given advice on how to ignore sad stories whether they are told in winces and groans or given in long detailed descriptions, but I know what it is like to cry and not be heard. So I listen. It’s something I actually like about myself, so I’m not likely to take the advice to block people out. I can’t imagine a caring Jesus blocking out people out. Prioritizing getting away to a quiet place where he could hear his Father’s voice? Yes, but not by pretending he didn’t notice or treating people as if their stories were not important. He always brought encouragement.

It’s the getting away to be heard by our heavenly Father, and to listen to His peace and kindness that heals our own souls and allows us to walk in hope in the middle of hopelessness. The comfort he has given us is shareable. It’s called compassion.

Earlier, while waiting for my husband at his own appointment, I was able to stop by the lake on a cool cloudy January day. There, by the waters of comfort, I found peace in the presence of the Lover of my soul. I could continue a day of tests of various types knowing, no matter what, I am loved and therefore able to extend love. And when I’m running low, I’m learning there’s plenty more where that came from.

Midwinter

In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

-Frederick Buechner

The Road Back: Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Why Should I Fear When Evil Days Come?

For thousands of years, people who have had the most possessions have been in positions to buy power. That fact is obvious. We’ve seen evidence that “Money talks,” and, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” We are all aware of evil around us that is financed by those who trust in themselves more than anyone else.

Before the Messiah showed up, not many people were in on the secret that God’s plan of salvation involved the poor and lowly people in this world. Young pregnant Mary was. One of my favourite pieces of music is her prophetic poem recorded in Luke 1, “The Magnificat,” which J.S. Bach set to music. It includes an aria for contralto with these lyrics: Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes. (The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.)

The Sons of Korah understood before Mary did. After returning to the role intended for them, they spent their days worshipping in God’s presence in the temple. They were in a position to hear God’s voice. The introduction to Psalm 49 includes these lyrics:

My mouth will speak words of wisdom;
    the meditation of my heart will give you understanding.
I will turn my ear to a proverb;
    with the harp I will expound my riddle:

The words of wisdom were these:

Why should I fear when evil days come,
    when wicked deceivers surround me—
those who trust in their wealth
    and boast of their great riches?
No one can redeem the life of another
    or give to God a ransom for them—
the ransom for a life is costly,
    no payment is ever enough—
so that they should live on forever
    and not see decay.

(Psalm 49: 4-9 NIV)

No one, even Solomon in all his glory, was rich enough to ransom a soul from Sheol. We all die, and our wealth is useless at the most important moment of all eternity. “This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings.” (verse 13)

And yet the psalmists knew God had plans to pay the price and that someday they would see the manifestation of this promise: “But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself.” (verse 15)

I don’t know about you, but I get a bit scared when I see evidence of the days growing darker. Sometimes I feel helpless under the influence of evil people who do what they like and cover it over by buying good P.R.. But this is nothing new. I’m reassured by the Sons of Korah, who invite us to step back and see a bigger picture. In the end, material wealth and self-reliance fails spectacularly. Only God could pay the price for a soul. Only Jesus, who is both the baby crying in a manger, and the King of Kings who conquered death, could afford to give us eternal life.

“Esurientes” has a playful flute duet weaving around the sound of the voice. It feels like a dance of joy popping out in hopeful measures with the humour of an inside joke., “The hungry he has filled with good things and the rich he has sent away empty!”

The Road Back: Psalms of The Sons of Korah, “With Our Own Eyes”

Psalm 48

Jerusalem, The Eastern Gate, From the Inside

As we have heard stories of Your greatness,
    now we have also seen it with our own eyes
    right here, in the city of the Eternal, the Commander of heavenly armies.
Right here, in our God’s city,
    the True God will preserve her forever.

We have meditated upon Your loyal love, O God,
    within Your holy temple.
Just as Your name reaches to the ends of the earth, O God,
    so Your praise flows there too;
Your right hand holds justice.

(Psalm 48:8-10 The Voice)

When I was a young child, I thought World War II happened in a place where everything was black and white. All the stories about the war were in black and white, well grey actually, because the films were shot in black and white and shown on black and white television. Then one day I saw a colour film of the people in the Netherlands coming out of their shelters to greet the Canadian soldiers who had fought for their freedom. It seemed more real. Then my uncle, who had been there, told us what it was like then and what it was like when he returned decades later to the same demonstrations of honour. That was even more real because someone I knew had been there. I watched his face. He had seen it with his own eyes.

It’s one thing to hear stories, or read stories, or study stories. It’s another to see it with your own eyes. Generations of the Sons of Korah had heard stories about God’s greatness, but in Psalm 48 the generation of a new era sings about what they have seen and experienced in the reality of life in Jerusalem. This is the account of what happened on the first day in the temple David’s son, Solomon, built:

When the Levitical priests returned to the crowd from the most holy place (for all the priests who were present had sanctified themselves for this special occasion, regardless of their duties), all the Levitical singers (Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and their sons and their relatives) were wearing fine linen, standing east of the altar, playing cymbals, harps, and lyres, along with priests blowing 120 trumpets. In unison, the musicians and singers with trumpets and cymbals and instruments praised and glorified the Eternal.

Levitical Choir: He is good! His loyal love will continue forever!

At the sound of the music, the Eternal’s temple was filled with a cloud, the glory of God, which prevented the priests from continuing to minister to the Eternal. The descent of the glory of God filled the house of the God of Israel. (2 Chronicles 5:11-14)

It was a sight their ancestors never imagined when they decided to rebel in the desert. The sons of Korah knew what it was to be bereft of hope (see Psalm 43). Now the restored generation of worshipping Sons of Korah wanted not only to celebrate what they had experienced, but to tell the next generation.

So because of Your judgments,
    may Mount Zion be delighted!
    May the villages of Judah celebrate!

Explore Zion; make an accounting,
    note all her towers;
Reflect upon her defenses;
    stroll through her palaces
So that you can tell the coming generation all about her.
For so is God,
    our True God, forever and ever;
    He will be our guide till the end.
(Psalm 48:11-14)

When people ask me why I talk about God so much, I say I can’t help it. In the temple made of living stone, in the place where the Holy Spirit dwells and where I meditate on his love, I have seen the greatness of God. I have experienced his love and sensed his glory.

I want to tell what I have seen. Like the restored Sons of Korah in the temple and like the disciple Philip in Galilee who went to look for his friend, Nathaniel I want to urge, “Come and see! We have found the One. Moses wrote about Him in the Law, all the prophets spoke of the day when He would come, and now He is here—His name is Jesus!” (John 1:4)

Come and see!

The Road Back: Psalms of the Sons of Korah, The Wedding Psalm

Overflowing

Psalm 45 is called the Wedding Psalm because it describes a bridegroom and a bride. At first it seems like a flattering poem written by someone who is a bit over the top with enthusiasm.

Beautiful! Beautiful! Beyond the sons of men! Elegant grace pours out through every word you speak. (verses 2 and 3)

Then the praise seems to pole vault over esteem for any human I’ve heard of.

Awe-inspiring miracles are accomplished by your power, leaving everyone dazed and astonished! (verse4)

Wait. This is not about King David or King Solomon.

Your glory-kingdom, O God, endures forever,

for you are enthroned to rule with a justice-scepter in your hand!

You are passionate for righteousness, and you hate lawlessness.

This is why God, your God,

crowns you with bliss above your fellow kings.

He has anointed you, more than any other,

with his oil of fervent joy,

the very fragrance of heaven’s gladness. (verses 6&7)

Going back to the introduction, it appears the author/s were not merely exaggerating to gain political points. This was no meeting of a deadline to write something extra nice for a royal wedding. What the son or sons of Korah experienced here was a spiritual experience beyond what most people knew. I’m quoting from The Passion Version because it attempts to include emotional content.

My heart is on fire, boiling over with passion.

Bubbling up within me are these beautiful lyrics

as a lovely poem to be sung for the King.

Like a river bursting its banks, I’m overflowing with words,

spilling out into this sacred story. (verse 1)

I have no trouble imagining someone who limited their concept of God to intellectual debate accosting the singer/songwriters with the question, “Who is this king you are calling God? And where is this in the Torah?”

They might have been especially upset when the song mentioned this God-King marrying a pure and glorified bride.

And standing beside you,

glistening in your pure and golden glory,

is the beautiful bride-to-be! 

Now listen, daughter, pay attention, and forget about your past.

Put behind you every attachment to the familiar,

even those who once were close to you!

For your royal Bridegroom is ravished by your beautiful brightness.

Bow in reverence before him, for he is your Lord! (verses 9b -11)

Other prophets wrote about feeling overwhelmed when the Holy Spirit came upon them for a purpose. They called it fire in the bones, or an intense need to be purified, or falling as though dead. Sometimes they needed days to recover. The writer of Hebrews verifies that this psalm is indeed about Jesus, God’s son.

But about his Son, he called him “God,” saying,

“Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever

and you will rule your kingdom

with justice and righteousness, 

For you have cherished righteousness

and detested lawlessness.

For this reason, God, your God, has anointed you 

and poured out the oil of bliss on you 

more than on any of your friends.”

(Hebrews 1:8,9)

This was a glimpse of the future, but by itself the meaning of the psalm remained a mystery for a very long time. The writer of Hebrews explains:

Throughout our history God has spoken to our ancestors by his prophets in many different ways. The revelation he gave them was only a fragment at a time, building one truth upon another. But to us living in these last days, and now speaks to us openly in the language of a Son, the appointed Heir of everything, for through him God created the panorama of all things and all time. (Hebrews 1:1 & 2)

Psalm 45 is a prophetic word picture of an event that wouldn’t be explained until John, who wrote down his vision in the book of Revelation, told us about the great marriage celebration of Jesus and his bride, the purified, sanctified, glorified ones he came to redeem.

“Hallelujah!

For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns! 

Let us rejoice and exalt him and give him glory,

because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come. 

And his bride has made herself ready. 

Fine linen, shining bright and clear,

has been given to her to wear,

and the fine linen represents

the righteous deeds of his holy believers.” (Revelation 19:6b – 8)

The Psalms of the Sons of Korah are probably not in chronological order of the dates they were written. That tends to be a western way of organizing things. It’s hard to tell where this ecstatic bank-bursting overflowing words experience occurred on the road back from shame that began with the rebellion of their ancestor in the desert, but I’m often surprised by God’s timing and who he picks to pass on these fragments that over millennia create a fuller picture of who he is and reveal his plan since the beginning of creation. I think one of the purposes of prophecy is not to give us a program with a list of events in order of appearance. A lot of prophetic words won’t make sense until the time comes to recognize that this thing happening now was foretold. This is that. Through prophecy, God gives his people re-assurance that he knows all about it. He’s been in it all along. He’s not surprised or anxious. He’s got this.

I’m very grateful he leaves clues for us like a trail of mysterious crumbs that urge us to find the one who left them there. Perhaps the Sons of Korah needed to get their eyes off the pain that is so evident in some of their psalms and venture out, taking steps of faith toward him by singing a song that must have made people at the time scratch their heads.

Encounters with God can be scary out-of-the-box events for which we have no grid, but they create a hunger that makes us want more.

And there is more.

The Road Back; Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Psalm 43


 

Have you ever experienced the cold judgment in this statement? “Oh. You’re one of those.”

The Sons of Korah knew what it was like to be maligned as descendants of a disgraced ancestor.

In Psalm 43, they plead for vindication. They have been falsely accused. They know what it is like to be misunderstood. When others rejected them, particularly people who carried religious authority, they may have felt that God rejected them too. When it happens often enough, the subjects of dismissal may start to question their own perceptions. Sometimes they may doubt their value and place in society. At other times they protest their innocence. It’s confusing. They need clarity on their journey to the place of worship. They write:

Plead for me; clear my name, O God. Prove me innocent
    before immoral people;
Save me from their lies,
    their unjust thoughts and deeds.


You are the True God—my shelter, my protector, the one whom I lean on.
    Why have You turned away from me? Rejected me?
Why must I go around, overwrought, mourning,
    suffering under the weight of my enemies?

O my God, shine Your light and truth
    to help me see clearly,
To lead me to Your holy mountain,
    to Your home.

Psalm43:1-3 The Voice

I wonder if this is why one of the first people to whom Jesus revealed his true identity as Messiah was a shamed, rejected woman from an ethnic group held in contempt by Jews – the Samaritan woman at the well. He told her that soon the place of worship would not be a physical location, but in spirit and in truth. What a difference that encounter made in the way she saw herself! That joyful moment instantly transformed her into a bold missionary. “Come and see!” she urged neighbours back in the town. She was no longer avoiding anyone.

Hiding is a characteristic of people who carry shame. It’s hard to be yourself among those who would judge you for your associations. Worship that is pure and holy requires a level of trusting candour. It makes us uncomfortably aware that others have said they don’t consider members of a shamed tribe as acceptable. It’s easy to subconsciously wear their judgment after years of disrespect.

Our mothers taught us as very young children that to be polite and considerate we need to keep some parts of ourselves hidden in good company. I am in no way advocating public nudity! I’m just saying there is no point to wearing metaphorical masks or costumes in God’s presence. It’s not as if he doesn’t know everything already. In a sense honest, humble prayer means praying naked (metaphorically!).

When we invite God to shine his pure clarifying light on our lives, it will expose things we need to acknowledge, confess and allow the Lord to clean up. It shows us how to change direction. That purifying light will also expose lies we have believed. It reveals the difference between false identity and true identity. We are not who the accuser says we are. We are who our Heavenly Father says we are. We have nothing to hide. This is freedom. It is a freedom the Sons of Korah long for. Verse 4:

Then I will go to God’s altar with nothing to hide.
    I will go to God, my rapture;
I will sing praises to You and play my strings,
    unloading my cares, unleashing my joys, to You, God, my God.

Psalm 43 ends with the same declaration as Psalm 42. I’ll leave verse 5 here in The Voice paraphrase.

O my soul, why are you so overwrought?
    Why are you so disturbed?
Why can’t I just hope in God? Despite all my emotions, I will hope in God again.
    I will believe and praise the One
    who saves me and is my life,
My Savior and my God.

The journey continues.

The Road Back: Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Part II

All your waves and breakers have swept over me.

Thinking about hidden stories to be found in the genealogies of the Bible that I once thought boring (Part I) made me think about my own. Unexpectedly, I discovered research that someone else had done on my family’s ancestry. What a thrill when I opened a page full of the symbols of royal heraldry! Some ancestors were leaders and innovators and heroes. Some were not. I also found despots, drunks, and deadbeat dads.

Children are more perceptive than we realize. I picked up a sense of shame when I was a kid. Over time, I gathered clues to the unspoken story that leaked out in photo albums, overheard conversations, and hints like the fact my grandfather forbade the mention of his father’s name. Recently, with the help of archived newspapers online, I discovered the family fortunes took a drastic downturn after an incident of criminal negligence that resulted in the death of mothers, children, a fiancée, and shop workers heading home on Christmas eve. My great grandfather failed to attend to a safety matter on a tram system in a large eastern city. He was drunk. The family lost their big house, their wealth, and their status. Old photos no longer featured my grandfather as the child dressed in velvet and ruffles. He became the dirt darkened boy clad in worn overalls. Instead of the elegant brick house, his mother stood in front of an unpainted shack. Her husband was not with her.

My great grandfather’s father was the illegitimate son of someone with money in England who paid for him to go away. Like many others whose mere existence was an embarrassment, he was given cash and passage to the colonies when he was old enough. He wasn’t a good father either. When his wife died, he gave his children to someone else to raise.

We all carry inherited shame since our first forebearers chose to believe the serpent’s lies. Some are more aware of rejection and the mark of shame than others. In shame/honour societies like the culture of Biblical times, being kicked out of the tribe is the ultimate punishment. Until recently, western culture has been based on guilt and forgiveness. A person who has broken a law can be redeemed after anything from issuing an apology, or making restitution, to a fine, or serious jail time. It’s possible to come back after “paying his debt to society.” In a shame/honour society, there is no forgiveness, no yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree. There is only shunning.

One way to tell if you are still operating under the guilt/forgiveness system is if you find yourself being dismissed or “cancelled” and respond with, “But I didn’t do anything wrong!” In a shame/honour society you don’t have to be guilty of breaking any law to suffer rejection; you merely need to have said or done something that identifies you with other rejects. In this system once a person has “lost face,” especially in public, there is no coming back. In this system the outcasts didn’t just DO something wrong; they ARE something wrong – and so are their families and their dog.

But God’s plan for the outcasts is different.

Sometimes victims of injustice form new tribes like David and his Mighty Men – re-echoed in the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Those who band together often maintain a common sense of being shamed, but still long for vindication and restoration. Perhaps this is why the Sons of Korah still carried their identity as the descendants of a traitor. Perhaps David learned something from being on the run.  In the rocky terrain of the desert he took physically gifted rejects from society and turned them into a band of warriors fighting for justice. Perhaps this is why, after his vindication, he took a band of artistically gifted poets and musicians and gave them a public position back in the tent of worship.

But it takes more than a new job and fancy clothes to change how a person sees themselves. Psalm 42 reveals that the Sons of Korah still struggled with discouragement and shame and depression. This psalm is a cry of longing for personal revival. It begins:

 As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Step one on the road back to a closer relationship with God is admitting that all is not well with one’s soul. It’s responding to the question “How’s that workin’ for ya?” with an honest assessment of, “Not very well. In fact, not well at all. I am consumed with longing to stop hiding in shame and walk with God again.”

Verse 4 says:

These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

We can be doing all the religious things but still feel like we’ve lost something. The joy of the Lord may feel illusive. We don’t want to stay like this.

Then the Sons of Korah take another step. They recognize their poverty of spirit but dare to hope. There is a moment between overwhelming waves of emotions of loss and despair when we start to take charge of them by declaring a truth we may not yet feel.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

But the struggle is real. It’s a life and death back and forth battle in the heart between old lies and new truths.

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?”

The psalm ends with an act of faith by choosing to do what God has made them for and a repetition of the declaration.

Then I will go to the altar of God,
    to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the lyre,
    O God, my God.

 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

The journey back has begun.

By day the Lord directs his love. At night his song is with you, even if you can’t quite hear it yet.