Man Of Steel

Some people just don’t know when to stop. Zack Snyder, director of this new Superman movie, is one of those. With films like 300 and Watchmen in his past we can’t say we don’t know what to expect. A slightly surreal comic book aesthetic, stylised destruction and violence, a lack of humour and a very loud soundtrack with Wagnerian pretensions. I’ll be honest: I haven’t enjoyed his previous films. Hopes were higher here, though – not least because Christopher Nolan is the producer and co-writer. If anyone could reign Snyder’s excesses in, its the man who can handle huge budgets, gargantuan expectations and big stars and still produce something exciting, commercially successful and that’s still artistically and intellectually satisfying.

The result is Snyder’s best film. To put that in context, it’s possibly the worst film that Nolan has put his name to in any form. Granted, in this age of dark superhero reinventions, Superman was always going to present a challenge. He’s too easy to poke fun at – red underpants outside the trousers, flying and an enemy called Zod. Seriously.

Snyder deals with this by constantly cutting back to Superman’s back story. Whether it’s his origins on Krypton born to Russel Crowe or his Earth-bound childhood of self-discovery with his father Kevin Costner these scenes are handled well. Lois Lane is the reporter trying to unearth if the elusive rescuer of people in danger is an urban myth, a figment of her imagination or an alien. All of this works well – it’s exciting, occasionally moving, and well handled. Crowe and Costner are especially well cast.

Where the film strays is with a distinct lack of wit and the climactic, seemingly endless battle with Zod. The missing wit and humour is notable because of the two scenes where it actually exists: one brilliant visual gag after a narrowly avoided bar-fight when Superman is still trying to remain anonymous; the other when he teaches himself to fly   – a scene which pops with exhilaration, grins and joy. In the aftermath of those you realise you haven’t smiled at all otherwise, and probably won’t. Snyder, crashing orchestral soundtrack and buildings together, wants to ram the portentous events down our throats, to see profound parallels, to take it all Seriously. We can’t. Because it’s too much and too long. The supposedly serious parallels (puberty, religion, identity) are so po-faced they wash over us; the wit so minimal we never have the chance to have fun. Christopher Nolan showed in his Batman trilogy that you can do serious superhero movies and still have fun; if he tried to teach Snyder this, then he didn’t get his point across.

British unknown Henry Cavill does a decent job in the lead role; he certainly looks the part and manages to invest the character with a modicum of depth. It’s a shame, that for all the bombast and spectacle, that’s lacking in the rest of the movie. When an actor of Richard Schiff’s skill is reduced to a few scenes where he stands and gawps, you’ve missed an opportunity. It’s not a bad film; there is much to enjoy. It just would have been so much the better 45 minutes shorter and with a sense of control. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel learns the a little less could leave us much more satisfied.

I rated this movie 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 6/10 on imdb.com

Searched and known

“you have searched me and you know me” (Psalm 139, verse 1)

How do you read that?

There are so many ways.

Do you take comfort in being searched, known, understood?

Do you worry what may be found, that of which you are not aware?

Do you fear that which you strive to keep hidden will be dragged blinking and shame-faced into the light?

Do you wonder at the motives?

Do you submit or seek escape?

Do you fight or fly?

I’m not sure how I understand this at present. The Psalm from which that handful of words is taken is one of the more famous ones, so often the source of ‘inspirational’ posters and social media memes, black print on blue sky telling us it will all be alright.

I should find it comforting.

But do I?

It’s hard to trust my instincts. It’s hard enough as one born in sin. It’s harder still if I’m in the grip of a depressive episode. Serotonin and its chemical companions are all over the place. Maybe there’s other stuff going on too. If there’s medication, what does that add to the mix?

In those circumstances, what can I trust? Thoughts rushing, emotions whirring, stomach churning, head pounding.

What’s God saying? He knows me.

Does He? Does He know this?

Or how about this, from elsewhere in that same Psalm:

“you created my inmost being;

you knit me together 

in my mother’s womb.”  (verse 13)

That helps, doesn’t it?

He made me … with chronic illness and tendency to depression.

Thank you.

He knit you together … wherever you find yourself born, with whatever you have to carry.

Fine if you’re one the minority. If not … how do you read it?

I don’t know.

“where can I flee from your presence” (verse 7)

Is he trying to escape?

No, but it could feel like it. He’s trying to say that wherever he happens to be, God is with him.

Which sounds lovely but could be threatening.

The creator, the one who knit me together … with this … is with me?

One day I’ll know even as I’m known, be with Him even as He is with me.

Will the puzzle resolve, the loose ends tie-up or will it be forgotten?

A risen Jesus still bore the scars, so I suspect the former.

So I wait.

Some days fretfully, some days patiently.

Always expectantly.

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 16th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the third of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 122. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

I am not a morning person. Despite this, my alarm continues to sound every Sunday morning at 5:30. The combination of these two facts is a kind of perfect storm of unfortunate physiology and job requirements. It means that I’m not always at my best when I am in the church getting ready for the 8 a.m. service. The people there are very patient with me – one of them, Rosemary, has a gift for cheering me up and cheering me on. If you know me, you know just what a profound gift that is. Nevertheless, when the alarm does go off at 5:30, I rarely feel excited about the prospects ahead of me – my body and my mind won’t let that happen. For a while. Some days, not at all.

We’ve come to the third psalm in our journey through the Psalms of Ascents. The first was about repentance, changing the direction we’re travelling in; the second is about trusting God and looking for help; this third is about someone who’s excited to go to church. People like me – and, dare I say, you – need a psalm like this.

There’s a flow to this series of psalms, but we shouldn’t necessarily see them as directly chronological. Where Psalm 122 might sit is, for instance, not entirely clear: it could be when the writer has arrived in Jerusalem and is gazing around in awestruck wonder. It could be anticipating the excitement of arrival; it could be reminiscing about it. It doesn’t matter. What this is about is worship, and how worship changes the way we see things.

Verse one establishes the sense of joy at going to worship immediately – the writer has been invited to join God’s people going up to God’s house to worship God. Verse two is that putting your suitcases in the hall after a long, long way feeling: “Ahhh! We’re here. At last. It’s good to be here. The bad airline food and wearing the same clothes for 24 hours were worth it. Let’s have something to eat together”.  The journey is over.

Verse 3 to 5 move further. If verse 2 was the sense of relief and joy at finally arriving, these are the words of someone looking around and taking it all in. To get to that, we need to get to grips with verse 3:

Jerusalem is built like a city
that is closely compacted together.

This is about more than the cramped hustle and bustle of an ancient middle-Eastern city … though it does contain that. This is about seeing that everything is at should be; at unity with itself, in the right place. Like my friend who just packed all he needed for  six-week motorbike journey into the limited confines of what his bike can carry, in Jerusalem everything is carefully arranged, where it should be. There’s the place where the people of God come to worship God. There’s the line of thrones from where God’s judgements are decided. This is all in the line of the house of David – look! Look at what you see around you. Here is the story of our people!

This is the place where God’s people come to do the things which God has told them to do – and all around are the signs and symbols of the people’s stories. It’s all about things as they should be – judgement (verse 5) in the Bible isn’t just how we think of judgement (deciding what’s wrong and right) … though it does contain that. It’s putting into action those things which God’s law was established to achieve … mercy, the poor cared for, the vulnerable protected, right triumphing over wrong. Biblical judgement is life ordered the way God wants it.

And what are God’s people to do here? They are to worship Him. Worship. Another of those tricky religious words. We think of it, if we do at all, as about the songs and hymns we sing, the music we use, and maybe some of the set prayers (liturgy) we say in church buildings. Worship does contains that … but much more also. Worship is giving somebody the worth they are due – so when kind words are said about a person at birthday, funeral or wedding we might legitimately and appropriately be said to be engaging in an act of worship. Worshipping God is about giving Him the worth He is due – with songs, music, prayers, actions, deeds, thoughts, our jobs, our relationships, our words … our everything. Worship is giving God His worth … and a God who put hills in place is worth a lot.

That’s what God’s people have come to do in Jerusalem – come to God’s house (the temple) to give God the worth He is due (verse 4).

The result of this? The writer prays. He does. He prays (verses 6 -9). He prays that Jerusalem will be at peace. Not just the absence of conflict … though peace contains that. Peace is … life as it should be. The poor provided for. The vulnerable protected. Terrorism ended. Walls of division torn down.

Jerusalem needs peace, doesn’t it? Jerusalem has a special significance in Jewish and Christian history. It needs peace. Like all cities, populated by people like me, it needs to be at peace in the fullest sense of that word. Shalom.

But did you notice? Prayer in the Bible is not just about words uttered … though it contains that. It’s actions carried out. It’s intentionality. It’s activity. It’s work. And the psalm writer is praying that Jerusalem will experience … life as it should be. Isn’t that odd? Because that’s what the writer said he saw when he arrived in Jerusalem when he arrived (verses 3-5).

What’s going on is the writer is experiencing the strange way worship changes what we see and what we do. Fixing our eyes on God and singing, praying, living, acting as He calls us to changes us. It re-centers, re-shapes, re-works us.

Why? Because of all the things we do, worship is the one thing that will survive into the eternal new creation. See one prophetic picture of how this will be if you don’t believe me:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

‘Hallelujah!

For our Lord God Almighty reigns.

Let us rejoice and be glad

and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.’
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) (Revelation 19:6-8)

Worship goes on and on. Lest we think that’s boring – the proverbial harps on clouds  – consider that worship is about everything. So maybe, in saying worship survives, the Bible is telling us much that’s good will survive. Without the worm in the apple, the snake in the grass, the curse over work and relationships. Anything but dull. Life as it should be.

Worship reshapes us. Doing worship together, in one building, with people we know, has power. It is a good, God-ordered discipline. It is also the stuff of sacrificing everything, though:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  (Romans 12:1-2, The Message)

Worship changes everything, because it is everything; and in being so it gives us a glimpse of how life can be, is and one day will be  – completely. Our job as God’s people is with every song, prayer, act of service and advocacy for and with the poor; every seeking of justice, every prayer for healing, every protest at corruption, every thing … with all of that to pull that final, eternal reality of life before God in the new creation as it should be a little more into the present reality of people who know God and who don’t, thereby inviting them to join in with a life of worship.

Worship changes everything.

I may still hobble, have arthritis, be prone to depression and be a little moody. But everything changes.

Shall we set our alarms?

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 16th June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 9th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the second of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 121. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

I have an increasing awareness of the things which I’m useless at doing. Right at the head of that list are these three: anything to do with cars, money or even remotely connected to anything under the vague heading of DIY. These are not my skills set. So if something goes wrong in one of these areas and there’s no one around to help I do one of two things. The first possibility is panic – you know, that creeping realisation that you can’t do anything about what’s going on. It’s usually accompanied by short, rasping breaths, a headache or stomach-churning. Or maybe for you it’s more a low-level background hum of anxiety which you can’t shake. Either way, you know it. The second possibility for me is that I’ll try to do something about it – either myself (disaster) or from the hand of someone nearby who knows only a little more than me (marginally delayed disaster). It never ends well.

If Psalm 120 was the song of someone who’d realised something is wrong and had decided to do something about it, then Psalm 121 is the song of someone who needs help. He knows well the temptation to get help from the wrong place. And he also knows a better place to look.

Having taken the decision to set out on the long journey to meet with God, you’d expect this second Psalm to be full of sunny optimism. It isn’t. It’s brutally realistic; and it’s full of hope. A long journey on foot in the heat of the Middle East contained many dangers – from the heat of the sun, to the cold of the night; dangers from wild animals and criminals (remember the Good Samaritan? the set-up for that story was roadside crime); the sheer emotional and physical stress of the journey. Of course you’d look for help along the way. Wouldn’t you?

The writer looks to the hills (verse 1). Hills. In the days before satellite mapping, these contained much that was unknown, of course. Threats, most likely. But hills were also resonant for the people making this journey. Because hills were where gods other than their God were worshipped. Gods who had to be kept happy with human sacrifices, sex or shouting and screaming. And God’s people had a long history of keeping other gods happy, just to be on the safe side. So when the psalm writer looks to the hills, it could be fear of the unknown. But it’s more likely to be the sideways glance of temptation to a god whose demands seem easier, safer or more pleasurable.

The psalm-writer, though, is talked round.

Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth.

MY help comes from the God who put the hills in place; who put continents on plates, oversaw them crashing into each other, the mountains pushing up through the surface. THAT’S the God this one looks to. He’ll guard me from physical harm (v3); He won’t (unlike Baal) fall asleep. He’ll shade me from the sun’s heat and the moon’s cold (v 5-6). It’s a very complete kind of care:

7 The Lord will keep you from every kind of harm.
He will watch over your life.
8 The Lord will watch over your life no matter where you go,
both now and forever.

And so the psalm ends. God’s care is complete. His people won’t be harmed, won’t suffer, won’t struggle.

Or so it would seem. Until you experience life, and think a little more deeply about the psalm.

We all know Christians experience the same sort of things as everyone else … jobs, redundancy, cancer, health, death, birth, depression. And much more.

The people who first and sung and prayed and said this psalm were on a journey. A journey to the temple, to meet with the God who was IN that temple. What they didn’t know, or couldn’t always see, was that God walked with them too. So they’d look to the hills. As the Israelites found out as they wondered in the exodus wilderness, sometimes you can walk with someone so long you forget that they are there.

We who walk in the footsteps of Jesus are on a journey also. We know God is with us. Or maybe we’ve known that for so long we can’t see Him right next to us. But we DO forget sometimes that we are on a journey towards a mind-scrambling future where we are so fully in His presence that we’ll know Him with a completeness we can’t comprehend now. That God watches us, walks with us, guards us and guides us. What can keep us from getting there? What can stop us from getting to that total presence? Nothing that happens to us, this much we know:

Who can separate us from Christ’s love? Can trouble or hard times or harm or hunger? Can nakedness or danger or war? 36 It is written, ‘Because of you, we face death all day long. We are considered as sheep to be killed.’ No! In all these things we will do even more than win! We owe it all to Christ, who has loved us. I am absolutely sure that not even death or life can separate us from God’s love. Not even angels or demons, the present or the future, or any powers can do that. Not even the highest places or the lowest, or anything else in all creation can do that. Nothing at all can ever separate us from God’s love because of what Christ Jesus our Lord has done. (Romans 8:35-39)

War, danger, redundancy, cancer, depression, crime …. all these and more can and do happen to us. But they can’t stop us from reaching journey’s end.

So eyes off the hills. And onto the God who made them. And onto the road ahead.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 9th June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

The God Of Intimacy And Action by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling

If you’re both a teenager and a Christian, it’s likely that there are some far-off Christians who have a big impact on you. They may be speakers, writers, singers or something else … but these are the people whose very existence convinces you that there’s something in this, that it’s going to be worth sticking with it. American preacher (and, I discovered later, sociologist – even though for a while I didn’t know what one of those was) Tony Campolo was one of these. He wrote a handful of books aimed at young Christians which were funny, to the point and world shaking. His books invited you to imagine and way of following Jesus which was both fun as well as challenging and changing the world in which you lived. It was quite some time later – when I reached a semblance of adulthood – that I finally heard him speak. I was delighted to discover that he was even better in person – funnier, even more intelligent, even more intent on actually doing something about the problems of the world, and remarkably self-effacing. When I  met Bev, whom I would later marry, in the course of jobs at hostel for young people who found themselves homeless in London, I discovered she’d first felt the stirring of a call to this type of work on hearing Tony Campolo speak about the rather alarming parable of the sheep and the goats. 

We’ve been married nearly 14 years now, and Tony Camplo is still going strong. The more Christians I meet with a concern for social justice, the more I find his fingerprints are all over the souls of Jesus’ people labouring hard in the trenches. People who live and work in these draining contexts can often burn out. That burn-out can take any number of forms … be it physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, theological or some combination thereof. This book, written by Campolo alongside spiritual director and Communications professor Mary Darling, is the sort of lifeline which will provide a way to stop such burn-out from occurring.

The book seeks to connect ancient spiritual disciplines  – such as the prayer of examen, ‘divine reading’ and centering (meditative) prayer – with social action and evangelism. I read it in a season of personal tiredness. I lead a church in a country which is not the country of my birth; I’m surrounded both by the need which most pastors find around them in every church, as well as the immense social need of a country and a local context with severe social problems. I needed fresh energy; I needed a shot of hope. This book helped me find it.

It’s structured simply and well, and is aimed at anyone who wants a deeper Christian faith – and/or one which actually enables them to make a difference in the world around. It establishes what the sometimes scary sounding Christian mysticism is and isn’t, the link between this and both evangelism and justice and the need for an understanding of the gospel which can truly be called holistic. There then follows a journey which seeks to take us closer to God, to deepening our understanding and experience of His love for us; and how that then fuels our evangelism and work for justice; concluding with three simple approaches to deepening our walk with God and examples of how these have been expressed by other Christians in today’s world.

There’s no shortage of books about the practice of Christian spirituality – especially where that concerns people like St Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Catherine of Siena. Such books are usually ends in themselves. Which is not a bad thing – but it can inadvertently encourage a spirituality which spins continually in on itself. This book is one of the very few I’ve come across to seek to link the classic spiritual practices with the service of the last and the least. It put me in mind of writers like Shane Claiborne and Richard Foster – whose work I was unsurprised to find referenced in this book’s conclusion. It’s a book which is not excessively long, and neither is it hard to read. Not is it shallow. It’s started me on a journey; as I continue, I shall revisit its pages and wish there were more of them.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

Side Effects: strength and weakness for all to see

On the face of it Side Effects is a decent Hitchcockian style thriller. It’s also, if we believe it, director Steven Soderbergh’s final movie. If that is the case – and there’s a lot of people who aren’t convinced it is – then this is a strange way to go out. Not because it’s no good – it is very good – but more because it’s not so much a conclusive full-stop as a tantalising semi-colon. This only fuels the sense that in a few years’ time we’ll be hearing from him again.

Jude Law is a psychiatrist caring for the wife (Rooney Mara) a man (Channing Tatum) recently released from prison for white-collar crime, She’s depressed, and medications aren’t working for her. The psychiatrist is being paid to trial a new drug with patients; entirely legally, the woman takes this medication. What follows is a series of side-effects with dramatic outworkings, threatening to sweep a whole series of people away in their wake.

There you have it – a psychological thriller with a decent sprinkling of unpredictability. Good but not great, it would be an oddly low-key way for Steven Soderbergh to take his leave of the film business. It’s more than that, though. It’s an indictment of the careless exploitation of big pharmaceutical firms looking for the next wonder drug; exploitation of tiring, stressed medical professionals with bills to pay as well as patients who just want to get better. It’s about revenge and the depths it leads us to sink to if we allow it to get its claws in us.

It’s about many more things than these – but unavoidably it’s about mental health. Jude Law is unavoidably British in a film set in the USA. This isn’t hidden away nor does Law try on a dodgy accent. Instead it’s embraced. At one point he’s asked why he’s working away from his homeland. His reply is telling. He says that a person in therapy in Britain is assumed to be sick; in the States they are assumed to be getting better.

I don’t know if that’s fully true; the lines between two such diverse countries are not as neat as such a statement would lead us to believe. It does lead us to a deeper truth, though. That getting help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a big step on a long and undulating road to recovery. In his book Depressive Illness: The Curse Of The Strong, Tim Cantopher points out that those of us who suffer such illnesses shouldn’t be thought of as weak. Quite the opposite. We’re people whose strength has been taken for granted, who have been too strong for too long without others being strong in return. It’s a helpful point; the decision to seek help is the beginning of strength’s recalibration, of re-ordering life around a new definition of strength, one which recognises where our strength ends and that of those around us needs to kick in.

A Christian might turn this around still further. The admission we need help is a chance for a greater strength to shine through; it’s the treasure-bearing jar of clay admitting it’s got chips and dents all over it; its how the light gets in. It’s a paradox, then, which expresses deep truth – that strength is found in admitting weakness; that seeking help – often done when we reach rock bottom – is the strongest thing we can do.

Side Effects is a diverting, entertaining film which serves more as a footnote to as opposed to the conclusion of its director’s career. It’s a mass of contradictions and paradoxes, of twists and turns, of strength and weakness. Much like me.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

For an introduction to this series, click here

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 2nd at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the first of the Psalms Of Ascents, Psalm 120. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

Every journey starts with a decision. A decision to set out. That’s as true for the journey to work as it is the journey to the grocery store as it is the journey we might take as we seek to follow God. The decisions in the first two cases are more obviously apparent – I need to go to work; I need some milk. Perhaps less so in the last one – our journey of following God. What sets us out on that journey?

Often it’s the realisation that something is not right. That something may be in me, in others, the world around me or some combination thereof; but the knowledge that something significant which affects us is not right sets us off. It may set us off to follow God for the first time; it may set us off on a journey of recommitment; it may set us off on a journey to do something. Whichever it is, it upsets us. It discomforts us. It causes us pain.

Pain is rarely welcomed with open arms. It is essential, though. In our bodies pain alerts us to the fact that something is wrong and we need to do something about it. We get the treatment we need. Similarly when we realise something is not right with our souls and/or the world around us, that is painful and destabilising. So we do something about it. That something may be helpful; it may not. It may be pretending the problem doesn’t exist. It may be expressing the problem as that of someone else. It may be so many things. Whatever it is, the realisation that all is not well is not an easy one. Those who journeyed to Jerusalem to worship in the temple started their journey by reflecting on, praying or singing Psalm 120. Which is the outpouring of someone who knows all too well that something is wrong.

We open with a cry of distress. The writer is being lied about. Someone is spreading gossip. This is not OK. If you’ve ever been the victim of gossip, you know how painful it is. You feel powerless. You feel violated. You wonder what people you had thought to be close to you are thinking. You can shout the truth all you like, but you can do nothing to make people listen; secretly you wonder if the more you shout, the more people will think you have something to hide. Verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 120 show us that the writer is in precisely that situation. It’s not the whole picture, though. She (the unknown writer) has also known that the God to whom she prays has come through in the past, so it’s worth taking this to Him this time:

1 I call out to the Lord when I’m in trouble,
and he answers me.
2 Lord, save me from people whose lips tell lies…

God has come through in the past, so she has no reason to suspect that He won’t come through this time.

That’s the first part. The second can seem like an abrupt change of gear. From the cry of distress to cries for vengeance. From directly addressing God there is a shift; still directed at God, but now in verses 3-4 the writer says what she would love to see happen to those who gossip.

She doesn’t hold back. It’s fire and brimstone stuff. The lies being spread are arrows which have wounded; so they are returned; thick chunks of hard wood coal from the trunk of the broom tree fall on them. Make no mistake, this is a brutal plea for vengeance.

I’ve craved the same. When I’ve been lied about, when unjustified assumptions have been made about me, when rumours to which I’ve contributed nothing have spread like wildfire, when people who claimed to respect me have passed on the unsubstantiated, I’ve imagined vengeance. We all do something similar. The writer of this Psalm is doing just that. She doesn’t hold back in what she seeks … but she leaves it with the one who can do something. She does not hold back … but neither does she hold on to her right for vengeance.

It’s amazing what you can pray, isn’t it? How many angry outbursts at the seemingly irrelevant, how many ‘minor’ health problems, how many ruptured relationships might be avoided if we prayed similarly to verses 3 and 4 here?

So we move on, to the third and final section. Verses 5 to 7. Strange, exotic sounding places. Meshech – beyond the Black Sea, modern-day Georgia, way to the north of the Jerusalem area in which the writer found herself. Kedar, the Arabian desert to the south and east. Lest we forget, to the west is the sea, the symbol of chaos and evil. This is not literal; it is poetry. Clearly the poet could not be in both Meshech and Kedar. She is surrounded. This is a way of saying … I’m hemmed in by those who oppose you, God. They surround me. I cannot escape. This has gone on too long. I want peace. They want war. 

And so it ends. This first step on the journey ends not with resolution but with a cry of constriction; with claustrophobia and the lone voice for peace. All is not well.

There are 14 more steps to go.

The journey starts with the realisation that I can be the one about whom others write verses 3 and 4. I lie. I offend. I hurt. I offend people, and I offend God. In my natural state, I offend God. I may not like this. It hurts to say it. But it’s true.

That is the beginning of the journey. If I accept it, I seek help. And the help … is astonishing. That despite my offense, God seeks me out. God finds me. God lavishes love on me. God dies for me.  My offense does not trump His love. Quite the reverse, in fact.

It’s called repentance. One of those horrible, black-leather-bound religious words. It means turning away. Recognising I’m on the wrong journey and choosing to follow the one God leads me on instead.

If I’m in pain, if I’m aching, if I’m disturbed … do I need to change the journey I’m on? Do I need to walk another way? This, as Eugene Peterson says in his book on these Psalms, ‘is not an emotion, it is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is is a decision. It is deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own God … and it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling you the truth’. 

Repent and believe. The first step on the journey. And one to repeat, as discipline, as slate-cleaner.

This pain come other ways, too. To those who daily repent, the painful realisation can dawn that something is not right around me as well as in me and I am invited on a journey to co-operate with God and do something about it. Housing, disease, poverty, abuse, corruption, environmental decay, war … so much. For each it will be different.

Will you step out the door? Will you embark on a journey? Will you invite discontent?

Will I?

“…there [is] only one Road; that it [is] like a great river; its springs [are] at every doorstep and every path its tributary. It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door … You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to”

(The Lord Of The Rings, by J R R Tolkein)

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 2nd June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series: Introduction:  A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey