A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 14: Community, costly and sufficient

This post is the next in our series on the Psalms of Ascents The original sermon was preached by Mike Keggie on  Sunday September 29th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town.  I have used this sermon as the starting point for my own reflections on the text. It focuses on the fourteenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 133 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.

Such a short psalm, and so often quoted. I’ve heard and read it most often in the context of those places where God’s people from different streams come together for a time – a local Churches Together walk of witness or service project; an ecumenical conference; a call to prayer.

Not to diminish such things, for they may well be and often are the call of God to people in a certain place or time, but these are not the best that this psalm has to offer us. This is a psalm that speaks instead to my Saturday night and Sunday morning lethargy, my desire to keep myself to myself, my gravitational pull towards privacy.

This is a psalm about community and that those who belong to God live in community whether they like it or not. If you belong to the God of Jesus Christ, then you have a family; you are part of a body; you are a living stone in a glorious building. You may not like the other parts of the body, the other stones in the building; it may seem to come more naturally and easily to do this by yourself, but if you insist on that you are doing the opposite of that for which you are made. Since Eden onwards, people have been made for relationship. Family flowed from family flowed into nation flowed into blessing to the nations. Opt out of that and your swimming against a vast tide. You can only lose – or at the very least lose out dramatically.

How pleasant it is (verse 1) … when it works. It’s easy to romanticise relationships and to idolize community – that’s why the one-off event is such a tempting application. How marvellous to come together for a week in the summer and do something together! How beautiful to walk in witness to Easter together once a year! Yes, it may be. I do not mean to mock. Such things can be profound and deep and also hard. It’s more profound, deep … and, yes, hard also if it’s what we do and day on day, week on week.

The psalm is nothing if not realistic. In reaching for an image to unpack how good this is, verse two stumbles across something … costly. Costly. To live in deep, day on day, community is costly. It requires me to give up my desire that things be fitted around my needs, my music preferences, my liturgical desires, my timetable. It needs me to recognise that my needs may not actually be the most important ones this day. It requires me to be a living sacrifice, laid down, poured out like a drink offering because the God who calls and names this community as His church is worth it. It is hard and costly.

God knows this, and has paid this cost Himself. We are invited into a perfect community in the shape of Himself – Father, Son, Holy Spirit in an ongoing relationship of love and deed. It’s been costly for that community, though. Costly in terms of Son taking on the appearance of a son, brittle boned prepared to be splintered, soft flesh ready to be torn. Real community really is costly. Which is why it is so precious. Like the oil (verse 2) flowing down on the one freshly set aside – anointed holy, to use the Biblical phrase – for God’s work. A true Christian community is bought at a high price and set aside for something special – to express and live God’s ways and work in the world. Costly and special – set aside, not for the benefit of itself but so that the community can love in the full view of the world in such a way that others are actively invited and encouraged to join in.

Costly – and also fresh, daily (verse 3). Like the morning dew on the mountains, thick and heavy and daily replenished like the wilderness manna which was rich in the history of God’s people. Miraculous food given daily – enough for each day. Take too much and it would be rotten before you could use it; take too little … well what was the point in that if there’s enough for everyone? This has something deep to say to my view of my Christian community, the church. Opt out, take too little of the manna, and I may get by. However why would I want to get by when there’s a sufficiency, daily? Why limit myself?

The converse is true also. Plunge myself into this community in such a way that I have time for it and it alone, take too much, and I’ll grow fat and lazy. I won’t grow in the directions I’m meant to, I won’t be inviting. Slowly, over time, to me most likely imperceptibly, my arteries will harden and clog and I’ll fade away. This community, lived in aright, is enough for my daily needs, enough to make me grow and flourish, enough to shape me into one who invites others in. That’s where the blessing of God, life as it’s meant to be, eternally, is to be found.

A life equipped, a life poured out, a life blessed and anointed. We have a Bible full of examples of how to do this and how not to do this; we have a God who lives it Himself and has paid the price of it Himself. It’s hard, it’s costly, it’s painful, it’s beautiful and blessed. We’re free to claim we’re opting out, but to do so is to go against the grain of reality itself. How good, how pleasant, how costly. The economy of God and the life of His people.

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 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130) 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 12: Rest, dear child (Psalm 131)

 A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 13: Remember … (Psalm 132)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey Chapter 13: Remember … (Psalm 132)

This post is the next in our series based on sermons preached at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town on the Psalms Of Ascents. The Sunday we were due to cover this Psalm (September 22nd) was the day we found ourselves waiting to hear news of our friend and church member James, at that stage known to be missing in the Nairobi Westgate Mall terrorist attack. Due to the circumstances the sermon touched on the Psalm only briefly as we unpacked what that moment of waiting meant for us that day; so this post is not so much the adaptation of a sermon as it is a reflection on the Psalm in the context of the circumstances we are in a few weeks later. It focuses on the thirteenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 133 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’ve long told myself that I have a terrible memory. In many ways, that’s true. My short-term recall is hopeless; my capacity for names  embarrassing for a pastor; my capacity to recall numbers almost non-existent.

Not the whole truth, though. I can recall vividly when and where I first saw the woman who would become my wife. Not because it was love at first sight – it wasn’t, for either of us. I was struck by her, sure. I remember the meeting, though, because of the story that followed that meeting. I can remember facts about sport, books, films, plays, holidays, meals – none because of the facts themselves, but because of the story that’s arranged itself around them in my mind. Stories matter deeply to me, lodging themselves into my being like a comfortable old pair of slippers on my feet.

The singers and pray-ers of the Psalms of Ascents had stories to tell. Stories of their individual journey to and from Jerusalem for the great celebrations of the community’s year. They had stories to tell of what had happened to them since their last journey. They had stories to tell of their community’s past – of Abram, of Moses, of Exodus, of David … and on the list would go, stories recounted and recalled on the way to worship, in the liturgies of the worship and the architecture of the temple. The stories would be told and retold, meanings uncovered and unfurled afresh and again as they were re-experienced with each new journey.

This next Psalm, number 132, was one of those. It prompted, through a series of verbal cues, a whole era of the people’s past.

Lord, remember David  (verse 1)

David. The man who helped find the Ark. The Ark of God’s presence.  A wooden box around which the esteem and identity of a nation revolved. A box which in its history provided proof that the presence of the living God was real and mattered. It mattered where God was and that God’s presence was not taken for granted or exploited like a magical spell. Psalm 132 doesn’t retell the story; instead it coaxes memory into life like a cooling cloth on the forehead of the heat-stricken.

So they look back and see what God has been and has done. Then the focus moves; from looking over the shoulder for reassurance they now look ahead with comfort. This God has always been with us, so He will do us well; the line of David will continue, God’s people will be provided for and blessed and rewarded. So they keept going, keep on keeping on because they remembered well. how God had been.

But.

We’ve been doing much remembering over the last two weeks. As we’ve sat trembling with shock at the loss of our dear friend at the indiscriminately evil hands of terrorism, we remember. Where we were when we heard? Who he is, was (which is it? is or was). We remember him and retell his story in our lives. The hugs, the laughs, the arguments, the things done and left undone simply because he caught a terrorist’s bullet.

Grief is horrible. Grief plus trauma is nightmarish. Grief plus trauma plus an international news story is shattering in ways I can’t yet articulate. All of us close to this have been taken to undreamed of places over the last few days and that will continue for some time, maybe in some form for our whole lives. These are events which shift a life on its axis.

Yes, we’ve been doing much remembering. In doing so some of us ask of God why, some of us want to ask a terrorist why, some of us rage, some of us cry. Most us do all of these things and more, in seemingly random waves and cycles moving to their own inexplicable internal rhythm.

God did not protect James. No angel rugby tackled him to the ground as the bullets flew. The Spirit blows where it will, but that day it didn’t blow a bullet off course. So we rage and ask and long and so much more.

If this is where we finish then this is unbearable.

It’s not, though. True Christian faith both lives with this soul-searing reality and still never understands this life as the only destination. Not that this life doesn’t matter; it does, profoundly, and we are called to live it well. The life, though, is a journey to a new creation just as the pilgrims of the Psalms of Ascents were on a journey to temple. To where God’s presence is poured out fully on everything. That’s what we’re heading for. There is where we, with the Psalm writer, will see the poor finally and fully satisfied – so when we assist with that now we point towards what’s coming. There is where all who follow the One who came in the line of David will see what is right crowned with glory, what is evil and violent lie in filthy rags. There violence will have its place finally defined and completely limited.

None of that changes the direction of a bullet or the sting of a tear now. But it gives them an orientation, a limitation, a divinely electrified fence beyond which they will never move. We look back and see God has been, so He will be, even though now it may not feel like He is. I see that in my friend’s life and death.

God willing, I’ll see it in my own. Or somebody else will.

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 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130) 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 12: Rest, dear child (Psalm 131)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey Chapter 12: Rest, dear child (Psalm 131)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 25th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the twelfth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 131 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.

Ever done something you’re not really built for? Yes, so have I.

I’m not built to drive, to be honest. It’s a combination of a lack of spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination. So I don’t drive these days, but back in the day when I did I decided to be helpful. I attempted to move our large-ish car into our smallish drive. The result was expensive. I endeavoured not to help again. I’m not built to drive, so I choose not to.

Children often want to be like their parents – they’ll imitate they way they speak, the way they sit, the way they move. It’s a very natural thing to do, and perfectly healthy. As long that child didn’t try to drive, for instance. There are things he or she needs to learn first and ways the child needs to grow in order to do that like Mum and Dad do.

It’s an impulse as old as humanity. Whether you understand the Genesis telling of humanity’s flirtation and affair with sin as literal or metaphorical for this moment doesn’t matter; what it tells us is that we’ve always reached for things that are beyond us. People are given total freedom – just don’t try to be like God, don’t take on the capacity of judgement by eating from that tree. That way the burdens are too great, that way lies work as curse, relationship as a battle for power; we’re not meant to be gods, we’re in the image of God. Too often we don’t rest with what we have and keep wearing ourselves reaching for what we’re not built to carry.

Psalm 131 is a short, simple psalm which shows us what it’s like to rest with what we are and not worry about the rest.

I get on with doing what’s in front of me, as we learned in the previous chapter. The rest is God’s responsibility. Unbearably trite as it could be, there we have it. To know that is to be able to rest like a baby content in mother’s arms. Safe in the knowledge that Mum is there, that Mum will feed him. She won’t just go down the road to the shops, either. She’ll feed from her very self, from her body – and from her soul too. Mum is there, watching over the sleeping child. He needn’t worry. Mum is there.

That’s a picture, an image, a hint of God. So we can rest. we can sleep – not lazily, but safely, knowing that we do what’s in front of us to do, not what we can’t do but what we can. Because God watches, God feeds from us from His very self, of His very self in the shape of His Son and His word. God is Fatherly. He is. God is Motherly too. She is.

So we rest. We, God’s people, can wait and watch and hope like Psalm 130’s night-shift workers with expectation and hope. And we can sleep and rest too (verse 3).

This isn’t a Psalm to infantalise us, to make us forever spiritual babies who never grow up. No. A good parent wants us to grow up, discover who we uniquely are and build on the safety of childhood with meaning and independence. All the time knowing that he can return to Mum and Dad for a meal, for a talk, wisdom, prayer. At their best, our parents let us do that. When Mum and Dad are gone we can return to the best of our  memories and feed on them still.

How much more with our perfect, unfailing, always present Heavenly Parent? Watching, walking, waiting, feeding, watering. Always willing us to grow up, always ready to listen, help and guide – wanting us to go deeper and further than we did last time. Always wanting us to find other children who could be adopted into this family as could.

For our Heavenly Parents isn’t stuck with the kids in this family. These kids are chosen. Desired. Wanted. Adopted.

So we work. But we rest safely too.

Sleep, dear child.

This series will return after a short break of a couple of weeks.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 25th August 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.

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 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130) 

 

 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 18th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the eleventh of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 130. 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.

Over the years I’ve taken a number of personality profile tests. You’ll know them. I don’t mean the sort of things you find in the back of magazines; I mean the ones which take your answers to a set of questions and give you a number, a colour, a shape, a series of letters or some such thing to sum you up. They can be of immense value, but they can also be immensely damaging. They are valuable if they give you space to grow into, help you to change and grow and develop and put time and energy into things which actually work. I’ve also seen them used as excuses for not doing things, as tools to bully people with, as a vehicle for saying ‘This is what God says about you’. When that happens it never ends well.

Where these have helped me has been to understand why some things suck the life out of me and the sorts of things I really should get some help with. Planning is one of these – I am not a systematic person. I find it very hard to break things down into logical, achievable steps. So in work and life, that’s something I need help with. That’s something other people at church help me do; it’s what my wife is very good at. When that works well it’s a life-giving synergy for all of us. Knowing strengths and weaknesses like makes life a lot more bearable.

Psalm 130 is one which shows us that it’s good to know who we’re shaped to be  – and that planning isn’t always the best thing.  That starts in the first two verses with the stark reminder that we can’t plan our way around the ultimate statistic.

Death is real and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can put it off, we can pretend it doesn’t exist, we can hasten our journey towards it – but we can’t do anything about the reality. The Bible’s full of mediations on death; and that’s the language unavoidably used of our status without God. As long as we hold out on God, as long as we keep Him at arm’s length and pretend we don’t need Him, as long as we act as if He doesn’t exist or refuse Him, we are the living dead – physically sentient, dead in every other respect. One rebelled – we all rebel – and death is the logical next step of all who turn their back on life.  The first two verses of this Psalm are the cry of someone who knows she’s dead without God; she’s in a mess of her own making and can bring nothing to her situation apart from a shovel to dig herself deeper. Like Jonah, she’s in a pit and all she can do is ask for help. We don’t like moments like this; we want, instinctively, to wrap arms around someone in deep pain, in desperation, on whom the world is caving in and tell them it’s ok. There’s something they can do. It will get better. Only it may not, and they may be able to do nothing. It’s at these points that, if we sit in the dust long enough without offering solutions we can find the hand of God extended. The point of desperation is the very place we often need to find ourselves to discover the mountain-shifting power of the Earth Maker.

We can’t plan our way around death – and neither can we plan our way back into life either.

I once spent some time with a man whose marriage was collapsing. As always there was fault on both sides; he described to me how it felt as if every time he got something wrong, put a foot out of line his then wife wrote it down in a big leather-bound book, a ledger of wrongs done. There was nothing he could do; as quickly as he made amends for one, another was written down. That’s a familiar dynamic  because we all do it – for others, for ourselves. We find it very hard to forget. Many of us take the next step and project that onto God – we do it, so He must too. The Psalm-writer acknowledges that reality – verses 3 and 4 speak of the impossibility of standing before a God who would do such a thing. It turns out, much to our surprise, that God is not like this. One man lived and died well; if we accept that, live in that reality, then it’s counted for us. There’s no ledger of wrongs; just a Book of Life. Forgiveness is this God’s speciality. It can’t be planned by the recipient; a truth gloriously offensive to the recipient.

Death and new life can’t be planned out of or into. Neither can God’s great project; or rather, He can and we can’t. Those who have received life from the Giver are alive but surrounded by death, in the dark but holding an oil lamp. We can’t plan the coming dawn, but we can get on with what’s in front of us. That’s how the second half of Psalm 130 pictures the situation. I used to work night shifts in a hostel for young people who were homeless. 10 p.m. – 8:30 a.m. could crawl by. So I filled the time with the work I was given to do – keep an eye on the hostel and residents; clean; administration; feeding myself physically and spiritually; talking with those who couldn’t sleep; dealing with unpredictable incidents which arose. If I didn’t keep reminding myself that 8:30 was coming I could despair. So much to do, so much need. Morning would come, though, and others would pick up what was left. Or conversely the time would creep by if I didn’t fill it with what I was there to do.

I can’t plan, but I’ve learned I can write and speak in public. I can bring vision, others can bring the steps to get there. That’s my lamp. I choose to light it in the presence of one who can make it burn brighter or longer than I can dream of.

That’s what it means to wait for the morning – to get on, to do your job safe in the knowledge that dawn will come whether you work or not. So you might as well do what you’re there for. The world is dark, but we all have things to do; we all have lamps to light, illumination to bring. The catch is we don’t know when the dawn is coming. But is coming. So when it comes, will your lamp be ready to welcome it?

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 18th August 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.

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 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)