Thursday, February 21, 2008

Romans 4:1-5 (TNIV)

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, the forefather of us Jews, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to anyone who works, their wages are not credited to them as a gift, but as an obligation. 5 However, to anyone who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

Ah, the good ol’ works verses faith debate. And Paul characteristically takes us back to the ancestors, and rightly so. Just as Paul wrote (and it makes sense after working through the Genesis reading from earlier this week), if ANYBODY has the right to be justified by works, it was Abraham. Obviously the main hang up for Paul is that righteousness isn’t really something that’s “credited” or “payed”, but rather freely given. I really like the way that the TNIV puts verse 5: to anyone who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly. After justification, do we become godly?

But even if works don’t get us a payment of righteousness, isn’t that they way Paul makes faith sound? Faith is still an action and it’s because of faith that righteousness is given. Is faith a work? Regardless, I think it’s important to note that action is still necessary, on both God’s part and on our part. I just wish that Paul hadn’t so clearly ruled out the role of works when it comes to faith, or written about the importance of the interplay between faith and works…but maybe he didn’t feel that way. Or was his reaction so strong because of what he was writing against? If Paul and the author of James got together today to discuss faith and works, what would they say?

Back to Abraham to close. What really goes on with Abraham’s works and faith? Are his works contingent on his faith? Or is it the other way around? Or is it both? I agree that Abraham’s faith was the key, but his actions were only living out that faith, right? We too often fail to think of the word faith as a verb requiring action. Perhaps that is our greatest lesson from Abraham: faith as a belief is great, but faith put into action is the point.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Psalm 121 (NRSV)

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. 3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. 4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. 7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

This is definitely one of my favorite Psalms. I’m not sure if it’s because of its use in Shepherd of the Hills or because it is conveniently placed above the observation window in the church at Silver Dollar City, but this Psalm always feels like home to me. And what a Psalm of comfort! My help comes from the Lord, and not just any Lord, but the very one that made the heavens and the earth.

I’m not really sure what to say about this Psalm. All I feel like I can really do is repeat lines over and over…The Lord is your keeper, the Lord will keep your life, the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on…that’s what I call security. Maybe one important thing to note is the main action in the Psalm: the Psalmist lifting up his or her eyes. That’s not generally my first response when facing trouble. Rather than looking up, I generally look to myself or to those around me, but don’t look up nearly often enough. Perhaps that’s the key.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Genesis 12:1-4 (TNIV)

1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.

To me, this is one of the most significant passages in all of scripture. As Abram leaves behind everything he knows, having been called to do so by Yahweh, this unknown deity, an entirely new page is started in world history. The ambiguity is what stuns me the most; God calls Abram to go “to the land I will show you.” Abram had no idea how where he was going, how far, what he would need to pack, nothing. God just said go, and Abram went.

It surprises me how often leaving behind family seems to be a theme in the Bible. Why did God insist that Abram leave his family behind? I have no doubt that God could have started this new thing exactly where Abram was at. Why ask him to leave? Was it a test of faith? Was it necessary for things to truly start over or start anew? Did God want Abram’s family as removed as possible from the culture of idolatry they were in? All of these are possible, but the simple fact is that God required Abram to move on. What if he hadn’t done it?

If it was a test of faith, then why does God test Abram’s faith so much? From leaving his family to promising an impossible son to asking him to sacrifice that same son, Abram seems to be thoroughly tested. But each time Abram prevails. His faith carries him through (except for that whole lying about whether Sarai was actually his wife or not…we’ll save that for another day).

God’s promises are pretty extreme as well. Just think of how much was hanging on Abram’s decision of whether or not to go. I’m sure it would’ve worked out in the end even if Abram had chosen not to go, but regardless, that’s some pretty extreme responsibility. But having the promise of “a great nation” no doubt appealed to lowly Abram on many levels.

Finally, I can’t neglect Abram’s age when all of this comes down. Regardless of whether or not he was really 75 or not, I think the point is that he was old and everything that goes with being old. He was no doubt set in his ways, comfortable in his lifestyle at home with his family, continuing his father’s business. But God yanks him out of all of that and Abram faithfully follows, even at the ripe age of 75.

I can’t end this post without talking about Sarai. I wonder if God enlightened her at all in this process. Was she simply following her husband who claimed to have heard from this unknown God? Or did she have some kind of insider knowledge or revelation as well? Of course we don’t have a record of that, at least until angels appear to her and tell her that she will soon be pregnant. I hope God spoke to her too. Or maybe simply following Abram was a test of her faith as well. If God had never spoken to her, just imagine what that conversation would have been like when Abram told her they were moving, but had no idea where! I’m sure that one was a lot of fun.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ecclesiasties 1 (TNIV)

1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

3 What does anyone gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?

4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

11 There is no remembrance of people of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on the human race! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.

16 I said to myself, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.

I’ve really wanted to read Ecclesiastes for a while now, and I’m not sure why. I think part of the reason may be the author’s admitted cynicism, very evident in this passage. Everything is meaningless? I suppose that’s one way to look at things. But is it that far off? Temporal things remain forever in the eyes of the author; the sun keeps coming up, waters continue to flow into the sea. What is forgotten are people and their works.

What surprises me most from this passage is the use of the word “meaningless” on multiple occasions. Everything humanity strives for is meaningless and leads to nothing new. Our toil is in vain. This is what Solomon’s great wisdom led him to? All that we toil for is meaningless? Perhaps wisdom did to Solomon what it has to so many others by making him unduly cynical and critical. Especially telling is the last verse: For with much wisdom comes much sorrow, and from much knowledge, the more grief.

But you know what? I wouldn’t trade that sorrow for anything. The ache I feel when I don’t understand God or the way God seems to work is definitely one of sorrow, but it’s not an unwelcome sorrow. Reading further on in Ecclesiastes (and I haven’t gotten far) it is clear that Solomon starts first by observing the temporal (as this passage would seem to indicate) and finding foolishness there. Solomon even tells us that his quest for wisdom is to understand what goes on under the heavens, which I would agree is indeed foolishness. But what of that which goes on in the heavens? Was Solomon’s wisdom limited strictly to things of the earth?

That’s where I want to increase in wisdom; I long for a greater understanding of God, knowing full-well that I’ll never understand it all. Nothing could be further from meaningless as far as I am concerned. But is wisdom of things temporal truly meaningless? Is all of our toil to understand meaningless? I suppose that in relation to knowledge and understanding of God that it could be seen as meaningless…but I still want worldly wisdom. I’ve already spent a lot of time trying to gain that and to gain an understanding of people; surely that is not meaningless unless compared to the overwhelming responsibility of understanding God.

Here’s another question: can we not gain a better understanding of God by understanding everyone and everything around us? If God is truly in and of all things and people, I would have to think that such a pursuit would not be in vain. Interesting.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Psalm 51 (TNIV)

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you.

14 Deliver me from bloodguilt, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. 15 Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. 18 May it please you to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem. 19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Let me admit from the start that I struggle using anything other than the NRSV when it comes to scripture. But since this isn’t really supposed to be a critical study or anything, but simply my reflections on different passages, I might just do some version-hopping. We’ll see how that goes. I’m going to do my best to not look through a critical lens when doing these writings…we’ll see how that goes.

Anyway, this Psalm is introduced as having been written by David after Nathan confronted him regarding his relationship with Bathsheba. I think the opening line says it all: Have mercy on me, oh God! How many times has that been my first response to sin…it’s like the voice that says “maybe you shouldn’t do that” finally gains its foothold in my mind after the fact.

All of this is immediately followed by David’s pleas for God to “blot out” his sin or to “turn away” from looking at his sin. And I think David expects that God would do such a thing simply because of God’s “unfailing love” and “great compassion”. Clearly David knew his sin, but what interests me most is that he says he sinned only to God. What about Bathsheba? Did David not sin against her as well? In fact, she’s not even mentioned in this passage! Maybe she was complicit the relationship and I try to blame David too much. I don’t know.

David’s request to not be cast from God’s presence is also frightening. I can’t imagine being cast from God’s presence. I’ve felt that “divine absence” before, but even then felt like the problem was more on my end then on God’s. Did David feel like he had literally been cast from God’s presence? Or was he feeling that same separation I feel when I screw things up. It definitely would have been easier for David to put that guilt on God’s shoulders, almost blaming God for his feelings. But would God really have cast David out? I have to think that David was the one walking away.

Far and away my favorite part of this Psalm has to be the part about sacrifice. I will never be the type of person to deny the importance of ritual. The rituals of the church are of utmost importance to me as I believe they are to God…if done in the right frame of mind. I think that’s what David was getting at here. God wants a broken spirit and a contrite heart which you can have in ritual. What is it that God takes pleasure in? The sacrifices of the righteous. I want to strive for righteousness.

The Beginning

Lent is truly a special season, definitely one of my favorites as the liturgical calendar goes. I remember back when I worked at the Fairgrounds our attitude seemed to be that we could do anything for the 10 days of the fair. In a sense, Lent carries the same type of attitude for me most of the time, whether it be giving something up or taking something on; I can do anything for 40 days, right?

In our service last night, our pastor invited us to a “celebration of Lenten discipline”. That’s what I want to focus on this year, hopefully further developing disciplines that will carry well beyond the 40 days of Lent. Rather than specifically giving something up this year, I’ve decided to add something: I’m going to start my day at work (and hopefully my days off) with some scripture and then write about what I’ve read. I need more discipline in my life; financially, spiritually, socially. Hopefully this will help.

Edit (2/19): I have decided to follow the Revised Common Lectionary for these posts. For some reason, the hardest part of this project so far has been deciding what to write about. I’ll just take one of the readings for the week and write about it each day; hopefully that will help.