Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Too Wonderful or Too Impossible for God?

As I read the Hebrew Scripture selection from the lectionary for Sunday (Genesis 18:1-15 as portrayed in Rublev's icon) I was stopped by v. 14 "Is anything too wonderful for God?" and prompted to look up the parallel in Luke 1:37 "For nothing will be impossible with God." As our transition from Dallas to Milwaukee has taken a number of unexpected turns, at each of which God's whispers have been coaxing us along the path, Candy's Dad's fall, broken hip, surgery, and rehab are the current uncertainty, I am encouraged to trust God in another surprise in which we don't know where the path will lead. I am also drawn again to Thomas Merton's prayer.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
Though I may seem to be lost
And in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude, page 83

Then I come to this in my daily Psalm prayers from Psalm 43:3. "Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

How Do We Know What God Wants?

In September 2016 I drove limo for a funeral at The (Episcopal) Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, Texas. I noticed prominent banners publicizing their fall sermons and Bible studies on the Old Testament. Each banner had a thought provoking question that seemed to me to go well beyond an Old Testament survey to probe deeply into human reality and faith. I am composing my own answers to these questions, not as an Old Testament overview, but an exercise in my own spiritual formation. I encourage you to ponder these questions and even share your responses.

·                 How do we know what God wants?
·                 How do we know when we’ve been rescued by God?
·                 Are you ever too old for God to use you?
·                 What does standing up to evil look like?
·                 What happens when leaders fail?
·                 What does an extreme test of faith look like?
·                 What do you do when there’s nothing left?
·                 Can romance be redeemed?
·                 What was the first break-up in the history of the world?
·                 Is your money actually yours?

I am writing in May of 2017 when my wife, Candy, and I are in the midst of a major life transition. After retiring as a pastor and serving five congregations as interim pastor, I drove funeral cars for a year and a half before concluding my years of employment. A little over a year ago my wife was diagnosed with the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. As we explored how best to plan and pursue the path into the next phase of our life, we believed moving from Dallas, Texas to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to share a duplex with our son David and his family was wise. All three of our sons and several trusted friends confirmed that we were on the right path.
Our Dallas house sold more quickly than we expected, which encouraged us as we launched this journey. Purchasing the duplex hit unexpected delays and adjustments which prompted some wavering even as we knew there was no turning back. Friends of our son and daughter-in-law welcomed us to an open ended stay with them as we waited for the duplex to become available. This path seems to have many hidden twists and turns. Our son Erik, who continues to live in Dallas, did not have a place to live when we left Dallas. An older man invited Erik to stay with and help him with housekeeping and errands. This seemed a welcome gift, albeit with its own unsettled and impermanent realities, and his path has taken several unexpected turns to a different unexpected housing opportunity.
Along this path we have interpreted the confluence of many voices and events as confirmation that we are walking the route God wants for us. As we have encountered complications, delays and direction changes, we have asked if we were hearing God correctly. We have prayerfully pondered how to discern the prompting of God through emotional exhilaration and discouragements. I have frequently recalled the words of Dr. V. Raymond Edman (President of Wheaton College 1940-65) on this journey. “Do not doubt in the dark what God has shown you in the light.” But I have continued to question whether what seemed so clear in the light was actually a sign of what God wanted for us and if we do not need to listen for God in the dark as well. So at seventy years old, I’m still asking, “How do we know what God wants?”
What does God want for whom?
I well remember the church of my youth and other high school and college ministries and groups frequently emphasizing the importance of finding God’s will. I typically understood this in terms of choosing a college and a college major, taking steps toward a career God had already chosen for me, and identifying the spouse God had selected and been preparing for me (and me for her) from our births. Somehow, once those were settled, I wasn’t aware of adults struggling to find God’s will. Yes, there was prayer to make wise decisions as a church, such as calling a pastor, and as an individual to know whether to accept a promotion or new job offer. Now nearly fifty years on from those decisions myself, I am acutely aware of adults earnestly searching to find God’s will for the endless stream of decisions that come with life, for me and many of my friends. Yet, that doesn’t present or process the way I remember from my years of impending adulthood.
After I finished graduate school, I do remember reading John MacArthur’s 1973 book God’s Will Is Not Lost, though I could not rehearse its premise now, except that I remember thinking that the title was the best thing about the book. God is not playing a cruel game, hiding a plan for us in cryptic clues and mocking us if we can’t find it. Nor does God have some perfect plan, but we can follow a second or third best alternative if we don’t get it right the first time. In fact, God does not lay out a complete life scheme. Rather God guides us by often imperceptible daily increments.
With a pretty full lifetime behind me, as I have pondered how to know what God wants, I have concluded that this approach is shaped more by our individualistic Western culture than by any Scriptural understanding of what God wants. It all too easily becomes presumptuously ego-centric and promotes the idea that God want me to be successful and happy without regard to the context in which I live and the people around me. When we grasp what God wants in the big picture, we will be clearer about what God wants of and for me.
In the next section I will point to some biblical spotlights that illuminate the big picture of what God wants, but first I want to overview what I believe are the essential themes.
In the Genesis creation, God sought to walk with the man and the woman in the garden in which God had declared every created thing good. For them to be alone was not good. God wanted relationship, communion, fellowship between God and humans and among people. Though the word “love” isn’t used in that narrative, love clearly is at the root of what God wants for the world and its people. Starting with Adam and Eve, Cain and Able humans do not love as God wanted, and the results are disastrous. But God persists in loving by calling Abraham, who becomes known as the friend of God (James 2:23). The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s ultimate expression of love. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Love is the essential core of God’s character. “We have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God.” (1 John 4:16)
What does God want for people in this world of so little love? The Hebrew prophets were adamant that God wants peace and justice, righteousness and mercy for all people. These are antidotes for the venom of lovelessness that poisons us all. We need only a cursory look at the rivalry and violence between people of different nations, ethnicities, religions, languages, and socio-economic groups to recognize the dearth of peace and justice, righteousness and mercy – not to mention actual love – on a global scale in our time and through history. So I am convinced that God wants us human beings to be aware of and compassionate toward people around the world who suffer from a lack of peace and justice, righteousness and mercy. I recognize that is an impossibly huge bite for any one person, but I think that God wants individuals and groups of people to focus on particular groups of people who are different than they are to become aware and active in cultivating love. Thus the global compassion for people can be made into manageable increments that become cumulatively effective.
I am also aware that what passes as realism can convince us that the problem is so overwhelming that even starting seems pointless. I think the Talmud gets it right when it said, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” I am familiar with my son Jon’s vision of building 100 homes for the widows of Santo Domingo Xenacoj, Guatemala as one of a myriad of such efforts to interest, involve, and mobilize a few people to connect with another few people seemingly far away from each other. Not that anyone gets it all right, but I do think God wants such love connections between groups of people all over the world.
Sometimes the social and geographical distance can make love seem safer and easier for the people who are closer to us that for those who are different and distant. Trying to love people we don’t know or understand makes us uncomfortable. The suspicion about emigrants and refugees and the racial, class, and economic tensions in our local communities should alert us that God wants peace and justice, righteousness and mercy among the people who are close to us as well. Fear of crime, loss of property value, change of community character interfere with doing what God wants for people who are close to us. I believe God wants people in these contrasting, and even conflicting, communities to not only support acts of peace and justice, righteousness and mercy, but even more important to get to know each other well enough to form loving friendships. Once again, the magnitude of this can be overwhelming, but on a small group to small group basis becomes not only manageable but rewarding.
I would suggest that for churches in proximate but diverse communities to partner with each other is a practical way to pursue what God wants for people who are close to each other. I want to suggest further that congregational life is a way for churches to foster the love God wants for people who are even closer to each other. Even a cursory look at the New Testament is clear that God wants the congregations of the Church to be communities of love, not institutions of religious business. Acts 2:42, 46-47 says that the people of the early Church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers, and they spent much time together in the temple and broke bread from house to house. Clearly they were not showing up for an hour service 11:00 am to noon on Sundays. Their lives were intertwined in such a way that everyone could tell they were Jesus’ disciples by the way they loved each other. (John 13:35)
The closest of all relationships for all people, not just Jesus’ disciples, are those in the family: spouses, children and parents, siblings, extended family. In Genesis 2:18, 22-24 God brought the woman to the man with allusion to extended family because being alone is not good for people. God wants us to give and receive love in the intimacy of our family relationships.
Thus, we see the focus of the love God wants for people from global, to community, to congregation, to family. Relationships are essential for experiencing the love God wants for all people. I do not want to get into the tangled controversies that swirled around Joseph Fletcher’s 1966 book Situation Ethics: The New Morality (and others then and now) that push into extreme circumstances to explore how love might lead to a decision seemingly contrary to conventional moral principles. However, I do believe that in asking how to know what God wants, we can say that God wants a love relationship with humans and between people. I am also confident that in our world lacking in love, God wants peace and justice, righteousness and mercy.
The Bible’s eschatological images also give a vision of what God ultimately wants. I want to start with the image of mansion from the King James Version of John 14:2. Especially on the west side of The Pond (Atlantic Ocean) this has been misunderstood as a large, luxurious house often on a hill surrounded by vast acres of land separating it from its neighbors. But the King James translators (and Jesus) had something entirely different in mind. The Miriam Webster Dictionary includes as a second definition what would have been commonly understood in the 1600s and even more recently in England. A mansion is “a separate apartment or lodging in a large structure.” Modern translations give a more accurate picture. NIV and RSV have “My Father’s house has many rooms.” NRSV and NASV say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus followed this image with the promise that “where I am you may be also.” (v. 3) What is important to Jesus is that we are together with him and with each other. This is not a vision of isolated luxury but of joyful congregate living. A divine apartment complex in which we are in close proximity.
This is consistent with the image of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9) which Jesus’ banquet parables seem to anticipate in Matthew 22:1-15 and Luke 14:1-24. Though the book of Revelation is often understood as foretelling the cataclysmic events at the culmination of human history that will usher in the fulfilled Kingdom/Reign of God, a great deal of it is devoted to repeated images of great multitudes from every  tribe and language and people and nation harmoniously praising God together. William How’s 1864 hymn For All the Saints captures this in this verse.
From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
The New Testament gives very little detail of what individuals can expect in eternity. Rather, the focus is on the community that God has redeemed and called together through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus says that Lazarus was comforted at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:25). The point of Jesus’ story, however, is not to describe Lazarus’ personal eternal comfort. We in the individualistic culture of the West are fixated on what we will experience in “heaven” which seems incidental to Jesus and the New Testament writers who focus on God’s eternal community gathered for eternal worship. However, we are not alone. In Matthew 20:20-21 the mother of James and John ask Jesus to designate her sons to sit at his right and left in his Kingdom, but Jesus rebuffs the request with a call to humble service of others, consistent with the picture of God wanting relationships of love.
None of this is to suggest that God doesn’t want things, sometimes very specific personal things, of me as an individual, only that the context powerfully informs knowing what God wants for and from me.
Biblical Signposts Pointing to What God Wants
Though I am not presuming that those reading this share my conviction that the Bible is the lens for discerning what God wants, I’m sure that my commitment is already obvious. I also am aware that just saying “according to the Bible” in and of itself convinces no one. The Bible is a library of many diverse pieces in a variety of literary genres written by a number of different people over the passing of several centuries in different cultural contexts and historical situations. Very little of the Bible is presented as dictated by God; rather God spoke through all these people with their unique personalities and circumstances. The consistency that links all of these elements is that the same God is interacting with people who are trying to know and do what God wants, even if they are not consistent in doing so. All of this variability informs my conviction that the Bible is inspired by God, reliable in what it teaches, and authoritative for the Church through the centuries and for me in my present moment.
This understanding of the nature of the Bible precludes treating it as an “owner’s manual,” “recipe book,” or “rule and policy list.” Individual lines cannot be lifted out and absolutized without regard to their literary genre, the context in which they occur, or the relationship to the whole of the Bible. In his 2007 book The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs tells how his attempt to follow every commandment in the Bible (he was pretty much working from the Torah known among Christians as the Pentateuch) literally for a year, he humorously exposed the paradoxical reality of being unable to do it at the same time as being positively changed by it. Some of my Jewish friends have reported the same result from their sincere efforts to celebrate and follow the 613 commandments of the Torah. While woodenly, mechanically following all of the rules is clearly not what God wants, something about them shapes those who pursue them to be more attuned to and harmonious with what God wants.
While I will not attempt a comprehensive inventory of signposts from the Bible that point to what God wants, I will start with a couple of observations from Genesis. Theologians may explore and even debate what made Able’s sacrifice more acceptable to God than Cain’s (Genesis 4:4-5), but Cain’s violent anger was clearly contrary to what God wants (Genesis 4:5, 8ff) Violence characterized the evil that prompted God’s judgment with the flood (Genesis 6:11). By illustration of contrast, Genesis affirms that God wants love: peace and justice, righteousness and mercy. But God did not give up on people just because they lived so far from what God wants. God called Abram to become the channel by which all the families of the earth would be blessed. (Genesis 12:3) God did not bless Abram and his descendants so they could be passive pets but because God wanted to bless all of humanity through Abram.
The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are a pivotal signpost of what God wants for people. Calling them “commandments” may reinforce the “rule list” misunderstanding of the Bible. Jewish usage typically calls them “words.” The point is that God has spoken to people, and by listening people are in a conversational relationship with God. Also, many Christians count “you shall have no other gods before me” as the first commandment because of the imperative construction, but Jewish usage typically counts “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” as the first word and puts “you shall have no other God’s before me” together with “You shall not make for yourself an idol …” as the second word. Thus the emphasis is on God who has reached out to rescue people from bondage, the God who wants a relationship with people. The rest of what is called the first table is much more than rules to follow but a portrait of this God who loves people so they will know the One they are to love. The second table of is about how people can have loving relationships with each other with peace and justice, righteousness and mercy. These are not arbitrary or abstract rules but deep principles of healthy community life. A solid grasp of the profundity of the Ten Commandments/Words is the foundation for knowing and doing what God wants and how the Bible expresses that from beginning to end.
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) recount the adventures and challenges, triumphs and disasters of the community of Israel (and Judah) in relationship with God, with each other, and with their Gentile neighbors, more or generally less often living out the Ten Commandments/Words. Though in different times, facing different issues, the Hebrew prophets consistently call them back to what God wants as founded on the Ten Commandments/Words. Because they so consistently failed to live with the God of love who wanted peace and justice, righteousness and mercy for them, calling to social justice is one of the most prominent and consistent themes of the Hebrew Prophets. Amos and Isaiah 58 are prime examples. Perhaps the most succinct signpost for what God wants articulated by a Hebrew prophet is Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
In the New Testament the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7 and the parallel sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-49) is a pivotal signpost pointing to what God wants, much as the Ten Commandments/Words were in the Hebrew Scripture. Even the most cursory reading or hearing of the Sermon on the Mount makes clear that Jesus was not at all interested in behavioral conformity to a set of rules. Nothing there can be reduced to a checklist to marked at the end of a day as having been completed. No, Jesus was concerned with profound conditions of the heart in relationship with God and with other people. And just as the Hebrew prophets had a special interest in the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the foreigners, Jesus gives those who are excluded and suffering the greatest blessings. For Jesus these were not individual, personal virtues but qualities of life in the community he called the Kingdom of God (Reign if kingdom seems too gender specific to you). And Jesus knew this community would be shunned by the dominant society among whom they lived.
The Lord’s Prayer that is embedded in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:9-13 (Luke 11:2-4 is a shorter version prompted by the disciples request to be taught to pray) includes an important signpost pointing to what God wants. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) What God wants is for the community of the Kingdom to come on earth where what God wants will happen. Jesus is emphatically clear that the community of God’s Kingdom is here and now, not going somewhere remote in time and place. Theologians speak of this paradox that the Kingdom of God is present and simultaneously rejected and hidden as the mystery of “already and not yet.”
Ephesians 5:10 says to “try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” This is not a tricky puzzle. It follows the discourse on God’s gifts to the Church in Ephesians 4. The purpose of these gifts is the unity of the faith and maturity of the full stature of Christ. (v. 13) So again the focus is on relationship with God and with others in the community of the Church. Consistent with the Sermon on the Mount, what God wants is the mature character of Christ. We get to know Jesus by soaking in the Gospels where Jesus meets us. This character is summarized as humility in Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus said as much in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28 that he did not come “to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.”
I am not going to enter the fray about universal salvation one way or another that has received so much attention, especially since Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins. I don’t think that 2 Peter 3:9 speaks to that when it says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Rather I believe it is giving us a picture of God’s love, which is patient with those we would zap, left to our own devices. God doesn’t want to leave anyone out of his love but to include everyone. If we want what God wants, we will want to invite people into a loving relationship with God through Jesus and the community of those who follow Jesus. This is not about revivalist style evangelistic rallies (though they may have their place), but it is about being so in tune with what God wants that we want it too, even for those who would consider us their enemies.
For most of us, especially in the individualistic culture of the West, when we ask how to know what God wants, we tend to be thinking of what does God want me to do or decide in a particular situation. That is a legitimate concern but finds its place in the context of realizing what God wants in our relationships with God and with other people both within and beyond the community of faith. I contend that when our relationships with God and people are healthy, we will know and do what God wants without needing to deliberate excessively.
The Holy Spirit lives within individual disciples of Jesus and the community of the Church. The Holy Spirit uses the raw material of Scripture we have absorbed or considered to prompt decisions in harmony with what God wants. The Holy Spirit prompts others in the Church to confirm or correct our interpretation and discernment of what God wants. And even though our grasp of what God wants is limited and fallible, Romans 8:27 assures us that the Holy “Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
The book of Acts is a marvelous case study of how these signposts informed the apostolic Church as they made their decisions. As we might expect, this all happened in the context of community. Even the individual promptings, such as Philip being sent to the road to Gaza where he met the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26). This grew out of the ministry in Samaria shared with Peter and John (Acts 8:4-25). The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is the ultimate expression of the consistent pattern in Acts of making decisions together as the Church for both individuals and groups. The process was not always as formal as this, and sometimes a large group was not available or involved, but careful reading reveals that they prayed, discussed, and decided together when decisions were needed. One possible exception is when Paul insisted on proceeding to Jerusalem and certain arrest and probably execution, even though the disciples at Tyre, through the Spirit, told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. (Acts 21:4) Was Paul wrong? The conventional Pauline assumption wants to say he was obedient to the Spirit and the disciples at Tyre were only sad because they knew what would happen to him. But even here, where Paul seems to override the word of the Church, the Church was actively participating in the decision.
Yes, I do believe the Spirit guides with subtle nudges to know and do what God wants. No I do not believe some sort of majority vote by itself is a reliable indicator of what God wants. I am also all too aware in my pastoral ministry and my personal life, how prone we humans are to rationalize what we want and convince ourselves it is what God wants. So I do believe that if the Spirit has prompted something, it will be confirmed by the witness of others who are attuned to the Spirit. I have served in some contexts where the designated church leaders agree to act by consensus. This does not mean every member has a veto vote, but to pray and work together until there is a clear sense of the Spirit’s prompting. Sometimes that comes when one unconvinced person agrees that the others are hearing the Spirit and cooperates. Perhaps most often at a personal level, that means that individuals share their sense of the Spirit’s prompting and ask others if they can confirm that too. This is not a procedural or ecclesiastical polity matter but consistent with the whole understanding of what God wants for relationships between people and God and people and each other.
I have also participated in a form practiced among Quakers (Society of Friends) called “Clearness Committee.” In such instances and individual or family needing to make a decision calls together a group of spiritually mature, trustworthy folk. After presenting the choice to be made, the group prayerfully discusses what should be considered in making the decision. This is never the group dictating to the individual but rather questioning and speaking what contributes clearness to those making the decision. I have also experienced the same dynamic in groups that were not formally following the Clearness Committee process but functioned similarly.
Guidance from Some Giants
As essential as these biblical signposts are, insights from those who have gone before us can inform how we get to know what God wants. I want to mention just three: Benedict of Nursia, Ignatius of Loyola, and Thomas Merton.
After the Roman Emperor Constantine made his own distorted version of Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire (ca. 436 CE) the spiritual health of the Church declined rapidly and steeply. In response, many who were hungry for spiritual vigor withdrew to the deserts and laid the foundations for the monastic movements that continued to seek spiritual renewal for the Church in the coming centuries. Some of them wrote their own spiritual guidance and others wrote what they learned from respected leaders. Written copies of Scripture were scarce and some could not read. Some of the stories and teachings seem bizarre to us today, but considerable spiritual wisdom is embedded in what we know today as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (a number of edited collections are available in print).
As important as the Desert Fathers and Mothers were, they did not prompt widespread spiritual renewal in the Church. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) was studying for pastoral ministry in Rome and became so disgusted with the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of his fellow students and Church leaders that he left Rome determined to walk and pray until he heard from God how to find spiritual renewal for himself and for the Church. He walked until he ran into the cliffs at Subiaco where he lived as a hermit, praying in a cave for three years. When he emerged he was convinced God had called him to be an instrument of spiritual renewal for the church. He founded monastic communities and wrote what we know as The Rule of St. Benedict. Though some of it specific to his time that we would find objectionable today, and though he wrote specifically for these monasteries, in my 40+ years of pastoral ministry, I have found The Rule of St. Benedict to be one of the best guides to pastoral leadership I have ever read.
Benedict was very concerned about what he called gyratory monks. In the first chapter of his Rule he wrote of them, “All their lives they wander in different countries staying in various monasteries for three of four days at a time. They are restless, servants to the seduction of their own will and appetites.” He proposed three principles for finding what God wants for spiritual health, around which he built the structure of the monasteries he founded: stability, conversion of life, and obedience.
Stability discouraged bounding from one monastery or abbot to another seeking some thrill or new experience. Rather, stay where God put you and grow there drawing on all that community and leader provide. I think Benedict would be appalled at the church hoppers and marketers of today who cater to an entertainment appetite, as well as to the divisions expressed in the multiplicity of denominations who formed so people of a like mind could reinforce each other’s thinking, rather than learning and growing together by interacting and living with people who are different from each other. I also think Benedict would affirm what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” Benedict would say God doesn’t want us wandering off in fickle pursuits that reinforce spiritual immaturity. He’d tell us God wants us to patiently persist in learning from the people and experiences God brings to us.
Conversion of life recognizes that God wants us to keep growing and not become spiritually complacent. God wants us to know that in this life we are never finished products. God wants to keep shaping and renewing our relationship with God and with the people around us. In the monastery, the leaders and other members are not to be considered either comfortable companions or irritations to be avoided. God wants us to grow and stretch through the interaction with the people around us.
For Benedict, obedience was not an unthinking compliance with the Abbot or any other leader. Obedience is an issue of the heart, wanting above all else to want to obey God, to do what God wants. Obedience is a matter of accepting that your spiritual leaders and companions on the journey are God’s instruments of letting you know what God wants and guiding you on that path. Benedict believed that neither he nor the abbots of the monasteries had all of the answers. They are also subject to the Rule and to the life of the community. But obedience recognizes that God does not want us to be autonomous individuals. God wants us to have leaders and companions we trust whose presence, example, and teaching guide us on the journey of following what God wants.
Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1553) is thought of as the intellectual and spiritual leader of the Counter-Reformation. Because of his loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and his criticisms of Protestant Reformers, many Protestants ignore or reject him. Interestingly, he and John Calvin had been classmates as young men, and though they took opposite sides on many of the issues at stake at the time, they never attacked each other personally. Ignatius is best known to us through his Spiritual Exercises, which many Protestants have embraced as a rigorous guide to spiritual formation, now that some of the animosities of the Reformation are fading. Yes, some distinctly Roman Catholic thoughts are found in the Spiritual Exercises (such as reverence for Mary), but you cannot read them without recognizing that this man was fervently in love with Jesus and trusted him wholly for his salvation. The Spiritual Exercises specifically avoid “works righteousness” but promote the value of disciplines that nourish spiritual growth.
Ignatius devotes one substantial section of the Spiritual Exercises to making “elections,” which we would think of as decisions. He teaches how to use the five senses to make sound decisions by loving and imitating Christ. This prayer from the Spiritual Exercises (98) expresses how much he wanted to want what God wants for himself and for others.
“Eternal Lord of all things, I make my offering, with your favor and help. I make it in the presence of your infinite Goodness and of all the holy men and women in your heavenly court. I wish and desire, and it is my deliberate decision, provided only that is for your greater service and praise, to imitate you in bearing all injuries and affronts, and any poverty actual as well as spiritual, if your Most Holy Majesty desires to choose and receive me into such a life and state.”
He instructs those who are about to make an election/decision to pray in this way, “Ask for an interior knowledge of Our Lord, who became human for me, that I may love him more intensely and follow him more closely.” (104) Rather than some esoteric jargon or mystical ritual, Ignatius taught how to use the ordinary senses to discern what God wants when making a decision. (122-125)
“By sight of my imagination I will see the persons, by meditating and contemplating in detail all the circumstances around them, and by drawing some profit from the sight.
“By my hearing I will listen to what they are saying or might be saying; and then, reflecting on myself, I will draw some profit from this.
“I will smell the fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness and charm of the Divinity, of the soul, of its virtues, and of everything there, appropriately for each of the persons who is being contemplated. Then I will reflect on myself and draw profit from this.
“Using the sense of touch, I will, so to speak, embrace and kiss the places where the persons walk or sit. I shall always endeavor to draw some profit from this.”
As diligently and sincerely as we may want what God wants, we are often unsure that we are on the right path. We may feel forced to live by faith and wish we had greater certainty. But Habakkuk 2:4 is clear that God wants “the righteous (people of justice) live by their faith.” The New Testament alludes to this three times, affirming how much God wants us to live by faith: Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38, as 2 Corinthians 5:7 says, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” Romans 14:23 is even more emphatic that God wants us to live by faith. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Both in pastoral conversation and my own decision making when one option doesn’t seem clearly better, I ask, “Which option calls me to the strongest expression or exercise of faith?
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) captures what it means to life by faith in the real uncertainties of life in this prayer in his 1958 book Thoughts in Solitude. (p. 83)
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road
      Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
      Though I may seem to be lost
      And in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Special Challenging Questions
What happens if what God wants doesn’t match what I want?
The Apostle Paul seemed to struggle with this in some fashion when he wrote in Romans 7:15 “I do not do what I want, but I do the very things I hate.” I have come to conclude that my feeble failings, even when intentional, are no match for what the sovereign God wants. I may miss it, but what God wants will not be frustrated. Psalm 103 assures me that God forgives all my iniquity, does not deal with us according to our sins but removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west. And Psalm 130 asserts that if God marked iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with God.
The idea here is not to presumptuously keep doing what we know God doesn’t want, but to not live in fear of messing up. Yes, some choices have very long term consequences, but they may draw us back to trusting God and counting on Christ’s grace to get us through. I have found the Merton prayer to be a profound way to pray for me to want what God wants, and be honest when I know what I want and what God wants don’t match. Psalm 37:4 to be very beneficial, though it is often misused. “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Some “prosperity gospel” preachers seem to treat this as a way of bribing God into giving me the stuff (yes material things and wealth) that I think I want, whether God wants to or not. But a much better understanding is to recognize that when God is indeed my desire, God will delight to be with me.
How can I protect myself from rationalizing so I think what I want is what God wants?
I start by acknowledging that I can and do rationalize that God wants what I want. I can ask for the Holy Spirit to prod me when I’m heading in this direction. In daily practice, I can establish a relationship with someone or a group of folk whom I not only trust and respect spiritually, but who I can depend on to be honest with me. Then, I overtly give them permission to confront me when they think I’m heading into trouble. To make that work, I need to check in regularly, not just when I suspect I may be susceptible to rationalizing.
How can I expect God to want my life to work well when so many innocent people suffer as victims of violence and natural disaster?
This is a real and serious question that deserves considerable contemplation. One part of the answer is to have some kind of relationship with someone (or group) in another part of the world who are living with much more threatening conditions than I am. I believe this is an important part of the value of child sponsorships and short term mission trips (even for those who support but don’t go). The value is not so much in the work accomplished to benefit struggling people (though well-developed strategies can do that), but to have enough of a relationship to build empathy and identification with people considerably different that we are, to know them as people and friends and not just as charity targets.
As valuable as I think these relationships are, that does not dissolve the problem how to understand what God wants for people who suffer through no fault of their own, especially those who are victims of violence and injustice. Yes, God wants us to be advocates for justice and peace that will benefit others. We are probably more effective with that when we have a mutual and not condescending relationship with them or someone like them. I think, as well, that God wants us to cry out for justice and peace, both in our prayers and in the public arena. We can add our voices to the cries of James 5:4. “The wages of the laborers which were kept back by fraud cry out and have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
Our culture puts a high value on fixing things. When we find we can’t fix them we may blame the victims, become frustrated crusaders, or simply ignore the problem. Can we stare these folk in the face and see the image of God in them, acknowledging our own powerlessness? I believe God wants us to see the pain of those who suffer violence, oppression, disaster, and disease as God sees them. When we do, I believe we will see much more clearly how God wants us to live in the contexts where we have been called and sent.
Why do different Christians whom I respect for their spiritual maturity and sensitivity come to contrasting decisions about how God wants them to vote, use money, set priorities, establish personal lifestyles?
This question is not all that far removed from reading the Bible with the recognition of the variety of human voices it reflects. For one thing, acknowledging the spiritual integrity of someone who disagrees with us about something we are passionately convinced of should evoke humility and remind us that we are all working with incomplete information and insight. That is not to say that disagreements between followers of Jesus don’t matter. In fact, it should push us to pursue better understanding, better dialog, and better strength of conviction.
In some instances, these disagreements arise because we align ourselves with human philosophies, worldviews, and political, economic and social positions that we allow to supersede the love: peace and justice, righteousness and mercy that God wants. This all too easily becomes a sort of group rationalization.
Having said that, I think I can say that when these disagreements arise among those whom we respect for their spiritual maturity, God wants us to enter dialogs in which we seek to learn from each other more than trying to convince each other. That way we maintain positive relationships while nourishing growth in each other. I suggest asking ourselves, “Why can what seems reasonable to me seem reprehensible to someone else?” and “Why can something that seems reprehensible to me seem reasonable to someone else?”
How can I grow from external conformity to rules to have internalized values and character?
From Abraham and Moses through the Hebrew Prophets to Jesus, even the Law of the Bible conveys God’s desire for people to have internal values and character, not just conformity to external rules.
In recent decades considerable analysis and research has gone into understanding moral development, much of it associated with Lawrence Kohlberg and James Fowler. Though organized with some variation, a sequence has been identified that moves from understanding what is “bad” as what hurts and what is “good” as what pleases. This is illustrated by young children who avoid punishment and seek reward without necessarily understanding why parents, teachers, or other “big people” deal out punishment and reward. Moral value is determined externally by whomever holds power. As the principles behind the punishment and reward become clearer, the idea of rules, laws, and principles becomes clearer. What makes a particular rule good or bad may still not be accurate or understood, but it is no longer the momentary wish of someone with power. Even people with power have to follow the rules. Stable societies, especially democracies, depend on the rule of law to function smoothly in populations of people with widely differing expectations. Having rules to define what is good is much more dependable than the whims of people with power, but it is still external to individuals. What people do when no one else is watching points toward the internalization of moral values and development of character. As people mature, they develop and adopt their own set of values that define a moral compass that operates regardless of the rewards and punishments from people in power. While a society’s legal code certainly influences people’s personal values, individuals can often articulate the specific values they have adopted by which they guide their lives, behaviors, and decisions, even when it goes beyond or against the social contract. For some folk this internalization grows into a deeply rooted character that comes into play even when profound distress pressures, bends, and may even break specific values. People with such character can become moral leaders who resist moral threats that intimidate or baffle others. People of power and even people of rules may reject the vision of people of character in times of moral upheaval.
Though this explanation is dramatically over simplified, those who have explored moral development in considerable depth have found that in any society only a very small portion of people grow to adopt well-integrated internalized values, and even fewer develop deeply rooted, mature character. That is why for many people, saying, “It’s the law” settles an argument or ends a discussion. That is why in times of distress and confusion so many people crave a strong leader who will enforce order with force. That is why even the most brutal despots cannot silence dissenters with violence.
I suspect that this pattern of moral development also explains the appeal for many Christians of understanding the Bible as a rule book and the great difficulty of accepting and pursuing that Jesus taught so consistently the internalization of values and character. Jesus’ interaction with his critics among the religious elite of his day and with his own disciples gives important clues to how these internal values and character develop. Jesus’ critics viewed him as a rule breaker and thus a threat to moral order. While Jesus’ disciples had grown up with that teaching and were challenged by his way of thinking, their relationship with him opened them to being shaped by his approach. The telling of parables, without the tacked on morals such as Aesop’s Fables, and the asking of questions without pat answers stretched the disciples to reexamine their assumptions and presuppositions. Jesus compelled them to look deeper when the accepted models no longer matched their expectations of what they thought God wants.
Practical Discernment and Cultivation of Knowing and Living Out/Into What God Wants
Though I’m sure someone else could write a full-length book to answer, “How do we know what God wants,” those who have read this far may understandably be sighing, “How can I put all this into practice?” I do believe the answer is actually quite simple, though that does not mean it is easy. Three essential elements are readily accessible: scripture (especially Gospel) saturation, listening prayer, and engagement with a church community.
Even those who can’t read can hear the Bible read to them. I propose that if you want to know and do what God wants, soak in the Scripture. I’m not thinking of typical Bible study or devotional literature. Nor am I suggesting plowing through huge volumes of material. Rather, I’m thinking more of nutrition. It’s a question of absorbing Scripture so that it becomes an intrinsic part of you. Henri Nouwen compared it to a cow chewing it’s cud to extract the maximum value of every bite. The desert father Abba Poeman used a different metaphor.
“The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the [one] who hears the word of God often, opens [the] heart to the fear of God.” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, Kalamazoo, MI, Cistercian Publications, 1975, pp. 192-193
Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45) So the point of soaking in Scripture is to fill the heart to overflowing, so that what God wants is what comes out. We thrive and grow spiritually best with daily nourishment, just like eating. If you depend on what you get on Sunday worship, as good as it may be, you will be spiritually malnourished. Good balance is also important in the Scripture diet, just as with food. The Common Lectionary recognized this with selections from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Acts, the New Testament Epistles, and of course, the Gospels. While absorbing the whole of Scripture is important, we meet Jesus in the Gospels. Reading the Gospels is not about accumulating information about Jesus, but becoming so acquainted with him that he can live out his life through us. Daily exposure to the Gospels is essential to walking each day in harmony with him.
Sometimes reading the Bible is thought of as God speaking to us and prayer as us speaking to God. At a certain level that is true enough, but it easily leads to a view of prayer that can seem as though God is stupid and needs to be told by us what calls for attention and what to do about it. Indeed, God is interested in the great and sometimes terrible affairs of our world as well as the personal details of our daily lives. Understanding the God wants to be our friend, we are free, even welcome, to discuss anything that matters to us with God, as we would with any close friend. As Romans 8:26-27 says, the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God with sighs too deep for words. So listening prayer is a partnership with the Spirit in which we quiet ourselves so we can perceive the whispers and nudges of the Spirit who knows what God wants.
Listening prayer depends on a deep reservoir of Scripture in the heart. As we bring the things that concern us into our awareness of God by praying, the Spirit can draw on not only our recent Scripture reading but on the cumulative shaping Scripture works on us. While the wider and deeper the knowledge of Scripture, the more there is to work with. The Spirit is well able to use even a meager inventory if it has become an internalized, integrated part of us. It’s not so much how much Scripture we have gotten through as it is how well Scripture has soaked in and become part of us. Many people have developed and used many different methods of prayer, many of which are quite suitable. The steps of Lectio Divina that come to us through the Benedictine disciplines intrinsically link Scripture and prayer. However, the point is not the method as much as being quiet enough, long enough to tune into the movement of the Spirit.
Finally, if we actually want to know and do what God wants, we need to participate in a church community of other people who also want the same thing. These people do not all have to be spiritual giants. People who humbly recognize themselves as spiritual beginners are often the best at discerning what God wants and being ready to do it. Nevertheless, any healthy church community will have several people who are recognized and respected for their spiritual maturity.
Often what God wants becomes clear in the informal conversations between people in such a church community where people openly share their lives with each other. If they are purposely listening for the Spirit in the responses they receive, what God wants will become clear in the interaction. Sometimes an individual will have an idea that seems to be what God wants. The confirmation of others in the church community clears the way to proceed with confidence. Sometime questions, reservations, or doubts can prevent heading in the wrong direction. For new ideas to find their way into such conversations may well be the work of the Spirit, even if we are not directly aware of it.
Not only is participation in a church community important for discerning what God wants, that kind of life together is itself what God wants. Just as a Sunday morning worship is too thin an exposure to Scripture for spiritual nourishment, so too, an hour or two once a week in a structured, largely listening setting does not give us the social support for spiritual health. We have to know and be known well enough by people with whom we are companions on the path with Jesus as we seek to know and do what God wants. This requires a range of relationships compatible with some level of intimacy and trust. That doesn’t mean that a congregation cannot be large, but it cannot be a collection of individuals who show up to listen once a week, but must be made up of clusters of people who share the everyday realities of their lives and their own journeys with Jesus. Such clusters must be more than a program option available to church members or attenders, but must be the defining reality of the lives of those who want to know and do what God wants.
So all of this boils down to three basic ingredients in knowing what God wants. They are utterly simple and monumentally challenging. I once heard Fr. Thomas Hopko, former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York say, “When I was a boy my mother told me that to grow as a Christian I needed to read my Bible, say my prayers, and go to church. Now I am leading a seminary training people for lifetimes of ministry and I tell them that if they want to grow as Christians and help others grow as Christians, they need to read their Bibles, say their prayers, and go to church.” If you want to know what God wants, build your life around these three essentials.
·         scripture (especially Gospel) saturation
·         listening prayer
·         engagement with a church community

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“Peace Be With You,” Jesus

When I got to contemplatio in my lectio divina on John 20:19-31 today, I was able to listen to Jesus saying to me, “Peace be with you.” (vv. 19,26) I believe I was receiving Christ’s peace for how the transition Candy and I are making is changing our marriage and what our relationship will become when we get settled in the duplex, for patience with how long this transition is taking, for the joys and challenges of living in Christian community with Mandy and Matthew Bailey and Chris Gooding, for the support Milwaukee Mennonite Church has been to Rachel and David, Sam and Elizabeth and their welcoming us into their community. Listening to Jesus prepared me for a fresh encounter from God in my Psalm Prayers today.

Psalm 49 evoked an acute awareness of just how those who trust in their wealth, boast in the abundance of their riches, and name lands as their own (vv.6,11) have come to prominence and power in our society. My inclination to be angry and alarmed was tempered by Jesus’ assuring words, “peace be with you” echoed by the tone of the Psalm, which asserts that their graves are the homes of such people forever, even though they named lands and enterprises after themselves. (v. 11)

Ordinarily, on the 19th of each month I skip quickly through Psalm 109 (the quintessential imprecatory – cursing Psalm) as I don’t have such bitter feelings toward anyone I know. However, today, having already been thinking of a number of powerful, prominent people who seem to trust in their wealth, boast in the abundance of their riches, and name lands their own, I resonated with much of Psalm 109.

The NRSV translation of verse 6 has long troubled me, as their own footnote indicates “They say” is not in the Hebrew text. I wonder if this was a scribal addition in antiquity or a translators’ effort to soften the uncomfortable severity of the Psalm. My instincts tell me that the original was indeed harsh, for sometimes we do feel these emotions. I did check a number of other popular translations, and none of them included “They say.”

As the Psalmist (ascribed to David, whether that ascription was original or not is questionable to me, but not because David was above such curses) vents his curses, the Psalm brings us to focus on God’s steadfast love (vv. 21, 26 hesed) and entrusting those we want to curse into God’s hands. Today I found a leisurely reading the entirety of Psalm 109 helped me receive the peace of Christ, not only for the transition Candy and I are now making, but also for the way our world seems out of control hurtling toward inevitable disaster at the hands of those who trust in their wealth, boast in the abundance of their riches, and names lands as their own.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Show Me the End of My Life

We are praying we will soon be able to move into the 59th Street duplex in Milwaukee for the next step of our journey to life's end. Psalm 39:4 was in my Psalm Prayers today. "Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days." (NIV). I met one of the neighbors yesterday who asked how long we planned to be there, and I said, "for the rest of our lives." I do not see this as morbid at all but full of joy knowing that the Lord has brought us to this place for this important conclusion of our journey. At 70 year old, I am very aware that my Dad, who lived to be 83, is the only male I know of to whom I have a genetic connection to live past 70. I remember my Dad considered that he received the gift of a 13 year bonus. All else being equal, I am projecting the possibility of 15 more years for me, in which caring for Candy is the highest priority. We are still in transition, but the picture of our "lives' ends" is coming into focus. Rachel and David have been getting their unit ready to move in next week, and that have given us a vision of what ours will be soon in this place God has provided along with Rachel and David, Sam and Elizabeth.. I am well aware the countdown is on for me, not with regret but anticipation of what God has in store for us and what we will be able to do in this window.

Boomerang Psalms

Here is a selection of what I have called Boomerang Psalms. With these to start you thinking, you can identify others as you read. 

Psalm 5
1Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. 2Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray. 3O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

4For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you. 5The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. 6You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.

7But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house, I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. 8Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.

9For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues. 10Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.

11But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you. 12For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.

Psalm 7
1O Lord my God, in you I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me, 2or like a lion they will tear me apart; they will drag me away, with no one to rescue.

3O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, 4if I have repaid my ally with harm or plundered my foe without cause, 5then let the enemy pursue and overtake me, trample my life to the ground, and lay my soul in the dust.

6Rise up, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment. 7Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered around you, and over it take your seat on high. 8The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.

9O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous, you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God. 10God is my shield, who saves the upright in heart. 11God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day.

12If one does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; 13he has prepared his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts. 14See how they conceive evil, and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies. 15They make a pit, digging it out, and fall into the hole that they have made. 16Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends.

17I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.

Psalm 9
1I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds. 2I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

3When my enemies turned back, they stumbled and perished before you. 4For you have maintained my just cause; you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgment.

5You have rebuked the nations, you have destroyed the wicked; you have blotted out their name forever and ever. 6The enemies have vanished in everlasting ruins; their cities you have rooted out; the very memory of them has perished.

7But the Lord sits enthroned forever, he has established his throne for judgment. 8He judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with equity.

9The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. 10And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.

11Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion. Declare his deeds among the peoples. 12For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.

13Be gracious to me, O Lord. See what I suffer from those who hate me; you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death, 14so that I may recount all your praises, and, in the gates of daughter Zion, rejoice in your deliverance.

15The nations have sunk in the pit that they made; in the net that they hid has their own foot been caught. 16The Lord has made himself known, he has executed judgment; the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.

17The wicked shall depart to Sheol, all the nations that forget God. 18For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.

19Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you. 20Put them in fear, O Lord; let the nations know that they are only human.

Psalm 10
1Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? 2In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor— let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

3For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord. 4In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”; all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”

5Their ways prosper at all times; your judgments are on high, out of their sight; as for their foes, they scoff at them. 6They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved; throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”

7Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity. 8They sit in ambush in the villages; in hiding places they murder the innocent.

Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless; 9they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert; they lurk that they may seize the poor; they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

10They stoop, they crouch, and the helpless fall by their might. 11They think in their heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

12Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed. 13Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”?

14But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan.

15Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers; seek out their wickedness until you find none. 16The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations shall perish from his land.

17O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear 18to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Psalm 35
1Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! 2Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me! 3Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers; say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”

4Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me. 5Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them on. 6Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.

7For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. 8Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.

9Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance. 10All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”

11Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me about things I do not know. 12They repay me evil for good; my soul is forlorn. 13But as for me, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting. I prayed with head bowed on my bosom, 14as though I grieved for a friend or a brother; I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning.

15But at my stumbling they gathered in glee, they gathered together against me; ruffians whom I did not know tore at me without ceasing; 16they impiously mocked more and more, gnashing at me with their teeth.

17How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions!
18Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you.

19Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye. 20For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land. 21They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.”

22You have seen, O Lord; do not be silent! O Lord, do not be far from me! 23Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense, for my cause, my God and my Lord! 24Vindicate me, O Lord, my God, according to your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me. 25Do not let them say to themselves, “Aha, we have our heart’s desire.” Do not let them say, “We have swallowed you up.”

26Let all those who rejoice at my calamity be put to shame and confusion; let those who exalt themselves against me be clothed with shame and dishonor.

27Let those who desire my vindication shout for joy and be glad, and say evermore, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servant.” 28Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all day long.

Psalm 37
1Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, 2for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.

3Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. 4Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

5Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. 6He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.

7Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.

8Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil. 9For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

10Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there. 11But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

12The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them; 13but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming.

14The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly; 15their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.

16Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.
17For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous.

18The Lord knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will abide forever; 19they are not put to shame in evil times, in the days of famine they have abundance.

20But the wicked perish, and the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

21The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving; 22for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off.

23Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when he delights in our way; 24though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.

25I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. 26They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing.

27Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever. 28For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.

The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. 29The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever.

30The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak justice. 31The law of their God is in their hearts; their steps do not slip.

32The wicked watch for the righteous, and seek to kill them. 33The Lord will not abandon them to their power, or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial.

34Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked.

35I have seen the wicked oppressing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon. 36Again I passed by, and they were no more; though I sought them, they could not be found.

37Mark the blameless, and behold the upright, for there is posterity for the peaceable. 38But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.

39The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; he is their refuge in the time of trouble. 40The Lord helps them and rescues them; he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them, because they take refuge in him.

Psalm 57
1Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by. 2I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. 3He will send from heaven and save me, he will put to shame those who trample on me. God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.

4I lie down among lions that greedily devour human prey; their teeth are spears and arrows, their tongues sharp swords.

5Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.

6They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my path, but they have fallen into it themselves. 7My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make melody. 8Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. 9I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. 10For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds.

11Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.

Psalm 109
1Do not be silent, O God of my praise. 2For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. 3They beset me with words of hate, and attack me without cause. 4In return for my love they accuse me, even while I make prayer for them. 5So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love.

6They say, “Appoint a wicked man against him; let an accuser stand on his right. 7When he is tried, let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin. 8May his days be few; may another seize his position. 9May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. 10May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. 11May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil. 12May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. 13May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation. 14May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord, and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out. 15Let them be before the Lord continually, and may his memory be cut off from the earth. 16For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death. 17He loved to curse; let curses come on him. He did not like blessing; may it be far from him. 18He clothed himself with cursing as his coat, may it soak into his body like water, like oil into his bones. 19May it be like a garment that he wraps around himself, like a belt that he wears every day.”

20May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak evil against my life. 21But you, O Lord my Lord, act on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me. 22For I am poor and needy, and my heart is pierced within me. 23I am gone like a shadow at evening; I am shaken off like a locust. 24My knees are weak through fasting; my body has become gaunt. 25I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they shake their heads.

26Help me, O Lord my God! Save me according to your steadfast love. 27Let them know that this is your hand; you, O Lord, have done it. 28Let them curse, but you will bless. Let my assailants be put to shame; may your servant be glad. 29May my accusers be clothed with dishonor; may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle. 30With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord; I will praise him in the midst of the throng. 31For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save them from those who would condemn them to death.

Psalm 115
1Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness. 2Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”

3Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases. 4Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. 5They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. 6They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. 7They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats. 8Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.

9O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield. 10O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield. 11You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield. 12The Lord has been mindful of us; he will bless us; he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron; 13he will bless those who fear the Lord, both small and great.

14May the Lord give you increase, both you and your children. 15May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

16The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings. 17The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence. 18But we will bless the Lord from this time on and forevermore. Praise the Lord!

Psalm 140
1Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent, 2who plan evil things in their minds and stir up wars continually. 3They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s, and under their lips is the venom of vipers.

4Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent who have planned my downfall. 5The arrogant have hidden a trap for me, and with cords they have spread a net, along the road they have set snares for me.

6I say to the Lord, “You are my God; give ear, O Lord, to the voice of my supplications.” 7O Lord, my Lord, my strong deliverer, you have covered my head in the day of battle. 8Do not grant, O Lord, the desires of the wicked; do not further their evil plot.

9Those who surround me lift up their heads; let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! 10Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! 11Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent!

12I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. 13Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall live in your presence.

Psalm 141
1I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you. 2Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

3Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. 4Do not turn my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with those who work iniquity; do not let me eat of their delicacies.

5Let the righteous strike me; let the faithful correct me. Never let the oil of the wicked anoint my head, for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds. 6When they are given over to those who shall condemn them, then they shall learn that my words were pleasant. 7Like a rock that one breaks apart and shatters on the land, so shall their bones be strewn at the mouth of Sheol.

8But my eyes are turned toward you, O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenseless. 9Keep me from the trap that they have laid for me, and from the snares of evildoers. 10Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I alone escape.