On the heavens and mosquitoes.

It was Monday, and my brain was moving very slowly. I turned to Psalm 19, as I’ve been trying to do all year.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” I read. I started thinking about sitting on the deck to watch the heavens.

Early morning when the house gives us shade. It’s cool. The sky is clearly visible between the tops of the oak trees and the rooftop. There is enough space to see clouds, windshopped into interesting shapes. And blue. And the faint white moon.

Evening, after supper, after walking, after the coffee is brewed and the banana is sliced and mixed with shredded wheat, after the conversation quiets, both between birds and between us. The blue turns pink, the trees turn black.

And then I thought about the mosquitoes. Not deep-swamp, black clouds of mosquitoes. We have suburban mosquitoes. A slow buzzing, an occasional swelling on bare ankle or arm.

I scratched as I thought about the mosquitoes, and thought about all the times they bit and I left. Left the conversations between birds. Left the conversations between friends. Left the conversation between deep heaven and earth, the declarations of the glories of God, verse after verse, each shaded differently, notes changing nightly.

A few tiny buzzing bugs shut down life-changing conversations.

I could put something on my ankles. I could put candles on the corners of the deck, covers on the tops of my ears. If I really wanted to listen to the heavens and to the voices closer to earth and my heart, I could do many things to stop the distraction.

If I want to listen for God, there many small suburban distractions I could ignore and avoid.

But maybe avoiding the annoying itch is the most important evening task.

Pesky psalm. Stinging like that.

David found strength in the Lord his God.

“But David found strength in the Lord his God.”

It’s a simple sentence near the end of 1 Samuel. It’s easy to skip over because of what comes before it.

“David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters.”

This was one of the worst days of David’s life so far. Right now, on the day where the men are talking about stoning him, David and his small band of refugee soldiers have come home to find their city burned and all their families and possessions hauled away. They were hauled away by Amalekite raiders, in the same way that David had been raiding their cities for the past year. David was getting what he had given.

The city that was burned wasn’t in Israel. Though David had already been chosen as the successor to the current king, Saul, he had no authority yet. In fact, David was living among the Philistines, among people that he had spent his life fighting. He had formed a tenuous alliance with one of the Philistine tribal leaders, a treaty of convenience for both of them. But when the rest of the Philistine leaders were forming a plan to attack Israel, they understandably refused to allow David to be part of it.

So David, on this day, was standing outside of his homeland because he was hated, with alliances that were dissolving because of people who hated him, in a city that had just been burned by other people who hated him, and now his own soldiers are ready to stone him. And his family was in the hands of people who hated him.

It was a bad day.

Which makes Psalm 27, written by David, have some credibility for this Monday. 

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The whole story is in 1 Samuel 27-30. It reads, I confess, pretty rough for our Western tastes. I reads, I suggest, like parts of the rest of the world.

on conversation with God.

Our sense of how conversation should happen is that we say something and immediately the other person says something. When we are face-to-face it happens in seconds. Though often, we don’t hear words in seconds.  We walk a long distance without words with a friend, knowing that silence is part of the conversation as well. The closer the relationship, the longer the silence can linger.

With email, with tweets, with voicemail, it can take a day for a response. (Or longer for me. I’m sorry.) If it’s more than that, we often get frustrated at the delay. We start to fill in the gaps with our guesses. We are often, we discover when we finally hear from the person, really bad guessers.  In the old days, with ships carrying the mail, conversations could take weeks.  A letter smuggled from one hand to another, from prison cell to distant friends could take months and then was read and passed on, read and memorized.

God will converse with us, but it will happen in the longer time frame. Just because the response isn’t like texting doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It may take weeks on some subjects, years on others. And it will happen across many media. Psalm 19 tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God. In Acts,  a man in a vision interrupted Paul’s sleep and sent him to Macedonia.  And, as my friend Rich wrote recently, “when someone asks how you knew this was what God wanted you to do, you realize there’s no nice clean answer that’ll really make sense to anyone else.”

I wish, sometimes, the conversation moved more quickly, that God spoke faster. But then I tell myself what David didWait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

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with thanks to my friend Jaala for asking.

Psalm 19, again and again

I’m reading Psalm 19 every Monday this year. It’s an interesting discipline, to study the same text fresh every week. Here’s what I saw last week.

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A five-part process of clarifying my perspective.

1. Reflect on God’s work in and of creation. (19:1-6)

I suppose that we can think of the heavens as messages to us, but as I was reflecting I realized that they are more like messages about God that we observe. The writer is being poetic, the heavens don’t actually say anything. But from my background in rhetoric that looks at everything as discourse, these words resonate. After all, I talk about choices of room color and furniture arrangements telling us something about the person who did it. So couldn’t stars talk, too?

2. Reflect on God’s actual words. (19:7-9)

The writer talks about the words of God using six different labels. Again, it’s poetry. And again, we talk in similar terms about the written work of people we admire. (Read Amazon reviews to see what I mean).

3. Affirm the nature and character of those words. (19:7-11)

The writer talks about the purity and truth of God’s teachings. They are nourishing, they bring value and order to life.

4. Invite God’s soul-searching. (19:12-13)

The writer now turns from talking about God to talking to God. And asking for insight about two difficult things. First, to get help seeing into our hidden errors, and not just seeing them, but being forgiven for them. We are fully aware of our choices to do wrong. But we often are unaware of thoughtless wrong. And second, we don’t want choosing wrong to become habitual.

5. Invoke God’s corrective blessing. (19:14)

“I want to say the right thing” is different than “please make what I say pleasing to you.” One’s about measuring up. One’s about being guided.  And the writer does the latter.

A song for Monday: Psalm 121

I’ve never talked with you about Psalm 121. It’s a song that strengthens me. When my heart sings it, I am encouraged. It has been shaping me for a several decades but I’ve never talked with you about it.

“The sun will not smite me by day, nor the moon by night.” That’s not exactly how the NIV reads, but it is how Bernstein included this Psalm in “A Simple Song“. I started singing those words, the phrases form Psalm 121 in college. Not out loud, for to me to sing outside my head encourages no one. But the musical blend of dissonance and resolve in this piece reflects the lyrical dissonance and resolve in the Psalm itself. Somehow, singing the lines strengthens me.

When Eugene Peterson writes about that passage (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction), he asks, “How can the moon smite you?”, then talks about the struggles we have in the dark, the doubts that creep, the questions that rob us of sleep. Peterson’s explanation of the lyricist’s imagery makes sense. And comforts.

I realized why I haven’t talked about this song. It’s easy to treat it as an assertion and to offer counterexamples. When the psalmist says, “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life,” it is possible to say, “But what about the time that evil hurt my friend, my daughter, me?” When the psalmist says, “He will not let your foot be moved”, we say, “But what about the time my friend did slip?”

And so, to avoid the argument, I’ve not mentioned the song. In the process, I’ve not pointed you to this pilgrim song, sung for generations on their way to Jerusalem. I apologize. We need anthems that teach large truths even while we sort out specific events.