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Posts Tagged ‘Psalms’

A reflection offered to United World Mission’s US Leadership Team

27 September 2021

I think we may find ourselves in a season of Joshua-like courage.

I’m no doubt influenced in saying so by John’s kick-off video last week, but also by a long weekend walk in the autumnal Connecticut woods with my dog Rhea and three recent conversations with—respectively—Jonathan, Jessica, and Chad. Those convos were of such quality that they left me feeling as though we’re in the kind of season that becomes a point of reference for entire careers. The kinds of seasons that have retired LAMers at Penney Farms still talking about the 60s and 70s when young renegades like René Padilla, Samuel Escobar, and Orlando Costas burst on the scene without asking permission. LAM, to the astonishment of many and the horror of some, cautiously embraced these Latin American voices.

The rest is history.

I’m sure we could narrate similar tales come from critical hinges in 20th and 21st century history, for example, when it became possible to serve behind the Iron Curtain as the Berlin Wall trembled and eventually crumbled.

In each case, Joshua-like courage was required … and forthcoming.

I think we might be in another of those seasons. We may someday talk about the moment we’re living now in the UWM retirement community that John will build for us. Some sooner than others.

Here’s a text:

Josh. 1:1  After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, 2 “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. 3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory. 5 No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good successwherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1.1-9 (ESV)

 Can you see in this opening to the first book after the ‘five book of Moses’ how utterly grounded—the more appropriate term is rooted—Joshua is called to remain?

7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good successwherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

Joshua 1.7-8 (ESV)

And yet Joshua’s commission is anything but backward-looking. To the contrary, he is charged with stepping into very large shoes and with leading his people into the scary unknown. Not all of them wanted to go there. Not all of them wanted to go there under Joshua’s baton.

This happens in the midst of lots of drama, with Yahweh responding in Deuteronomy to Moses’ plea to be allowed to enter the promised land after he’d been told that was not gonna’ happen:

Deut. 3:23   And I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, 24 ‘O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? 25 Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ 26 But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.’

Deuteronomy 3.23-26 (ESV)

Deeply rooted …. forward-leaning.

I wonder if that’s where we find ourselves as UWM and as a USLT…

I might be tempted to leave Joshua and Joshua-like courage where it stands, not uprooting it from its native soil and forcing into some kind of relevance for us when that might not be what it’s there for.


Except for Psalm 1, one of my favorites.

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree

planted by streams of water

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

in all that he does, he prospers.

Psalm 1.1-3 (ESV)

One of Israel’s poets has riffed on Joshua 1 and, in the process, democratized it. The way he redeploys the language of what for us is Joshua 1 make it indisputably a poetic restatement of the Joshua text. Then a final editor of this book of Israel’s praises—maybe the same persona, maybe not—has placed it as the very doorway into Israel’s hymns, laments, meditations, screams, and words of stabilizing wisdom.

So Joshua-like courage now becomes a summons for every daughter and son of Israel.

Again, we see that his blessed person is very, very deeply rooted. Now to say ‘grounded’ is not enough.

Yet this Psalm is no more antiquarian than the Joshua text, no more backward-looking that Joshua’s commission was. It is about wading forward into the psalms, wading forward into life with Yahweh, wading in as a responsible member of the community in which Yahweh has embedded each of us, wading in to forge a future out of sometimes unpromising raw material.

Joshua-like courage, now for everyone. Still deeply rooted …. and still forward-leaning.

It’s this line of thinking that has got its claws into me in this season of life within UWM (and FUSBC…) that has me seeking Joshua-like courage, which is no more innate in me than it was in Joshua. He, after all, needed strong exhortation to summon up this courage rather than simply employ a kind of heroic fearlessness that lay somehow on the surface of him, readily available.

That’s what I want to do and what I observe numbers of you doing.

I want to reminisce about this season someday on my rocking chair at Bernard Farms in central Vermont, when Autumn is falling and the voices of my LAM forebears in Penney Farms have gone quiet. It’ll be worth it.

So that’s what I’ve got.

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The poet who stands behind our 104th psalm contributes to a compendium that adds to YHWH’s activity in history a celebration of his work in creation. It is a beautiful oddity.

Curiously, two features of divine participation in creation interweave the psalmist’s celebration. (more…)

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Psalm 103 insists that we live in a world in which clear vision leads to gratitude.

Blessedness is reality. The failure to see this means that someone has gone blind, perhaps even succumbed to a lie.

Yet gratitude requires a choice—and even that ongoing choice which becomes a discipline—because for some unnamed reason we are liable to forget. Blessing is a fact on the ground, yet gratitude seldom occurs in nature. It requires practice, discipline, even culture, lest blessing go unanswered by thanksgiving. (more…)

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The exclamation, the sensuous enthusiasm of the summons that comes to us in the 8th verse of this psalm of testimony and wisdom surprises. If such an invocation to sensation is just about imaginable in the context of witness, it is utterly defiant of the disciplined reflection of classical wisdom.

Yet here it is:

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8 ESV)

Perhaps the particular challenge that an acrostic psalm (alphabetically ordered) thrusts against the prowess of its composer explains this ranging wide of the customary field of play. We might imagine that the poor guy will say just about anything as long as it begins with the right letter. Or conversely, if we’ve sung or read this language of sanctified gustation one time too many, its impertinence might even escape our attention. (more…)

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The famous rhetorical question of the eighth Psalm is widely misgauged:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3–4 ESV)

The assumption behind the question is too often thought to be that human beings are too measly and pathetic to warrant such divine attention. In fact, the context suggests just the opposite: there is some intrinsic glory—albeit veiled—in human beings that holds YHWH’s gaze:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Next to the massive dimensions of the moon and the stars, humans are manifestly small creatures. One might not expect YHWH to find them fascinating and worthy of his care. Yet in spite of their humble bearing, we read that YHWH is mindful of them, cares for them, indeed has exalted them over the rest of creation. (more…)

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As the Psalter works its way down the home stretch toward its finale in the 150th psalm, the gloves come off. Doxology reaches to a stretch, digs down to bedrock, summons even the unseen powers and convenes heaven’s lights.

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!

Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.

(Psalm 148:1–6 ESV)

In the ancient Israelite context, calling upon sun and moon to praise their Maker is brave: they were often worshiped as gods themselves. It is also polemical: they are put in their place.

They do not seem to mind, in the psalmist’s opinion, though worshippers of the heavenly bodies might beg to differ. The psalmist imagines heaven’s lights praising YHWH at full throat simply for the privilege of having been created at his command so that they can do so.

There is, we are asked to accept, no corner of heaven or earth where praise is rightly withheld. If there is war in heaven, celestial conspiracies afoot, they are forgotten as the psalmist reaches forward to how things should be. Will be.

The most awesome, the most mighty, the high and almost holy, even these burst into song when their time comes. They know their place, and are glad in it.

How much more we mortals, elevated as we are now to sing along without too much embarrassment about our little voices, trembling hands, sad yesterdays.

Perhaps He commanded us, too, into existence so that we could sing like this, eyes moist because we are not yet fully home.

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The faint heart is often insomniac. What is it about the 3:00 a.m. hour, so full of worries, fears, and untimely wakefulness? As though on schedule, eyes open and the faint heart races. Life’s shadows loom taller and more menacing than usual. Improbable fears seem perfectly plausible. Things that will shrink into proportion in the light of day take the shape of lethal threats and impassable walls. The sixty-first psalm relieves us of at least one of our disabling fears: that we cannot pray because our heart is faint. (more…)

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After detailing the radical bent-ness of the wicked, the writer of the thirty-sixth psalm finds himself overwhelmed by the ubiquity of YHWH. The LORD’s loving justice is everywhere.

Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O LORD. (Psalm 36:5–6 ESV)

The Hebrew Bible does not traffic in the notions of omnipresence or ubiquity to which thoughtful readers of the Bible would eventually lay their hand. Its natural dialect is more concrete, more this-worldly. Yet, in spite of what might seem to our habits of thinking a limitation, the Hebrew poet knows how to say exactly what he wants to say. (more…)

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The thirty-second psalm is all but drunk with sweet release.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1–2 ESV)

Like most durable truths, this one has been hard won. Whatever the shattering failure of the writer, it led to writhing that seemed a sickness unto death:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

(more…)

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We loathe the moment when our conversation partner looks distractedly over our shoulder. Or fidgets with his keys. Or gives the appearance of listening, but with her eyes empty as clouds, her thoughts elsewhere.

We long for eye contact. We were made for face-to-face. (more…)

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