Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Leaders within the Diocese of Christ our Hope —
This past week we have been rocked with the news of politicians promoting the most aggressive pro-abortion practices in US history. The New York State Legislature passed laws permitting abortions up to the moment of birth. Not wanting to be outdone, Virginia State Delegate Kathy Tran introduced a bill permitting abortions until the end of the third trimester, i.e., up until the point of delivery. Governor Ralph Northam openly affirmed his full support.
In the online news source Vox, Anna North reports, “anxious to shore up access in anticipation of a challenge to Roe v. Wade, abortion rights supporters in state legislatures are backing bills that would roll back some of the earlier restrictions or introduce new protections for abortion rights. And while the particulars of the controversy in Virginia are unique, versions of it are likely to take place across the country as abortion-rights supporters back legislation in purple and even red states.”
In other words, this is just the beginning.
There’s no need to state the obvious: the culture of hostility toward life, especially the most vulnerable human beings, is the outflow of the satanic hatred for God’s image bearers that was revealed in Genesis 3. What started as a winsome appeal to Adam and Eve to seize something good, desirable, and pleasurable was a mask on a fundamental fist in the face of God. “Not thy will, but mine be done” was declared. Now it has come to unthinkable proposals to actively kill babies as they enter the world through natural birth. The justification for such horror? The defiant assertion that all humans since the Garden have made, the right to “my body – my desire — MY WILL, not thine!”
Each of us has to prayerfully discern what we can do. But to every church and leader of the Diocese, I appeal: Praying against the forces of evil and death must be coupled with preaching and teaching the love and goodness of God in the gift of life. Additionally our churches must make every creative effort we can to provide the alternatives of love and life for the most vulnerable and terrified among us. The rescue effort has always been on, but now the storms have intensified yet again.
Archbishop Foley Beach wrote an excellent pastoral letter concerning this topic this week: I encourage you to share this with your congregation, family, and friends.
In the Beloved,
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seal?”
Today is the Feast of All Saints (or ‘All Hallows’ – thus, yesterday evening was ‘All-hallows-eve’). Today we celebrate the reality of God’s victory in Christ by acknowledging the presence of those who have gone before us, who now share that victory with him (and all the while trusting that we one day shall join them in it!).
The vision of John recorded in Revelation chapter 5 captures this reality powerfully. The seer is taken up into the heavenly places where he witnesses the glorious worship of God by the heavenly hosts (Revelation 4). They acknowledge God’s worthiness and power and glory by confessing his creative power: “For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (4:11).
But in chapter 5 the focus of the scene changes.
The seer notices that “in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back and sealed with seven seals.” As his focus is fixed on this scroll he hears a “strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’” And to the horror of the seer, “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and (he) began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.”
You can feel the pathos in the scene. It is glorious to acknowledge God’s greatness in the sheer fact of creation, it is utterly tragic to discover that there is ‘no one worthy’ within that creation to fulfill God’s purposes for it. We know in our heart of hearts that creation MUST have a purpose; but fear in the depth of our souls that we ourselves are incapable of fulfilling it. That is the pathos of the scene on a cosmic scale. The scroll represents the intended story of creation; a story now thwarted by the corrupting presence of evil.
But as the seer weeps, “one of the elders said to (him), ‘Weep no more; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.'” And the seer looks, and “sees a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…and he took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.” And as he did so, the heavenly chorus breaks out in a new song of praise:
‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
There is one who is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals; worthy to overcome all opposition, and thus allow for the fulfillment of the Creator’s purpose for and within his creation.
And what is the shape and telos of that overcoming victory? He has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (thus, the reality of the communion of saints), “and have made them a kingdom and priest to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
The telos of the Lamb’s victory through his sacrificial death is the recovery of the ‘Steward’ for God’s corrupted creation; the one who alone is made in the Creator’s image to be both ‘priest’ to the creation and ‘king’ over it! And this community of redeemed and renewed Stewards, from every tribe and nation, “will reign on the earth” one day, as they now “reign with him in the heavenlies.”
That is what we celebrate this day. The advent of the One who alone is worthy, whose worthiness makes us ‘worthy’, and able to fulfill our purposes within God’s glorious story.
Take a moment this day and join in on the heavenly chorus.
Then renew your commitment to live your life with and for this King.
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.”
1 Corinthians 11:23
We come to the heart of Paul’s revelation, and to the heart of the Christian life. We come to the apostle’s sacramental understanding of life within the New Age. It seems foolish to attempt to explicate that theology within a short reflection, but I found myself drawn to do that this morning.
Note, where he begins our text (he began this train of thought in Chapter 10, but we pick up the argument in the middle of chapter 11):
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.”
Paul claims that he received the instructions for the Lord’s Supper (11:20) directly from the Lord, and not (as he says in Galatians) from his fellow apostles. Think about that for a moment. It was vital to the Risen Lord not only to reveal the reality of his victory through death, but to connect this victory with the ceremonial rite he established himself.
As a Jew, Paul would already be prepared for such a connection through the God-given, God-directed nature of the Passover meal. He emphasizes this in the previous chapter where he argues that to ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ this meal is to ‘participate in the altar’. But that is not the focus of this present paragraph. Here the objective nature of the sacrament takes primary place:
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
THIS meal is the means for the Church to PUBLICLY PROCLAIM ‘the Lord’s death’ to the world!
To publicly proclaim that in and through THIS death, Jesus has become the Lord of lords and King of kings. That in his person, the Creator of all has judged and broken the power of evil AND given birth to his new creation, his new world. And we are to go on making such a proclamation (through the participation in this meal) ‘until he comes.’ The apostle is fully aware that, though the ‘New Age’ has been given birth through this ‘death’, the ‘Old Age’ remains, and will remain until the Lord returns. The Church (and the world) now lives in this ‘between-time’, with all the complications that reality brings.
But while the objective reality of the sacrament is at the forefront of his thought, our subjective experience of that reality is not far behind. We ‘proclaim’ that ‘death’ as the transformative moment within the cosmos every time we gather to eat this meal; BUT, whether we ourselves ‘benefit’ from it is another question.
The apostle speaks with horror of ‘eating and drinking’ in an ‘unworthy manner’. Those who do so ‘will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord’ AND will find themselves actually ‘eat(ing) and drink(ing) judgement on (themselves).” He goes on to comment that THIS is the reason why ‘many of (the Corinthians were) sick and ill, and some (had) died!’ He says this matter-of-factly, but not without hope! Even this act of ‘judgement’ –illness and death—is but part of the gracious ‘discipline’ of the Lord, a discipline for our good ‘so that we may not be condemned along with the world.’
So, what is his admonition to the Corinthians who find themselves ‘profaning the body and blood of the Lord’, and thus, being so disciplined?
They are to ‘judge themselves’ (11.31) before they come to eat, and do so in light of ‘discerning the body’ (11:29).
What might ‘discerning the body’ mean in this statement?
Three things come to mind:
First, we discern the ‘historical body’ of Jesus, the Christ, and confess that in and through his life, death, and resurrection, the Creator of all has acted decisively in history in order to fulfill his purposes for his creation. This is to take the PROCLAMATION emphasis of the meal seriously.
Second, we discern ‘the body and the blood’ of our Lord in and through the ‘bread and the wine’ of the eucharistic elements. We need to receive these things from his hands in order to ‘participate’ in his victory and reality. This is to take the PARTICIPATION emphasis of chapter 10 with utmost seriousness.
And Third, we need to discern ‘the Church’ –our brothers and sisters in Christ—as the present day ‘body of Christ’ in the ‘between time’. THIS is the primary concern of the apostle in this section of his letter. THIS lack of discernment of the ‘Body of Christ’ is what led to the ‘sickness and death’ within the Corinthian community. THIS forms the emphasis of his teaching for the rest of the epistle (chapters 12-15). His concern is for the CHURCH –real-live-groups-of-not-yet-perfect-human-beings—to BECOME and BE the CHURCH!
This, it seems to me, is the flow of Paul’s argument. What might that say to us today?
Are we as a community of faith, by the way we are living our lives, PROCLAIMING, PARTICIPATING in, and BEING that BODY in and for the world during this ‘in-between-time’?
“O LORD, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth!”
How else can I explain my response to the latest atrocity, the latest destructive event, that has been unleashed in our land and within our consciousness. And this latest is the worst! Hurricanes are devastating, sure enough, but we do not blame them for being so! We simply prepare ourselves to endure them, and to pick up ourselves and our communities after them.
But acts of terror are different! Especially seemingly meaningless acts of terror! These are devastating. These are unfathomable. These are overwhelming. These are difficult to deal with; and so we do not!
We become ‘numb’! We retreat from its horror; we draw back from its irrationality; we cocoon ourselves emotionally waiting for the horror to pass—waiting to get back to the living of our lives.
But as Christians, this response simply will not do!
‘Numbness’ is the response of a morally relativistic culture, a culture that has lost its ability to deal with the categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, with ‘good’ and ‘evil’. When we truly believe that nothing is intrinsically good or right, then we have lost our ability both to understand and to deal with acts of meaningless terror. Such a culture becomes ‘numb’ to such acts.
This latest ‘seemingly-meaningless-act-of-terror’ was NOT a morally neutral act! It was ‘evil’ through and through. And we, as Christians, cannot be morally neutral towards ‘evil’! If we dare name it as such, we must deal with it as such.
So how do we do so?
There are many answers to that question, but I found myself drawn to the Psalmist’s dealing with his own experience of evil in Psalm 94 (last night’s psalm set for Evening Prayer).
Note his complaint (v. 4-7):
(The wicked) pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O LORD, and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless;
And they say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
But note as well to whom the psalmist makes his complaint (v. 1-2):
‘O LORD, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance shine forth!
Rise up, O Judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve!’
In a morally relativistic age, those words are troubling and problematic.
But in a moral universe, created and governed by a holy, righteous, loving and powerful God, they are instructive and hope-filled.
The psalmist prays to the God who alone can exact vengeance in accord with his loving purposes for his creation. He names the evil that he sees and then cries out to the One who alone can deal with it. Now, to be sure, the psalmist desires that this One ‘will bring back on them their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the LORD God will wipe them out’ (v.23). However, his morally questionable end goal does not take away from his morally charged beginning point. He cries out to his Creator to set his creation right! And trusts that—one day—he will do so!
The psalmist consciously lives within a moral world, and consciously chooses to align himself to the morally right and true and good and beautiful. He champions ‘good’ and utterly opposes ‘evil’.
But note as well, the Psalmist knows that to take such a stance has personal consequences.
“Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law.”
If we dare cry out to the God of creation to deal with the evil within his creation, we need to be open to his dealing with the ‘evil’ residing within ourselves! And this, first and foremost of all.
So,by all means, let us cry out for justice, for the utter destruction of evil. Let us not become ‘numb’ to it.
But let us first cry out for the means of grace to deal with that which continues to afflict us.
‘Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?… Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” 1 Corinthians 6: 2,3
There is just no other word that can describe my response to Paul’s vision of and for the ‘Church’ in our epistle reading this morning. And remember, the Apostle writes to the most divisive, most infuriating, most troublesome community of all the churches he founded in the Mediterranean world! The fact that he expects more from ‘them’, demands more of ‘them’, and believes that ‘they’ can live into this vision of ‘who they are in Christ’—is nothing less than stunning.
The Apostle does not mince words. His message is direct and easily understood (though not easily embraced). He is addressing some troubling news he has received about the Church in Corinth and writes with unabashed authority. In the first paragraph, he addresses the scandal of sexual sin resident within the community (a man has married his father’s wife, with the apparent approval of the church, 1 Cor. 5:1-8). Then, in the second, weighs in on the news that members of the church are taking their ‘brothers’ to court (1 Cor. 6: 1-8)!
In essence, the Apostle’s interest in the first paragraph is to PROTECT the ‘Church’; his intent in the second is to exhort the community to BE (or BECOME) the ‘Church’!
Paul is appalled by the slackness of the Corinthians sexual ethic- a ‘whatever’ kind of attitude. He reminds them that a ‘little leaven leavens the whole lump’, and demands that they deal with the one who threatens to ‘leaven’ and ruin the church. But this does not mean that they are to cut themselves off from all sexual sin or sinners! Heaven forbid, since this would mean that they ‘would need to go out of the world’. No, Paul’s concern is with the well-being of the body and its reputation within the wider world. They are called to a higher vision for life—all of life, including their sexual lives!
He moves on then to the scandal of their economic relationships within the body. Some who believe themselves wronged by another member have taken that member before the secular courts. In his exasperation, the Apostle cries out, ‘Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?’
Again, his exhortation flows from his deep conviction as to ‘who’ the ‘church’ is—the New Humanity within God’s New Creation; the New People of God, the Renewed Stewards of God, reigning with and for the King within the Kingdom of the new and renewed cosmos.
In the same light, he asks rhetorically, ‘Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between brothers?’ (an interesting question posed to a community that prided itself in its ‘wisdom’). And finally, he argues, that even if there were no ‘wise one’, the prudent and Christian thing to do would be to accept the wrong, absorb the loss, and forgive the ‘weaker’ brother.
The Apostles’ concern is not simply with the reputation of the ‘Church’ (though he is deeply concerned about that reputation). Rather, he is concerned with the true essence and identity of the ‘Church’.
He truly believes that, through the grace of God, we have become the ‘New Humanity’, and that we have been given the power to truly ‘BE’ that humanity; and this not simply for ourselves, but FOR the WORLD!
If the ‘Church’ does not live as ‘Church’ – and in ever increasing ways—then the message of God’s redeeming work and the assurance of God’s ultimate purposes will not be believed or embraced by others.
The Apostle does write with an admonishing tone, but that tone is founded upon a stunning reality. Because of what God has done for us in and through his Son, WE can truly live as ‘sons and daughters of God’ (remember our gospel lesson today- ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ Matthew 5:48.
The ‘exhortations’ of the Scriptures always begin as ‘invitations’—BECAUSE God has acted, ‘these things’ not only ‘can’ be done, but ‘must’ be done by those who receive the ‘invitation’.
We can BE the church.
We must BECOME the church.
By the grace of God, we shall.
“And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”
It is difficult in our democratic times to grasp the reason for the intensity of the excitement people exhibited when Jesus “proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom’—literally, ‘the good news about the reality of God’s reign on earth’, or to put it another way: the time when the Creator’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. THAT is what the ‘coming of the Kingdom’ signifies. THAT is what was promised. THAT is what was yearned for.
But how are we to understand that reign? Why does the coming of THIS one bring this reality?
Some of the answers to those questions come from our psalm set for this day, Psalm 72 (this is the beauty of the lectionary as it brings together texts that help interpret one another).
The Psalm is from the pen of Solomon, David’s (natural) greater Son—the one who built God’s Temple and who exhibited God’s wisdom (prior to his own fall!).
The psalm begins with a request to God to give the King what he needs to fulfill the task he’s assigned:
“Give the king your justice, O God and your righteousness to the royal son!”
‘Justice’ and ‘righteousness’ are the divine gifts required, but what is the task?
“May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice’
‘May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor.’
The gifts of God are to be used by the King on behalf of the people, and especially the poor of the people; he is to judge, defend, and give deliverance to them by crushing the oppressor.
The divine-human partnership is described in beautiful terms. As the Creator must take care of his creation (‘Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people’), so the King must take care of the people (‘May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.’)
And what is the result when both of these things co-exist?
“In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound till the moon be no more.”
Simply put, creation flourishes and humanity – at least the ‘righteous’ within humanity–thrives!
Solomon goes on (v. 8-17) to speak of this king in terms of all ‘other kings’:
He prays that the ‘Righteous King’ may ’have dominion’; that all other kings ‘bow down before him’, that ‘his enemies lick the dust’, that great kings ‘render him tribute’, and ‘all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him.’
And why should this be so?
“For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper’.
Because he does what all kings should do; he fulfills the Creator’s will for his creation.
The gifts given to Israel’s king are intended for the entire creation. The task accomplished by Israel’s king leads to the fulfillment of the Creator’s will for the entire creation.
“May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun!
May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed.”
According to Solomon, these are the gifts of God that are given when the Creator reigns through the Righteous King: the creation itself flourishes, the righteous among humanity thrives! It is something to get excited about.
Matthew would add one more component to Solomon’s ode: namely, that which is broken within creation will be healed!
‘”And (Jesus) went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”
And to what end? “So his fame spread throughout all Syria….”
Even at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the entire creation is the goal.
It is something to get excited about!
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
We come to ‘holy ground’ today in our Epistle reading; the text that Michael Gorman describes as “Paul’s Master Story.” The ‘Story’ describes the Creator’s attitudes and actions towards and within his creation; in other words, God’s ‘history’ within ‘our world.’
It begins outside of ‘time and space’ by describing the ‘Son’s’ attitude and actions regarding his own status and dignity:
‘Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.’
The eternal attitude of the ‘Son’ within the ‘Godhead’ is to NOT ‘grasp’ or ‘hold onto’ his own status and dignity; and this attitude both predates and determines all subsequent actions.
‘but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.’
The Incarnation is itself the first action that flows from the divine attitude, and it is stunning: the exchange of the divine status for that of our human one! But the story goes on:
‘And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’
The exchange of status gives rise to the choice of an active, humble life of service, all in ‘(loving) obedience’ to his Father’s will; a choice that is utterly full, even unto death on the cross.
THIS is the record of the Creator’s attitude towards and actions for his Creation; one who ‘shared God’s intrinsic dignity’ chose this humble, sacrificial, obedient way of life.
And to what end?
‘Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
The life of humble, sacrificial obedience to the Father and for the creation is matched by the Father’s ultimate vindication. He-this humble human sacrifice- is ‘highly exalted’ (that is, exalted as highly as possible), and ‘bestowed the (divine) name’ (not given for the first time, but publicly declared for all time—and given to THIS human being).
This vindicated status has ultimate implications for all of creation and history: ‘EVERY knee shall bow…and EVERY tongue confess THAT JESUS THE MESSIAH is LORD’ –That THIS rejected and humiliated failure has been vindicated as the Lord of history, the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
And all of this is ‘to the glory of God the Father’—ordered according to the will and the plan of the Creator.
THIS is the story of the Creator’s history in and for his creation; and a stunning history it is!
But note, the reason that Paul retells the ‘Story’ is to remind his readers that the Creators’ history within creation (his attitude towards it, and the actions that flow from it) is to become the pattern and orientation of the creature!
‘Have THIS mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.’
WE are to have ‘THIS mind’ –literally, this MINDSET, this ORIENTATION towards life- ‘among ourselves’ – first and foremost within the Christian community, so that, secondarily, it may flow out to the wider creation.
THIS is the mindset that needs to shape our lives, in ever increasing ways!
For THIS is the only way of life that will be vindicated by the Father.
May this be increasing true for all of us.
“There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation, There is no health in my bones because of my sin.”
The link between ‘sickness’ and ‘sin’ is a confusing and troubling thing.
It is true that for most of the ancient world –like David’s comments above—that link was very direct: IF you ‘sinned’ you would (or should) expect calamity; IF you experienced ‘calamity’, it was obviously due to your ‘sinfulness’.
Graciously, this line of thinking was challenged and overthrown by Jesus, both in his teaching and in his healing ministry (see John 9 for example). The bottom line seems to be this: while there may be times when the link between ‘sickness’ and ‘sinfulness’ is direct (a result of our own faulty actions), and at other times indirect (a result of our sharing in the fault of the cosmos, that is, living in a fallen world), neither our ‘sickness’ nor our ‘sinfulness’ are outside of the redeeming grace of God.
If that is true, then the question becomes, how do we deal with our sickness when it arises?
I found myself drawn to David’s reflections in Psalm 38 this morning to answer that question.
First, note that David believes firmly that his ‘sickness’ (and a dire sickness at that—“My wounds stink and fester….there is no soundness in my flesh…the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me”) due to his ‘sinfulness’; that is, it is a sign of God’s judgement on his iniquities: “There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.”
Second, even with this acknowledged direct connection, David does not find himself driven from the presence of God; instead, he finds himself drawn into that presence. Note this wondrous statement David makes in the middle of his prayer:
“O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you.”
In the midst of his calamity, David receives the gift of clarity: All the trivialities of his life disappear; the one true longing of his life becomes crystal clear. Calamity does have a powerful way of focusing the mind and the spirit.
What is that longing? David goes on to describe his present reality: He is personally in deep distress (‘my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me’); his allies have deserted him (‘My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off.”), and his enemies have become emboldened (‘Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long’).
But how does this context impact David? Surprisingly, with little or no effect:
“But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth. I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes.”
But what has grasped David’s focus?
“But for you, O LORD, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.”
THIS is the longing of his heart. THIS is the focus of his mind and spirit.
His sickness and circumstances have stripped him down to the barest of foundations, and yet, even in that direst of places, he finds the will and the way to cry out to the One who IS his foundation.
David does go on to confess his sins (“I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin’) and ends by making his request to God for deliverance (“Do not forsake me, O LORD! O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation”). However, the ‘gift’ of his ‘sickness’ (if we dare speak of it in this way) has revealed to him the ‘true longing’ of his life—his desire for and destiny in God.
Stripped down by life to our foundations, this, we discover, is the longing of all our hearts.
“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
It is disappointing at times not to know the historical context of many of David’s psalms. Take Psalm 11, last evening’s set psalm, for example: from the superscription we know that it is a psalm of David handed over to the choirmaster—set to be sung at worship in the temple—but otherwise we are in the dark as to its setting.
From the psalm itself, however, the context is pretty dire. David tells us that his friends “say to my soul”—that is, counsel him directly—to “flee like a bird to your mountain” – why? –‘for behold, the wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart’. THAT is a dire situation; the powerful have risen up with conspiratorial intent towards David and others who are ‘upright in heart.’ It is that context which leads to their helpless question, “if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
If I had to guess as to the historical situation, I would argue that the time following David’s secret anointing by Samuel AND the divine choice to remove the Spirit from King Saul (leading to his descent into paranoia and defeat) gives the most logical context. Such a time would give the ‘upright’ the feeling that “the foundations are destroyed”—after all, IF Israel’s current-yet-rejected King is murderously intent to eliminate Israel’s divinely chosen future King, then the foundations are shaking indeed.
So what does this have to do with us?
Please do not misunderstand me; I do not equate our present circumstances to that of the young David. However, I do feel like our “foundations are being shaken”. At the beginning of the summer I read a number of books lamenting the loss of the Christian foundations of our society (the best of which was Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option). Furthermore, as I reflect on our current political situation, regardless of how you feel about the future direction of our President’s policies, it is safe to say that his ascendancy has heightened, rather than healed, the fissures already present within our society. Our foundations are being shaken, for good or for ill.
So, in such a situation, “What can the righteous do?”
Well, look at what David did.
“In the Lord I take refuge.”
Those are not only the first words of the psalm, but the first act of his day! In the dire situation he faced, where the “foundations were destroyed”, he daily (hourly?) placed himself confessionally and personally “in the Lord”. It was from this consciously chosen place that he could say to his advisors, “How can you say to my soul, “Flee like a bird to your mountain…”
Then, having described in detail the reality that his counselors saw (the dire situation that David and they faced), David then describes –again in a confessional way—the larger and truer reality:
“The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD’s throne is in heaven, his eyes see, his eyelids test, the children of man.”
This undoubtedly is a confession of faith, but to David’s mind is surely a statement of reality! THIS is the ‘Bigger Picture’ that contextualizes all other ‘smaller pictures’ of reality—including the one wherein “the foundations are destroyed!” It is this ‘bigger’ reality that shapes his response to his present circumstances.
And what is that response? To be sure, David calls down God’s judgment upon the wicked (“Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.”), but he does something more. Note how he ends the psalm:
“For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.”
He confesses ‘who’ the LORD is (‘righteous’), and ‘what’ the LORD loves (“righteous deeds’); thereby committing himself to the doing of such deeds, even in the face of dire circumstances!
And to what end? The hope that “the upright shall behold his face.”
I found David’s psalm both challenging and encouraging.
I commend his response to all of us who face such times.