Archives for May 2015

Psalm 70; Proverbs 22; 2 Corinthians 5:1–15

Psalm 70: The compactness of this psalm of supplication makes it all the more powerful. Dedicated to David, it begins with almost telegraphic urgency: “God, to save me,/ Lord, to my help, hasten!” (2) Rather than stopping to explain exactly what his plight is, the psalmist moves directly to his desire for have his enemies “who seek my life be shamed and reviled./ May they fall back and be disgraced,/ who desire my harm.” (3) And that their mockery of him be turned upon themselves: “Let them turn back on the heels of their shame,/ who say “Hurrah, Hurrah!” (4)

The poet quickly turns his attention to the righteous, wishing them joy: “Let all who seek You/ exult and rejoice/ and may they always say, ‘God is great!'” (5) As always, there is a note of worship here. The psalmist then returns to himself, again begging God to act without delay: “As for me, I am lowly and needy./ God, O hasten to me!…Lord, do not delay!”

This psalm shows me how we can pray on the run; that we do not need to pray for “thy will to be done at some point in the hazy future.” It is perfectly OK to ask God to listen up and act! Now!

Proverbs 22: This chapter has an emphasis on the relationship between rich in poor, first pointing out “The rich and the poor have this in common:/ the Lord is the maker of them all.” (2) Then there is the economic reality that persists to today: “The rich rule over the poor,/ and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” (7) This ancient saying makes it clear that achieving economic parity or income equality is a chimera. As experiments in socialism and communism have so amply demonstrated. Nevertheless, there is another verity: “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself,/ and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.” (16) Unfortunately, this reality is not always obvious in the short term when it seems that the rich are winning out permanently. 

In the second half of this chapter our writer adds an editorial admonition as to the wisdom of his observations:

17Incline your ear and hear my words,
    and apply your mind to my teaching;
18 for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you,
    if all of them are ready on your lips.

In other words, the writer is telling us, what I have to say here is important and will guide you through life. And here’s a summary of the key points I’ve been making.

His first aphorism is about the rich and poor: “Do not rob the poor because they are poor,/ or crush the afflicted at the gate;/ for the Lord pleads their cause/ and despoils of life those who despoil them.” (23, 24). In other words, God is on the side of the poor. When the rich oppress the poor, they are tangling with God and will reap the consequences of that sin. Again, the negative consequences for the rich are not always obvious in the near term. But this chapter once again reminds us that one of the major themes in the OT is how God cares for the poor. The problem of rich and poor is as old as humanity; good intentions and programs do not hack it in the long run. Mankind’s sinful nature will always end up oppressing the poor and the weak. In the end, only God can rectify the injustice constantly heaped upon the poor. 

2 Corinthians 5:1–15: Paul’s stream of consciousness brings him to the issue of our physical bodies, which, tentmaker that he is, he views as a temporary dwelling–a tent. It is God who provides permanence: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (1).  A tent can partially protect us from the elements, but in the cold and rain, and in our physical weakness, “in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.” (2)

Paul then draws an interesting distinction between mortality and the true definition of life, “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (4) Here, “life” is what is true and real; life is being present with God. Our mortality separates us from true life and our true home: “even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” (6).  And that while we are inside these mortal bodies, these tents, we must “walk by faith, not by sight.” (7).  Paul admits he’d rather “be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (8) But Paul is also a realist and he accepts that whether in the tent or the true home our duty is clear: “whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” (9)

He then makes a statement that most of us would rather skip right over: “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” Just as the writer of Proverbs warns us over and over, our actions have consequences. These may not be visible in the near term, but they will always be visible to God and in the long term, we will stand accountable for them.

Understanding the long term consequences of our near term actions is what drives Paul: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences.” (11) But it is far more than fear of judgement that drives Paul, it is “the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” (14) And then the core of the Gospel message: “And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” (15).  It is through the loving act of Jesus Christ that we will be able to find our permanent homes after we leave these tents. It is living for Christ that gives our present tent reality its purpose.


Psalm 69:30–36; Proverbs 21; 2 Corinthians 4:7–18

Psalm 69:30–36: After praying that God “add guilt upon their guilt” and that his enemies “have no part in Your bounty” (28) and to “be wiped out from the book of life” (29), our psalmist returns to his original supplication, reminding God of his low estate compared to that of his enemies: “But I am lowly and hurting./ Your rescue, O Lord, will protect me.” (30) And with that, the psalm becomes worship: “Let me praise God’s name in song,/ and let me extol Him with thanksgiving.” (31) and “The lowly have seen and rejoiced,/ those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.”

The concluding verses are not just worship but absolute assurance that God will rescue him–and others like him–because “the Lord listens to the needy,/ and His captives He has not despised.” (34). This psalm has progressed from the cries of man where “the waters have come up to my neck [and] I have sunk in the slime of the deep” (2) through imprecations against his enemies to worship that that expands outward to include all creation: “Let heaven and earth extol Him.” (35). The water that once threatened to consume the poet has become part of creation praising God: “the seas and all that stirs within them.” (35b).

This psalm takes us on a journey of one man’s evolution from helplessness and despair through hatred and finally to worship. This is a beautiful metaphor of the transformative power of Jesus Christ operating through the Holy Spirit within our lives. The psalms never end on darkness, but always on the light of God’s rescue and our consequent salvation, which leads to rejoicing. And why Paul said, ““Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:9)

Proverbs 21: Our writer notes how we are constantly in the mode of self-justification: “All deeds are right in the sight of the doer,/  but the Lord weighs the heart.” (2) We never see ourselves as doing wrong; it’s always the other guy’s fault. But God knows the interior of our heart–out innermost thoughts and motivations. That’s why “Haughty eyes and a proud heart—/the lamp of the wicked—are sin.” (4). It always boils down to who is at the center of our hearts: God or ourselves. Unfortunately, it is almost always the latter.

Our writer also counsels planning and patience rather than immediate consumption: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance,/  but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.” (5), which is surely a good description of our consumer-obsessed society and out willingness to go into debt to gratify our wants sooner rather than waiting. The problem of course is in our hearts that seek gratification rather than God, as he observes, “Whoever loves pleasure will suffer want;/  whoever loves wine and oil will not be rich.” (17)

Finally, our author must have been having a rough day with his wife, since he addresses the issue twice in this chapter: “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop/ than in a house shared with a contentious wife.” (9) And then again, “It is better to live in a desert land/ than with a contentious and fretful wife.” (19) I think I will let these verses pass without further comment…

2 Corinthians 4:7–18: Paul is the exemplar of relying on the joy that the light of Jesus Christ brings into us via the Holy Spirit. Numerous bad things have happened to him, and although briefly discouraged, he never forgets that “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (7) The metaphorical clay jars, of course, are us: temporary, breakable, but capable of storing great things. Paul, inveterate maker of lists, then goes on to give us one of his greatest, comparing our physical circumstances with the offsetting joy that Holy Spirit infuses in us: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” (8,9)

For me, Paul’s greatest words in thus letter come just a few verses later: “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (16).  This verse was always academically interesting before I was diagnosed with cancer. Now it is my watchword. Its power is amplified by Paul’s coda in the last verse of this chapter: “we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (18). This is not just pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye stuff, but as NT Wright makes clear in Surprised By Hope, the eternal is right here among us and one day the dark glass will be removed and we will see clearly.

Psalm 69:22–29; Proverbs 20; 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6

Psalm 69:22–29: The present straits of the psalmist have made him physically sick: “Reproach breaks my heart, I grow ill.” (21). He feels abandoned by other people–and by God: “I hope for consolation, and there is none,/ and for comforters, and do not find them.” (21) Nevertheless, he musters sufficient energy to spend the next few verses continuing to describe his plight and asking God to punish his enemies.

There’s an evocative reference to Christ on the cross here: “They gave for my nourishment wormwood,/ and for my thirst they made me drink vinegar.” (22) However, I think it would be over-interpretation to take that metaphor as a prediction of what happens to Jesus in the hour of his death.

The next verses are imprecations against his enemies, wishing them every possible physical and emotional harm: “May their eyes grow too dark to see,/ make their loins perpetually shake./ Pour out on them Your wrath,/ and Your blazing fury overtake them.” (24,25) Once again we have to ask, is it acceptable to pray to God for our enemies destruction? Or are we to take Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek?  I think that if we look at the psalms as the deepest possible expressions of a man’s spiritual and emotional relationship to God and not as pure theology, then I think we can see that it is acceptable to raise our fists, be angry with God and wish the worst on our enemies. It’s certainly cathartic.

But we also need to note once again that the prayer is to God for God to take action. The psalmist knows that vengeance belongs to God, and that this disturbing prayer is emotional release. Speaking angrily to God very probably allowed the psalmist to get on with his life and to not try to take action himself. Good advice to follow, I think.

Proverbs 20: I continue to be struck by the odd juxtapositions of the sayings in Proverbs. It seems like the proverbs had been written on scraps of paper and stuffed into a box. The editors who wrote them down then seem to have drawn the scraps out of the box at random. For example, we learn that the effects of alcohol and alcoholism have been a problem for a long time: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,/and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” (1) But the very next verse has to do with fearing the king: “The dread anger of a king is like the growling of a lion;/ anyone who provokes him to anger forfeits life itself.” (2) 

At one point we have deep reflection: “Who can say, “I have made my heart clean;/ I am pure from my sin”?” (9) And then immediately, a statement about honest weights and measures: “Diverse weights and diverse measures/ are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” (10)

And then later, the all-important issue about revenge belonging to God, “Do not say, “I will repay evil”;/ wait for the Lord, and he will help you.” (22) Followed immediately by another warning about weights and measures: “Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord,/and false scales are not good.” (23)

Finally, I am puzzled by the very last verse of this chapter: “Blows that wound cleanse away evil;/beatings make clean the innermost parts.” (30) Is this an argument for abuse? Or is it simply an observation that a physical altercation has some kind of salutary effect by bringing people to their senses?  We often see this in the movies where two men get into a fight, brawl and then suddenly end and seem to look at each other with new found respect.

Be that as it may, my fear is that this verse has been used as justification for some very ugly actions down through the centuries.

2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6: Paul talks about how Moses had to veil his face upon coming down from Sinai because the glory of the Old Covenant was so great–and how much greater the glory of the New Covenant. But in his inimitable stream-of-consciousness style, that same veil becomes a metaphor for the hardened hearts of the Jews who “to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds.” (3:15)

How much greater it is, Paul argues, that “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”(16) and that it is the Holy Spirit that has brought us the freedom that “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (3:18)

Paul is deeply frustrated by these veiled minds as he reasserts his own unveiled nature, “we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.” (4:2). He basically cannot believe that people would reject the Good News, deciding that “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” (3) And he immediately tells us why the rejecters are perishing: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” (4).

Which leads him away from the depressing metaphor of veils to the far more glorious metaphor of light: “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (6) Christ’s face is unveiled before us and we thereby enjoy the glory of God that is reflected there.

In short, the Good News is so glorious, it is almost impossible to believe that anyone would reject it. But still they do. Is it just the “god of the world” that causes this–or is it something deeper? Such as our own pride and self-centered desire for control.

Psalm 69:13–21; Proverbs 19; 2 Corinthians 2:14–3:11

Psalm 69:13–21: The psalmist’s prayer for rescue is a magnificent example of the structure and tone of a prayer of supplication. It opens in deep respect: “But I–may my prayer to You,/ O Lord, come in a favorable hour.” (14a). Nevertheless, our psalmist does not beat around the reverential bush, but comes directly to the point: “God as befits Your great kindness,/ answer me with Your steadfast rescue.” Sometimes, I think we pray hesitantly, almost afraid to bring up the purpose of our prayer.

The power of the water imagery in the next verses is so strong that we almost feel that the psalmist is drowning not just metaphorically, but physically, as well: “Save me from the mire, that I not drown./ Let me be saved from my foes and from the watery depths./ Let  the water’s current not sweep me away/ and let not the deep swallow me.” (15,16) We can almost hear him gasping for air.

Then again, a direct request for an answer: “Answer me, Lord, for Your kindness is good,/ in Your great compassion turn to me.” (17) This prayer has a simple but powerful structure: Come directly to the point in addressing the need for rescue; describe what we are seeking; then ask directly for an answer.  In fact, the psalmist asks God to answer speedily–“And hide not Your face from Your servant,/ for I am in straits. Hurry. Answer me.” (19)–where I tend to be vague when I say things like, “Your will be done,” which is a polite way of saying, “Take your time, God.”  This psalm makes it clear there is nothing wrong with praying with urgency and asking specifically for God to answer–quickly.

Proverbs 19: Proverbs continue to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun regarding human thoughts or behavior. “One’s own folly leads to ruin,/ yet the heart rages against the Lord.” (3) is a good example. We make a bad decision and experience its negative consequences and then promptly blame God (or other people) for what went wrong.

He describes our attraction to wealthy people: “Wealth brings many friends,/ but the poor are left friendless.” (4). The reason for this is clear: “Many seek the favor of the generous,/ and everyone is a friend to a giver of gifts.” (6). Just ask any lottery winner about the truth of this statement.  

And there’s good advice about relationships: “Those with good sense are slow to anger,/ and it is their glory to overlook an offense.” (11). Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” is simply a compact way of making the same point. 

I had never thought about it this way, but “House and wealth are inherited from parents,/ but a prudent wife is from the Lord.” (14) This is a reminder of where our priorities must be: not in amassing wealth, but in building a relationship with our spouse, who indeed is “of the Lord.” When those priorities are reversed, then only strife  results. Rather, I need to turn to Susan every day and remember that she came to me as a gift from God. (And I hope she will do the same for me.) That perspective will deepen and solidify our relationship even more.

2 Corinthians 2:14–3:11: There are many preachers–especially on TV–who would do well to read 2:17, where Paul reminds all who would preach, that “we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence.” If this were practiced more widely, those outside the church would have far weaker grounds on which to accuse Christians of hypocrisy.

Paul elaborates on this theme, noting that “ Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (3:5). Too many who proclaim the word come to believe in their own competence. And in that false belief, forget that God “as made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (6) In other words, too great a focus on the  “letters”–what is written–rather then the Holy Spirit deadens the message of the Good News.

This seems an appropriate verse to raise before those who become obsessed by the Bible itself, seeing the Christian faith strictly in terms of sola Scriptura and rattling on about inerrancy. Paul is telling us that too great a focus on the “letters” is to exclude the Spirit. Paul is not saying that we ignore the “letters,” for that would simply be broadcasting ignorance. But the priority must always be communicating the Holy Spirit, not head knowledge.

Paul makes this priority clear with the example of the “glory” that came with “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets” (3:7), “how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” (3:8). In other words, we have a “greater glory”–the Good News– to communicate. Let’s not lose that glory in too great a focus on the “letters” themselves.

Psalm 69:1–12; Proverbs 18; 2 Corinthians 1:23–2:13

Psalm 69:1–12: The opening line of the psalm–“Rescue me, God,”–is succinct. It’s the brief cry for help of a drowning man. The metaphor of being caught in a flash flood in the desert is harrowing: “for the waters have come up to my neck./ I have sunk in the slime of the deep,/ and there is no place to stand.” (2,3) Worse, “the current has swept me away.” (3b). These are exactly the images we are seeing on TV of the severe flooding in Texas and Oklahoma.  And there can be no more terrifying feeling that to be in water up to one’s neck and being carried away by the swift current.

The psalmist, “exhausted from my calling out..from hoping for my God.” (4), tells us that he is hounded by enemies on all sides, and he’s specifically accused of theft: “…my lying foes./ What have I stolen/ should I then give back?” (5) In these desperate straits, the only possibility of rescue is God.

As one last tactic to get God to answer, the psalmist confesses, “God, You know my folly,/ and my guilt is not hidden from You.” (6) as he remembers his community and cries, “Let not those who hope for You be shamed through me.” (7) The poet reminds God that “Because for You I have borne reproach,/ disgrace has covered my face.” (8) Worse, “Estranged I have been form my brothers,/ and an alien to my mother’s sons” (9) because of “the zeal of Your house [that] has consumed me.” (10)

So, our poet has suffered for God’s cause; where is God now? This is not the last words of a martyr accepting his fate; these are the words of a desperate man who has done his all for God and seeks God’s rescue in return. This psalm gives us permission to cry out to God when we seem to have been abandoned by him. Yes, we know that God does not abandon us, but that doesn’t mean it sometimes doesn’t feel that way.

Proverbs 18: There’s no question that our writer anticipated the advent of social media, where everyone has a voice: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,/ but only in expressing personal opinion.” (2) and “The mouths of fools are their ruin,/and their lips a snare to themselves.” (7). We are so anxious to post our uneducated and unreflected opinions that we fail to stop and consider what someone else might think or how someone else might react to our words. This is also why when we are angry and write out our feelings in an email, one should never hit the “send” button for at least a day.

There’s a puzzling passage here that seems to suggest that bribery works: “A gift opens doors;/ it gives access to the great.” (16) Which, alas, it mostly does. But then, there seems to be a suggestion that arguing a case is pointless: “The one who first states a case seems right,/ until the other comes and cross-examines.” (17) And I suppose that’s how a member of jury would feel. But I’m not sure our writer is suggesting the proper solution: “Casting the lot puts an end to disputes/ and decides between powerful contenders.” (18). Well, maybe this would work if we could get both parties to the dispute to agree on accepting the throw of the dice. But in the main, that’s not how negotiation works.

It is the final verse that speaks to me, though: “Some friends play at friendship/ but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.” (24) “Playing at friendship” is when we pretend to be friends with someone, but have no intention of being there when that “friend” needs help. It’s the “friend” who says, “I’ll call you,” and never does, or worse, “I’ll be there” but then finds something else to do. At my age, I far prefer having fewer, trustworthy friends so that we can rely on each other. And that’s exactly what I think this proverb is saying.

 2 Corinthians 1:23–2:13: Paul writes, “So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit.” (2:1) and we wish we knew the backstory to that statement. There seems to be no question that he would be greeted with hostility by some faction or person if he physically returned to Corinth. He admits that he wrote (what I assume is I Corinthians) “as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice.” (3) Even though Paul says, “I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” (4) he knows that his “abundant love” would not be reciprocated.

Apparently, there is one individual who has it out for Paul, but he knows that this personal animosity is injuring the entire body: “if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you.” (5) The community has reciprocated with animosity toward this person and Paul pleads that “this punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” (7). And, further, “I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.” (8). 

Paul’s words are equally applicable today. As communities in Christ, it is far too easy to get angry with one person–especially when that person is in a position of leadership and seems to be taking the community in a direction that seems wrong. Paul is pointing out that this individual will be aware of the anger directed at him. And that is punishment enough. We are to reaffirm our love to him.

Does this mean that we have to accept the actions of this person as being right? No, I don’t think Paul is saying that. Instead, I think he is telling us that we can be angry at the actions, but that the human being himself deserves our forgiveness–and our love. Which of course is difficult to do.

Psalm 68:28–35; Proverbs 17; 2 Corinthians 1:12–22

Psalm 68:28–35: The final section of this psalm celebrates Israel’s triumph over a once-great nation. Alter notes that it is most likely Egypt. A brief catalog of tribes–Benjamin, Judah and Zebulon– are now ascendent. There’s irony in the phrase “little Benjamin holds sway over them” where “little” not only connotes Benjamin as the youngest of Jacob’s sons, but that “little” Israel is now triumphant.

The credit goes solely to God: “Ordain, O God, Your strength,/ strength, O God,that You showed for us.” (29) It is to God to whom “the kings bring gifts” (30) in tribute. Egypt is the metaphor here: “Rebuke the beast of the marsh,/ the herd of bulls among calves of the peoples.” (31) It is God who “Scattered peoples that delighted in battle.” and now the “notables come from Egypt,/ Cush raise its hands to God.”

The poet’s camera pulls back to reveal it is not only Egypt who comes in humility to God, but “Kingdoms of the earth, sing to God,/ hymn to the master.” We need to remark here that the poet gives all praise to God alone; there is no mention of the military prowess of the strength of the people of Israel. Instead, “Israel’s God–He gives strength and might to His people.” (36). Israel may rejoice in victory, but it basks in the reflected glory of God, who is the accomplisher of these great deeds.

The lesson for us: whatever victories we may enjoy in life belong to God who makes them possible. Like Israel, we must abandon ourselves to God, who is our deliverer.

Proverbs 17: It’s impossible not to have verse 6 jump out: “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged,/ and the glory of children is their parents.” There’s no question that the second generation is the crowning gift to grandparents, and I rejoice daily in the lives of my grandchildren.

But it’s the second half of this couplet that deserves greater examination. One’s children can only go on to have children of their own who will blossom and succeed only of they have parents (our own children!) who have raised them well. Note the plural: “parents.” One’s heart goes out to the numerous mothers and fathers, who are raising their children alone. While there are many circumstances that create that condition, the advent of easy divorce and the unnatural awkwardness of shared custody, or even outright abandonment by one parent has exacerbated the situation.  And we are suffering as a society because God’s good order of two-parent households continues to diminish in number.

Parenting emerges later at verse 21: “The one who begets a fool gets trouble;/ the parent of a fool has no joy.” And then, “Foolish children are a grief to their father/ and bitterness to her who bore them.” (25) So, are some children born to be inherently foolish? The writer seems to suggest this. I am more optimistic, although when children grow to become adults it is all too easy to see which have become fools. 

So, what are the qualities that characterize foolish children (or anyone else for that matter)? For the writer, it becomes evident when they open their mouths: “Even fools who keep silent are considered wise;/ when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.” (28) In our chattering society of cable “news analysis” and where social media allows every stupid thing to be uttered and then preserved, the truth of this last verse is all too evident. The foolish seem predisposed to expose their foolishness by their words. Alas, there are way too many ways now available in which to do this.

2 Corinthians 1:12–22: Paul is writing this second letter to Corinth letter because he has not been able to return in person. In fact, he wanted to visit them twice: “I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on to Judea.” (16) But plans did not work ot. But it seems clear that someone at Corinth has accused Paul of being insincere in his stated desire to revisit Corinth, and Paul is clearly angry–and even a little bit defensive: “Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time?” (17) Clearly Paul is referring to the insincere statements of intention that are best summarized today in the phrase, “Let’s do lunch,” when the speaker has no such plan.

Paul protests, “ As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been “Yes and No.” (18) as he makes the all-important point that as Christians, when we make a promise we must have every intention of delivering on it because Jesus Christ would never do this: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” (19) Jesus never waffled nor beat around the bush nor said “yes” when he meant “no.” As followers of Christ, neither should we.

Unfortunately, I cannot claim the innocence that Paul does, for I have made insincere non-promises way too many times. My prayer today is to always make sure my “yes” means “Yes” and not “Maybe” or worse, “No.”

Psalm 68:19–27; Proverbs 16; 2 Corinthians 1:1–11

Psalm 68:19–27: As elsewhere, God is intimately connected to the mountains. Here, “Mountain of God, Mount Bashan,/ crooked ridged mountain” (16) and “–O Sinai in holiness!/ You went up to the heights/…so that Yah God would abide.”  (17, 18) Why mountains? I think it is because it is the visible symbol of God reigning on high and that to be at the top of a mountain connotes real power. My children tell me that the thing they miss most about living in the flat Midwest is the absence of mountains.

Now that we understand how mountains have been formed over millions of years, when we are in them, we sense that they are at the core of creation; that God created the mountains to remind us of his awesome power.

The psalm continues with the theme of “God is to us a rescuing God.” (21) And, “The LORD Master possesses the ways out of death.” (22) We then encounter of very gory image of the how God rescues Israel form its enemies: “…That your foot may wade in blood,/ the tongue of your dogs lick the enemies.” (24). In the ancient world there was no greater curse than to die in the field, unburied, and to have wild dogs (coyotes?) come lick one’s corpse. So, to be rescued from that gruesome fate (and to see one’s enemies instead) is cause for rejoicing.

For Israel, it is God’s rescue that matters and worship, as always, is our response: “The singers came first and then the musicians” and then in a remarkable, almost provocative image, “in the midst of young women beating their drums./ In choruses bless God.” And when we are rescued from desperate straits–as Jesus Christ has rescued us– so too, our response is joyous worship.

Proverbs 16:  There are two proverbs that stand out in this chapter. The first is, “The human mind plans the way,/ but the Lord directs the steps.” (9) I have heard many Christians speak of “God’s plan for my life,” even to the point of believing that God has picked out one’s fiancee or career path. But here the writer makes it clear that we operate in partnership with God. God has given us the intelligence and sense to lay out a plan. The thing that matters is the nature of heart as we set out down that path.

If we are in communion with God, then God will direct our steps–especially at those points where we have to make decisions–but he will never overstep the bounds of our own free will. We are not God’s automata. Of course this also requires the courage to lay out a plan in the first place and the willingness to abandon ourselves wholly to God as we take those steps. 

The second proverb is better known, but that does not detract form its verity: “Pride goes before destruction,/ and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (16) I think this statement relates to the issue of who is guiding our steps in the proverb above. The simplest definition of pride is our desire to take control of our lives (or think we take control) and proceed down the path without regard to God–or of other people. In our culture this pride expresses itself as individualism, the self-centered idea that I am the one not only in control but the only one who matters. All others around me are called to be “tolerant” of whatever idea or action I may take as long “as it doesn’t hurt others.” Easy words to say, and we wrongly think it gets us off the hook of dealing with the inevitable consequences of pride 

And, as the writer makes abundantly clear, the consequences are never pretty. Narcissism is the all too common outcome of pride. I firmly believe that our society is reaping–and will continue to reap–the negative consequences of unbridled “self-actualization” and narcissism that blithely has invented new individual “rights.”  And unfortunately, we as a society will experience what the writer warns us about: “Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right,/ but in the end it is the way to death.” (25)

2 Corinthians 1:1–11: Paul writes a second letter to the church at Corinth. (Among others I suppose, I wish that we had the letter that came back from Corinth in response to Paul’s first letter that induced him to write another lengthy missive to this congregation.)

What’s interesting in the opening salutation is that Paul gives equal billing to Timothy as author: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,” (1) Clearly, at this point in his life Paul sees Timothy as his partner and successor.

The Paul who writes this letter seems quite different than the confident Paul who wrote the first one. He does not open with high theology about God’s wisdom vs. man’s wisdom, but in the grateful humility before God that suffering brings: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction.” (3, 4a) But Paul never turns inward feeling sorry for himself, but views his suffering as a means to aid others: “so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” (4b) It is always about others: “If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation,” (6) and he empathetically realizes that the church at Corinth is suffering, as well: “Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.” (7)

This is Paul at his pastoral finest. The bold preacher who set out from Damascus has learned humility through the “affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.” (8) And in this suffering and the consolation he received from God, he is newly vulnerable and open. It’s clear here that Paul sees his role as more than theologian or corrective agent or great preacher. He sees that providing consolation to those who are suffering is among the greatest gifts that a pastor can bring to his flock.


Psalm 68:7–18; Proverbs 15; 1 Corinthians 16:12–24

Psalm 68:7–18: This section of this thanksgiving psalm depicts God as warrior coming out to do battle: “God, when You sallied forth before Your people,/ when You strode through the desert.”(8) And he makes his presence known through the more dramatic aspects of nature–earthquake and heavy rain: “The earth shook,/ the heavens, too, poured  down before God.” (9)

God is a restorative God: “Your estate that had languished You made firm.” The psalm continues with an interweaving of God’s impact on nature with cleansing the land of its enemies. “The kings of armies run away” (13) before God and “When Shaddai scattered the kings there,/ it snowed on Zalmon.” (15) The clear meaning for me here is that God is invested in the affairs of mankind (as driving out enemies) as much as he is the driving force behind nature’s bounty (as symbolized by the rain).

These images add important dimensionality to our contemporary image of God as mostly avuncular relative in the wider culture and as loving father for us Christians. These images are also appropriate but this psalm reminds us that God is the all-powerful Creator of  the universe and our Protector in time of trouble.

Proverbs 15: The inventory of oppositional proverbs (the righteous vs. the foolish) continues, opening with one of the most famous proverbs of all: “A soft answer turns away wrath,/ but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (15), which of course Jesus extended to the idea of turning the other cheek–not because we’re supposed to be Christian wimps, but because it is the more difficult act.  Thinking before speaking, especially in anger, is the crucial skill: “Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife,/ but those who are slow to anger calm contention.” (18) and again, “The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer,/ but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil.” (28)

The second verse of this chapter seems to anticipate our modern chattering culture of cable news shows and increasingly empty words uttered by politicians: “The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge,but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” (2) The writer enforces his point by repeating himself a few verses later: “The lips of the wise spread knowledge;/ not so the minds of fools.” (7) Now there’s a scary place: “the minds of fools.” Alas, there seems to be very little wisdom among the noise of incessant foolish statements and opinions, including those in the highest positions of power.

And lest we miss his point, again at verse 14: “The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge,/ but the mouths of fools feed on folly.” Here we see that we have a responsibility to seek out knowledge, which is the path to wisdom. Something to think about the next time we re-post some inaccurate or unthinking post on Facebook.

So, as tempted as we are to speak in the heat of anger, the theme of this chapter makes it abundantly clear that we are to pause and reflect even when we have been attacked. This is hard to do–as our writer well knew.

1 Corinthians 16:12–24: Paul’s almost off-hand remark at verse 12 tells us a lot about Apollos–and Paul: “Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but he was not at all willing to come now. He will come when he has the opportunity.” Apollos is unwilling to “come now.” There must be anger there. Is Apollos upset with the Corinthians? Or is he upset with Paul?  I suspect the latter.  I’m guessing that the force of Paul’s personality was such that when he “strongly urged” Apollos to go to Corinth, Apolllos felt he was being browbeaten by Paul–and resisted Paul’s urging.

Yet at the same time, Paul’s generous spirit comes through in his confident assertion, “He will come when he has the opportunity.” Apollos was still a brother in Christ to Paul and Paul knew the Holy Spirit would eventually move Apollos to come to Corinth. Unfortunately, the NT is silent on whether or not that actually happened.

Paul’s last paragraphs are generous encomia for the workers at Corinth, especially Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus, who have come to visit Paul (in Rome, I presume.) Paul may have been tough and his personality abrasive to many. But above all he was in love with Jesus Christ and his ineffable optimism and love for his brothers and sisters in Christ radiates through his strong words that close this epistle: “Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord, come!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus.” A lesson for us: that love for Christ which we reflect to others reigns above all else.

Psalm 67; Proverbs 13; 1 Corinthians 15:42–58

Psalm 67: This thanksgiving psalm opens with what we commonly think of as a benediction: “May God grant us grace and bless us,/ may He shine his face upon us.” (2) But when I think about it, it is a perfect opening for worship, which is what this psalm is.

Would that we humans could do what the next verses describe; that God would be acknowledged and worshipped throughout the entire world: “To know on the earth Your way,/ among all the nations Your rescue.” (3) These  are the two key elements of worship: that we know God is Creator and that God is the loving source of redemption and salvation for all humankind. If only we would follow “Your way.”

The next verses describe earth and humankind as they would have been in God’s original created order, a world-wide Eden, if you will, because God remains at the center of human existence: “Nations acclaim You, O God,/ all peoples acclaim You./ Nations rejoice in glad song.” (4,5). Alas, we humans decided to make ourselves the center of the universe, and the resultant mess we have made of creation and relationships is woeful evidence of how disordered our sinful self-centeredness is.

I’m reminded of the throne room scene in Revelation as people gather and “Nations acclaim You, O God,/ all peoples acclaim You.” (6) We pray for the eventual end of history and the restoration of God’s created order, where love reigns supreme.

Proverbs 13: As we read this catalog of sayings, it’s easy to see that human nature has not changed one whit in the millennia since they were written down (and doubtless existed as oral sayings for hundreds of years before that.) Each verse is a study in opposition as righteous and the wicked are set against each other through the entire chapter: “The righteous hate falsehood,/ but the wicked act shamefully and disgracefully.” (5). And many of these verses resonate strongly in our culture: “Some pretend to be rich, yet have nothing;/ others pretend to be poor, yet have great wealth.” (7)–which seems especially apropos in the 94598 ZIP code.

Of course it is the penultimate verse that is the most widely known in popular culture: “Those who spare the rod hate their children,/ but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (24) Our culture has conflated the “rod” with child abuse and there is no doubt that parents have done that. But that is not really the focus of the verse. We say “spare the rod, spoil the child,” but the real theme is love and its relation to discipline. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with discipline, and the evidence of its absence is all around us.

One of the great ironies of modern culture is that where parental discipline is absent, the child will seek it out itself: the gang culture and even prison culture are perfect examples of perverted discipline. I do not know of any single person who has gone through military basic training that has regretted the lessons learned there. Yes, discipline is tough and it is not fun, but the consequences of not understanding boundaries and good order are severe–both for the individual and for society.

1 Corinthians 15:42–58: I’m sure Paul’s words here have resulted in more misinterpretation than just about anything else he wrote. It has become a source of the idea of the Rapture, where all good Christians will be raised to heaven: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (52). But in its context, I think Paul is attempting to describe the indescribable (and I think history would have been better off had he not tried!).

The question from Corinth that he has obviously held off answering until the very end of his letter is what happens to our bodies when we die. And it is the nature of this resurrection body upon which Paul speculates. Paul tries out a couple of explanations.

First, he sets up oppositions (sort of like Proverbs!) between our bodies that are and those that will be: perishable/imperishable; dishonor/honor; weakness/power. And then: physical/ spiritual. On which he elaborates by juxtaposing earth and heaven: “the first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man [Jesus Christ] is from heaven.” (47) as he asserts, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (48)

But Paul knows this explanation will not satisfy his audience so he takes a different explanatory tack, at least admitting it’s a mystery: “We will not all die,[d] but we will all be changed.” (51) Unfortunately, too many people have left off the “mystery” part and boldly concluded that something they call the Rapture is prophetic fact. Even to the silly point of predicting when it will happen.

In the end, all Paul can say is that “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (53). And he leaves it at that. As should we.

Rather than focusing on exactly what our bodies will become, Paul tells us to not fear death, quoting Isaiah: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (54). Which is where I think we should leave the mystery, and stop trying to assert we know what will happen at the end of history.


Psalm 64; Proverbs 6; 1 Corinthians 14:6–19

 Psalm 64: This David song opens with a plea for God’s protection–“Hear, God, my voice in my plea.”–to be hidden “from the counsel of evil men,/ from the hubbub of the wrongdoers.” (3). “Hubbub” certainly seems an appropriate word for the noise around us, especially from ubiquitous media and now the multitudinous voices of the Internet.

But the real danger from these “evil men” is their barbed words that do so much damage. As is so often in the Psalms, we once again we encounter the hurtful power of the spoken word–which we can easily extend in our culture to the written word. They have “whetted their tongue like a sword,/ pulled back their arrow–a bitter word–/to shoot in concealment the innocent./ In a flash shot him down without fear.” (4, 5a)

Two themes stand out here. First, there is intent: they “pull back their arrow.” These are not hurtful thoughts uttered inadvertently. There is a plan to hurt the victim. Second, the evil words come  “from concealment.” They are spoken in conspiratorial surprise; the victim has no opportunity to prepare for what is about to happen to him.

Those who speak evil revel in it: “They encourage themselves with evil words.” (6) These people enjoy conspiracy: “They recount how traps should be laid./ They say, Who will see them?” (6b) The source of the conspiracy lies in a man’s heart; the words are merely expression of intrinsic evil: “We have hidden them from the utmost search,/ in a man’s inward self,/ and deep is the heart.” (7)

But we know that God will hear our plea and ultimately, he will strike down the evildoers: “But God will shoot an arrow at them/In a flash they will be struck down.” (8) Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this is that it is their own words that will be their undoing: “And their tongue will cause them to stumble,/ all who see them will nod in derision.” (9) And this is exactly how it plays out. There is a certain grim satisfaction in seeing conspirators undone by their own words.

Proverbs 6: The editors of the NRSV title this chapter, “Practical admonitions.” And so they are. In keeping with the theme of the psalm above, the very first admonition is the consequences of misspoken words: “you are snared by the utterance of your lips,/caught by the words of your mouth.” (2) And later, a warning about avoiding those of who try to con others: “A scoundrel and a villain/goes around with crooked speech,/… with perverted mind devising evil,/ continually sowing discord.” (12-14) Once again, we are reminded of the power of the spoken word–especially when spoken with evil intent.

The writer then resorts to lists: “There are six things that the Lord hates,/ seven that are an abomination to him:”
 (1) haughty eyes, (2) a lying tongue,
    and (3) hands that shed innocent blood,
   (4) a heart that devises wicked plans,
    (5) feet that hurry to run to evil,
   (6) a lying witness who testifies falsely,
   (7)  and one who sows discord in a family. (16-19)

Pride, lies, murder, conspiracy, seeking out evil, false testimony are certainly the sins we might expect to be in the list. But perhaps most surprisingly and profoundly, “one who sows discord in a family.” One thinks of feuds among siblings over inheritances, or actions such as adultery or abuse that tear a family apart. Not much seems to have changed over the millennia…

1 Corinthians 14:6–19: All three readings today deal with the problem of speech. Here, Paul is dealing with “glossalia,” speaking in tongues. Clearly, it was fairly rampant at Corinth and seen by many–as it is today–as a manifestation of one having a gift from the Holy Spirit. The owners of this gift had doubtless set themselves above the ungifted hoi polloi.

For Paul, the key aspect of glossalia is the ability to interpret what has been uttered. Without interpretation it is gibberish. Words without communication are empty: “if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?” (9)

Interpretation is more important than the actual glossalia: “one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.” (13) As he does so often, Paul makes it clear that he has the gift in greater quantity than others, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you;” (18) But then he puts the gift into its proper perspective: “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (19).

I have witnessed a church torn asunder by a faction that viewed glossalia as evidence of superior spirituality, and the view that those who lacked the “gift” were “in touch with the Holy Spirit.” As a result, I am always suspicious of this particular gift since it is so easy to abuse. Even with interpretation. God has given us us what in my opinion is a superior gift: the ability to speak and communicate clearly in actual language.