Embarrassed by God

God, knock the teeth out of their mouths;
Lord, tear out the young lions’ fangs.
May they vanish like water that flows by;
may they aim their blunted arrows.
Like a slug that moves along in slime,
like a woman’s miscarried child,
may they not see the sun.–Psalm 58:6-8

A few weeks ago, I commented on the many passages in Psalms that sound like a caller to a talk-radio show spouting off about their opponents. I can’t remember if I cited this passage from Psalm 58, but I know that I had it in mind when I wrote the entry.

I’m reminded of these words as I have recently been reading Francis Chan’s book Erasing Hell. Among the many worthwhile things Chan presents is the notion of being embarrassed by God. He confesses to having a tendency to skip over the uncomfortable spots in scripture or to at least read them really fast in order to get to the “good stuff.”

In the context of Chan’s book, the passages to be minimized are those that speak of judgment and hell, the fate of the goats. We’ll all talk about the sheep and their rewards all day long, but we’d rather that the nasty spots would fade into the background or perhaps be dropped into footnotes by cutting-edge translators.

We don’t get to choose, though. Chan compares being embarrassed by God to the kid who tries to keep his friends away from his alcoholic father. On a good day, that father might be a lot of fun, but on a bad day . . . look out. Is that how we view God?

Modern sensibilities say that all that stuff about judgment and wrath are out of step with proper understanding. “I can’t believe in a God who would . . .” people frequently say. Most evangelicals don’t say that, but we tend to act that way. That kid with the alcoholic father doesn’t have to say, “I hate you when you’re drunk” to hate dad when he’s drunk.

Part of me wants to read David’s words here and dismiss them as words spoken in anger. I want to imagine God–the God who I can believe in–saying, “Okay David. Simmer down now. Remember that we’re all about love. All you need is love.” Yes, my foolish heart believes that God quotes the Beatles now and again.

But if I accept that this Psalm is inspired, then I can’t simply sweep it away as the product of David’s bad day. If I’m going to believe that the “good” Psalms–23, 51, 100–are inspired, then I have to accept that the teeth being knocked out are similarly God-breathed.

If God embarrasses me today as I read Psalm 58, how much more often do I embarrass Him–or maybe the better term is disappoint Him. God is in charge. He created everything and sustains everything. Abandoning that belief, we’re on a glide path into creating our own god who really just reflects our own limited vision and desire. If God embarrasses me, then I suppose I need embarrassing. If his words step on my toes, then I need to move my feet.

Nothing but Net

For 14 straight seasons, the Kansas Jayhawks won or shared the Big Twelve season title. That means that freshmen at KU probably have no memory of when the team last did not at least tie for the championship. That’s amazing. But this year, they were merely good, finishing third. They got bumped from the NCAA tournament in the second round and no one was shocked. You see, just because it’s a KU basketball team  does not mean that it will be a contender for the national championship.

As we proceed through Psalm 118:24, it’s time to get God into the picture. You see, this isn’t just “the day.” Even though it is every hour of every day that we’re talking about, there’s more to be said about it. What day is? Or, more to the point, what is special about this day? The Lord made it.

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.–Psalm 118:24

Yes, the Lord made every day just like the Lord made every human being. Does that make every day and every human being special? Well . . . yes. Yes it does.

After my father retired, he and my mother ran an antique business, buying various items and then driving them around the country to weekend shows where they met a lot of people and sold them stuff.

Toward the end of the business, they were dealing in some exceptionally nice art glass. I remember helping out at an auction that they hosted. My job was to line up the lots so that the auctioneer wouldn’t have to hunt for them when the time came. I brought one vase, about eighteen inches tall, up to the front. A few minutes later I heard it gaveled as sold at just north of $30,000. What on earth can make a hunk of glass worth $30,000? Like a great deal of what they sold, what made it valuable was who had made it. If it was made by the Louis C. Tiffany company, then it was automatically a big deal. If it was signed Tiffany, then it was an even bigger deal.

I learned to appreciate the work of these glass makers, but I also recognize that the source of a piece of work, while it might matter in the marketplace, does not guarantee that it will be a beautiful work any more than a player putting on a Jayhawks uniform becoming automatically successful.

That’s not how it is when God makes the day. God’s handiwork is good, until sin corrupts it. God’s day will be the best day that could possibly exist given the circumstances. Tiffany glass might be ugly. A Faulkner novel might be tedious. A Da Vinci painting might be lifeless. A Chipotle burrito might be less than delicious. Yes, but God’s day will be a day worth living, a swished three-pointer.

 

In My Day…

I’m working on my geezerdom. Lately the line I’ve been rehearsing is a useful lead-in for many things: “In my day . . .” You know, “In my day, we had to milk the cow to get ice cream” or “In my day, there wasn’t any of this namby-pamby air conditioning stuff.”

When exactly was my day? Isn’t my day today? And won’t it still be my day tomorrow? It’s a mystery.

As we continue to march through Psalm 118:24, I’d like to take up the word “day.” The Psalm says “This is the day,” and so far I’ve been trying to make these words more focused on the now. This time, though, I want to push back and make it less focused.

The Hebrew word here is yom. That’s like Yom Kippur. Yes, it means “day,” as in midnight to midnight, but, like its English counterpart, it can mean more than just twenty-four hours or even daytime (as opposed to night-time).

I remember a friend of mine, many years back, making a wonderful argument against taking the Bible too literally. “You know, when Genesis says ‘One day,’ it can really mean a big period of time. It could be millions of years. So if you just remember that, then all the story of creation makes perfect sense.” Basically this guy was just presenting the famous “day-age” reading of Genesis 1.

Had I wanted to start an argument, I would have asked him a simple question. “So the plants that showed up on the third day existed for millions of years before the sun came along on the fourth day?” Yeah, the day-age thing doesn’t really work too well.

But of course, a day (yom) can be an age, an era, an epoch. It isn’t in Genesis 1, but it is elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example, in 1 Kings 1:1, we read this:

Now King David was old and advanced in age. Although they covered him with bedclothes, he could not get warm.

That word translated “age” (or “years” in the King James) is yom.

So what’s my point? This is the day that the Lord has made. It’s the day of the week, the day of the month, and the era that the Lord has made. It’s the year, the decade, and the century. You get the idea, right?

Whatever moment we find ourselves inhabiting, this is the one that God made. It doesn’t come and then pass away. It is an eternal thing, as if God were saying, “In my day . . . it’s all my day!”

The Invisible Word

I have taken a solemn pledge to drop a word out of my vocabulary. Regardless of the need, I will no longer, after this last usage, speak or write this now-forbidden word: “cruet.” I know that you’re wondering how I will be able to function without this important word, but I assure you that I can and I will.

Of course I could get by without ever saying–oh, I almost said it–this word. Other words are not nearly so easily abandoned. Try going a day without the word “the.” And then there’s today’s next word in Psalm 118:24: “is.” The single most common verb in the English language “is” is not something we can easily work around. In the King James Version, you’ll find the verb “is” italicized here.

This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

If you didn’t know it, italicized words in the KJV represent words that are not actually in the original Hebrew or Greek. Translated literally, the verse might read like this:

This the day the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

While it sounds like old-school Tarzan, such a sentence structure worked in Hebrew. The “is” would be understood, sort of like the “You” is understood when we give commands or directions in English: (You) go down the street.

This invisible word uses the simplest of verb tenses, the present indicative. We have all sorts of verbs tenses in English. Linguists don’t even all agree about how many there are, but you probably use all of them without even thinking about it. The present indicative, however, is the starting point and used most often.

The Psalmist is not saying that this “will be” the day. It’s not “might be” or “had been” or “will have been.” This is the day that is the one God made.

Now stick with me here for a bit. This day that is God-made has twenty-four hours in it. That’s 1,440 minutes. Since every day (as we established last time) is the day that the Lord has made, then presumably every hour and every minute is the hour or minute that He made as well. Otherwise, if, for example, only the hours of 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. are the day that the Lord made, then we find ourselves having to use a different verb tense before 6:00 or after 9:00.

The faithfulness of God is a 24/seven/365 sort of thing. It’s there first thing in the morning and endures until the close of day. That’s a lot of mileage out of an invisible word that most of us wouldn’t give a second look.

Pre-positioned Miracles

Bo the poodle and I went for our customary morning Diet Dr. Pepper run this morning, heading to the QuikTrip nearest our house. As we drove–I drove, Bo was in the back–I found myself irritated by the yellow circle of the sun, just above the horizon, blasting into my eyes. There sat the sun, almost perfectly in front of me as I tried to see the road before me. Then I thought about the matter a bit.

Thirty-ninth Street in my hometown runs down the middle of section 22 in the 19th-century division of lands: township, range, and section. Two streets, 35th and 43rd, mark the north and south boundaries of that section (and all of the mile-square, 640-acre sections) in the area. All of these numbered streets run, for all practical purposes, perfectly east and west. Therefore, as I drove on 39th Street this morning at about 7:30 a.m., four days before the vernal equinox, I drove straight east. Looking more carefully, I realized that the sun was actually just a tiny bit to the left of straight ahead and just a hair above the horizon. In other words, I expect, on Wednesday, the so-called “first day of spring,” the rising sun will be perfectly above 39th Street should I drive at that hour.

Anyone who understands some basic astronomy will read these words and look unbelieving at me. It’s as if I breathlessly announced that a pot of water, left on the stove indefinitely, would eventually turn into a gas we call steam. Certainly I cannot call the mechanical operations of the solar system a miracle, can I?

The beginning of Psalm 19 suggests that, if not a miracle, that orderly operation of the heavens, the predictability of sun, moon, and seasons does proclaim the presence and greatness of God:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour out speech;
night after night they communicate knowledge.
There is no speech; there are no words;
their voice is not heard.
Their message has gone out to the whole earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.

Far from being annoying, the sun in my eyes this morning declares the glory of God and proclaims the work of his hands. Isaac Newton’s second law of thermodynamics tells us that the natural way of systems is that they move from order to entropy, from design to chaos. If that held true here, then we might never know when or where to expect sunrise.

But God has pre-positioned miracles in our midst. These miracles hold the universe together. They allow creatures to pass genetic information from one generation to the next. They provide for human respiration and plant photosynthesis.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” the traditional “Doxology,” sings. Sometimes those blessings pop up in the form of a healing or a fortuitous discovery, but most of the time they have been placed into the world from the foundation of the earth. That’s some praiseworthy foresight!

Nice Psalms

If you’ve never gotten beyond “The Lord is my shepherd” in the Psalms, then you haven’t really lived. A number of the entries, including a fair number that Penny and I have been reading as we go to bed, are anything but nice Sunday-School fare. Last night, Psalm 55 came up. The section heading in the CSB gets us in the right mood: “Betrayal by a Friend.”

And what kind, soothing words does David have for this treacherous friend? Try these on:

My friend acts violently
against those at peace with him;
he violates his covenant.
His buttery words are smooth,
but war is in his heart.
His words are softer than oil,
but they are drawn swords.

We might think that buttery words sound delicious, but they’re not. They hurt!

The outcome that David prays for in this situation is pretty intense as well.

Let death take them by surprise;
let them go down to Sheol alive,
because evil is in their homes and within them.

Essentially, that is David asking for his enemy, who jumped from singular to plural without warning, to be sent to hell while still alive. There’s no “turn the other cheek” stuff going on here. Do you like to pray through Psalms? Good luck on this one!

So what is going on in a Psalm like this? What can we learn from it? I think we can learn that David (or whoever wrote any particular Psalm) was a human being. He had strong feelings of anger and betrayal. As much as we might like to cover up our emotions, as much as we might try to look like pious bits of perfection fit for a spot near the manger in a nativity scene, we aren’t. We have these feelings. We want revenge or justice or something along those lines.

Do we allow those feelings to show in our prayers in front of our friends? Probably not, but we can, as these Psalms demonstrate, let them show to our one perfect Friend. And in the process of allowing those feelings to show, we can allow God’s Spirit to work on us and to change our heart. We can be taken from profound fear and anger to a spirit of calm and worship, as in Psalm 55:22:

Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never allow the righteous to be shaken.

Granted, the next verse takes us back to some fairly angry-sounding material, but we do get the sense that the Psalmist is moving himself back into a balanced place. It doesn’t come all at once, but he was, after all, a human being.

The Shocking Truth about Atheism

Hang out with electricians and you might think that a padlock is their favorite tool. Any protocol-following electrician, when shutting off a breaker to safely work on a circuit, will slap a padlock on the box to ensure that some bozo doesn’t come along behind and turn the breaker back on.

The scene might look something like this: “Hey, why doesn’t my bagel toaster work in the office? No worries, I know where the breaker box is. Well there it is–number 13 is tripped. I’ll just turn it back on. (Click.) Who was that screaming?”

While Proverbs 9:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, an electrician might amend that to say, at least while at work, that the fear of the current is the beginning of wisdom.

That well known verse is the flipside of Psalm 14:1:

The fool says in his heart, “There’s no God.”

Our electrician friend would adapt that easily enough. The fool says, “There’s no way that this circuit is hot.”  The electrician switched the power off himself and then placed the padlock on to ensure that it stays that way. Only then is he not a fool.

But here’s the deal. Anybody who has worked around electricity for a while knows that you can get away without locking circuits most of the time. You don’t really have to treat every connection as if it were live. That’s just a safety guideline that takes care of matters in the worst case. It’s just like you can ride around in your car without a seatbelt most of the time without a problem.

That’s how it is with ignoring God. People can go through their lives for decades ignoring God and apparently prospering. Read through Psalm 14 for its dismal view of humanity. Not until Psalm 14:5 do we read the key word: “Then.”

Eventually, the fool who says there’s no God will discover the error of that assumption. Eventually. But in the intervening years, that fool can do a lot of damage.

What’s a God-follower to do? We can learn something from electricians. We can start by trying to live every moment of every day as if there truly is a God, as if the wires are hot. Do you already do that? If so, you’re ahead of me. We can also protect ourselves by trying to put locks on situations to avoid danger.

You see, that electrician can avoid danger in two ways. First, he can simply stay away from the system. That’s not his calling. Second, he can practice safe methods, including locking circuits, to keep some bagel-toasting yahoo from shocking him.

The reality is that electricians and Christians sometimes get hurt when they deal with these dangerous things. But the electrician is paid to deal with that danger. The Christian is expected to engage a dangerous world in an effort to set its current right.

 

Psalm 141:8-10

But my eyes are fixed on you, Sovereign Lord;
    in you I take refuge—do not give me over to death.
Keep me safe from the traps set by evildoers,
    from the snares they have laid for me.
Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
    while I pass by in safety. –Psalm 141:8-10

Psalm 141:3-4

Set a guard over my mouth, Lord;
    keep watch over the door of my lips.
Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil
    so that I take part in wicked deeds
along with those who are evildoers;
    do not let me eat their delicacies. –Psalm 141:3-4

Psalm 41:1-3

Blessed are those who have regard for the weak;
    the Lord delivers them in times of trouble.
The Lord protects and preserves them—
    they are counted among the blessed in the land—
    he does not give them over to the desire of their foes.
The Lord sustains them on their sickbed
    and restores them from their bed of illness.