A Psalm for Evening and Morning

The Daily Office Psalter readings are currently in the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). I preached a series from that section in the Psalter a few years ago, and it remains one of my favorites. And by favorites, I think I mean that I grew to be surprised at how dear they became especially as I engaged them imaginatively in trying to communicate them poetically myself.

One of today’s psalms is Psalm 127 which reads,

1 Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
3 Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

There is a lot going on in this psalm, and one can get distracted by the seeming non sequitur of a builder, a watchman and child bearing. Yet, when we consider what blessing is, what ‘new morning mercy’ is like, when we consider the fullness of lovingkindness and amazing grace, there is in a similar way, a non sequitur of sorts. That is, when we receive the great gift of blessing or answered prayer, it seems wildly incongruous with what came before and is nothing short of being blessed with a child and in all its ways: courtship, consummation, conception, expectation, travail, delivery, and full arms.

As we seek the hope of miraculous blessing in the midst of great trial, Psalm 127 is both a psalm with which to start the morning and with which to head to bed. Today, what will bring blessing? Where may I turn to receive it? Or, Tonight what will bring sleep, and how can I rest peacefully waiting and wondering if blessing ever will come?

This sonnet is titled, “Unless the Lord.” I also offer it in honor of two friends who have just welcomed a child into the world. May their arms be full of the Lord’s lovingkindness even as they rest in His arms.

You may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below.

“Unless the Lord,” the qualification
That matters, the watchman’s only security,
The only footing, the firm foundation
Upon which to build, the builder’s surety.

But when you lie down, your heart’s empty of rest;
Your mind works all night at a rolling boil;
You arise in the morning stiff and stressed
To feed upon the bread of anxious toil.

Fruitfulness isn’t ledgered productivity
As if blessing could be quantified,
Rather it’s the labor of love’s creativity
As children begotten by husband and bride.

Beloved of God, be at peace tonight;
Sleep safe as his child, his beloved, delight.

© Randall Edwards 2017
This sonnet is for Christ’s church. If it is helpful, please feel free to copy or reprint in church bulletins, read aloud, or repost. I only ask that an attribution be cited to myself (Randall Edwards) and this blog (backwardmutters.com). Thanks.
artwork: detail from an illustration of The Pilgrim’s Progress or Christian’s journey form the City of Destruction in this evil World to the Celestial City; Published July 1, 1813 by J. Pitts No 14 Great St Andrews Street Seven Dials.

Last Wish

I was recently reminded of a story which Steve Brown tells in his book, Approaching God. It is a story of a funeral and one of the kindest invitations to know Jesus I may have ever heard. Dr. Brown writes,

Not too long ago I conducted a funeral for the spouse of a very dear friend of mine. The spouse died of AIDS. My friend moved in a very fast crowd, and the funeral service in the home was quite informal. There was a keyboard artist playing jazz and plenty of booze and balloons. The people who came to the service were not the kind of people who are generally found sitting on the front row at the the First Church by the Gas Station. In fact most of the folks who were at the service had long since given up on religion. I could understand that. I’ve almost given up myself on several occasions. I went to the keyboard artist and said to him, Son, when you finish this piece bring it to an end because I’m going to say something religious. When he stopped playing and there was silence, I decided to follow Jesus’ example. He would probably (judging the report of the gospel writers who chronicled his life) be more comfortable with people like this than with the normal folks who attend normal funeral services. So, after saying a quick silent prayer, I said to the folks there:

“I don’t do many funerals with balloons and booze. But it’s okay because that’s the way [my friend] would have wanted it. The balloons are appropriate because this is not a funeral service, it’s a graduation service. Our friend isn’t here. She’s in another place where there isn’t any more pain. She’s in heaven, and I’m going to tell you why.”

I told them about the people Jesus loved. I told them that their friend wasn’t in heaven because she was a “good” person (they knew better than that) but because she knew she wasn’t and had turned to One who loved her enough to die on ta cross in her place.

I’m here. I went on, for only one reason. You needed someone to tell you the truth. I’m just one bad person telling other bad people the most important thing you will ever hear: God is God, and you should remember that. But if you go to him, he won’t be angry with you. In fact, he’ll love you. Our friend found that out, and we wanted to make sure you knew.

Sometimes phrases like “booze and balloons” just beg to be made the most of. This poem is a reimagining of the event which Dr Brown tells. Thought the imagination is mine, the story and certainly some of the words are his. Let’s just say, Steve gets the credit, and I get the blame.

You may listen to me read the poem via the player below.

It did not seem like a funeral
With all the booze and balloons,
More like a denial of the noumenal —
Life and death caricatured like cartoons.

In the cocktail hour’s jazzy mix of
Celebration and intoxication,
Smartly dressed people laugh and chuckle
Hide their unease behind conversation.

But we cannot escape when Death comes
For spouses — takes our friends into finality,
But the booze and balloons makes light and numbs
Us to the end of our common reality.

Beneath our unease, we grasp with white knuckles
Our scotch like the roller coaster’s seat bar —
Hoping these cups won’t let us fall out
Into eternity like some shooting star.

A man stands up, clears his throat to say
Why we’re here — why he’s come today.
Says “You need someone to tell you what’s true.
And though you’re bad people, I am one too.
I’ve been invited to come in this sad season
For one purpose, for this very reason:
That if you will take a moment, lend an ear,
I’ll tell you what I hope you’ll never unhear —
Something you should not ignore or laugh at
And that is, God is God; you should remember that.
And though He is, and that He is, you should see,
But what I want you to know more importantly
Is, if you go to Him, he won’t be angry with you.
In fact He’ll warmly welcome — He will love you.

Our friend, the one whose death brings me to you,
Found that out at the last, and it meant all in the end.
She came to know Love which would not withhold but send,
Love willing to die, and by dying make things new.
Our friend’s last wish and mine too
Was to make sure that you knew it too.”

© Randall Edwards 2020.
Artwork: James Tissot [Public domain]