Bless God

Bless God

Psalm 134 is the last of the collection of songs in the Bible’s book of Psalms called the Songs of Ascent. These songs serve as a guide or a map of the life of faith, whose destination is the presence of God. The psalms were sung by pilgrims on their way to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem during the great annual festivals. In Psalm 134, the pilgrim at last, arrives at his or her destination. But in what shape, at what cost, and for what?

Psalm 134 reads,

Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
who stand by night in the house of the Lord!
2 Lift up your hands to the holy place
and bless the Lord!
3 May the Lord bless you from Zion,
he who made heaven and earth!

The celebratory destination of faith is worship and that is also the purpose for coming. However, what if in coming so far, at such cost, enduring such difficulties, one does not arrive in strength but arrives in weakness — as one who barely makes it?

Eugene Peterson, in his book on the Songs of Ascent (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction) writes about the first words of Psalm 134 with the condition of the arrivals in mind. If the Songs of Ascent are a map, Peterson seems to place a hypothetical red arrow on the map and ask, what if YOU ARE HERE?

Peterson writes,

Read one way, the sentence is an invitation: “Come, bless GOD.” The great promise of being in Jerusalem is that all may join in the rich temple worship. You are welcome now to do it. Come and join in. Don’t be shy. Don’t hold back. Did you have a fight with your spouse on the way? That’s all right. You are here now. Bless God. Did you quarrel with your neighbor while making the trip? Forget it. You are here now. Bless God. Did you lose touch with your children while coming and aren’t sure just where they are now? Put that aside for the moment. They have their own pilgrimage to make. You are here. Bless God. Are you ashamed of the feelings you had while traveling? the grumbling you indulged in? the resentment you harbored? Well, it wasn’t bad enough to keep you from arriving, and now that you are here, bless God. Are you embarrassed at the number of times you quit and had to have someone pick you up and carry you along? No matter. You are here. Bless God.

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Peterson has the psalmist speaking to the many circumstances one may arrive to worship, and has the psalmist call them to worship (no matter where they’ve come from) with the refrain, “Bless God”. As I listened to the words earlier this week, I felt they bore a poetic-ligurgical quality. I have taken his words as they or modified them to fit into the form of a poem’s rhyme and rhythm.

If it’s helpful, you may listen to me read the poem via the player below.

Did you fight with your spouse along the way?
That’s all right. You’re here now.
Bless God.

Did you quarrel with your neighbor while on the road?
Forget it. You are here now.
Bless God.

Lost touch with your children, haven’t seen them all day?
Take a moment; for these worries, pray,
But while you wait, arise, say,
“They are yours; you are mine;
I bless you, God.”

All those wasted miles pouting, are you ashamed–
The grumbling indulged? the resentment inflamed?
It wasn’t so bad that it kept you abroad,
And now that you are here,
Bless God.

Embarrassed by quitting, that you’re not counted tough?
How your burdens were carried by those who bore you up?
No matter. At long last, you are here;
That’s enough.
Bless God.

Join with the assembly, the joyful throng
Whether sinner, saint,
Afraid, faint, weak, or strong
We have arrived together,
You’re where you belong.
Welcome, take your place, and
Let us, bless God.

The thoughts and some of the words are most certainly, Eugene Peterson’s.
See: Eugene H.. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Kindle Locations 2394-2401). IVP Books. Kindle Edition.
artwork: Illustration of The Pilgrim’s Progress or Christian’s journey from 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.

What Fellowship?

What Fellowship?

I am continuing my current project of writing a series of poems based on the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). The Songs of Ascent are a collection of songs intended to guide the pilgrim in their upward ascent to God. They are traveling songs meant to encourage, challenge, and console the singer and listener. They are a map of the life of faith.

Psalm 133 is the second to last of the songs, and it sings the song of fellowship and community. If one recalls, the first of the Songs of Ascent (Psalm 120) is about the disappointment and disfunction of community, but now at the end we are rejoicing in it. The irony may feel more deep because this psalm is attributed to David. And though there was a point when the people of Israel were joyfully united under King David, much disappointment and tragedy would follow in the stories Uriah and Bathsheba, Amnon and Tamar, and David and his son, Absalom.

Psalm 133 is willfully ignorant of these events or wisely instructive about true community. It reads,

1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

Nothing here of disappointment, just the beauty and goodness and pleasantness of unity — which of course, is beautiful and good and lovely. It is precisely the failure to experience this sort of community which leads to such great disappointment.

A part of the psalm’s encouragement to us, is that just like everything else, if we are to arrive at our destination, we must have faith. We must believe that God is and can do what he has promised. He will make his people one. (Talk about needing faith). In addition, the psalmist reminds us that this sort of community is not the result of contrivance and manipulation, it is the fruit of God’s provision and blessing (comes down). The unity of love is a “bond of faith” and what binds us, is the atonement which God has made possible through his high priest. Just as our “at-one-ment” is made with God, it settles everything else between us and our fellows. It pours down from above and out upon others. In arriving into God’s presence, His promise is that we will arrive together.

As for this sonnet, I begin by imaging all the sorts of people God’s people are and all the names by which we tag others and ourselves. Only when our identity is identified with the one “who brings peace” are we freed from those other names so as to bear and share in his beloved name.

If it’s helpful, you may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below:

Bless our hearts, people pleasers, control freaks,
Sloppy, extroverts, neatniks, jocks, and nerds,
Authentic hipsters, awkward introverts,
Are Your peculiar people, in other words.
The defiant and stubborn, the weepy,
Stoics, passionate, patient, short-tempered,
The fringe, those keeping it weird and creepy,
They make up Your flock, us odd, little birds.

Whether Peter, Paul, Apollos, or James,
We are members of one congregation;
No matter the labels, whatever the names,
We’re bound by the Name who is salvation,
Who pours out, by our new name addresses,
Drenches in love, makes holy, and blesses.

© 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.

What End?

What End?

Over the past several months I have been working through a collection of psalms in the Old Testament’s book of Psalms called the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). This collection of songs is believed to have been sung by pilgrims as they traveled to Jerusalem for the great Jewish festivals.

The Songs of Ascent are more than a collection of songs, they are a geography of the pilgrim’s walk of faith to God. In these psalms we hear about the pitfalls and dangers as well as the necessary encouragement and motivation to make and finish such a journey.

Psalm 132 is the longest of the Songs of Ascent and speaks to us of what is needed to make the last push to the finish. A journey of 100 miles can just as easily be forsaken in the last mile and is all the more pitiable when that journey is given up within sight of the finish. I know that pitifulness.

Psalm 132 reminds the pilgrim that the journey which they are making, this last climb through Judea up to Jerusalem, was one which the Lord has made too if only symbolically through the presence of the ark of the covenant. David vowed to bring the ark to a resting place among the people of God in Jerusalem; this is the destination of the Old Testament pilgrim: the Temple which housed the ark.

As the psalm reminds us of the vow which David made, the search for the ark which had fallen into obscurity, David’s desire to see the Lord’s worship honored even as he danced among the procession, and the promise which the Lord made to David and his descendants, we are reminded of the reward of faithful obedience.

For the pilgrim on pilgrimage, the joy at the end is not that the journey is over. The pilgrim’s joy breaks into view when they see that the God whom they have sought and pursued has, in fact, come to them.

This sonnet imagines the pilgrimage of one who, like the psalmist of Psalm 120, has come to his senses and gone to God. However, the dangers of pilgrimage waylay him near the finish. Remembering the kindnesses shown and the hope of fulfillment, he is persuaded to “arise”. The prodigal pilgrim makes the final push to the finish to find that “while he was still a long way off his father…”.

If it’s helpful, you may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below.

Here at the finish, the way is steep;
Having come so far, the end now in sight;
The vows made at dawn, when refreshed by sleep,
Seem cynically foolish in the fading light.
Lost in worries weeds, the tangle of cares
Trip me with cries to forget the vow,
Tempt me with lies by which comfort ensnares,
Falling, I slip into despondency’s slough.

A call to arise calls me from the end
And recalls to mind the kind offers made;
I stand, and stumbling, the last hill ascend
To behold the blessing for which I’d prayed.
The fullness sought in leaving now I see:
The father whom I left, running to me.

© 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.

Dear Heart

Dear Heart

This sonnet is a second based upon Psalm 131 and is a word of comfort or a moment of self-talk over and against all the words, phrases, and speaking which often rolls through one’s thought-life. In the South, “dear heart” can be spoken in a condescending fashion much like it’s sister expression, “Bless your heart…”. Though I may reserve that tone for reading this to my own self, it is not intended that others read it that way.

Also, I do not generally make use of the archaic, “thou”, “thine”, and “thy”. However, in this case it seems to me there something lost of the intimacy of a distinguished 2nd person personal pronoun in our common usage today. If possible, don’t hear a “formal” address, but rather words of intimacy.

Psalm 131 reads,

1 O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
3 O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore.

If helpful, you may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below.

for PBP on October 6

Dear heart, do not lift thine eyes to the hills
Where control and pleasure are wound as one,
But feed on grace, the daily bread which fills,
Lest thou be left empty, thy life undone.
Dear soul, be calm, do not churn in thy breast
Fret not the drought, nor the flood of keening
Trust as a child who on his mother rests,
Patiently endure thy rooting soul’s weaning.
Dear child, rest thy head on shoulders which bore
The rough beam upon which hung all thy fears,
Be held by arms which opened wide the door,
And the hands which took thy sin, wipes thy tears.
O Israel, put thy hope in the Lord
Rest in Him this day and forever more.

© 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: Dora Hitz (1856–1924), Motherhood. The image is from the 1905 print after page of “Women Painters of the World, from the Time of Caterina Vigri, 1413-1463, to Rosa Bonheur and the Present Day”, by Walter Shaw Sparrow, from The Art and Life Library, Hodder & Stoughton, 27 Paternoster Row, London.

What Rest?

What Rest?

The Songs of Ascent are a collection of pilgrim songs — songs sung by those on the road who are journeying to God. These psalms contain encouragement and counsel for the pilgrim, and like a geographer, these songs describe the lay of the land of a pilgrim’s world.

The lesson which the psalmist is seeking to teach his fellow travelers is that faith in God and our hope in Him is more than what He can do for us in the moment. God can be trusted, and the pilgrim must learn to wait on Him. This trust and peace is likened to that of the weaned child who has learned to trust its mother though she no longer offers the same comforts she once did. Spurgeon writes, “It is a blessed mark of growth out of spiritual infancy when we can forego the joys which once appeared to be essential, and can find our solace in him who denies them to us.”

Psalm 131 reads,

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
3 O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

In seeking to flesh out these sonnets it has been helpful to imagine the psalms working out in the lives of others. Over and over again, the lives of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus capture my imagination. The sonnet below is an imagining of Martha’s experience and concern about many thing, Mary’s chasing what is better, and the Lord’s invitation to Martha to calm and quiet her soul.

If it’s helpful, you may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below.

Concerned and worried about many things:
The work which needs doing, (I carry and bear)
The burden of healing, my sibling’s welfare,
Rests on my shoulders, on what my hand brings.
When He came I was filled with greater care:
For our guest’s comfort and our saving face
Among those who thought our table our place
Was sparse in joy and our graciousness spare.
And my worry broke in desperation,
“Master!” with heat and hurt, as a prayer
“Tell her to help, relieve my frustration
Can’t she see? Do something? In the work share?”
“Martha, she’s working by resting in me
Sit here also, and you too shall be free.”

© 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.

What Redemption?

What Redemption?

This sonnet is based on Psalm 130 which is both a song of ascent and is one of what St. Augustine termed the penitential psalms — a collection of confessions of sin of which Psalm 51 is the more often well-known.

In the pilgrim’s sojourn to his destination with God, Psalm 130 is for me happily situated. Psalm 120 starts us on our journey as we own our dissatisfaction, but Psalm 130 reminds us that our journey is not one glorious rising and bounding from mountain top to mountain top. Rather, our pilgrimage is interrupted (and frequently) with times spent in places that are less than valleys, we are sometimes taken to the depths. The pilgrim, must neither be afraid of those depths nor avoid the indignity of “crying out for mercy” and for “waiting, waiting as a watchman”. These are not diversions or side excursions, but the journey to the depths is the path. If you find yourself “in the depths”, though disoriented and lost, you are yet not lost, but are walking the pilgrim way.

In this sonnet I imagine the person who is down, but not out. The depths from which the psalmist cries is the utter bottom, it is the grave, it is hell. The only one who sings Psalm 130 is the one who is left with no other help or hope but God. There is no personal reliance or confidence; there is no resolve to do better; there is no hope in a little suffering to atone for sin and guilt. There is only the cry for forgiveness and reconciliation — unqualified, unconditioned, and beyond hoped for.

At the moment of arriving to “the depths”, we are shocked by how far we’ve descended. However, the steps (oftentimes many) we’ve taken to that place are minuscule compared to the descent our Redeemer traveled to “get low”, to get beneath us, and to raise us up. Herein is the abundance and the plenteous, plentiful redemption he has secured: He has gone to every length to redeem us. And full of awareness of the great price paid, we gladly share with him both his crowns.

If it’s helpful, you may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below.

If you have not been all the way down
To the bottom where earth, sun, and sky
Seem only vague memories of some ghost town,
There’s more below the ledge on which you lie.
If you have never been down so low
Where there’s nothing but ruination,
Where all is barren, death’s all that grows,
Bad news, you’ve not reached your destination.

But He went there for us to the utter depth
Spared no ignominy, stripped, emptied of
All dignity, any glory in death
To buy back the sinner, hopeless, unloved.
For full redemption comes through Him who went down
Secures our forgiveness and shares with us his crown.

© 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.

What Perseverance?

What Perseverance?

The Songs of Ascent are the songs of pilgrims. The collection of Psalms from 120-134 is believed to the collection of songs sung by pilgrims as they made their way from their home villages to Jerusalem during the great annual festivals of Judaism. Full of encouragement, wisdom, and guidance, these psalms are like a map of faith which show us the geography of a life traveling to meet God.

Psalm 129 is not a happy traveling song but a psalm of hardship. The psalmist doesn’t look to future victories but to past sufferings. The reflection on the past is not an embittered, vengeful tirade; it is a hardening endeavor in the face of present hardship. It is defiance. Hardness is not in every way bad. Granted, a hard heart can be without compassion, a hard head likely refuses instruction, and a hard will can be senselessly stubborn. However, hardness against quitting a difficult but good endeavor, giving over to faithlessness, or failing to persevere in love? This kind of hardness is a necessity for the pilgrim on pilgrimage. Psalm 129 is a rallying cry to remember the hardship and to resolve to endure and persevere and to not give way in either envying the wicked or calling the wicked blessed.

Psalm 129 reads,

“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”—
let Israel now say—
2 “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth,
yet they have not prevailed against me.
3 The plowers plowed upon my back;
they made long their furrows.”
4 The Lord is righteous;
he has cut the cords of the wicked.
5 May all who hate Zion
be put to shame and turned backward!
6 Let them be like the grass on the housetops,
which withers before it grows up,
7 with which the reaper does not fill his hand
nor the binder of sheaves his arms,
8 nor do those who pass by say,
“The blessing of the Lord be upon you!
We bless you in the name of the Lord

 
If helpful, you may listen to me read the poem via the player below.

Since my youth, they have afflicted me–
Foremen who furrowed my flesh of life,
Who scourged, whipped, beat and knifed–
The plowers who plowed in red.
Let all those trodden upon and left for dead
Say it with me. Say it with me!
“Though greatly afflicted, yet they have not,
They have not prevailed over me!”

Let the deeds they sow, though they sprout and grow,
Wilt, wither, and waste in the sun’s heat;
Let their garnered glory fade in defeat,
Leave them nothing in their hand.
Bind them to emptiness as with a band.
May these wicked be cursed, never know
The peace of fullness, for they have not
Prevailed, not prevailed, let them know.

The Lord is good. He is just. He alone, right.
He perseveres his people, breaks their chains;
With the iron scepter of his rule and reign,
He dashes as clay their oppression.
But he delivers by his own dispossession,
Takes the mortal cords, enters the night,
Gives his back to plowers, who plow up his life
To bury in death, snuff out the Light of lights.

This was the plan, the eternal decree,
That the Sower furrow into the ground,
That in his plowing, bury death down,
Beyond the tomb’s door sealed.
Greatly afflicted, by your stripes I’m healed;
The limbs of your cross, my life-giving tree,
My glory and boast over my enemy,
My sin, which shall never, never prevail over me.

© Randall Edwards 2017
This poem 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.