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The problem of perspective

Living behind my eyes and ears, I am stuck with seeing and hearing the world from my limited perspective. Sometimes, I’m able to add my perspective and help others see things more clearly. But too often, my skewed and limited perspective makes more problems than solutions.

I can’t count how many times I’ve misunderstood people because I didn’t hear them correctly. I’ve gladly forgotten the mistakes I’ve made as a volleyball referee who didn’t see clearly what was happening on the court. I lacked the necessary perspective.

Psalm 52 struggles with a problem of perspective. The superscription gives us the setting behind it: “When Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: ‘David has gone to the house of Ahimelek.'”

Think about this for a bit. Both David and Doeg were important officials in the government of Saul, king of Israel. David was suspected of wanting to take over the kingdom for himself and Doeg gave simple but necessary information to the king about this possible insurgent.

That suspicion was true, by the way. From the day he was anointed, David had his eye on the throne. The reason he fought Goliath was to earn the prize of marriage to the king’s daughter (1 Sam. 17:25-27)  — a means of entering the king’s household and making his way onto the throne. A simple rereading of 1 Samuel with David’s kingly ambitions in view is enlightening. Robert Alter does a masterly job of this in his book/commentary The David Story.

From Saul’s perspective, Doeg was a faithful, loyal servant and David a deceitful “mighty hero.” In fact, this psalm could easily be turned around completely. Try reading it as Doeg’s psalm about tricksy David. Amazingly, it works! Doeg never plotted to gain the throne and certainly never raised an army of good-for-nothings, using it to effectively take over a part of the kingdom while the established king still ruled.

Throughout the Psalms, we encounter problematic perspectives. Psalm 137 ends with a willingness to bless baby killers. Psalm 88 is an accusation against God, blaming him for taking away all friends so that darkness is the only remaining friend. Psalm 109 is brutal with its litany of evil poured out on its enemy, wishing that the enemy will be falsely accused in court, lose the legal battle, die, and leave his children as homeless orphans.

These are problems.

Some have tried to come up with clever, pious readings which make these psalms sound palatable. But they just don’t work. In each of these psalms and others like them, the writer is just plain in the wrong.

We should have no trouble with this, since the Scriptures declare that none of us is righteous and that all have sinned, falling short of God’s glory. We have the adultery of David, the murder of Moses, and the denial of Peter among the many egregious transgressions of our biblical “heroes.” And yet, we balk at reading a psalm as if it were written from a wrong perspective?

The Psalms are our companions in praying. As such, they teach us to pray in any and every situation we find ourselves in. And that includes times when we pray out of wrong perspectives.

Everyone one of us has been so completely wrong at times, we simply couldn’t see things as they really were. And yet, we still needed to pray. And so, our prayers came out all cockeyed and backward. But still we pray. We can’t wait to correct our perspectives first.

Pray first. Correct perspectives later.

When David writes the following words in his poem, none of them actually describes Doeg as we see him in 1 Samuel. Every bit of this is David’s projection onto Doeg. It all arises from  deep-seated bitterness, not pious faith. And that’s OK.

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero?
    Why do you boast all day long,
    you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
You who practice deceit,
    your tongue plots destruction;
    it is like a sharpened razor.
You love evil rather than good,
    falsehood rather than speaking the truth.
You love every harmful word,
    you deceitful tongue! (Ps. 52:1-4)

David even engages in a sulky imagination, dreaming of Doeg’s downfall and how people will mock him. It’s just plain ugly. But it’s also truly human. I know I’ve been here before myself.

Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin:
    He will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent;
    he will uproot you from the land of the living.
The righteous will see and fear;
    they will laugh at you, saying,
“Here now is the man
    who did not make God his stronghold
but trusted in his great wealth
    and grew strong by destroying others!” (Ps. 52:5-7)

And to make things worse, it’s contrasted by a bit of self-righteousness. So, we end up with a “You suck! But I’m great!” pity party.

It’s childish. And it’s so like me. The mirror this puts in front of me is sadly revealing.

But I am like an olive tree
    flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love
    for ever and ever. (Ps. 52:8)

And then finally, after eight verses of whining, we get to the one verse of prayer in the entire psalm. Yep, this nine-verse psalm has only one verse of prayer in it. It’s been seven verses of angry poetry about Doeg and one verse of self-righteous poetry about David. And then the one-verse prayer.

Pre-prayer is just as important as the praying itself. All of the thinking and fuming and reading and talking that goes on but is not directed toward God finds its way into our praying. And so we pay attention to our rants, our pacing back and forth, our sleepless nights, our anxious text messages. And we bring them all and lay them before God as we finally turn our voice to him.

And what we discover in this mess of a psalm is that David has finally found the voice of faith he’s been struggling to find. And as he prays, he articulates a necessary hope in an insecure time.

Though unfair in his characterization, David has used Doeg as a reminder of what not to do, of how not to live, of where not to look for hope. And having considered these negations, David steps into the real thing.

For what you have done I will always praise you
    in the presence of your faithful people.
And I will hope in your name,
    for your name is good. (Ps. 52:9)

Even though the name Yahweh isn’t used in Psalm 52, David references it. The name personalizes the relationship, grounding the hope and grounding David at the same time.

It’s such a simple prayer after such an intense wave of emotion. And maybe it wasn’t enough to balance out David’s perspective. But even so, David is no longer obsessed with Doeg, for he is no longer looking at his enemy. He’s looking at God.

And even if looking toward doesn’t change my perspective, it does change me.

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Political angst & Psalm 58

Politicians have always been corrupt. Not all of them are, of course. But always, God’s people have struggled under the weight of evil leaders.

Always, the presence of the powerful who use their power inappropriately has caused both personal and theological turmoil. How can God let them get away with it? Is there any source of justice in the world? Will God do anything to set things right?

Psalm 58 reminds us that we are not the first to ask such questions or to be so disturbed by our political landscape. We are in well-traveled territory here. And not only have our forebearers in the faith walked in similar shoes as we walk, they’ve left us a prayer that articulates our angst with a vehemence that is both a relief and a shock.

It’s a relief to read such deeply felt words of anger about the political situation right there in the middle of the Bible. They validate our own angers and remind us that the most appropriate expression of that anger is before the throne of God — the one who judges justly and who will see justice done.

But the Psalm comes as a shock with its graphic imagery of the psalmist’s praying imagination. Smashed in teeth? Snail slime? Goblets of blood drunk in toast to their downfall?

It moves from vengeful to gruesome in a few short verses. And quickly I’m wondering if I should be praying such dark prayers.

This is the beauty and the humanity of the Psalms. The darkness is prayed. All of it. Right down to the most gruesome bottom of it.

If we don’t go to the bottom of our angst with God in prayer, it’s going to come out in some other, less appropriate way.

I think of the African American man who killed five white police officers after two black men were killed by white police officers earlier in the week.

I understand his anger. I understand his desire for retribution. But what he did was as unjust as what had been done earlier in the week. His bottled up rage came out in the wrong way. Justified rage; unjustified action.

We need the horrible words of Psalm 58 to keep us from horrible actions that twist the justice we seek.

Prayer is a deeply political action. It changes the world by calling on the God of justice to bring down the powerful who have been using their power to push down instead of lift up.

Prayer topples tyrants.

And it keeps God’s people from unjust actions of our own.

So, here is Psalm 58 in all its angry power. Pray along with it and see what God will do with you and your anger and with the injustice in the world that fuels your anger.

Is this any way to run a country?
    Is there an honest politician in the house?
Behind the scenes you brew cauldrons of evil,
    behind closed doors you make deals with demons.
The wicked crawl from the wrong side of the cradle;
    their first words out of the womb are lies.
Poison, lethal rattlesnake poison,
    drips from their forked tongues—
Deaf to threats, deaf to charm,
    decades of wax built up in their ears.
God, smash their teeth to bits,
    leave them toothless tigers.
Let their lives be buckets of water spilled,
    all that’s left, a damp stain in the sand.
Let them be trampled grass
    worn smooth by the traffic.
Let them dissolve into snail slime,
    be a miscarried fetus that never sees sunlight.
Before what they cook up is half-done, God,
    throw it out with the garbage!
The righteous will call up their friends
    when they see the wicked get their reward,
Serve up their blood in goblets
    as they toast one another,
Everyone cheering, “It’s worth it to play by the rules!
    God’s handing out trophies and tending the earth!”

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The importance of anger

Some baristas are sages, masters of coffee and poignant tattoos.

A barista at a cafe I used to frequent had a tattoo with the words “the upside of anger” wildly emblazoned on his forearm. And when I asked him about it, he talked about how anger had been a destructive force in his life but that he had been learning how to channel it in constructive means.

See what I mean? Those were sage words.

Anger is a spark. And sparks are neutral in value. It all depends on what you do with the spark.

Some sparks are used by arsonists to burn down buildings, destroying homes and lives. And anger often is a tool for destruction, enflaming angry words and violent actions that scatter ruin. We’re all too familiar with these angry sparks in us and around us.

Some sparks are used to light campfires on dusky summer evenings, warming friends and drawing out conversations. Some sparks get engines running, setting in motion machines that move people and remake the world. We’re quite familiar with these constructive sparks in us and around us.

Injustice requires anger. When injustice is met with milder emotions, no effective response arises. But when injustice scratches the match head of anger, the potential for revolutionary action catches flame.

The question is: How are we going to use our anger?

There are those whose anger at abortion leads them to bomb clinics, matching what they see as injustice with yet another injustice. There are those whose anger at certain politicians leads to fist fights at rallies. There are those whose anger at what they read on the internet leads to offensive trolling.

There are those whose anger fires their imaginations and leads them to speak and march against racism like Martin Luther King, Jr., or free the slaves of modern human trafficking like Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission. There are so many others that could be mentioned who have rallied to deal with women’s suffrage, child labor, gang violence, war, substance abuse, homelessness, foster care, etc. in creative ways.

In every constructive use of anger, it is turned inward instead of outward. Instead of flaring outward to burn others, it is turned inward to ignite the engine and keep the pistons pumping, turning flame into motion.

So, what makes you angry? And how are you going to turn that anger inward to get you moving to do something about what is wrong in the world so that you don’t explode and injure others?

My suggestion: Start with prayer. Praying can draw the self-righteousness out of our anger  by connecting us with God and his redeeming work in the world. Praying also requires listening to God which can lead to creative and constructive engagement instead of knee-jerk reaction.

Don’t waste your anger. And don’t let it waste you. Use it well.

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What do I do when forgiveness feels impossible?

I didn’t get much sleep last night. Memories of slander and of shunning and contempt aimed at someone I love had me wrestling with bitterness and anger.

Feelings of hurt and anger are nothing new. Not with me. Not with anyone who has a soul. Even God feels hurt and angry if we’re to take the Scriptures as evidence.

To be in relationship is to be vulnerable, to be open to hurt. And vulnerability means hurt is inevitable, because we humans excel at relational destruction.

This is why reconciliation and forgiveness are such huge themes throughout the Scriptures. Genesis 3-11 shows the range of relationships that are broken and in need of reconciliation — between us and God; between husband and wife; between siblings; between genders; between nations and ethnicities; between humans and creation. God’s great plan is for the restoration and recreation of all of these mangled relationships.

God stepped into the middle of our relational chaos in the man Jesus so that we could throw our stones at him, instead of at one another. More than his wrath at our sin, it was our sinful wrath that he wanted to drain from us as we poured it out on the Innocent One.

OK. I get this. I get the biblical call to forgiveness. I get that it is at the very heart of God, the very heart of the Scriptures, the very heart of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray — “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” I get that it is one of the key ways we participate in what God is doing in the world, refreshing what has grown salty and barren.

But there are times when I’ve tried to forgive and yet I wrestle with my unforgiveness in the middle of the night like Jacob at the Jabbok. So, what do I do then?

Forgiving the first time is almost easy. Forgiving for the 100th time, as the same old slight rises to the surface, is the hardest. Not only do I have a hold on the hurt, but the hurt has a hold on me. And so I wrestle with opposite impulses: I want to forgive and move on and I want to defend myself and lash out in retribution.

In my wrestling with unforgiveness, I find the Psalms to be such helpful companions.

Do not remember the sins of my youth
    and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
    for you, Lord, are good. [Psalm 25:7]

David, in Psalm 25, is lonely, afflicted, and dealing with enemies. He looks for rescue and refuge in God. But as he considers the sins of his enemies against him, he is reminded of his own sins and turns to God for forgiveness.

We see the same thing at play in the beloved Psalm 139. David starts with

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me. [Psalm 139:1]

And then he considers how complete God’s knowledge is, how it reaches into every place where human knowledge can’t go. But then we get to the real point the psalm, which ironically is the part almost everyone skips over: the angry verses (19-22). David rages in anger that has boiled over into hatred. He is so consumed by it that he has to turn inward to consider his own sinfulness. But he doesn’t trust himself to see into the darkness of his heart. He needs the One for whom darkness isn’t dark, the one who is familiar with the hidden and secret places within us. And so he ends with these words:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. [Psalm 139:23-24]

He beseeches the Searcher. Know me. Test me. See me. And finally, when my anxious thoughts and offensive ways have been exposed for what they are, lead me.

These and other prayers scattered throughout the Psalms remind me that it’s not just those who have hurt me who have darkened hearts (and they do), but mine is darkened as well. This doesn’t excuse the wrongs of others. Those things are still wrong. But these prayers move me out of my squeezed down world of self-pity and self-righteousness and into a much larger God-shaped world, where he sees what is broken in me just as much as what is broken in others.

This divine perspective on the state of my soul doesn’t solve the problem of a hateful person who persists in doing me wrong, but it does teach me a humility and a self-awareness that does the soul work necessary to prepare me for a potential reconciliation if the other person ever becomes ready to engage in it.

In other words, when I know my own need for forgiveness, I become much more willing to offer forgiveness to others. It’s when I’ve forgotten my need for forgiveness that I become stubborn and unwilling to move toward others, reaching for reconciliation.

And so, after an exhaustingly sleepless night of bitterness, I pray:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

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The case for pity

“Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart” – J.R.R. Tolkien

We live in a culture that wants nothing of pity (other than self-pity). We never want to give someone else the upper hand by admitting that we are hurt or broken or needy. We prefer to think of ourselves as achievers, as leaders, as winners. Pity is for losers.

Our egos are so fragile we can’t stand to be looked down upon.

But the reality is we all need pity. We are in fact the hurt, the broken, and the needy. We are fools and failures. We are the burn outs and drop outs. And we need others to extend their hearts to us in pity.

I had always thought of myself as someone who helps others and not as someone who needs the help of others. But a few months after finishing graduate school, I found myself underemployed and barely able to pay rent and feed my family. And that’s when unsought-for help arrived.

One church brought us a heaping basket of food just before Thanksgiving. Another church gave us vouchers at a local grocery store. We found an unmarked envelope taped to our door with a $100 bill inside. Our landlord gave us a $50 gift card to a grocery store. And two different people hired me to do some much-needed editing work.

All of this came within just a few weeks, snowballing pity and grace for us. I found it very humbling and yet never humiliating — the thing I was afraid it would be.

That line between being humbled and being humiliated can be a fine one. It depends both on how pity is offered and how it is received.

In my case, the givers all made sure they didn’t undermine my dignity. And I made sure I received what was given in the way the givers intended, not puffing up my pride to protect my bruised ego — and, yes, struggling to find work did dent my ego.

So, having received pity that had been offered so well, I’ve been trying to relearn pity as a basic disposition in my life toward the lack of wholeness I see in the world around me. And this extends far beyond the financially and physically needy to the relationally and emotionally and spiritually needy.

There have been many times over the past few years where I have found myself hurt and angered by the words and/or actions of others. But it was in the midst of this anger that I remembered the interchange between Frodo and Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

Frodo and Gandalf are talking about the pity of Bilbo which kept him from killing the pathetic creature Gollum. It’s a pity that Frodo takes up and makes his own, which works an amazing transformation in Gollum, reawakening the part of him that had been the more kindly Smeagol.

Does Frodo’s pity pay off? In some regards, no. Gollum betrays him. But ultimately, yes. That pity enables a salvation that would otherwise have been impossible.

So, as I recall this story and import it into my own anger, I have found myself moving toward pity.

As I experience the intentionally hurtful behavior of others from time to time, I have tried to steer my heart toward pity, asking, “What is it that is broken in this person, which causes him to say such things? What hurt has she experienced that makes her so bitter?”

As I watch culture shapers of all stripes promote what is actually harmful, I find myself reacting initially in anger and then softening toward pity.

There is so much hurt in this world that gets expressed in bad behavior, bad theology, bad relationships, bad policies, bad language. And I’m discovering that anger is the flashing red light that makes me aware of this hurt. That its job is to arouse pity within me which will ultimately lead me to compassionate action appropriate for the circumstance.

Hurt should lead to anger. But anger should lead to pity. And pity should lead to prayer. Prayer should lead to healing action. Healing should lead to wholeness.

In this broken world, we will sin and be sinned against. And heaven knows that I react out of anger and end up hurting those who’ve hurt me. I hate that, because it only increases the hurt. But I am relearning pity and the hope for wholeness that it brings.

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Being right, but acting badly

I hate it when I lose my temper and the moral high ground. I hate that part of me that blows it when I’m in the right and damages the truth in the process.

I’ve watched myself do this a bunch of times recently. And I hang my head and shake it when I think of how I undermine the truth by my emotional outbursts.

I yelled at someone who treated my wife badly. I over-lectured my kids when they did something inappropriate. I over-argued a political point.

In each case, I started out right but ended up wrong.

The means are as important as the message. The truth delivered at the point of the dagger becomes something other the truth. Wisdom spoken with a sneer promotes folly. Facts spoken without grace are lifeless and cold.

There is a kindness that rises from being loved that I want to know and express. It’s not based on the feelings of the moment but on the solid reality of a true love that isn’t fickle like emotions, an acted-out love that has shown the way of kindness.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

 We love because he first loved us.

These words from 1 John 4:10-11 & 18 are the grounds for a kindness that is deeper than feelings.

In Jesus, God showed a love, a kindness, that wasn’t based on our actions or feelings toward him. On the contrary, he acted completely the opposite of how we acted toward him. He loved the unloving, the unlovely. He accepts us while we rejected him. He did not retaliate or stoop to our level of bad behavior, even though we were hurting him while he was loving us.

As those who have received this kind of love, we have a personal reality from which to live and love out of. And on top of that, we have a model for the kind of love we are to step into and act out ourselves.

There is a kindness that we have experienced from God that exceeds the lack of kindness we experience from others. There is a truth that has been spoken to us that exceeds the lack of truth spoken to us and about us by others. Both teach us and enable us to live both truthfully and kindly ourselves. And especially when we really don’t feel like it.

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Guerrilla faith — a Christian spirituality for life in a post-Christian world

Losing is tough. I hate it.

When George W. Bush won the White House, Democrats talked about moving north to Canada. And when Barack Obama replaced him, Republicans made similar grumblings.

When Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks threw away a chance to win Super Bowl XLIX, fans had to seek grief counseling.

But there has been no bigger fall in recent history than the fall of the Western church from the heights of influence in the era known as Christendom to its growing marginalization in the past few decades. Although vast numbers of people worldwide claim the name of Jesus as Lord, our role in the world is much diminished.

It feels like we’re losing. And we hate it.

Scattered throughout the book of Psalms, there are a number of psalms which were written during the period of Hebrew history which is called the Exile, the time when the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the temple was destroyed, the walls of Jerusalem were pulled down so it could never rebel, the Davidic kingly line seemed to have been snuffed out, and the best and brightest were hauled off into exile to serve the Babylonian empire. It was the utmost of disasters. National identity was in shambles. All of the icons that held this people together was in ashes.

This was a huge loss and anger was high.

It’s into this context that Psalm 137 was written. Its anonymous writer begins by grieving: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (v. 1). Hearts were broken. Loved ones had been killed. The future was bleak. Every happy memory was now a source of sadness.

It’s in this moment of deep grief that Babylonian captors tormented the Jewish exiles, requesting Zion songs (vs. 2-3), rubbing the failure of their culture and faith in their faces. The psalmist writes, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (v. 4) He then makes a vow: I will never forget Jerusalem. And then he turns to God and says, “Don’t you forget, either! Don’t you forget the ones who have done this to us. Repay them!”

And then Psalm 137 ends with the scandalously angry verse 9: “Happy are those who seize your [Babylonian] infants and dash them against the rocks.”

It’s a horrific prayer. (And God doesn’t answer it with a Yes.) But it’s an understandable prayer. “We’ve lost everything precious to us and we want them to lose what’s most precious to them, their babies.”

It’s not uncommon for losers to lash out, especially when taunted by the winners. And the Church in the Western world has been on a long losing streak, and the culture we live in keeps taunting us about it. It’s no wonder so many Christians are both sad and mad.

But Psalm 137 is not a definitive psalm. It’s an essential psalm, expressing deep-seated feelings during a pivotal time. But other psalms and other expressions of faith take over from there as God’s people move from devastating loss and into a new reality.

Here’s the new reality: We are no longer in power. Instead, we live in occupied territory. Regaining lost position and power is not an option.

Coming up with a renewed identity, with new ways of thinking, new practices, and new objectives is essential. What we need is what I call Guerrilla Faith.

Guerrilla Faith embraces our new minority status and takes on an insurgent identity.

  • It rejects the current tyranny as it waits in hope for the return of the King.
  • It accepts hardship, suffering, and even death, expecting resurrection.
  • It moves from being a meek majority in the spotlight to being a dangerous community of the unknown and unseen.
  • It moves from limp evangelism to recruiting converts to the uprising.
  • It abandons big buildings and big programs for diffused but tightly knit communities that spring up in unexpected places, doing the unexpected.
  • It stops being an institution and starts to become a movement again.
  • It risks upsetting others by upsetting the status quo.
  • It sets aside its anger over its loss and replaces it with pity for the lost.
  • It is subtle and non-violent in a culture of Michael Bay bombs and bombast.
  • It goes the way of the mustard seed — small and insignificant seeming and yet invasive, resilient, and able to take over whole fields.

Holding on to position, to privilege, to property, to power — none of these are options for a guerrilla faith. We must embrace the margins not just as our new reality, but as the best place from which to seek the kingdom of God.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring each of the points above, seeking to articulate a truly Christian spirituality that comes from this guerrilla faith perspective and its practices.