Psalm 126 – Faith in Times of Doubt

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

 

Isn’t this a beautiful psalm?  I think it sounds like Shakespeare.  He used dreams and dreaming in so much of his own writing.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is basically one giant dream.  The first half, especially, sounds like something a triumphant heroine would say in closing.  So now I’m wondering if Shakespeare had any favorite psalms.  If I had to take a guess, I would think this to be one of them.

But why would this psalm be suggested reading for Advent? My beloved NIV footnotes actually came up short (gasp!) on any clues.  But I found a clue when reading different versions of this psalm online.  And I’m so sorry I cannot remember which version or where exactly I found this note, because I really appreciated the insight and wanted to link it.  126:6 says “those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy.”  The whole reason they’re going out weeping is because they are using what grain they have left, the grain that they also eat, to plant.  Of course, you need to plant in order to have food in the long run, but if you don’t have enough grain to get you through the short run, what good is it?  So, as these farmers go out to their field, using up most of what’s left of their food supply, they have many troubles on their mind.  Can I make it to harvest? Will it be a good harvest? Will it rain enough? What if it rains too much, and there is a blight? What if there are locusts this year? A whole myriad of things can effect a harvest.

Planting becomes an act of Faith in a time of doubt.  These farmers may be weeping, but they do it anyway, and God rewards them with the joys of harvest.  Same with the streams of Negev, mentioned in 126:4.  This time my NIV footnotes came through for me.  Negev was a desert region (surprise, surprise) that had seasonal springs.  In the summer months they dried up, but in the winter months the waters returned.  So again, they require Faith through hardship of those who rely upon them.

What does this have to do with Advent?  Advent is a time of preparation, of waiting.  I for one can get anxious over preparations and waiting. This psalm is a reminder that on the other side of that anxiety is joy untold, we just have to have Faith.  Now this isn’t to say that Faith will cure life’s hardships.  One of my favorite church signs of all time said “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  But if you go through life’s hardships knowing God is with you, believing in a joy that is so great you’ll think it can’t be real, you must be dreaming, then those hardships will be easier to bear.  It may feel like the world is against you.  Hell, maybe the world IS against you.  And it is okay to feel sad or overwhelmed or anxious or whatever.  Look at those farmers, they were weeping. But don’t stop planting that seed, building that tower, persevering through your act of Faith, because that is what lays the foundation for an outcome of joy.

***

Next week I’ll be reading about John the Baptist according to Matthew.  There’s three chapters where he is mentioned, so it’s perfect to round out the last full week of Advent.  These chapters are Matthew 3, 11, and 14, if you want to read along.

Malachi 04 – Privilege? White Privilege?

Turning our hearts to others and examining ourselves.

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Arrogant. Evildoer. Wicked.  This whole chapter is a warning to “those people.” But who are these people, exactly? I thought that perhaps knowing the original Hebrew words might help me gain a fuller understanding of what these undesirable traits might actually be, and how to avoid them.  I don’t know a lick of Hebrew, fortunately, I have Google and a plethora of results came back when I searched “Classical Hebrew Arrogant” and so forth.  My favorite new reference is a Hebrew word study site.  The layout is a little dated, but it had some great information on it. If you’re reading the Bible and wonder about a word, it’s a great place to check.

I’ll sum up my half hour of internet digging in a few sentences.  Arrogant pretty much means what we think of as arrogant. Wicked most directly refers to cheating, as in, a merchant who uses false balances. “Evil” has many translations in the Bible, and many of them mean “harm” more so than “bad.”  The example I liked best comes from a particularly long essay on the subject. It talked at length about the giving and receiving of “evil” names.  Basically it refers to slander, or a person trying to harm another’s reputation, not cast a spell upon them that would turn them evil.  Likewise an evil report can just mean bad tidings, not malicious misinformation. So what it boils down to is the arrogant, the wicked, and the evildoer are those who bring harm to others, either through false dealings, slander, or just plain bad behavior.

I started writing about how the evildoer and the wicked of the Bible are those who harm others, and how it is important to truly consider if someone is actually hurting others before condemning them (gay marriage critics, anyone? Sorry, couldn’t resist that jab).  But then I realized I need to take one more step back and examine how my actions might be harming someone, turning me into the arrogant, wicked evildoer.  One of the best, and hardest, pieces of Jesus’ teachings to follow is found in Matthew 7:5.  You’ve probably heard it: “You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.” In other words, study your own actions before you start seeing the fault in others.

Being in an interracial marriage with a husband vocal in social justice, I have a lot of conversations about white privilege, institutional racism, and implicit bias – all of which can be harmful phenomena.  They are uncomfortable topics for a lot of white people, including some of those closest to me.  I get it.  We all want to believe that we are “good people;” and living in a society that is invisibly structured to exclude certain members of that society makes us complicit to a crime we didn’t even know we were committing.  It’s jarring to realize this, and can make people defensive.  I like to think I’m pretty sensitive to these things, again, being married to someone who is both Black and Native and now being a mother to two mixed-race children.  But even from that close-up vantage point I have had to step back from time to time and reevaluate how I was reacting to things, how I was being part of the problem and not the solution.

Verse 4:6 tells us a prophet will come to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents.” This means we’ll be truly thinking of others, in tune with each other’s needs.  This is empathy! We already know what that is, we don’t need a prophet to start doing that, we can start now.  Sometimes that is easy – comforting a friend through sorrow feels natural, and doesn’t require a lot of self-examination.  Sometimes, though, we need to recognize when what we are doing (or not doing), may be harmful to others, even by proxy, and then see what we can do to change that.

My plea today is for you to join me in identifying your positions of privilege.  I don’t want you to feel guilty about it, but I do want you to identify it.  Perhaps you are white.  Perhaps you are wealthy.  Hell, perhaps you’re just middle class, that’s a privilege.  Perhaps you are able-bodied, and have health insurance through work, and don’t deal with mental illness.  You get the idea.  Again, don’t feel guilty about any privileges you may have, but do see where they may make you blind to those that don’t have them.  Let’s use an example from recent headlines.  There were two men, both fathers, accused of murder in separate incidents.  The white man was humanized, with news sources using his name, calling him a father in the headlines, and showing pictures of him with his family.  The black man was simply called an “Arizona man,” and his mugshot instead of any photos of him with his family were used.  Just through subtle differences in reporting, the white man was made to seem sympathetic while the black man was made to look criminal.  Now, I hope you are never accused of murder, but there are many small instances of our society all working in similar ways against people of color, and just like a dripping faucet, those instances add up.

If you feel yourself getting angry, flustered, or defensive right now, try to examine why. If there’s anything marriage has taught me, it is that often the most important time to reach out a hand for understanding is when you are angry: don’t fight the person, fight the problem. One time I read a post on Pantsuit Nation one time after the Women’s March.  A black woman had been belittled on the metro on her way to the rally.  Not by any counter-protesters, but by her fellow marchers.  She was angry, and hurt, and the pain came through very raw in her writing.  My immediate reaction was to jump in and say “not all white people are like that” and basically defend myself, separate myself from the others, listing off all my shining non-racist characteristics.  Many others had already done that.  But that would only make me feel better, and wasn’t what this woman needed to hear.  She needed the space to tell her story and be heard.  Some others commented as much, I decided just to “love” the post.  Just holding space for her was the best I could do, even if it was hard.  So I did it, and vowed to keep examining my own actions, learning where I can make changes so as to not contribute to racism, institutional or overt, and help shine light on where it still exists.

We’re going to mess up, we’re going to make new, sometimes painful, discoveries.  But the important thing is to keep going, keep searching, and keep “turning your heart” to those around you, and you will see God turn his heart to you in return.

***

Yay! A whole book down and Advent isn’t even over!  I’ll read Psalm 126 next and then find some passages on John the Baptist, since he was also sent to prepare the way for Jesus and seems like a fitting Advent figure.  I’m not sure which yet, I’ll let you know on Friday.

Malachi 03 – Tithing

Bringing God His toolbox.

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.

“I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

13 “You have spoken arrogantly against me,” says the Lord.

“Yet you ask, ‘What have we said against you?’

14 “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? 15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’”

16 Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name.

17 “On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. 18 And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

There are some really beautiful passages in here. I actually love the imagery of God as a refiner of silver and find it really hopeful instead of condemning.  Maybe the process won’t be pleasant, but if we go through God’s fire we come out silver on the other side.  Maybe even the worst of sinners can go through that fire and come out silver on the other side.  With faith, anything is possible.

But what I really want to talk about tithing, which is the focus of most of this chapter.  Done correctly, it is bringing a full 10% of the fruits of your labor (then grain, now money…usually) to God.  Usually to a church, but again, I think God sees our intention and if donating to a charity is more comfortable for you than donating to a church, I don’t think He would mind.  Finally, tithing is separate and apart from offerings, which are givings beyond the 10% tithe.

Is 10% a lot? I go back and forth on this.  Sometimes it seems like not so much, other times it really really does!  We’re on a tight budget, but even so, I could probably rearrange some spending to clear up 10%.  Somehow we seem to make do when we need to – we’ve shouldered whole new expenses with each kid, probably waaaaay more than 10%, doing the same thing we were doing before kids.  Sure, we would definitely hit a wall at some point, but I don’t think it’s only 10% away.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a great tithe-er.  I’ve done it extremely intermittently in my life.  In this chapter, God specifically says “test me in this, and see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing there will not be room enough to store it.” (3:11)  I’ll see as I keep reading, but I remember being told this is the only directive in which God challenges and permits us to test him.  So I’ve decided to try it.  Actually, I decided to try it two weeks ago when I read ahead a bit.  And I found the same thing was true then as in the past when I’ve started tithing.

I know some people will roll their eyes and others will just say it’s a coincidence, but  I really do believe God provides for us when it comes to tithing. He doesn’t want it to be a hardship.  Would you demand payment from your children if you know it meant them going hungry? Of course not.  Let me give you a few concrete examples from my own life:

Let’s start with my newest resolve to tithe.  Actually, let me back up, so you know what kind of money I’m talking about here.  While my husband and I run the farm together, our primary income, for now, is still my husband’s contract work as a software developer.  I don’t pull a paycheck.  What I do pull is a household allowance from Chris’ paycheck.  So I have $800 a month for groceries, dog food, diapers for two, gas, savings, and incidentals, for a family of four plus a farm manager (who lives in-house) and two dogs.  Like I said, we’re doing OK but there’s not a lot of extra wiggle room!  So, my tithe would be $80, or $40 per paycheck.

Getting back to tithing, I decided I wanted to start doing it again two weeks ago.  That day, I saw a friend in Charlottesville requesting donations through Venmo for help with refugees who were passing through the area.  This is a very boots on the ground movement, I don’t even know if it’s an official charity or organization, but I wanted to donate because I know how passionate this friend is when it comes to social justice and I knew the money would be well spent.  Now I haven’t used Venmo in forever, I didn’t even have the app installed on my new phone, which is now close to 6 months old.  But I vaguely remembered having $30 left in it, so I was going to donate that plus $10 more and call it my tithing for the pay period.  I installed Venmo, opened it up, and there was $70 in it.  I had forgotten that I hadn’t used all of my birthday money mom had sent me to cover babysitting.  So there was the whole $40 without any pinch in my budget.

Let me give you another example from two years ago.  Money was extra super tight then.  Like, pick which bills to pay tight.  But it was around Christmas and I was super pregnant and emotional and really wanted to do something tithe-y.  So I wrote a $40 check out to the Church that Sunday with a prayer and the resolve to eat a lot of ramen noodles.  Later that week I got a nice big reimbursement check from the insurance company for some medical expenses I had already paid, then they had renegotiated.

Another time, when we were moving, I was in tithing mode.  I was cleaning out some old old papers and found $100 I had stashed away in college as emergency money.  That covered two whole months tithing back then.

With those examples in mind, let’s talk about what this chapter – and that bit in chapter 2 about unblemished animals – is asking of us.  No one I know of is taking uncut bulls to donate to the church anymore, but I think the meaning is still pretty clear – God doesn’t want our cast-offs and leftovers.  As I said, he doesn’t want to unduly burden us, but he does want to see we’re making an effort.  If you were fixing the sink, and asked your (fully capable) child to bring you your toolbox, but they only come back with a few nails, would you be pleased? No. You’d send them back to do what they were supposed to do.  That is why God asks us for the full tithe.  He wants to see a good faith effort on our half.  He isn’t asking us to fix the sink, just to bring him the toolbox.  And he’ll reward us for our efforts.

Is tithing right for you?  I hope so. Let’s dream with some rough numbers.  The United States of America has a GDP of 19.39 trillion dollars.  That’s the value of all the goods and services produced, so it includes household incomes as well as corporate and business profits, but we’ll include it because a lot of businesses do charitable giving.  Just 10% of that would be 1.93 TRILLION dollars of charitable giving.  Right now the US as a whole (again, individuals and organizations) does a little over $390 billion, only twenty percent of the tithing possibility.  Can you imagine the good that would come from adding four times as much charitable giving? It’s not going to happen anytime soon, I know, but it can start to add up.  My $40 isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it is a beginning, small but good.