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Of Conflicts, Contending, And A Crown

 

Psalm 13

 

When I was a youngster I began reading the psalms simply because I had been told it would do me good to read them. I had been told that the psalms were the prayerbook of the bible, it was important that I learn to pray rightly, praying rightly would do much to render me godly, and therefore any one who aspired to godliness would steep himself in the psalms. I believed then that what I had been told was true. I believe it now. I read the psalms every day.

When I first read the psalms, however, I was disturbed: the psalmist spoke of his enemies so very often that I wondered if the fellow weren’t paranoid. What’s more, he called down God’s wrath on his enemies so often that I wondered if he weren’t vindictive. I didn’t think I was going to be rendered godly by taking to heart someone who seemed both paranoid and vindictive, and so I left off reading the psalms. I returned to them only when I was acquainted with two facts which I must impress upon you this morning. One, everywhere in the Hebrew bible where God’s judgement is invoked upon our enemies it is recognized that our enemies are ours only because they are first God’s enemies. In other words, our true enemies are not those who irk us or dislike us; the true enemies of God’s people are the enemies of God himself. They are first of all enemies of God’s truth, God’s purpose, God’s way, God’s faithfulness, patience and steadfast love. Two, everywhere in the Hebrew bible where God’s judgement is invoked upon enemies, what underlies the invocation isn’t mean-spirited vindictiveness, but rather a plea for God to vindicate his own name; a plea for God to act so as to clear his own name of the slander which God’s enemies have heaped upon it.

As soon as I had these two facts straight the psalms (and indeed the older testament as a whole) came alive for me as never before. I read it with renewed enthusiasm and relish and profit. I continue to aspire to godliness. If you are authentic in your Christian profession then you aspire to it too. Then it behooves all of us to return to the psalms again and again that they might be imprinted upon us indelibly. Today we are going to look at psalm 13.

I: — “How long, O Lord?”, the psalmist asks four times over in two verses. “How long do I have to wait? How long before you act? How long must pain and sorrow torment me?” What is the psalmist’s problem, anyway? Why is he so upset? “How long shall my enemies be exalted over me?” His problem is that his enemies, arrogant, puffed-up swaggerers, are gloating over him. They are snickering at him, bragging of the humiliation they have forced upon him, smirking at the anguish they have thrust upon him. Not only have they made him suffer, they have enjoyed making him suffer, and they are proud of it.

Remember, however, that the psalmist’s enemies are his enemies only because they are first God’s enemies. The psalmist is most upset not because he has been visited with contempt, but because God has. The psalmist’s upset merely reflects the distress which afflicts the heart of God.

Nonetheless, the psalmist himself is in pain; his enemies, while certainly God’s first, are still the psalmist’s. In fact, so upset is he that he cries, “How long?”, three more times. “How long am I to be stuck with this ache in my gut? How long will you, O Lord, hide your face from me? How long are you going to forget me?”

One reason I love the psalms is that I know the predicament of every Christian to be reflected in them. To be a Christian is to be surrounded with the enemies of our Lord himself. To be a Christian is to be immersed in conflict.

One of the saccharine myths which the church, ignorant of scripture, has foisted on Jesus, is the myth that wherever he went people became agreeable. I regularly receive denominational literature which tells me (incorrectly) that because Jesus is the reconciler, his word and deed invariably reconcile people. No! Jesus is the reconciler, and therefore his word and deed reconcile repentant sinners to God. Our Lord does not reconcile the unrepentant; his word and deed harden the unrepentant, harden them in their enmity to God. Our Lord does not, he cannot, reconcile sin and righteousness, depravity and godliness, the evil one and the Holy One of Israel. These are not reconciled; they can’t be.

Before our Lord reconciles anyone to God he is the agitator who overturns everything. He is born in Bethlehem, a nondescript suburb of Jerusalem, and King Herod slays every male infant he can find. He begins his public ministry by submitting to baptism at the hands of his cousin John, and John is executed. (This fact alone should make Joan Adams and me nervous about baptizing anyone!) He preaches in Capernaum and the people want to throw him over a cliff. He travels to Jerusalem and the ecclesiastical bureaucracy plots his demise. Finally he is betrayed by someone belonging to the most intimate circle of his followers. All of this I read in scripture. Yet the most recent document our denomination has published on scripture maintains that everywhere Jesus goes everyone becomes agreeable. In John’s gospel, several times over, after Jesus has spoken or acted, we are told, “The people were divided”. Before Jesus reconciles he fosters division, for he must first expose the enemies of God. Someone with no previous scriptural familiarity would see this upon first reading. The why can’t the church? Because a saccharine myth has obscured the truth of God.

The psalmist knows that to come to a knowledge of the truth and to be added to the people of God is to find God’s enemies our enemies. In short, to love God is to be immersed in conflict.

Several weeks ago I was asked to speak to a grade 7/8 class in an elementary school of the Toronto Board of Education. In the classroom there was a large poster (3 feet by 2 feet) immediately beside the blackboard. When students looked at the blackboard they couldn’t help seeing the poster. The poster had to do with health matters. In huge letters it urged students, “B.Y.O.C.” — and underneath the translation, “Bring Your Own Condom”. Let us make no mistake. In any communication there is, of course, the explicit message; in addition there are scores of implicit messages. Explicitly the poster merely said, “Bring Your Own Condom”. Implicitly, however, the poster poured out scores of messages concerning sexual activity, and its relation (non-relation) to human intimacy. (It is quite plain that those who approved the poster for the grade 7 classroom see no connection at all between sexual activity and human intimacy.) Another of the many implicit messages is that promiscuity is just fine; it’s only disease that’s bad. The scores of implicit messages which the poster sends out; every last one of them contradicts what Christians believe about human intimacy and the manner in which sexual activity subserves it. The gospel informs us that marriage, the fusion of husband and wife, is like a tree graft: each component of the graft grows into the other so as to form a union which is finally indescribable. Moreover, as this union develops and matures and bears fruit, the intensified union itself is the fruit which results from the tree-graft. All of this is denied by the implicit messages emanating from the poster.

I asked the teacher if the classroom where I was to speak were the regular classroom of the grade 7s and 8s or merely a classroom where my address was to be heard. She told me it was the regular classroom of the 7s and 8s. In the same instant I realized how bizarre my question was, for if it weren’t the regular classroom of the 7s and 8s it would have to be the regular classroom of a lower grade!

Now the teacher or parent who objects to the poster is going to be plunged into conflict instantly. Not to object, however, is to submerge one’s convictions. To object, on the other hand, will bring down the accusation of prudery, narrowness, naiveness, even the accusation of being quarrelsome and prickly. Nonsense. To object does not mean that we are argumentative or quarrelsome; it doesn’t mean that we are ornery and obnoxious and hard-to-get-along-with. To object, from a Christian perspective, means that we will not deny our Lord; we will not say of our only Saviour and hope, “I don’t know him now and never have”. To object, from a social perspective, means that we will not allow or encourage a tail to wag the dog. To object, from an educational perspective, means that we have identified some aspects of the offerings of the Toronto Board of Education to be delusive and dangerous. But let me say something important once more: to object would not mean that we were petty, petulant, or prickly. It would not mean that we were going out of our way stir up trouble. But it would most certainly plunge us into conflict.

Think of PATHWAY COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENTS, our affordable housing organization. (Marion Hartley, Gordon Hird and I are officers of it.) Last year, when we applied for a building permit (having already complied with all municipal regulations), we were besieged by neighbours who went on the warpath in an attempt at having us denied a building permit. Several of us went to an ugly meeting at Mississauga City Hall which lasted six hours. At that meeting the people whom we were trying to house, people who have the misfortune of not earning as much money as the neighbours on the warpath; these people were visited with slander and contempt. The median household income in our building (and of course a household can have — frequently does have — more than one wage-earner); the median household income is $21654 per year. As if it weren’t struggle enough to raise a family on $21600 per year, the strugglers have to be visited with slander and contempt. And so we met for six hours of nasty conflict. Should we have avoided the conflict? Ask the 35-year old blind student from Erindale College who, together with his seeing-eye dog, lives in Forest Ridge now, no longer having to sit on the bus for fours per day as he had to before. Should we have avoided the conflict? Ask the women who were originally among the nasty neighbours decrying the project and who found themselves desperate for housing eight months later when their husbands left them (and their children) for Miss Twitchy-Bottom at the office. While you are at it you should ask God himself, for in the person of his Son he has known what it is to be without accommodation. Not to have objected would not have meant that we are possessed of the virtue of agreeableness; it would have meant that we are polluted with the sin of cowardice.

I am president of The Peel Mental Health Housing Coalition and chairman of its board of directors. This organization attempts to procure housing for people who are chronically mentally ill. The Peel District Health Council has commissioned the Mental Health Housing Coalition to oversee the delivery of adequate housing for all mentally ill persons in the region of Peel. One aspect of the Housing Coalition’s mandate is dealing with community resistance. In view of the resistance which appeared last year concerning housing for the disadvantaged, can you imagine the resistance which will boil up concerning housing for the deranged? It is inconceivable that I “duck” it, for to avoid the conflict would only be to betray defenceless people, defenceless people whom God does not betray.

Most United Church people have been told from age three that Jesus is nice, and therefore all good Christian people should be nice too. When the theological betrayals first came upon our denomination a few years ago (theological betrayals, we should note, with consequences far beyond theology) our people quickly saw that to stand up for what they knew in their head and heart to be right would entail conflict. But Christians, they thought mistakenly, are conciliators, not contenders. And so across the country they largely capitulated, and one more tail — an unrighteous tail — was allowed to wag the dog. The terrible mistake by which they were victimized, the critical hinge on which everything turns in this pseudo-Christian view, is just this: Jesus isn’t nice. Our Lord is many things, but he is not nice!

The psalmist is not surrounded by enemies because he himself has gone out of his way to antagonize people, nor because he has a prickly, belligerent personality. He is surrounded by enemies inasmuch as God has drawn him into God’s own way and wisdom and truth, and once drawn into God’s life, he finds that God has enemies without number who are now his enemies too. The psalmist has learned that to remain faithful to the Holy One who cannot be deflected from his own righteousness is to be plunged into ceaseless conflict.

It’s easy to understand this with our head. But understanding it with our head makes it no easier for our heart to endure. For God’s enemies, now become ours, gloat; they taunt, they strut, they ridicule, they misrepresent, they disdain, they lie. Before long we are crying with the psalmist, “How long is this going to last? How long am I going to be in pain? How long are you going to hide your face from me? It seems that you have forgotten me!” What happens next?

II: — We do what the psalmist did. He prayed. I don’t mean that he folded his hands and said prettily, “Dear saccharine One, help me to be saccharine too!”. When I say he prayed I mean he shouted at God, “Consider me! Answer me! Aid me! But don’t leave me stumbling around punch-drunk! Don’t leave me in the dark so that my enemies taunt me all the more, ‘Not only is he a fool, he is a God-forsaken fool!'”

“Consider me! Answer me! Do something!” These are not dainty requests; these are imperatives. But isn’t it more than a little inappropriate, even more than a little dangerous, to be addressing God this way? No! Everywhere in scripture to pray is to wrestle with God, strive with God. Jacob wrestling through the night; so intense is his struggle, so concrete, so real, that he thinks he is wrestling with another human being. In the morning, exhausted, he learns he has been struggling with God. So intense was his struggle that he will hobble the rest of his life; as a sign of this, his name will be changed for the rest of his life, from Jacob (“deceiver”) to Israel (“he who struggles with God”). Hannah pleading with God so ardently, so intently, so unselfconsciously, that she is unaware of anything else, anyone else. She appears to be intoxicated. Eli, a priest, says to her, “Woman, you are drunk. Put the cork back in the bottle”. Hannah replies, “I am not drunk. I am a woman sorely troubled. I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord”.

Our Israelite foreparents no more thought prayer should be pretty than they thought Jesus to be nice. Think of our Lord in Gethsemane. The English text tells us that Jesus “knelt” in the garden. Ever after we have seen pictures of Jesus kneeling beside a flat-topped rock, hands folded serenely. The Greek text, however, uses a verb-tense that tells us Jesus fell to his knees, got up, fell down again, over and over, like someone beside himself. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus that when he prays for them he says, “I bow my knees”. He doesn’t mean that he kneels down to pray (Jews always stand up to pray); he means that his knees give out, so intense is his intercession.

One of the words the New Testament uses to describe prayer is AGONIZESTHAI. (Obviously the English word, “agonize”, is a derivative.) AGONIZESTHAI means to contend with the utmost exertion, to strive without letup, to wrestle without reserve. This is what it is to pray.

And this is what we do when conflict abounds and enemies gloat. We cry to God, “Consider me! Answer me! Aid me! But don’t fall asleep on me or I will sleep the sleep of death while my enemies rejoice over me. For then they will think they have triumphed over you!”

III: — There remains one matter to be probed: how do people find it in them to cry to God like this? How do people find it in them to contend with enemies and keep on contending? The psalmist tells us: “I have trusted in God’s steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in God’s salvation. I will sing to him, for he has dealt bountifully with me”.

All of this the psalmist puts at the end of psalm 13 by way of explaining how he can contend with enemies and cry to God day after day. While he puts it at the end of psalm 13, logically it comes at the beginning. It comes first inasmuch as it is the ground of everything the psalmist does.

I want to tell you today that God has dealt bountifully with me. After all, I am a sinner who merits nothing from God, nothing, that is, apart from condemnation. Yet in his Son God has made provision for me and by his Spirit he has made that provision mine. If this afternoon the most hideous thing befalls me it will still be the case that God has dealt bountifully with me. Of his incomprehensible mercy he has quickened in me that faith by which I am bound to him eternally. Then how could I ever say, regardless of what befalls me, that he has dealt miserably with me? How could I ever say that I have been shortchanged? People are shortchanged — anywhere in life — when they don’t get what they feel they are entitled to. But such is God’s steadfast love for me that he has poured out on me everything I don’t deserve (that salvation in which I rejoice) while sparing me everything that I do. Then how could I ever capitulate in those conflicts which are his first? Since he has dealt so bountifully with me as to save me, I owe him everything. Owing him everything, I owe him that faithfulness which but dimly reflects his faithfulness to me.

As surely as God has dealt bountifully with us he will continue to deal bountifully with us. Therefore we shall continue to trust in his steadfast love and rejoice in his salvation. Which is to say, we know that as often as our enemies harass us and we are driven to cry to God, he will hear us when we shout, “How long?” More than this, God will hasten the day when, in the words of psalm 110, God makes his enemies his footstool. On that day his enemies will vanish for ever, and therefore ours as well. Having trusted in his steadfast love, and rejoicing in his salvation, we shall glorify him for ever and ever.

The apostle James tells us that to remain faithful in the midst of conflict is to be honoured with that crown which God has promised to all who love him.

 

                                                                        Victor A. Shepherd

June, 1992