You Cannot Be Serious

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c – 5th Sunday after Epiphany – for February 5, 2012

“The Lord God builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.” (Psalm 147:2)

When or where, and from whom, did I first hear . . . I don’t read the Bible literally, but I take it seriously?

A mentor? Perhaps. Was it a gem discovered in a now-recycled magazine article? Could’ve been. Did a renowned theologian first tease me with these words? Possible. This I’m confident about: I’ve quoted it since Jimmy Carter sat in the Oval Office, wondering why no one liked him anymore. Therefore, before the easily plucked quotations from the digital realms of Google and Wikipedia, I offered this simple, and oh so true, sentence to readers and listeners.

At least it’s oh so true for me.

While studying a few verses of Psalm 147 the other day, I kept hearing I-don’t-read-the-Bible-literally… nudge my consciousness. Nudge? Actually it felt more like tennis great John McEnroe infamously shouting, “You cannot be serious!”

He heals the brokenhearted… (Ps. 147:3). If that’s true, then why do so many of the people I call for hospice weep, sound anguished, speak with voices as if worn out by shouting in a storm?

He determines the number of stars… (Ps. 147:4). Please. In Biblical times they thought the sky was a fixed dome, and the sun moved just above the clouds each day. It’s the Bible that claims Joshua made the sun stand still (Joshua 10). So pardon me if I don’t equate ancient theological metaphors with modern astronomy.

The Lord lifts up the downtrodden… (Ps. 147:6). Can the good Lord please talk some sense into those forlorn homeless men at the corner of Fresno’s Blackstone and Herndon who brandish signs like: I’m a vetran and hongry, pleas help me? They appear permanently downtrodden.

There are other upbeat promises and platitudinous pablum in Psalm 147, so I’ll let you choose your own to be incredulous about. Or, because my views may not be oh so true for you, you can debate or debunk my feeble (un)beliefs.

Psalms 147 is not the only “problem.” The Bible’s chock-full of stumbling blocks and John McEnroe situations.

Such as, can any modern reader study the Bible and not be unsettled with its treatment of women? When scripture was written, women—all women—were property. Find me a verse empowering women and I’ll find you 10 or 100 belittling them.

Such as, we just survived another Christmas season—or what I sometimes call The Curse of Matthew’s Magi. How many places are the wise men from the east mentioned in the Gospels? One: Matthew.

What if, instead of Matthew 2:11 reading, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh . . .

It instead proclaimed, they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their hearts, they offered him gifts of trust, joy, and love.

Be gone Black Friday! No presents under the tree! No staggering credit card debts at year’s end!

As a young pastor I preached on the magi’s gifts, trying to wow my congregation with the Bible’s real meaning. Those items, I proclaimed, were not pricey things to offer the child of Bethlehem, but priceless symbols for understanding Jesus who became Christ. Gold was a royal gift—Jesus would be a “king.” Priests used frankincense—Jesus would become “priest-like.” The dead were prepared for burial with myrrh—Jesus the royal priest would experience death before life again!

Yes, I preached the real meanings. Often, you can’t take the Bible seriously at its surface level. You must understand the complex metaphors and symbols if you are an honest believer. You have to learn to ignore the platitudinous pablum of some verses if you’re serious about your faith.

And yet what I didn’t realize as a young preacher, oh so long ago, was that my congregation (how blessed, gulp, they were to have well-educated, insightful me) had already heard all the what-ifs from a score or more of past pastors. I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to admonish them to perceive the truth of the magi’s gifts or to question the veracity of the Psalms’ abundant promises.

Now I know I don’t know much. Still, I don’t take the Bible literally. Some of the Psalms—certainly 147 is one—sound like snappy, upbeat slogans for Yahweh. Not all, though. In the Psalms, and throughout sacred scripture, bad astronomy mixes with breathtaking hope. A day after reading Psalm 147, I read Isaiah 40’s they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint. Isn’t that also “cheerleading” for God? Yes, but—for me—it’s also language inspiring my day-to-day faith.

I take the Bible seriously. If you’ve read this blog before, you know a small slice my time includes making hospice phone calls to “the brokenhearted.” Does God immediately heal those feeling the sword-piercing-the-heart pain of a loved one’s death? No. Not immediately. And more than a few may never know solace after devastating loss.

Still, I call.

Why? Because, in spite of sometimes not being able to keep a smile off my face when I read the Psalms—the upbeat or the downbeat ones—they are serious invitations for me to be God’s voice, hands and ears. Some of them cause me to roll my eyes. All of them demand I keep my eyes open to the opportunities God gifts to me.

Today, before or after you read this, you will have an opportunity to feed, clothe, shelter, embrace, challenge, listen and cheerlead another person. You will. Do it because of, or even in spite of, the Psalmist’s laugh-out-loud optimism.

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  1. Larry, as is becoming a theme with your weekly blog, the timing of this one hit home – again.
    Yeah, I roll my eyes sometimes, and other times I try find ways to stop my ears from bleeding after my inner voice reads aloud a passage that I just don’t get. I’m sure you’ve been tasked – more than once – with the pleasure of trying to explain one of these passages to a group of teenagers who are looking at you for some kind of advice on how to interpret them (and parents who are praying you can make some sense out of it so they don’t have to).
    But this week I found myself asking “Why?” I should’ve learned a while ago to stop this questioning, but I’m still human…
    Later today, my wife and I will be visiting the home of Kim’s family. Her son is in my youth group and my wife teaches him Sunday school. Kim’s other child is severely handicapped. Kim’s husband left a job as a teacher so he could work nights and take care of this child during the day – when Kim was at work.
    Kim died yesterday morning after battle with cancer; her husband called me at 5:00am. She went into the hospital a couple of weeks before Christmas. During her time in the hospital I tried my best to comfort her son and husband, and I visited her (not enough, to be honest with you – and whoever reads this…). Nothing made sense to her son. His question of “Why?” bled into my question of “Why?”
    And in a little while my wife and I will go and attempt to be that voice you spoke of, to be the hands you mentioned, to be the ears you wrote about. In the angst leading up to this moment, In didn’t know where to turn for some kind of advice – for some comfort before I even attempt to be a comfort for others.
    And I read this. I’ll go; my wife and I will visit because of the opportunity to do so. And it will now be because of a certain optimism – a truth told by a psalmist who had to know at some time in history his words would be questioned by folks like you and me. And yet (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!), he wrote. That kind of optimism is what kept John McEnroe playing as hard as he did, and it’s that kind of optimism that will allow me to call on Kim’s family this afternoon.
    And if you asked me earlier today if I would’ve found the inspiration I needed in a blog echoing a certain tennis player, I would’ve said: “You cannot be serious!”
    Thank you, Larry!

    1. Wow, Rusty. I say that quietly, humbly and truthfully. Thanks for sharing about Kim and her family . . . about your struggles and your actions. I’ll keep you within my prayers. Simply, thanks for your work, your ministry!

  2. It’s a question I’m certainly struggling with; thank you for letting me know I am not alone. Personally I hold as absolutely true (for me) Psalm 116; I guess we can all find something we can say with utter belief somewhere.

    A friend at church gave me a DVD called ‘dream heart’ which includes a series of lectures; the first of which (on fundamentalism) argues the case for saying ‘I don’t know!’ Because when we think we have all the answers… we’re usually wrong. Well I know I don’t (have the answers). And I’m trying to interpret the myth because that which is behind the myth is TRUE but the interpretation is sometimes difficult and veiled by culture, language and yes, maybe even gender… I can’t really explain 1 Tim 2:12 to myself in a way that makes me understand or believe it. But we struggle on.


    1. You are so right . . . Psalm 116 is worth taking seriously, literally and gratefully!

      Thanks for your comments, Ruth. I suspect one of the ways I’ve most frequently gotten myself in trouble is when I claim to know, when I’m Mr. Right. Better to remember . . . I’m not so sure, what do you think, believe, wonder. And then–though tough for me–to listen.

  3. Couldn’t agree more with your sentiment. Thank you for sharing it.

    Was reading Nan C. Merrill’s adaptation of Psalm 147 (from her book, Psalms for Praying) this week in preparation for preaching. Her take on how God reaches out to the wounded, downtrodden caught my attention in an insightful and challenging way…as did your own comments.

    …Through Love we are sent to the brokenhearted,
    a mutual balm to the soul.
    We seek out the downtrodden,
    those without shelter or food,
    recognizing our own poverty with them.
    Those in prison also await willing hearts to visit them,
    that forgiveness might free all from bondage….

    1. Thanks, Lisa. And also thanks for the Nan C. Merrill poem. Since I hadn’t heard of her (so many writers, so little time!) I will have to look her up. Take care!

  4. Makes me think of all the posters and things we see now that say “Really!?!?!” That response can reach a whole range of emotions from good to bad or sad and everything in between. It just depends on where you are on your journey in life. The first three funerals I officiated at were for elderly people, that I had just visited in nursing homes for the first time. I got to a point I didn’t want to go visiting. But we do what we need to do, comfort those that need comforting with words or actions or both. But we do question why. The why? The really? There are many kinds of brokenhearted in this world. I’m a widow, and even though I knew for several years my husband had a terminal illness, I still didn’t deal with the personal situation well. The broken hearted do eventually heal, God lifts us as many times as there are stars (countless), and only God knows how many times that will be. Thank you yet again for putting ideas and ramblings into my head for me to ponder on my faith journey.

    1. Interesting…my first five funerals were either very elderly or strangers who called the church wanting “any pastor.” I too struggled with visiting. Early experiences can shape us, rattle us . . . but fortunately I had a lot of kind mentors. Thanks for sharing your words and journey, Nancy.

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