Saturday, May 12, 2012

psalm 120: Holy discontent and the journey Godwards (songs from the road part 1)

Seeing the Christian faith as a journey and the life following Jesus as being a pilgrim’s life has been part of Christianity since its conception. Jesus call to his first disciples is one of journeying ‘Come and Follow me’. In Luke’s account even before Jesus says these words he tells Peter and John and Andrew and James to go out into the deep and let down their nets. In Acts before we were known as Christians we were known as people of the way.

One of the oldest pieces of European literature is the Navigato of St Brendan, the story of an Irish monk who just may have discovered America 1000 years before Christopher Columbus, It’s an epic tale of adventure on the high sea as Brendan an Abbott and his monks sail in a Bullock hide coracle, to find paradise. AS well as being a ripping yarn it was used as a teaching story in monasteries all over Europe on spiritual disciplines that would sustain us for the faith journey.

John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ one of the most read pieces of fiction of all time, presents the Christian life allegorically as a journey, from the city of destruction, through the narrow gate, to the hill of Calvary and on onwards through trials and tribulations towards the celestial city. 

Likewise in our times CS Lewis used the wonderful fantastic journeys of the Pevencie children in Narnia to explore the Christian faith and life. Over the next five weeks we are going to explore that journey from the soundtrack that accompanied early pilgrims, like a playlist on their iPods or CD’s in the car stereo: Songs that come from an earlier understanding of the spiritual life as one of pilgrimage, from the book of Psalms.

The Jews before us were a pilgrim people. Abraham left Ur in Mesopotamia to follow God, with a promise of relationship, descendants with a land of their own.  He and his children and grandchildren never lived in that land. They saw themselves as wandering Arameans. There wandering lead them to Egypt, they were there for 400 years as guests then  salves.

With Moses God led them out of that captivity, through the wilderness to the promised land. The Old Testament always look back to this journey as a time of them becoming God’s people.

Later they would be sent off into exile and then after 70 years be bought back, and restored. Jews have since the time of round 70 AD lived as dispersed people all round the world, sojourners, looking for a return to their homeland. Even in their settled times in the land pilgrimages were part of their Spiritual life. All Jews were expected to go to one of the three big festivals in Jerusalem.

The Psalms of ascent, psalm 120-136 were seen as the dog eared song book from that journey. They reflected the journey to the temple, the journey to higher ground the journey back to relationship with God. They all come from different life settings but have been gathered together in this grouping. They are also known as the psalms of the steps and in the Talmud it is recorded that they were sung by pilgrims and priests one on each of the fifteen steps going up into the inner court of the temple.

For us today they are useful as ‘Songs for the Road’ as they speak to our own spiritual life as a pilgrimage in the midst of real life. In our world of instant answers, communication at the speed of light over fibre optics and the shrinking world of jet travel, where we can be somewhere far away in a matter of hours, it’s good to be reminded by these Songs from the Road that this journey of life following Jesus is not lived at hyper speed, a matter of giant leaps but at a pilgrims pace, small steps, walking with the spirit, day by day, step by step.

Psalm 120 is the first of the Psalms of ascent, it deals with the first step,  and it seems a strange place to start. It’s a psalm that Erik Routley calls  full of primitive crudity, it is a reflection of humanity, “ungarnished and even unedified humanity.” It starts in Verse 1and 2 with acknowledging that the psalmist has cried to the Lord in his distress and that God has answered. It goes on to talk of that distress, that he is surrounded by lying lips and the assurance that God will bring justice into that situation, the burning pain of their sharp tongues will lead to sharp arrows and burning coals . Finally we have a lament, a woe is me song, of being a person who desires and seek peace while living amongst the tents of people who only want war. The two tribes that are mentioned in this Psalm represent the northern and southern extent of the Baylonian empire, they represent both the extent of the exile of the jews in Babylon but also the Meshek to the north, on the shores of the black sea, were known for their military prowess and the Kedar were a nomadic tribe who lived in black tens to the south and were known for their ability as traders.  The Psalmist would have been used to the tents of the warriors journeying off to battle and the tents of the traders Journeying in the name if commerce, these were the pillars of the Babylonian empire. But the psalmist comes to see that the way they lived is a lie. He saw that their vision of life was different than his own.   If you’ll excuse the pun there is a dis-con-tent being stirred up in the psalmist’s heart, and as 20th century Industrialist David RothChild says “while necessity maybe the mother of all invention, discontent is the father of progress.”

For change to occur one of the key ingredients needed is discontent with the way things are now, without being stirred up, nothing much changes. You can want something like peace, but if you are happy with the way things are now then why put the effort and energy into change. Discontent provides that energy, things cannot go on this way they must change. Over the past three months I’ve lost 15kgs in weight I have a long way to go to lose the close to 30 kgs I put on over the past 3 years.. No its not because of  the stress of being here with you,  that is part of the positive changes in my life. What happened?  well I had simply believed the lie that I was alright, that despite being a diabetic that I was not doing myself any damage by eating all I wanted and not exercising, I was living in Egypt, I was living in denile. But as the Psalmist does I came to see that as a lie, my doctor had to give me a wakeup call. I became discontent with the way things were and it has motivated me to change.

 It is the same for the Christian life as well. The journey to higher ground, Godward starts with discontent for the way things are. The Christian word for this on-going change process is the word repentance, a turning round from going one way to going God’s way. It starts with discontent. Eugene Patterson puts it like this “A person has got to get fed up with the ways of this world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace”. We need to wake up to the lies we are being told and seek truth. In the film the matrix the main charter Neo meet a man called Morpheus who is able to articulate the disease he finds, he says that all his life he has felt that there is something wrong with the world, and Morpehus tells him that is the case, all he knows is a lie, the matrix has been set up to hold him captive, it is a prison for his mind. In what has become a much loved cinematic moment, Morpheus offers to show him reality, in light of this discontent he is offered two options, in the form of two pills, he can take the blue pill and wake up tomorrow and believe anything he wants. He can go back to sleep, or he can take the red pill, choose to change and with reference to Alice in wonderland… see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Like with all things in life discontent does not always lead to positive change. We live in a society that is very much like the tribes of Meshah and Kedar, we are constantly told that we need things, a certain level of prosperity and security, the tents of commerce and war, to be satisfied and to have the good life. We are encouraged to consumer to have more, to seek to better ourselves financially as an end goal for life. we are told that we must defend this standard of living. The security industry and the military are the growth industries. People who can afford to live in gated and walled enclosures and gated communities do. Simply wanting more isn’t a positive discontent its part of what Brian Mclaren calls the ‘suicide machine’ western society has constructed. We actually need a holy discontent to look to make positive changes , to start us on the journey Godwards.

While Psalm 120 finishes as a lament of discontent it starts by acknowledging that God answers prayers. It is as the psalmist experiences the goodness of God that he is able to start seeing the lies of the world order round him. In the pilgrims progress, Christian, becomes discontent with life in the city of destruction, he sees very much Mclaren’s suicide machine that the way of life there will led to judgment and destruction.  . But the discontent that leads him to want to flee that city does not come from himself. Rather the story starts with a dream. It is a holy discontent being stirred up.  Likewise for Brendan in his navigato, his journey starts as an old trusted college tells him of a journey he had made to the kingdom of God, that lay far over the horizon of the Atlantic, that stirred up a longing in Brendan for that far shore. 

Peace is at the heart of what the psalmist wants, the longing being stirred up in his heart, it is at the core of his Holy discontent again the word used is shalom, the wholeness that comes from right relationships: Right relationship with God, with each other, with those who are ‘the other, loving our enemies, with creation our environment, with man made things, our possessions.  This is a holy discontent.

That discontent not only causes us to leave the world and its evils behind, it also causes us to be prepared to leave behind the safety and familiarity of our comfort zones for the sake of following Jesus.  The wild goose was the symbol that the Celtic Christians has for the Holy Spirit. It’s not a biblical one, but it picked up Jesus metaphor for the Holy Spirit in John Chapter 3, where Jesus says ‘The wind blows where ever it pleases, you hear its sound but you cannot tell where it has been or where it is going, so it is with people born of the spirit’ The bird would migrate on the winds.’ In fact the first time we meet the holy Spirit in scripture it is as a wind disturbing the waters, in Genesis 1, as a prelude to God’s creative activity. For the Celts the Christian life was being willing to be stirred up and to journey following the wild Goose. It gives a whole new and wonderful meaning to the phrase a wild goose chase. The Celts had more than one form of martyrdom. There were the red martyrs who died for their faith. Again the word martyr means witness. There were also green and white martyrs, people who were willing to leave the comfort of home for the sake of the gospel. White martyrs would move to another place in Ireland seeking a place where they could encounter God and commit themselves to growing in that knowledge, and green martyrs would go from their homeland to do the same. They were seeking that closeness with God, that relationship, of course because of who they were they shared the good news of Jesus as they went and where they settled they founded places that were hubs and centres of hospitality, learning, healing and peace. The restlessness, the holy discontent called them to journey. It was a restlessness that resulted in them Christianising much of Europe.  

Brendan’s prayer as he sets sail from Ireland picks this up as he wrestles with leaving his beloved home. He talks of leaving only his knee prints on treh shore of his native land as he kneels to pray and confess his sins, and then to trusting himself into God’s hands on the high seas.

I said at the start that of this message that Psalm 120 is very human, very real very gritty, and while it’s easy to talk about holy discontent in the realms of literature and the almost romanticised Celtic spirituality,  the context we face is real life. Our real lives here and now.  It’s very tempting to simply take the blue pill, to live our Christian faith as Jesus sprinkles on top of western civilizations dreams. But I believe that God’s spirit is at work. God does not want us to simply settle for the way things are… rather that we should live as pilgrims, sojourners in this world following Jesus. So I want to finish not with words of comfort but some uncomfortable questions. Where is the wind of the spirit blowing in your life? Where is that holy discontent being stirred up in you?

And I want to finish with a prayer… A prayer of a voyager very much in the ilk of st Brendan but from a different age, it’s a prayer from Sir Francis Drake, a dangerous prayer. That starts disturb us O Lord.

Let’s prayer 

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,

When our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,

When we arrive safely because we sail too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when in the abundance of thing we possess

we have lost our thirst for the water of life...

Having fallen in love with life we have ceased to dream,

We have allowed our vision of a new heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,

To venture on wilder seas where storms will show your mastery,

Where losing sight of land we find the stars,

we ask you to push back the horizon of our hopes

And to push us into the future of strength courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our captain, who is Jesus Christ.

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