Clothed with Splendor and Majesty

by Rev. Nick Chambers

I remember first discovering Google Earth. I spent hours fascinated by its ability to scale seamlessly from cosmos to street corner. I looked up places I had lived, visited, or never seen before—both the spectacular and the lackluster, the crowded and the uninhabited. Even so, the quality and features of the tool have vastly improved over the years. While writing this, I have pulled it up and double-clicked until the screen was all green, then until a particular grey mass appeared in the midst of the green, until lines and colors emerged, until familiar road patterns came into view, then the corner of Peachtree and Spring, and finally until Peachtree’s courtyard filled the entire screen. I almost expected to see our gardener Mai walking back and forth, tending to all the greenery. 

Psalm 104 takes us a similar telescoping journey. The shape of it leaves no rock unturned. It surveys the skies, the land, the primordial forces and foundations of the earth. It treads the mountains and follows the rivers as they shape the landscape.

Then it begins to populate the scene: birds and trees, castle and grass. It moves into the dimension of time: the seasons, the gleaming and gloaming of days, the way they give rhythm to human work and economy.

This no mere catalog of scientific observations. It is an awestruck response to the creating and refreshing work of the Spirit in all things. At every level, the hand of God is present and providing. All the way from most massive to the most minute and mundane, there is care. And it all works as whole. The primordial force of water is wielded to feed and grow and move.

 Pray Psalm 104 today and throughout your week. Let it open your eyes to the things all around you everyday that speak of God’s care for creation. 


Seek the Lord And Live

by Rev. Nick Chambers

“Seek the Lord and live.” This refrain desperately echoes through Amos 5. The people of God has fallen into the have been blessed—but blinded—by prosperity and comfort. They are confident and secure. They have beautiful homes. Their crops are thriving, and their kids are in good schools. Even more than that, they remain good church-going folk; their piety is impeccable. But their wealth oppresses. They are so worried about maintaining their standard of living that they reject or ignore anything that poses a threat. Amos has things to say about this, as the prophets tend to. Seeking the Lord cannot be confined to formal worship; it spills out into the streets.

Amos warns them that if their religion does not care for the poor, it is deceitful and doomed. God cares so much more for justice than rituals, songs, and offerings that he is willing to consume his own house: “he will devour Beth-el ('the house of the Lord’)” (Amos 5:6). Consider for a moment that our beautiful sanctuary could fall to ruin or irrelevance if we do not seek the Lord and “establish justice at the gate.” (Amos 5:15).

Now to the Gospel. Here comes one seeking the Lord, seeking good. He doesn’t seem to be another skeptic trying to trap Jesus; he asks and answers with sincerity, and “Jesus, looking at him, loves him” (Mark 10:21). But then Jesus pierces the final barrier between this man and life that is true, good, and beautiful: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). He is blinded and bound by the things he possesses—or rather the things that possess him. Like Amos’s audience, he is impeccable in principle, but wealth has isolated him from the true treasure and source of life. The stakes are too high. He can’t surrender to such a life of insecurity.

This may sound more like preaching than prayerful reflection. But it may be the case that we need to allow the Word of God—“living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12)—to slice open not only our prayers but our pocketbooks—which is not too far a jump. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

 


Like a Tree Planted by Streams of Water

by Rev. Nick Chambers

This week’s psalm is of particular importance to me personally. They are some of the last words my late grandfather ever spoke. As I have actually shared in a previous reflection, my grandfather Jack was a remarkable man. Our son is named after him. Every morning he would get up early to run five miles and read Scripture and drink coffee out of a mug I swear was as large as a soup bowl. He was particularly a lover of the Psalms. I inherited a few of his Bibles, and throughout the Psalms, the pages are heavy with the red ink of his pen.

 

Because of a series of strokes, for the last few years of his life he could articulate little more than “yes” and “no.”  For a long time, he could still beat you in cards, but he couldn’t communicate. One beautiful gift, however, was that he could still sing hymns. His favorites that he knew by heart would come easily to his lips long after everyday speech would not. When Jack's health took a final turn, during the last couple days of his life, he was barely responsive. Their pastor visited him in hospice. He talked and prayed with my family, and he began to read Psalm 8, and Jack weakly but clearly began to recite it along with him.

 

“Like a tree planted by streams of water,” Jack’s soul was saturated in the psalms. Even when our bodies and brains rebel against us, certain storehouses can remain. I pray you memorize Psalm 8 this week. It is a song of wonder, humility, responsibility, and—as Hebrews reads it—of the lordship of Christ himself. 


Healing and Holiness

By Rev. Nick Chambers

If we read our passages carefully, we see that sin is depicted less as a violation of rigid rules and more as a sickness that spreads. Even for James, the lines blur between sin and sickness, and the answer to both is prayer: "The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” It is in this communal context of confession and forgiveness that James famously states "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Notice also Jesus’ final command: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

 

There is no separation between personal holiness and social holiness. Mark places Jesus’ body mutilation metaphor immediately after his millstone metaphor. This sickness spreads not only through the soul but through the society. One of the most tragic effects of my sin—and one of the most compelling reasons to confront it—is that it makes me a stumbling block to others. The sin in my hand and eye threatens the health of the rest of the Body of Christ. Temptation is therefore more than a private matter. It can happen deep within us but have drastic consequences outside us. And we need more than our own devices to discern and defeat sin within: for “who can discern their own errors?"

 

Imagining sin this way helps us to understand how the psalmist can sing so exuberantly about Law. Holiness does not mean austere insistence on letter of the law. Holiness means healing—for ourselves and our relationships. Pray the translation below of Psalm 19:7–14, taken from The Message. Let its different language awaken you to the true nature of God’s commands which heal and make whole. Pray then for discernment to see where and how temptation is making you sick with sin. As James urges us, confess your sin and ask forgiveness. As Jesus urges us, recognize the occasions and incentives that cause it. Resolve to cut it off, to tear it out—for sake of your health and the health of others.

The revelation of God is whole

    and pulls our lives together.

The signposts of God are clear

    and point out the right road.

The life-maps of God are right,

    showing the way to joy.

The directions of God are plain

    and easy on the eyes.

God’s reputation is twenty-four-carat gold,

    with a lifetime guarantee.

The decisions of God are accurate

    down to the nth degree.

God’s Word is better than a diamond,

    better than a diamond set between emeralds.

You’ll like it better than strawberries in spring,

    better than red, ripe strawberries.

There’s more: God’s Word warns us of danger

    and directs us to hidden treasure.

Otherwise how will we find our way?

    Or know when we play the fool?

Clean the slate, God, so we can start the day fresh!

    Keep me from stupid sins,

    from thinking I can take over your work;

Then I can start this day sun-washed,

    scrubbed clean of the grime of sin.

These are the words in my mouth;

    these are what I chew on and pray.

Accept them when I place them

    on the morning altar,

O God, my Altar-Rock,

    God, Priest-of-My-Altar.


Teach Us to Pray

by Rev. Nick Chambers

As in August the lectionary brought us bread, so in September, it brings us speech. Many of these weeks highlight the ethical and theological meaning of our use of language. This week focuses especially on what it means to teach.

 

All except the psalm strike fear and trembling into my own heart. Here I am writing a meditation called “Teach Us to Pray,” and James comes out of the gate with this: “Not many of you should become teachers…for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). Peter speaks an inspired insight, only to turn around and be called “Satan” by Jesus himself. Isaiah (and Christ by allegory) actually succeeds in hearing and speaking truth, only to be abused and insulted for it. Jesus teaches life through self-denial and death.

 

We must be taught before we teach. We must be silent before we speak. Even Jesus commands the disciples’ silence despite the truth of Peter’s confession. They still needed time. We must trust that “morning by morning, [God] wakens—wakens my ear to listen” (Isaiah 50:4). Then we can learn what this gift of speech is actually for: “to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4), to “call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:3), to “bless the Lord and Father” and “those who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9). Part of what it means to “deny ourselves” is to lay aside the opinions we so preciously cherish and share. To have the tongue of a teacher does not mean to command, instruct, or import ideas; it means to speak life to others.

 

As recommended a couple weeks ago, spend more time in silence this week. Take the first portion of every morning and simply listen. God wants to open your ears and challenge your assumptions. He wants to make your tongue a tool for blessing.