Friday, July 16, 2010

A Stark Satisfaction

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

To say or to pray the first line of Psalm 23 is fairly easy for those whose basic needs are met. While true poverty does exist in this country, “I shall not want” isn’t a stretch for most of us.

Our closets hold more clothes and shoes than we can wear; our kitchens are stocked with everything from prime rib to peanut butter; our homes are comfortable and some of us even manage to secure a second home for the weekends that’s every bit as comfortable as one we live during the week.

To be sure, we have our fantasies. Some call them dreams. I may enjoy thinking about a mountain house but I don’t “want” for one. You may see a car or a miter saw that you’d like to have, but you don’t feel deprivation in not having it. Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we shall not want. When we turn the lights out at night we do so knowing that we have what we need.

So here’s the question that leaves me uneasy: what if all of that were gone? Not merely reduced or downsized. Gone. Would we still pray the 23rd Psalm? Could we take the words “I shall not want” to our lips and speak them from the heart. The question confronts me when I eavesdrop on the prayer of another obscure prophet by the name of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk – little known and not often read. The book in our Bibles that bears his name is made up of three chapters. You can read it easily in one sitting (go ahead and do it now and find out for yourself). His name is thought to mean something like “house plant.” Not too impressive – but what a powerful messenger of God this man was.

Again, some background and context.

Habakkuk spoke for God at a time that preceded the drama we read about yesterday. His words were spoken to the people of Judah before the Babylonians showed up and made a mess of the nation and the temple in Jerusalem.

What seems to have been difficult for this prophet and for the people to whom he spoke was the fact that he saw what was coming. God gave Habakkuk a preview of where history was headed. Habakkuk lived in a time when the people of God were totally disinterested in God and defiant of God’s laws – his way for life. Habakkuk complained to God and questioned how long this miserable state of affairs would last. God’s answer was not encouraging. Things would get much worse before they got better.

To the prophet’s astonishment God was actively raising up the Babylonians. The exile of 587 B.C. was not history gone awry. It was the redemptive and purposeful work of God. A bitter pill, but good medicine. Once God lets Habakkuk in on how the story will unfold, the prophet prays – and he ends his prayer with these amazing words:

Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vine,
Though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
Though there are no sheep in the pen, and no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my savior (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Essentially Habakkuk is saying “I shall not want.” And his prayer is all the more noteworthy because he prays those words from stark barrenness. When a person who has things prays “I shall not want” the words sound nice. But when a person who is truly destitute prays “I shall not want” it is staggering. Is such a prayer really possible?

Such a prayer, as strange as it sounds, is possible for us. It is possible because it is grounded in God. The opening phrases of Psalm 23 are integrally connected. We shall not want because God is our shepherd. The not wanting is not the result of already having. Not wanting is the consequence of God’s shepherding love.

And an element of not wanting, of a satisfied and contented life, is joy. Like Habakkuk, we will be joyful in God – when the market is down, when unemployment figures rise, when bills begin to overwhelm, when no one seems to be able to stop the oil gushing from the floor of the gulf, even then.

We have a good shepherd. We shall not want. Thanks be to God.

This is the day that you have made, O Lord. We will rejoice and be glad in it. In all that it brings, in all that we experience, grant that we might be a joyful people. We would look to you as our joy and satisfaction – not the food in the kitchen or the clothes in the closet. With the prophet we pray the words "even though . . .” By your grace, we shall not want. Amen.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Satisfaction: Simple and Clear

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

There are days when I’ll write something only to read it the next morning when it comes back to my email box and say, “I wish I hadn’t written that.” That’s one of the occupational hazards of sending out daily meditations via email (or posting them on this blog). Luckily, there’s always a tomorrow that allows for clarifications, even retractions.

That’s what I’m doing today: clarifying. And the clarification has to do with this brief sentence from a previous post. “As for this day, don’t hesitate for one moment to pursue satisfaction.”

Now, I know what I meant by that statement. I stand by my original intent in writing the sentence. Satisfaction doesn’t mean a passive complacent way of doing life. It is good to be satisfied with God’s shepherding love, to say “I shall not want.” You get the idea.

My problem today is that I’ve revisited the opening chapter of the little book of Haggai. If you look for this book in your Bible you may need some help from the table of contents. The book is short, only two chapters. And it’s also fairly obscure. The prophet Haggai lacks the name recognition of some other Bible figures, say like Jonah or Paul.

Haggai’s voice has been a corrective to my own, and since his words were inspired in a way mine are not, he needs to be listened to carefully. What we hear from him is that the pursuit of satisfaction doesn’t yield satisfaction. Chasing contentment often stirs deeper discontentment.

Maybe a little background would be helpful at this point.

The city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. When the nation of Judah caved to Babylon two significant things were lost. First, the Davidic line of Kings came to an end. Second, the temple was destroyed.

The Babylonians carried many Jews into exile and this period of being a displaced people lasted for decades. Eventually the Persian Empire came along and defeated Babylon. King Cyrus of Persia had a different foreign policy with regard to the Jews. He allowed them to return home to Judah. He gave them permission to begin rebuilding what the Babylonians had ruined. That included the Temple.

Rebuilding was going to be hard work but the people took up the challenge with initial enthusiasm. But, as we might expect, over time they grew discouraged. Discouraged and distracted. Faced with the challenge of scratching out a living they stopped work on the temple. For about 17 years they didn’t lift a finger to rebuild God’s house. They took care of their own houses, but the temple was left to sit there is shambles. That’s when Haggai came along and basically got in their faces. Part of what he confronted them with was the frustration of their daily living. He told them:

You have planted much but have harvested little. You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but are not warm. You earn wages only to put them in a purse with holes in it. (Haggai 1:6)

The people were working themselves into the ground, trying to make a life in difficult times – and it was fruitless. They never had their fill. They never had enough. They were constantly wanting.

And the reason? Confused and disordered living. They had taken care of their own houses while God’s house remained a heap of rubble (1:3-4). Messed up priorities, no satisfaction.

While probably far better off than Haggai’s Jerusalem, our own economy has placed some heavy burdens on people. These are hard days, demanding more of us and seeming to reward us with less. Plenty of people understand this old prophet’s words. They plant much but harvest little. They’re never warm, never quite full, never satisfied. Their bank account has a leak somewhere.
The answer is not an intensified pursuit of satisfaction. The answer is to restore God to the center of life. Give attention to what matters most. Direct your energies to the spiritual core of your existence. That’s what the people of Judah had stopped doing. In the pressure of a weakened economy, we stop doing the same thing. And then we sense the nagging lack. We want.

We don’t find satisfaction by pursuing our own satisfaction. We find satisfaction by honoring God. It’s a matter of what we truly treasure and love. It’s simple. And now I hope it’s also clear.

Gracious God, we invite you back to the center of our lives today. As we go about the tasks of making a living and building a life, be at the center of all we do. And in all these things grant to us the contentment that comes with a life rightly ordered. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.