Eager Anticipation

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part –Tom Petty

Every year some celebrity dies, and though we have no personal relationship with theses artists or actors, we feel a connection to them through their body of work. So, I was sad to hear of Tom Petty’s death this year. The Heartbreakers were integral to my life’s soundtrack. I went Freefallin’ from middle school into high school. I’ve tried to best my 10k time while Running Down a Dream. I have imagined vocational opportunities through Into the Great Wide Open, chided my kids with the chorus of Yer So Bad, sang along to Don’t Come Around Here No More in the face of a bad break-up, and celebrated my own identity and becoming with songs like Learning to Fly, and You Don’t Know How it Feels (to be me). And more. When I first picked up my guitar, in earnest, Tom Petty songs were among the first songs I learned to play.

It is Tom Petty’s The Waiting which captures, for me, the eager anticipation of Advent. The verses describe the happiness and elation of the moment, “Oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now/ Don’t it feel like something from a dream/ Yeah I’ve never known nothing quite like this/ Don’t it feel like tonight might never be again,” and the chorus declares, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

As I read Petty’s lyrics, I think he is describing a longing to be reunited with the one you love, but certainly we have all experienced the existential angst of waiting. We feel this in pre-performance butterflies, on sleeplessness nights before our wedding days, hope for the birth of a child, or before job interviews. We are excited about what lies ahead, and find it hard to just be in the moment.

The Psalmist cry, “How long?” has something of The Waiting eagerness in it, even if it feels a little bit angstier. The Hebrew poets, lamented the state of things in their world, their personal experience and their nation.  They looked honestly at how hard things were, but dared to hope that God’s deliverance lay ahead. Psalm 13 captures this dissatisfaction with what is, but hopeful longing for God’s future action:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

The Waiting is the hardest part, and this is especially true as we wait through feelings of alienation, sorrow, defeat and failure.

Other psalms decry ongoing injustices, the triumph of the wicked, and oppression of the poor and marginalized. All in the strong hope that God will act, God will be salvation, God will deliver, restore, heal. It is hard to wait, but Jesus is coming and there is hope.

Don’t let it kill you baby, don’t let it get to you
Don’t let ’em kill you baby, don’t let ’em get to you
I’ll be your breathing heart, I’ll be your crying fool
Don’t let this go to far, don’t let it get to you

The Waiting is the hardest part.

What are you waiting for? What are you waiting through? What brings you hope? 

Shalom in Psalms: a book review

Shalom in Psalms is a sort of devotional commentary. The words to each psalm are printed out, from the Tree of Life Version ( a Messianic Jewish translation from the Jewish Family Bible Society), followed by a brief devotional reflection. These are generally two or three pages long, though a short psalm like Psalm 117, only warrants a paragraph and a long psalm like Psalm 119 has 9 pages of devotional notes. The authors comment on the text, make canonical connections with Torah and to Jesus the Messiah, and to the contemporary Messianic community.

9781493406456The three authors, Jeffery Seif, Glenn Blank and Paul Wilbur take turns writing the reflections for each psalm (often Seif or Blank, with some Wilbur).  The three men bring together linguistic scholarship, pastoral concern, and insight into worship. Wilbur is an artist and worship leader. Blank is a pastor, the Rabbi of Beit Simcha in Allentown, and a  Bible translator. Seif is the project manager for the Messianic Jewish Family Bible Project.

There is a lot to like about this book. The translation and notes are designed to reflect both the Jewish particularity of the Psalms and to highlight ways that the text points forward to Jesus the Messiah. They handle the text and the various genres well (i.e. lament psalms, psalms of praise, royal psalms, psalms of thanksgiving, wisdom psalms). They deal difficult themes (like the baby bashing in Psalm 137) with pastoral sensitivity. The explore the setting of life in the Psalms and draw connections to today. Wilbur especially shares stories from his songwriting and the worshipping community.

As a devotional commentary, this is pretty good. The Bible nerd in me wishes they discussed their translation method and their text-critical decisions for particular verses (i.e. ‘kiss the son’ or ‘kiss his feet’ in Psalm 2:12 is one text critical passage where modern translations are divided. The TLV follows the BHS with ‘kiss the Son’ but it would be fun to see how they weigh the textual evidence).  I realize this is a devotional pitched at non-scholars so text criticism is outside of their purview. But with the TNV translation, some textual notes would be a nice addition.

This is a nice devotional to delve deeper into the world of the psalms and what they have to teach us about the life of prayer (from a Jewish Christian perspective). I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Praying the Psalms Toward Easter: a book review

It is through the psalmists’ syntax, imagery, and bold cries that we learn to pray. With laments and petitions and songs of thanksgiving and gratitude, the Psalms name dimensions of the spiritual life. My devotional life has been enriched by praying psalms. After all, Psalms is the prayer book of the church and source of Jesus’ own prayers.  according-to-your-mercy

 According to Your Mercy by Martin Shannon, CJ is a Lenten devotional with daily readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Shannon, is an Episcopal priest, liturgist, author and member of the Community of Jesus on Cape Cod, MA. In each of the forty-seven daily readings,  Shannon offers a brief commentary, a quotation from one of the Church Fathers, and a short poetic, prayerful response to the daily psalm. While the entries follow the Lenten calendar, most of the psalms he uses aren’t placed in a particular order (with the exception the psalms for Holy Week). “They are simply a collection of prayers that reflect various twists and turns on the Lenten Journey.  As a season of penitence, Lent lends itself to such meandering for, when all is said and done, we know where we will end up” (introduction, xi).

The first reading begins with Psalm 121 (“I lift my eyes unto the mountains? Where does my help come from?), reflecting on the pilgrims’ journey to Jerusalem (one of the Songs of Ascent). A quotation from Augustine reflects on the promise of Divine protection. The selection of other Church Fathers cited includes saints from the third to eighth centuries, both East and West. Paraclete

I am excited to delve into this devotional. Shannon is a thoughtful reader of the Psalms and his selections, reflections and quotations seem well suited for Lent. The book shall be my companion in the days ahead.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

A Commentary on the Psalms: a book review

I’m enthusiastic about the Kregel Exegetical Library.  I have read several volumes from the series and have been impressed by its depth and its usefulness for expository preaching. The first volume I ever read, was Allen Ross’s A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1, which in addition to providing solid commentary and textual notes for book one of the Psalms, also provided a superb introduction to Psalm’s literary genres and Hebrew poetics.  In Volume 2, Ross explored books two and three of the Psalms. With A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 3 Ross completes his journey through the Psalter, this time exploring books four and five (Ps 90-150).

9780825426667I have been eagerly anticipating this volume. This last third of the Psalm’s have some of my favorite Psalms. I love Moses’ communal lament in Psalms 90, the assurance of divine protection in Psalms 91, the joyous praise of Psalm 100, the lengthy meditation on God’s law in Psalm 119, and Psalms of Ascent, the comprehensiveness of God’s plan in Psalm 139, and the way lament is swallowed up by praise in the concluding five psalms. These are Psalms I turn to, to cement my courage and commitment to God.

I came to trust Ross’s voice when his Introducing Biblical Hebrew gave me a basic understanding of Hebrew syntax.  As with Allen’s other Psalms volumes there are a number of Hebrew word studies here, and this volume provides an index of them (including those in Volume 1 & 2). Allen is conversant with the scholarly literature but this commentary is accessible to the working pastor. Ross isn’t too technical but he is not light on detail either (at 1018 pages!). One-hundred-eighteen pages are devoted to a single psalm, Psalm 119, where Ross walks through each stanza in the Hebrew acrostic (by way of comparison, Leslie Allen’s devotes about thirty pages to that Psalm in WBC, Psalms Vol. III). For each psalm, Ross provides a translation of the psalm with textual notes, a discussion of composition and context, an exegetical analysis, and a discussion of the Psalm’s message and application.

The preface relays that Ross’s approach to the Psalms was shaped by a class he took in seminary which was co-taught by Bruce Waltke and Haddon Robins. Waltke graded the exegesis, Robinson graded the exposition. Ross tells us that Waltke said he didn’t think it was a good class, but the experience was transformational for Ross. He still strives to hold exegesis and exposition together in his interpretation of the Psalms (12). I appreciate the detail and passion that Ross brings to his task. This volume is a fitting conclusion to his Psalms commentary. I give this five stars.

Note: I received this from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Poems from a Zen Rabbi: a book review

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is no ordinary poet. A student of Zen Buddhism and Hasidim, he was challenged to become a ‘Zen rabbi’ in 1973. He got ordained as a Reformed rabbi (1981) and served a congregation for twenty years. Today, he writes, leads retreats, and co-directs One River Wisdom School. Much of the poetry in Accidental Grace: Poetry, Prayers and Psalms was birthed for liturgical use in the congregation of Beth Or (in Miami)but is accessible to people across religious traditions.

Accidental Grace: Poetry Prayers and Psalms by Rami M. Shapiro

As I thumbed through this book, my first question was “What the heck is a Zen rabbi?” This is a curious blending of religious traditions, to say the least! Shapiro writes:

At first I thought a Zen rabbi was a rabbi who wrapped a tallit/prayer shawl around the Buddha: making Buddhism kosher by finding ways to read Buddhism into Jewish text and tradition. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t quite right. As it turns out, a Zen Rabbi is a rabbi who isn’t all that concerned with being a rabbi or a Jew. A Zen rabbi is a rabbi who, if she met Buddha on the road, wouldn’t kill him, but would take him out for bagels and lox. A Zen rabbi is a rabbi who thinks that God is reality manifesting as everything, the way an ocean manifests waves.  (p. x,  from the introduction).

Shapiro blends traditions, sounding Jewish one moment, the next like an Eastern mystic.   His source material remains the Hebrew scriptures and extant writings (‘everything has a hook in traditional Jewish texts,’ xi); yet he deconstructs much of this, sending it through his ‘Zen shredder.’ He rages against text and tradition but speaks reverently of the ineffable God who cannot be named.

Shapiro’s poems (proper) are bordered by his treatment of two types of texts from the Ketuvim(the writings in the Jewish Tanakh). He begins with the Psalms, offering poetic paraphrases and meditation on twenty psalms. The word “God” doesn’t always appear in these Psalms and there is no version of the tetragrammaton (YHWH). Shapiro  most often refers to God  as “You,” with occasional titles like, “Holy One of Being” and “Ground of all ground”(Ps. 90,  p.14). References to “Israel” and “Zion” are excised from most of his rephrasings. The exception, is Psalm 137, which describes the Jewish experience of their exile in Babylon. Here Shapiro says with the Psalmist, “I sat down by the rivers of Babylon. . .”and “If, I forget you, O Jerusalem. . .”(22). But he modifies the psalm’s baby-killing conclusion to read, “Please, God, silence the vengefulness within me/that justifies battering the babies of my enemies/on the rocks of their city until their bodies dissolve in pools of blood and fat”(23). He pays homage to the psalms, but also critiques, and rewrites them to reflect his own understanding of the God described in the text.

In the final section of this book, Shapiro presents a parabolic and dramatic retelling of the book of Job. His first act describes the wager between God and Satan and the havoc this wreaks on Job. The second act presents Job’s argument with his three friends about the cause of his suffering. Act three appears in two scenes: scene one has God appear in a sandstorm; scene two describe an aftermath conversation between Job, Satan and God. Shapiro touches on the ambiguities and absurdities in the Job narrative, offering a humorous, if irreverent conclusion.

The poems in the middle of the book vary. Some reflect on particular scriptures or liturgical settings. Some talk about spirituality: Sabbath, Torah, the Holocaust, pain, death, joy. Some poems are prayers to God, while others describe the divine in significant and mundane moments of life. There are poems which rage, and poems that praise.

When a Christian publishing house (Paraclete Press) puts out a book of poetry from a ‘Zen Rabbi,’  it is worth taking notice. It is not every day these traditions converge amicably without something of their particularity being sacrificed. I am a convinced Christian and no relativiser of the world’s religious traditions, but I can appreciate insights from other traditions. I found myself appreciative of Shapiro’s playfulness with Scripture and his imaging of the God “beyond imaging.” Many of his poems on the spiritual life are quite moving. I loved his description of the Spirit, and how we don’t just “breathe,” but “are breathed” (Attending, 36).  At some points, his spirituality was too vague for my tastes, but overall, I appreciated this collection. I give this four stars.

Note: I recieved this book from Paraclete press in exchange for my honest review.


Psalm 23 in the Key of C

One of the blogs I frequent, belongs to April Yamasaki. Recently she posted about a writing exercise that turns out to be a fun way to meditate on scripture. At a Christian writers’ event,  one of the participants  wrote his own paraphrase to Psalm 23, using the letter L. April followed suit, posting her paraphrase of the Psalm with the letter G as her muse.

She closed her post with this Writing Prompt:

Try your own version of this psalm, using the letter M and starting with the line “My Master is my Mentor.” Or choose a letter and opening line of your own. If you send me your creation, I’ll gladly include it in a follow-up article. If you’re a blogger, post it on your own site and leave a link in the comments below. Have fun, and may God work Psalm 23 more deeply into your soul.

I chose to use the letter C. Here is my version of the Psalm:


My Creator is caretaker and captain,

with him I crave nothing

At his command, I lay couched in clover,

he carries me to where calm currents run their course,

He cleanses and collects me—

my cowardly, crumbled soul.

He commends to me the correct course

’cause of his name.


 I clambered about on the cliffs and

found myself

in a canon, caught

by clouds,

and cold.

Yet I am not concerned, 

You are my Companion!

Clutching that club and cane You carry,

You comfort me.

You cater the consummate feast,

though contentious challengers convene to crush me.

You consecrate me: crowning my head with oil;

my cup overflows, a chalice chockful—

a cask in the cellar,

chilled and waiting.

I am certain your care and compassion will chase after me

until my life’s  conclusion.

I’ll crash at your castle


Photo by Rebecca Gillum, originally posted at https://rgphotographs.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/quiet-waters/


Notes on Ps. 131 (Poem)

Psalm 131, A Song of Ascent, of David.



I kick and rage–

proud heart, haughty eyes

I thought I’d

made my mark



Insides spinning–

a hope deferred–anxiety

throbbing through my thighs.

 It’s  all too great for me,

I cannot

bear it.


Teach me to be-

To know who holds me

upon Her knee, and then

I’d drift contentedly

to peace.


I stop kicking and sit, still


yet there is no need to

make a mark



You hold me

    there is hope–now,

and when

forever comes,

with You I will rise.


©James Matichuk, 2016