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23 May 2015

Trinitatis / The Holy Trinity

Psalm 29

Psalm 29

Call to praise (vv. 1–2)
1 Acknowledge the Lord, you heavenly beings, / acknowledge the Lord’s majesty and power! 2 Acknowledge the majesty of the Lord’s reputation! / Worship the Lord in holy attire!

God’s glory in the storm (vv. 3–9)
3 The Lord’s shout is heard over the water; / the majestic God thunders, / the Lord appears over the surging water. 4 The Lord’s shout is powerful, / the Lord’s shout is majestic. 5 The Lord’s shout breaks the cedars, / the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf
 / and Sirion like a young ox. 7 The Lord’s shout / strikes with flaming fire. 8 The Lord’s shout shakes the wilderness, / the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9 The Lord’s shout bends the large trees / and strips the leaves from the forests./ Everyone in his temple says, “Majestic!”

God’s reign and promise of blessing (vv. 10–11) 
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the engulfing waters, / the Lord sits enthroned as the eternal king. 11 The Lord gives his people strength; / the Lord grants his people security. (NET)

(To be continued)

22 May 2015

Canticle for Pentecost

Psalm 104. Acts 2.

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit,
give us new life,
come, transform us, Holy Spirit,
come like a storm and fill this house.

Lord, our God, accept our praises,
All that we see
tells the story of your Spirit.
Creator God, we praise your name.

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit ...

Clothed with majesty and splendor
you ride the wind
wrapped in light and served by fire.
Creator God, we praise your name.

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit ...

Birds and beasts and human beings
find all they need
thanks to you, our heav'nly parent.
Creator God, we praise your name.

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit ...

Ev'ry part of your creation
sings, God, to you
hymns of thankfulness and blessing.
Creator God, we praise your name.

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit ...

None of us can be without you,
author of life!
Haste, O God, to send your Spirit.
Creator God, we praise your name.

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit,
give us new life,
come, transform us, Holy Spirit,
come like a storm and fill this house.

(F. Wendt, based on Psalm 104)

20 May 2015

Joining God in Jubilant Songs of Joy (Pfingsten / Pentecost)

Psalm 104

"A simple joy arises when we become present with the reality of our lives and return home to our bodies."

When I came to practice one fine Summer afternoon, everything started off as usual. I opened the door and went upstairs to the organ loft. I switched on the organ, put on my organ shoes, got my music ready and sat down on the organ bench.

I started playing, and it occurred to me that in this heat and humidity I might not be able to stay all that long. Just when I mumbled, "How can I focus when sweat runs down my face!", I heard a noise.

Somewhere left of me, something was hopping around. First I wondered whether it was a burglar, but the noise was too small for that. I thought the noise might be from a rabbit or a squirrel. 

Since I couldn't see anything from the organ bench, I got off of it and took a look. Well, there was no rabbit and no squirrel – just a small little sparrow. He quietly looked at me as he hopped back and forth.

I thought, “The poor bird has gotten caught and wants to get out.” I went and opened the windows so that the sparrow could have his freedom back.

But the sparrow didn't move from where he sat. I got up and shook my head, saying to myself, “Well, let me start playing, perhaps he will find his way to freedom if I leave him alone.” Then I realized that I couldn't “just” start playing, because the sparrow had sat down on the pedal keys.

When my foot came close to him, he just hopped over one or two keys. When I began playing with both feet, he flew into the air and sat down – but of all places, he sat down next to me on the organ bench. 

Even though I was somewhat speechless in the midst of all this, I felt honored by the fact that the sparrow had decided to stay rather than to fly away. It was a remarkable situation. I tried playing, but was distracted by my unexpected audience -- of one bird.

I thought: birds aren't usually this trusting, unless they are tamed or ill somehow. I looked to my right, and the sparrow was still sitting right next to me on the bench. I looked into the little eyes of my guest and mumbled, “I will never play the way you birds can sing.” But his eyes seemed encouraging, as if to say, “Come on, play for me, I've come to listen to you.” 

So I took out the hymnal and opened it to one of the hymns I had come to practice. Then I began playing and focused, and the sparrow flew up and disappeared somewhere in the nave of the church. But he kept on coming back, as though he was truly tame and used to human beings.

He'd sit on my music for a while, then on the organ bench, then on the pedal keys, then on my ball cap. I discovered that his presence “gave wings” to me and my playing. I completely forgot about the humidity and the heat.

The experience with “my” sparrow flooded me with awe – this little bird had chosen to spend an hour with me! 

As I played like I hadn't in a long while, I realized that the little bird helped me find a new key: I played in the key of jubilant joy.

Jubilant joy is the theme of Psalm 104.

Call to Praise (V. 1a)
1a Praise the Lord, O my soul! 

God and the Heavens (VV. 1b–4)
1b O Lord my God, you are very great; / with splendor and majesty you have clothed yourself, 2 Wrapping on light like a mantle, /
stretching out the heavens like a curtain, 3 The one who secures the rafters of his upper floor on the waters, / who makes the clouds his chariot, / who moves about on the wings of the wind, 4 Who makes the winds his messengers, / burning flames his ministers.

God and the Waters (VV. 5–10)
5 Establishing earth upon its foundations— / it shall not slip, forever and ever— 6 You spread the deep over it like a garment / waters stood over mountains. 7 They fled before your rebuke, / before the sound of your thunder they took flight— 8 With mountains arising, valleys receding— / to the place that you had established for them. 9 You set a boundary that they cannot pass, / so that they cannot again cover the earth. 10 You, who release springs to become streams, / between the hills they run.

God and Creation (VV. 11–23)
11 They provide water for every living being of the field. / The wild donkeys satisfy their thirst. 12 The birds of the heavens dwell by them; / they give voice from among the foliage. 13 You, who provide water for the mountains from his upper floor, / from the fruit of your works, the earth is satisfied. 14 You, who make the grass grow for cattle, / and plants for humanity to till— / In order to bring forth food from the earth, 15 and wine to bring joy to human hearts; / In order to make faces shine with oil / and food to sustain human hearts. 16 The trees of the Lord are satisfied; / the cedars of Lebanon, which he planted, 17 Where birds make their nests, / the stork has her home in the juniper trees. 18 The high mountains are for wild goats. / The rocks are a refuge for badgers. 19 He made the moon for appointed times; / the sun knows its setting time. 20 You bring on darkness and it becomes night; / all the living beings of the forest stir. 21 The lions roar for their prey, / seeking their food from God. 22 The sun rises and they gather themselves. / They lie down in their dens. 23 Human beings go out to their work, / to their labor until evening comes.

God and Diversity (VV. 24–30)
24 How diverse are your works, O Lord! / You have made them all with wisdom. / The earth is filled with your possessions. 25 There is the sea, great and wide of measure! / With things too many to number, / living beings, small and great. 26 There ships move about, / Leviathan—this one you have formed to delight in him. 27 All of them look to you / to give them their food in due season. 28 You give it to them and they gather it; / you open your hand, they are satisfied with good. 29 You hide your face and they are terrified; / you withdraw their breath and they die, / and they return to their dust. 30 You send your spirit and they are created, / and the face of the earth is renewed.

 Joyful God and Joyful Psalmist (VV. 31–35b)
31 May the glory of the Lord be forever; / may the Lord rejoice in his works. 32 The one who takes notice of the earth and it trembles, / he touches the mountains and they smoke. 33 I will sing for the Lord while I live; I will make music for my God while I remain. 34 May my prayer be pleasing to him, / even as I rejoice in the Lord. 35 May sinners vanish from the earth, / and may the wicked be no more.

Call to Praise (V. 35c–d)
35c Praise the Lord, O my soul! / Praise the Lord! (NICOT)

The subject matter of this joy-filled psalm, recited by our Jewish sisters and brothers in its entirety every day during morning services,  is closely related both to the first Genesis creation narrative and to older accounts of creation from the Ancient Near East, both Mesopotamian and Egyptian. In particular, the Egyptian Great Hymn to the Aten (14th century BC) is frequently cited as a predecessor.  

Elizabeth Webb summarizes, "Psalm 104 is like the poetry of Genesis 1 set to music, singing the wondrous order that God has brought forth."

Throughout this sung story of creation, the Psalmist emphasizes the interdependence of God’s creatures; she "traces the springs ... as they run among the hills, as they give drink to the wild and lonely creatures of the wilderness, as they nourish the boughs, on which sing the birds, the grass, on which feed the cattle, the herb, the corn, the olive tree, the vine, which fill man's mouth, cheer his heart, and make his face to shine" (from an old commentary).

German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder remarked, "It is worth studying the Hebrew language for ten years in order to read Psalm 104 in the original".

The first time a word for joy shows up in the Hebrew text is in V. 15.

וְיַ֤יִן יְשַׂמַּ֬ח לְֽבַב־אֱנ֗וֹשׁ
wə·ya·yin yə·śam·maḥ lə·bab- ’ĕ·nō·wōš
... and wine to bring joy to human hearts.

The verb שָׂמַח (samach) is from a primitive root meaning to cheer, to give joy to, to give happiness, or to gladden, but also to rejoice.

The word samach is related to the Ugaritic shmh - "to be glad, rejoice", the Arabic shamaha - "was high, was proud" and the Akkadian shamahu (samahu) - "to sprout, flourish". With its original meaning "to sprout, spring up, grow", it is similar to the English word "elated" (meaning both "happy" and "lifted up").

The next two occurrences of "joy" in the Hebrew text (both are employing שָׂמַח) are intriguing as the second is a direct response to the first.

V. 31b
יִשְׂמַ֖ח יְהוָ֣ה בְּמַעֲשָֽׂיו
yiś·maḥ Yah·weh bə·ma·‘ă·śāw
may the Lord rejoice in his works ...

V. 34b
אָ֝נֹכִ֗י אֶשְׂמַ֥ח בַּיהוָֽה
’ā·nō·kî  ’eś·maḥ  bə·Yah·weh
... even as I rejoice in the Lord.

One of the most remarkable statements in Psalm 104 comes in V. 31b. The Psalmist talks about God's joy -- the joy God experiences when looking at this world -- and in doing so she adds some emotional force to the rather unemotional statement made throughout the creation story, "and God saw that it was good".

God is rejoicing.  God sings a song of joy. God is exuberant in having fun with his handiwork ... one place that this is made clear is V. 26b: Leviathan—this one you have formed to delight in him. God is making a pet out of Leviathan, known all over Scripture as a terrifying monster.

Did you know that our God is a singing God, a God who sings of his love for creation, for you and me?This is a powerful antidote to use with those around us who emphasize a god that's vengeful and punishing.

A verse from the prophet Zephaniah belongs into this context.  In Chapter 3 we read:

V. 17b
יָשִׂ֨ישׂ‘ עָלַ֜יִךְ בְּשִׂמְחָ֗ה
yā·śîś ‘ā·la·yiḵ bə·śim·ḥāh
He takes great delight in you;

יַחֲרִישׁ֙ בְּאַ֣הֲבָת֔וֹ
ya·ḥă·rîš bə·’a·hă·ḇā·ṯōw
he renews you by his love;

יָגִ֥יל עָלַ֖יִךְ בְּרִנָּֽה
yā·ḡîl ‘ā·la·yiḵ bə·rin·nāh
he shouts for joy over you.

The Zephaniah verse contains several of the Hebrew words used for joy:  not only שִׂמְחָה (simchah, the noun that's derived from שָׂמַח; “joy,” “mirth,” or “gladness”), but also שׂוּשׂ (sus;  “to exult or display joy”), גִּיל (gil, “to rejoice, be glad”) and רָנַן (ranan; giving "a ring out" or "shout out for joy”).

The picture painted in Zephaniah 3 is full of tenderness and compassion. God holds his daughter Jerusalem and sings joyfully in her presence.

Just as a loving parent cradles a child and sings to her or him out of love, so God’s song over God's people is born of his great love.

Our God sings? you ask.
Indeed. Our God sings.

My friends, "the God whose look causes the earth to tremble, whose touch causes mountains to smoke", is made manifest not in acts of power and might, but in shouts and songs of tender joy.

As the Singing God of V. 31 is joined by the Singing Psalmist in V. 34, it is "a thing both good and meet" for us to join them in singing jubilant songs of joy.


13 May 2015

The Way of God: "Not Two" (Exaudi / Easter 7)

Psalm 1

Ting the cook was cutting meat free from the bones of an ox for Lord Wen-hui. His hands danced as his shoulders turned with the step of his foot and bending of his knee.

With a shush and a hush, the blade sang following his lead, never missing a note. Ting and his blade moved as though dancing to “The Mulberry Grove,” or as if conducting the “Ching-shou” with a full orchestra.

Lord Wen-hui exclaimed, “What a joy! It’s good, is it not, that such a simple craft can be so elevated?”

Ting laid aside his knife. “All I care about is the Way. If find it in my craft, that’s all. When I first butchered an ox, I saw nothing but ox meat. It took three years for me to see the whole ox. Now I go out to meet it with my whole spirit and don’t think only about what meets the eye.

Sensing and knowing stop. The spirit goes where it will, following the natural contours, revealing large cavities, leading the blade through openings, moving onward according to actual form — yet not touching the central arteries or tendons and ligaments, much less touching bone."

“A good cook need sharpen his blade but once a year. He cuts cleanly. An awkward cook sharpens his knife every month. He chops. I’ve used this knife for nineteen years, carving thousands of oxen. Still the blade is as sharp as the first time it was lifted from the whetstone. At the joints there are spaces, and the blade has no thickness. Entering with no thickness where there is space, the blade may move freely where it will: there’s plenty of room to move. Thus, after nineteen years, my knife remains as sharp as it was that first day."

“Even so, there are always difficult places, and when I see rough going ahead, my heart offers proper respect as I pause to look deeply into it. Then I work slowly, moving my blade with increasing subtlety until — kerplop! — meat falls apart like a crumbling clod of earth. I then raise my knife and assess my work until I’m fully satisfied. Then I give my knife a good cleaning and put it carefully away.”

Lord Wen-hui said, “That’s good, indeed! Ting the cook has shown me how to find the Way to nurture life.”

Like the Tao story above, the Psalmist speaks of "the way" -- the way of the wicked and the way of the righteous.

The Way of the Wicked (V. 1)
1 Happy is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, /
and does not stand in the way of the sinners, / and does not sit in the seat of scoffers.

The Torah of the Lord (V. 2)
2 Rather, whose delight is in the instruction of the Lord, / who meditates on his instruction day and night.

The Benefits of the Torah (V. 3)
3 This one is like a tree transplanted by streams of water,
which produces its fruit in its season, / Whose leaves do not wither; / but who prospers in everything.

The Way of the Wicked (V. 4-6)
4 Not so the wicked! / Rather, they are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not arise in the judgment, / nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, / but the way of the wicked will perish. (NICOT)

This psalm is not like other psalms, as it contains neither lament nor praise -- most psalms have both. Our scholars tell us that Psalm 1 is a "wisdom psalm" placed where it is as a kind of introduction for the whole Psalter.

It's as though the Psalmist is saying, "As you keep on reading all the way to Psalm 150, never forget the simple truth you'll learn here."

The Psalmist begins to introduce that simple truth by listing three sorts of people to stay away from:

V. 1
אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר
[’aš·rê- hā·’îš  ’ă·šer]
Happy is the one who ...

לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים
[lō hā·lak  ba·‘ă·ṣat rə·šā·‘îm]
does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,

וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד
[ū·bə·de·rek ḥaṭ·ṭā·’îm lō ‘ā·mād]
and does not stand in the way of the sinners,

וּבְמוֹשַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשַׁב
[ū·bə·mō·wō ·šab  lê·ṣîm lō ya·šab]
and does not sit in the seat of scoffers.

The second stanza shows the essence of the truth to be learned: it is not enough to stay away from the wicked, sinners and scoffers, but what counts is to follow God's instruction (Torah) and to meditate on it continuously.

As the Psalmist presents us with the Way of the Wicked and the Way of the Righteous, we realize that an "either/or" is set up here. Writes Rolf Jacobson: "The Hebrew Psalter opens with an instructional psalm that maps the future as a choice between one of two different paths."

When V. 2 talks of the "instruction of the Lord", that's another manner of saying The Way of God. While The Way of God is known as Torah among us, in Buddhism it is called Dharma; in Daoism it is the Dao, or Tao.

In the center of Psalm 1 (V. 3) we are introduced to the first metaphor of the Psalter: a majestic tree transplanted to a place near a mighty stream.

Matthias Jorissen's metric Psalter sticks fairly close to our text, but adds a hiker delighting in the beauty of the tree:

Ein Baum, am Bach gepflanzt, strebt hoch empor,
bringt Blüth und Frucht zur rechten Zeit hervor,
steht untentlaubt mit hoher Pracht geschmücket,
das sich an ihm der Wanderer erquicket;
so grünet der Gerechte jeder Zeit,
er lebt und wächst 
und all sein Thun gedeiht.

As "the one" in our psalm meditates on the Way of God day and night, striving to comprehend it and to live it, she becomes that very tree that greens and blossoms and grows.

But "not so the wicked!", thunders the Psalmist in V. 4: "they are like chaff that the wind drives away".

Whether we call it Torah, Dharma or Tao, the teaching about The Way is strikingly the same in all three: "the road of our own choosing leads only to our own destruction" (Rolf Jacobson).

Who are the "wicked"? They are people who insist that they find their own way. They separate themselves from the Way of God, and since that's the only thing that lasts (or is permanent) they are lost on their own roads.

Do you think you are your thoughts? You know they don't last. Do you think you are your body? Well no, it doesn't last simply because it constantly changes. Are you your memories, then? They are nothing but thoughts, and memories are notoriously unreliable.

Are you your good name, your cars, your houses, your bank account? Are you the stuff that is prized in this world? All these things are temporary, exist for only a short time and thus are impermanent.

Those who draw their identity from any of these temporary things are called the "wicked" by the Psalmist. Sooner or later they will find their identity blown away like chaff in the wind.

On the other hand, the "happy" (or "blessed" or "righteous") one, does not identify with anything material, not with thoughts, not with emotions. Rather than finding her own separate way, she becomes one with The Way of God ... and flourishes beautifully.

Becoming one with the Way of God is becoming one with everything. Once we realize that all of creation is one, we become aware that any sense of "other" or separation, or, for that matter, of finding a personal road to salvation, is an illusion powered by the human ego. This realization is what Zen Buddhism calls "not two".

You cannot arrive at "not two" by mobilizing your noggins, for your mind is trained to think in dualisms. Only by mobilizing the whole of your person -- in meditation -- can you delve into the ground of who you are.

The concept of "not two" is nicely illustrated by these words from an ancient Master:

I am the wind on the sea
I am the ocean wave
I am the sound of rustling leaves
I am the dog romping through the grass
I am the hawk on the cliff
I am the dewdrop in sunlight
I am the fairest of flowers
I am the powerful bear
I am the softest whisper
I am the manta ray in the deepest waters
I am the frozen lake in winter
I am the fire providing warmth
I am the summer rain
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
For I am one with the universe.

06 May 2015

"The King of Love" (Rogate / Easter 6)

Psalm 95

As I have just recently written on Psalm 98, assigned for May 10 in the RCL (see my post dated 4/29/15), this post is on Psalm 95, assigned for this Sunday in the six year German lectionary; in the RCL, part of this psalm is assigned to Lent 3A.

Once upon a time the Buddha was born in the forests near Benares, in northern India, as a Banyan Deer, an unusual and beautiful deer.

Although he was as big as a young colt, it was easy for his mother to give birth to him. When he opened his eyes, they were as bright as sparkling jewels. His mouth was as red as the reddest forest berries. His hoofs were as black as polished coal. His little horns glistened like silver. And his color was golden, like a perfect summer's dawn. As he grew up, a herd of 500 deer gathered around him, and he became known as King Banyan Deer.

Meanwhile, not far away, another beautiful buck deer was born, just as splendidly golden in color.  In time, a separate herd of 500 deer came to follow him, and he was known as Branch Deer.

The King of Benares, at that time, was very fond of eating venison. So he regularly hunted and killed deer. Each time he hunted, he went to a different village and ordered the people to serve him. They had to stop what they were doing, whether plowing or harvesting or whatever, and work in the king's hunting party.

The people's lives were upset by these interruptions. They grew fewer crops, and other businesses also had less income. So they came together and decided to build a large deer park for the king, at Benares. There he could hunt by himself, with no need to command the services of the villagers.

So the people built a deer park. They made ponds where the deer could drink, and added trees and grasses for them to eat from. When it was ready, they opened the gate and went out into the nearby forests. They surrounded the entire herds of Banyan and Branch deer. Then, with sticks and weapons and noise makers, they drove them all into the deer park trap, and locked the gate behind them.

After the deer had settled down, the people went to the king and said, "Our crops and income have suffered because of your hunting requirements. Now we have made you a pleasant safe deer park, where you can hunt by yourself as you like. With no need of our aid, you can enjoy both the hunting and the eating of deer."

The king went to the new deer park. There he was pleased to see the vast herds. While watching them, his eye was caught by the two magnificent golden deer, with large fully grown antlers. Because he admired their unusual beauty, the king granted immunity to these two alone. He ordered that they should be completely safe. No one could harm or kill them.

Once a day the king would come and kill a deer for his dinner table. Sometimes, when he was too busy, the royal cook would do this. The body would then be brought to the chopping block to be butchered for the oven.

Whenever the deer saw the bow and arrows, they went into a panic, trembling for their lives. They ran around wildly, some being injured and some wounded, many suffering great pain.

One day, King Banyan Deer's herd gathered around him. He called Branch Deer, and the two herds joined for a meeting. King Banyan Deer addressed them. "Although in the end, there is no escape from death, this needless suffering due to injuries and wounds can be prevented. Since the king only wishes the meat of one deer per day, let one be chosen by us each day to submit himself to the chopping block. One day from my herd, and the next day from Branch Deer's herd, the victim's lot will fall to one deer at a time."

Branch Deer agreed. From then on, the one whose turn it was, meekly surrendered himself and laid his neck on the block. The cook came each day, simply killed the waiting victim, and prepared the king's venison.

One day, the turn fell by chance to a pregnant doe in Branch Deer's herd. Caring for the others as well as herself and the unborn one, she went to Branch Deer and said, "My lord, I am pregnant. Grant that I may live until I have delivered my fawn. Then we will fill two turns rather than just one. This will save a turn, and thereby a single life for one long day."

Branch Deer replied, "No, no, I cannot change the rules in midstream and put your turn upon another. The pregnancy is yours, the babe is your responsibility. Now leave me."

Having failed with Branch Deer, the poor mother doe went to King Banyan Deer and explained her plight. He replied gently, "Go in peace. I will change the rules in midstream and put your turn upon another."

And the deer king went to the executioner's block, and laid down his own golden neck upon it. A silence fell in the deer park. And some who tell this story even say that silence also fell in other worlds not seen from here.

Soon the royal cook came to kill the willing victim on the block. But when he saw it was one of the two golden deer the king had ordered spared, he was afraid to kill him. So he went and told the King of Benares.

The king was surprised, so he went to the park. He said to the golden deer, still lying on the block, "Oh king of deer, did I not promise to spare your life? What is the reason you come here like the others?"

King Banyan Deer replied, "Oh king of men, this time a pregnant doe was unlucky enough to be the one to die. She pleaded for me to spare her, for the sake of others as well as her unborn baby and herself. I could not help but feel myself in her place, and feel her suffering. I could not help but weep, to think the little one would never see the dawn, would never taste the dew. And yet, I could not force the pain of death on another. What ruler can be free as long as his subjects suffer? So, mighty king, I offer my life for the sake of the doe and her unborn fawn."

The King of Benares was touched. Powerful as he was, a tear rolled down his cheek. Then he said, "Oh great lord, the golden king of deer, even among human beings, I have not seen any such as you! Such great compassion, to share in the suffering of others! Such great generosity, to give your life for others! Such great kindness and tender love for all your fellow deer! Arise."

"I decree that you will never be killed by me or anyone else in my kingdom. And, so too, the doe and her babe."

Without yet raising his head, the golden one said, "Are only we to be saved? What of the other deer in the park, our friends and kin?" The king said, "My lord, I cannot refuse you, I grant safety and freedom to all the deer in the park." 

"And what of the deer outside the park, will they be killed?" asked Banyan. "No my lord, I spare all the deer in my whole kingdom."

Still the golden deer did not raise up his head. He pleaded, "So the deer will be safe, but what will the other four-footed animals do?" "My lord, from now on they too are safe in my land." "And what of the birds? They too want to live." "Yes, my lord, the birds too will be safe from death at the hands of men." 

"And what of the fish, who live in the water?" "Even the fish will be free to live, my lord." So saying, the King of Benares granted immunity from hunting and killing to all the animals in his land.

Three kings are included in this story: a human king, Banyan Deer King, and Branch Deer King. The human king is characterized by great power and the imperious ways in which kingstend to operate; he is convinced that everything in his kingdom is at his disposal, period.

Not so the two deer kings; their character is revealed by the love and care they have for their subjects, and the length to which they will go to demonstrate that love and care.

By offering himself to save the life of the pregnant doe, the Banyan Deer teaches a lesson to other rulers by saying, "What ruler can be free as long as his subjects suffer?" He claimed it was his right and duty to take her place. Because of the powerful love and courage of the Banyan Deer, the human king frees all beings in his realm from the threat of being trapped, hunted or killed. 

This example of selflessness should give everyone of today’s rulers pause. 

First Summons and Praise (VV 1-5).
1 Come! Let’s sing for joy to the Lord! / Let’s shout out praises to our protector who delivers us! 2 Let’s enter his presence with thanksgiving! / Let’s shout out to him in celebration! 3 For the Lord is a great God, / a great king who is superior to all gods. 4 The depths of the earth are in his hand, / and the mountain peaks belong to him. 5 The sea is his, for he made it. / His hands formed the dry land. 

Second Summons and Praise (VV 6-7a).
6 Come! Let’s bow down and worship! / Let’s kneel before the Lord, our Creator! 7a For he is our God; / we are the people of his pasture, /the sheep he owns. 

Warning Exhortation (VV 7b-11).
7b Today, if only you would obey him! 8 He says, “Do not be stubborn like they were at Meribah, / like they were that day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 where your ancestors challenged my authority, / and tried my patience, even though they had seen my work. 10 For forty years I was continually disgusted with that generation, / and I said, ‘These people desire to go astray; / they do not obey my commands.’ 11 So I made a vow in my anger, / ‘They will never enter into the resting place I had set aside for them.’” (NET)

Psalm 95 is like an old friend to me, or at least part of it. "In his hands are the caverns of the earth; the heights of the hills are also his. The sea is his, for he made it; and his hands have molded the dry land."

The first part of the Lutheran Book of Worship liturgy I ever learned was that hymnal's version of Matins.

As the two Lutherans in our CPE group, my friend Winfried Hess and I made it a habit to use the Morning Prayer before breakfast most every morning.  

Like Psalm 98 (see last week's post), this psalm is one of the enthronement psalms; unlike Psalm 98, however, it is explicit about God's kingship.

V. 3
כִּ֤י אֵ֣ל גָּד֣וֹל יְהוָ֑ה
kî ’êl gā·dō·wl Yah·weh;
For the Lord is a great God,

וּמֶ֥לֶךְ גָּ֝ד֗וֹל עַל כָּל אֱלֹהִֽים׃
ū·me·leḵ gā·dō·wl ‘al- kāl-’ĕ·lō·hîm.
a great king superior to all gods.

To those puzzled about God being "above all gods", James Luther Mays has this to say,

"[T]his way of speaking about a god belonged to the polytheistic culture in which Israel existed, and it was adopted as one way for faith to reason in that culture ... In the pantheons of the ancient Near East, one god was believed to be supreme and to rule over others. His superiority and kingship were based on his action as creator ... Verses 4 and 5 are total and inclusive statements about the Lord’s relation to the world. As maker of sea and dry land, the Lord owns it all and it is still in his power from deepest depths to highest peaks. There is no sphere of the cosmos left for any independent divine powers."

Just in case someone objects saying such thinking about God's sovereign reign is anachronistic, Mays adds, "We human beings are incurably polytheistic. So the psalm’s theology is a theology that has to be reckoned with in a religiously pluralistic world."

The First Commandment comes to mind, along with Martin Luther's admonition,

"[U]pon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god."

V. 7 reminds us that God "is our God” and “our maker”, and that he is our king in being our leader, provider, and protector.

In stating that the People of God owe their king “to heed his voice”, the Psalmist makes the transition to the third part of the Psalm, an exhortation by God.

"Do not be stubborn like they were at Meribah, like they were that day at Massah in the wilderness,  where your ancestors challenged my authority ..."

Dire as these warnings may sound, they are meant as instruction, and aim at keeping God's People together and focused.  Hebrews 3:7–4:13 uses Psalm 95 to remind the early church not “to fall away from the living God,” so that they may complete their wandering in the wilderness of this world by entering into the rest of God.

"The King of Love My Shepherd Is" sings one of my favorite hymns, and that is the perfect summary for what sort of king our God is: a king who would give his life because his love is so deep, who would not stop until all are safe, who wouldn’t be at peace until even the last one is in safety -- that is God, Our King.

Back when I was about 11 years old, our family kept getting little surprises in form of two little arms that would hug us from behind. They belonged to my baby sister Ute. When it happened to me for the first time, I asked gruffly what this was for, and she said with that itty-bitty voice, “Ich hab dich lieb” – “I love you so”.

I love you so! God’s surprising gift of love is what God's Reign is all about. Where there is love, there is joy, and where there is true joy, complaints, growls and accusations cannot flourish – and devils run off in great confusion.

29 April 2015

Singt, singt dem Herren neue Lieder (Kantate / Easter 5)

Psalm 98

As I have previously written on the psalm assigned for Sunday (Psalm 22; see 2/21/15), this post is on Psalm 98, assigned for this Sunday in the German lectionary, and for Easter 6 in the RCL.

The Sufis tell this story about the great mystic, Farid:

One night he dreams that by the grace of Allah, he has reached Paradise. And the whole of Paradise is decorated, millions of lights.and flowers everywhere — some celebration is going on — and great music. He enquires, “What is going on?”

And they say, “This is God’s birthday — we are celebrating it. You have come at the right time.”

So he stands underneath a tree to see what is happening, because a great procession starts moving on the road. A man is sitting on a horse; he enquires, “Who is this man?” and they say, “Don’t you know him? He is Hajrat Mohammed.”

And then millions and millions of people behind him, and he asks, “Who are these people?” and he is replied to. “They are followers of Mohammed.”

And then comes Jesus, and millions are following him. And then comes Krishna on his golden chariot, and millions again are following him. And so on and so forth… the procession continues on and on and on ...

And then finally, in the end, there is an old man riding an old donkey. And nobody is behind him; he is all by himself. Farid starts laughing as he is looking at this man — it is hilarious: nobody is following him. And why should he be riding on a donkey? He asks, “Who are you, sir? I have seen Mohammed, Christ, Krishna, Mahavira, Buddha — who are you? You look like a kind of joke! And nobody is following you.”

And the old man is very sad and he says, “I am God, Farid. This is my birthday. But many people follow Mohammed.  Many follow Jesus. Many follow Krishna and Mahavira and Buddha — but nobody is left to be with me.”

Farid woke up from the dream and was very agitated.  The next day he told his disciples, “From now on I am no more a follower of Mohammed. The dream has been a great revelation. From now on I want no part of organized religion — I am simply myself. I want to be with God, so there will be at least one who follows him.”

The story of Farid's dream speaks to the fact that religious people are divided, and the longing to end those divisions.  Psalm 98, one of the most joyful psalms, seems to suggest that divisions fall away when everyone joins in praising God:

Sing to the Lord a new song, / for
 he performs amazing deeds! / His right hand and his mighty arm
accomplish deliverance. 2 The Lord demonstrates his power to deliver; / in the sight of the nations he reveals his justice. 3 He remains loyal and faithful to the family of Israel. / All the ends of the earth see our God deliver us. 

4 Shout out praises to the Lord, all the earth! / Break out in a joyful shout and sing! 5 Sing to the Lord accompanied by a harp / accompanied by a harp and the sound of music! 6 With trumpets and the blaring of the ram’s horn, / shout out praises before the king, the Lord! 

7 Let the sea and everything in it shout, / along with the world and those who live in it! 8 Let the rivers clap their hands! / Let the mountains sing in unison before the Lord! 9 For he comes to judge the earth! / He judges the world fairly, / and the nations in a just manner. (NET)

Psalm 98 appears in a grouping of psalms that focus on the reign of God (Psalms 93, 95-99). These psalms are sometimes categorized as "enthronement psalms" because many of them contain the cry, “The Lord is king”; their focus is on God's eternal kingship. 

It is unclear whether or not the origin of the enthronement psalms is that they were recited in the Jerusalem temple during a New Year festival that revolved around the celebration of God's enthronement. 

What is clear is that their location in the psalms shows that they deal with the theological crisis of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E. in a positive, hopeful tone, whereas Psalms 73-89 express grave doubts about Israel's core beliefs. The enthronement psalms reminded those who doubted that God was still in control.

In V. 1 the Psalmist shouts these words:

שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָ֨ה שִׁ֣יר חָ֭דָשׁ
כִּֽי־ נִפְלָא֣וֹת עָשָׂ֑ה
šî·rū Yah·weh šîr ḥā·ḏāš
kî- nip̄·lā·’ō·wṯ ‘ā·śāh;
Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he performs amazing deeds!

The people and all of creation are then instructed to “make a joyful noise” in VV. 4 and 6, using the Hebrew root ר֫וּעַ (rua: to raise a shout, give a blast, to split the ears with sound).

In addition to rua, other terms for praising God are employed as well:

-In VV 4 and 8 we find the Hebrew root רָנַן (ranan: to give a ringing cry, to creak, to emit a stridulous sound, to shout aloud for joy).

-In VV 4 and 5 another Hebrew root is encountered: זָמַר (zamar: to make music, to touch the strings or parts of a musical instrument i.e. play upon it, to make music accompanied by the voice).

-In V. 7 the Psalmist uses the root רָעַם (raam: to make the sound of thunder, shout thunderously, roar).

Notice that in V. 7 (Let the sea and everything in it shout, / along with the world and those who live in it!) the Psalmist widens the scope from God's people to God's creation (some people speak of "inanimate objects" but I have often thought that might just be human arrogance talking). Thus, in V. 8 the floods are invited to “clap their hands,” and the mountains to “sing together for joy.”

"Let rivers clap their hands / And mountains kick their heels / At your presence" translates Norman Fischer both insightfully and beautifully.

V. 9 states that God not only delivers, but comes to judge the earth and the world with “righteousness and equity”:

יִשְׁפֹּֽט־ תֵּבֵ֥ל בְּצֶ֑דֶק
וְ֝עַמִּ֗ים בְּמֵישָׁרִֽים׃
yiš·pōṭ- tê·ḇêl bə·ṣe·ḏeq;
wə·‘am·mîm bə·mê·šā·rîm.
He judges the world fairly,
and the nations in a just manner.

Again, Norman Fischer's rendering: "For you are coming / To awaken all / To establish justice and harmony everywhere."

The first of those terms is צֶ֫דֶק (tsedeq: rightness, and as a derivative, righteousness). The basic meaning of צֶ֫דֶק is “to do the right thing.” The other term is מֵישָׁרִים (meshar: evenness, uprightness, equity). To judge with meshar is to be upright, straight, and to the point.

To return to my initial thought after telling the story of Farid: Can you create unity among the people, religious or othwerwise, by making them sing together? Not likely.

But the Psalmist is after something else altogether.  He says:  If you will connect yourself with the God who acts in tsedeq and meshar, you can be sure that you'll do well in the long run. And one way to connect yourself with God is to sing with the rest of God's creation:

Singt, singt dem Herren neue Lieder, 
er ist's allein, der Wunder tut.
Seht, seine Rechte sieget wieder,
sein heilger Arm gibt Kraft und Mut.
Wo sind nun alle unsre Leiden? 
Der Herr schafft Ruh und Sicherheit; 
er selber offenbart den Heiden  
sein Recht und seine Herrlichkeit.

Sing, sing a new song to the Lord God 
for all the wonders he has wrought; 
his right hand and his arm most holy
the victory to him have brought. 
The Lord has shown his great salvation, 
to Israel his love made known; 
he has revealed to every nation
his truth in righteousness alone.

(Metrical psalm/German by Matthias Jorissen; metrical psalm/English by Dewey Westra).

22 April 2015

"The Best Known, But Worst Translated Chapter of the Bible" (Jubilate / Easter 4)

Psalm 23

"The clock is my dictator, I shall not rest.
It makes me lie down only when exhausted.
It leads me into deep depression.
It hounds my soul.
It leads me in circles of frenzy, for activities sake.
Even though I run frantically from task to task,
I will never get it all done,
For my ideal is with me
Deadlines and my need for approval, they drive me.
They demand performance from me, beyond the limits of my schedule.
They anoint my head with migraines
My in-basket overflows.
Surely fatigue and time pressures shall follow me
All the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the bonds of frustration forever."

If this anonymous "antithesis" to Psalm 23, painting the picture of a person harangued and harassed by the all-powerful clock, disturbs you, you might be tempted to say, "Thank God for the real Psalm 23". Chances are that you think of the King James Version.

But now you are in for another surprise: modern psalm scholars think that Psalm 23 is the "best known but worst translated chapter of the Bible" (Clines). While the King James Bible is a piece of world literature in its own right, scholarship hasn't stopped advancing, and is able to point out where the famous translation is missing the mark.

Take a look, then, at the most accurate translation of Psalm 23 I have been able to find. As you read, remain aware of how you are feeling.

1 Yahweh is a shepherd to me; / 
therefore there is nothing I lack. 2 In grassy pastures he lets me lie, chewing the cud; / down to quiet waters he leads me; 3 he revives my life; / he leads me by the right paths— all to uphold his repute. 4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, / I fear no harm, / for you are with me;  / your crook and your staff are my reassurance. 5 You spread a banquet before me / even if enemies surround me; / you anoint my head with oil; / abundance is my lot. 6 Such goodness and constancy shall surely be my companions as long as I live, / and I shall journey again to Yahweh’s house for many days to come. (translation: Professor David Clines)

No more green pastures! No valley of the shadow of death!  No more dwelling in the house of God forever! 

So how do you feel about this translation? Angry because it isn't "traditional" enough? Disturbed because it isn't sublime enough? Disconcerted because somehow it's not heavenly, holy, divine or happy enough to your taste?  

But perhaps you are on the opposite side and find yourself delighted because the words aren't as "traditional" as you feared. Perhaps you are glad because you realize that there is new life in the old psalm that you didn't know was there.  Perhaps you feel relief to be free of the constrictions of the old words.

Of course, while people have strong feelings, good or bad, about a text they grew up with, translating Scripture is not about feelings or nostalgia, or about someone's need to uphold or reject what always seemed such a comfort to many.

Translating the psalms is the art of transferring ancient hymns and prayers from Hebrew into English accurately but in such a way that that content remains useful for the meditation of God's people.  

I happen to think that the words above provide a fresh look at a text hardly anyone ever truly thinks about any more, a text that has become habit and ritual: something that's done because it's "always" been done, and about which nobody quite remembers whether there was a time when it wasn't done.

These words also represent a translation that clears up some of the inaccuracies of the traditional version. Here are some of the details:

V. 2
בִּנְא֣וֹת דֶּ֭שֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵ֑נִי
bin·’ō·wṯ de·še yar·bî·ṣê·nî;
In grassy pastures he lets me lie, chewing the cud.

The Hebrew noun דֶּ֫שֶׁא (deh'-sheh) simply means "grass" (not green) or "fresh shoots", and the verb רָבַץ (raw-bats') means to lie down or to stretch out.

But why add "chewing the cud"? Because people who know sheep know that a healthy sheep never lies down to graze -- for that the sheep remains standing -- but it is to chew the cud that a sheep will "lie down" and "stretch out".

Just like cows, sheep are ruminants. When they swallow food it goes to their first stomach (the rumen), where it ferments for a bit, and the chemical digestion starts.  It then goes back through the esophagus so they can munch on it some more, to further the mechanical digestion. That is, by the way, why we use the word "ruminate" to express the human activity of meditating and pondering.

V. 4
גַּ֤ם כִּֽי אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֪יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת
לֹא אִ֘ירָ֤א רָ֗ע
gam kî-’ê·lêḵ bə·ḡê ṣal·mā·weṯ
lō- ’î·rā  rā‘
Even when I walk through a dark valley,
I fear no harm ...

The noun צַלְמָ֫וֶת (sal-maw'-veth) means "deep darkness" or "thick darkness", and often describes extreme danger.

States one standard dictionary: "It describes the darkness of eyelids tired from weeping (Job 16:16), the thick darkness present in a mine shaft (Job 28:3), the darkness of the abode of the dead (Job 10:21ff; Job 38:17), and the darkness prior to creation (Amos 5:8)."

The noun רָע (rah) means "adversity", "distress, misery or calamity".  Since in modern English the word "evil" doesn't mean "disaster" or "misfortune" any more, the translation chosen is "harm".

V. 6b
וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְּבֵית יְ֝הוָ֗ה לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים׃
wə·šaḇ·tî bə·ḇêṯ- Yah·weh lə·’ō·reḵ yā·mîm.
I shall journey again to Yahweh’s house for many days to come

The translation of וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י as "dwell" is common, but relies on an editorial change made by translators.  The word in the Hebrew text clearly suggests not dwelling but returning.

The last two words of the psalm, לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים, are often translated as "forever", perhaps in a "christianizing interpretation, in which the Lord's house is understood as heaven, and the psalmist begins to dwell there ... forever." (David Clines). But since the phrase, literally "the length of days", doesn't mean "forever" anywhere else, it seems smarter to stick to "for many days to come".

After these few examples for the reasoning behind the decisions made in the Clines translation it it clear to me that making this old psalm more accurate doesn't make it less suitable for private devotion and public worship.

As busy and industrious North Americans, we are inclined to view life as an achievement; think of the phrase “we make a living”. In contrast to that attitude, Psalm 23 affirms that life is essentially a gift. Not something you can achieve or buy or work hard for – God's gracious gift to each of us.

Saint Francis of Assisi lay on his deathbed. He was singing, and singing so loudly that the whole neighborhood was aware. Brother Elias, a pompous but prominent member of the Franciscan order, came close to Saint Francis and said, "Father, there are people standing in the street outside your window." Many had come. Fearing that the last moment of Francis' life had come, many who loved him had gathered together around the house.

Said this Brother Elias, "I am afraid nothing we might do could prevent them from hearing you singing. The lack of restraint at so grave an hour might embarrass the order, Father. It might lower the esteem in which you yourself are so justly held. Perhaps in your extremity you have lost sight of your obligation to the may who have come to regard you as a saint. Would it not be more edifying for them if you would, er, die with more Christian dignity?"

"Please excuse me, Brother," Saint Francis said, "but I feel so much joy in my heart that I really can't help myself. I must sing."

You see that Brother Elias is concerned with public opinion. He wants Francis to be serious and dignified; he can't stand the idea of Francis being ordinary. Laughing and singing and dancing in his mind are for ordinary people.

But Francis says he must sing; he has already melted into God. It's not even that Francis who is singing any more; he has become the song.

That's why he cannot help it; he has no control over it any more. The song of the universe is happening. The self, the ego, no longer exists. Saint Francis is no longer there as an individual; in him is absolute silence, and out of that silence the song has been born.

Francis died singing; he is the only Christian saint that died singing.

No matter what the lords of this world promise us, we know that all we need is this shepherd. We know that we are strangers here and that our home is elsewhere – thus we are critical of the lords of this world.