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23 March 2015

Holy Week Companion

Holy Week

Every time Holy Week comes around again, many say, "This year I will make time for at least a few services during Holy Week", but then life happens, and you end up doing other things instead.

I want to invite you to use my "Holy Week Companion" to get you started this year. On almost one hundred and fifty pages these three PDF documents from 2006 offer you Scripture, poetry, music and art.

Here's a sample text from Part II.

who hast made all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, nor desirest the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live; Have mercy upon all who know thee not as thou art revealed in the Gospel of thy Son. Take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy fold, that they may be made one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen. 

(Collect for Good Friday, Book of Common Prayer)

Simply copy each of the following http strings into your browser and retrieve the document stored at that location.

A blessed Holy Week to you and yours.

On Space and Time (Palmarum / Sunday of the Passion)

Psalm 31

On one occasion Ma-tsu and Po-chang  were out for a walk, when they saw some wild geese flying past.

"What are they?" asked Ma-tsu.
"They're wild geese," said Po-chang.
"Where are they at this moment?" demanded Ma-tsu.
Po-chang replied, "They've already flown away."

Suddenly Ma-tsu grabbed Po-chang by the nose and twisted it so that he cried out in pain.

"How," shouted Ma-tsu, "could you say they ever have flown away? From the very beginning they are just here." Po-chang broke into a cold sweat and was awakened.

So goes an old teaching story from the Chinese school of Zen Buddhism. The questions "where" and "when" that occur in the story point to themes in this week's psalm (Psalm 31).

Entreaty (VV 1-2)
In you, O Lord, I have taken shelter! / Never let me be humiliated! / Vindicate me by rescuing me!  2 Listen to me! Quickly deliver me! / Be my protector and refuge*, / a stronghold where I can be safe! 

Confidence (VV 3-8)
3 For you are my high ridge and my stronghold; / for the sake of your own reputation you lead me and guide me. 4 You will free me from the net they hid for me, / for you are my place of refuge. 5 Into your hand I entrust my life; / you will rescue me, O Lord, the faithful God. 6 I hate those who serve worthless idols, / but I trust in the Lord. 7 I will be happy and rejoice in your faithfulness, / because you notice my pain / and you are aware of how distressed I am. 8 You do not deliver me over to the power of the enemy; / you have set my feet^ in a wide open place. 

Distress (VV 9-13)
9 Have mercy on me, for I am in distress! / My eyes grow dim from suffering. / I have lost my strength**. 10 For my life nears its end in pain; / my years draw to a close as I groan. / My strength fails me because of my sin, / and my bones become brittle. 11 Because of all my enemies, people disdain me; / my neighbors are appalled by my suffering –/ those who know me are horrified by my condition; / those who see me in the street run away from me. 12 I am forgotten, like a dead man no one thinks about; / I am regarded as worthless, like a broken jar. 13 For I hear what so many are saying, / the terrifying news that comes from every direction. / When they plot together against me, / they figure out how they can take my life. 

Entreaty (VV 14-18)
14 But I trust in you, O Lord! / I declare, “You are my God!” 15 My times are in your hands.¶ / Rescue me from the power of my enemies and those who chase me. 16 Smile *** on your servant! / Deliver me because of your faithfulness!  17 O Lord, do not let me be humiliated, / for I call out to you!  May evil men be humiliated! / May they go wailing to the grave! 18 May lying lips be silenced – / lips that speak defiantly against the innocent / with arrogance and contempt! 

Praise (VV 19-22)
19 How great is your favor, / which you store up for your loyal followers! /In plain sight of everyone you bestow it on those who take shelter in you. 20 You hide them with you, where they are safe from the attacks of men; / you conceal them in a shelter, where they are safe from slanderous attacks. 21 The Lord deserves praise / for he demonstrated his amazing faithfulness to me when I was besieged by enemies. 22 I jumped to conclusions and said, / “I am cut off from your presence!” /But you heard my plea for mercy when I cried out to you for help.  

Exhortation (VV 23-24)
23 Love the Lord, all you faithful followers of his! / The Lord protects those who have integrity,/ but he pays back in full the one who acts arrogantly. 24 Be strong and confident¶¶ /  all you who wait on the Lord!

It is likely that the first time most of us encountered Psalm 31 was in Luke Chapter 23, in the last of the seven words Jesus is said to have spoken from the cross.  In Luke 23:46 the evangelist reports that Jesus was quoting Psalm 31:5: Into your hands I commit my life/spirit.

Luke 23:46
Πάτερ, εις χείρας σου
παρατίθεμαι τὸ πνευμά μου. 

Psalm 31:5
בְּיָדְךָ֮ אַפְקִ֪יד ר֫וּחִ֥י 

I want to return, though, to the questions of "where" and "when". Consider VV 8 and 15.

הֶֽעֱמַ֖דְתָּ בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב רַגְלָֽי
You have set my feet in a wide open place. (V 8)

The word מֶרְחָב (merchab, wide open space) can mean enlargement, either literally (an open space, usually in a good sense), or figuratively (liberty) -- breadth, large place (room).

בְּיָדְךָ֥ עִתֹּתָ֑י
My times are in your hands. (V 15)

The noun עֵת (eth, time) often means always, appointed time, circumstances, or season.

Our conception of space and time has undergone much change since Albert Einstein turned upside down what we thought we knew.  Far from the old idea that space and time are constants that remain the same in all conditions, modern scholars think of them as dynamic and dependent on the observer:

"If you try to get your hands on time, it's always slipping through your fingers," says Julian Barbour, British physicist. "People are sure time is there, but they can't get hold of it. My feeling is that they can't get hold of it because it isn't there at all."  

If indeed time is nothing but an illusion, perhaps to protect our human brains from getting overwhelmed with a multitude of "nows" that happen simultaneously, then modern science comes remarkably close to the Zen story I related above: 

"How could you say the geese have ever have flown away? From the very beginning they are just here." 

In contrast, the Psalmist isn't interested in such speculative stuff.  Look again at the two verses from Psalm 31. "You have set my feet in a wide open place. ... My times are in your hands." The Psalmist doesn't think in abstractions, but brings us back "down to earth".  Her statements are deeply personal; they are an expression of her faith in her God who cares deeply.  

Whatever terrible things occur in the twenty-four verses of our psalm, especially in those assigned as reading for Passion Sunday (VV 9-16), these two verses convey the Psalmist's relationship with God.

One of my favorite German words comes to mind: Geborgenheit.  Like the Hebrew word chesed (see some of my earlier posts), Geborgenheit is almost untranslatable, as it contains security, protection, warmth, closeness, peace, trust, acceptance, and love.

The Psalmist invites us to think of our space and our times.  Look, she says, with God, you'll always have the space you need, and with God's guidance, your times will always be protected.  As one commentary says, she "grounds us in the reality of today’s world where we can find refuge in God".


* Hebrew: "become for me a rocky summit of refuge".
**Hebrew: "my breath and my stomach grow weak".
¶ NET phrasing replaced with that of NRSV.
***Hebrew: "cause your face to shine"
¶¶Hebrew: "be strong and let your heart be confident"
^ NET phrasing replaced with that of NRSV

14 March 2015

Herr, tue meine Lippen auf! (Judika / Lent 5)

Psalm 51

Many years ago in a large city in the far West, rumors spread that a certain Catholic woman was having visions of Jesus. The reports reached the archbishop. He decided to check out whether her visions were real.

“Is it true, ma’am, that you have visions of Jesus?” asked the cleric.

“Yes,” the woman replied simply.

“Well, the next time you have a vision, I want you to ask Jesus to tell you the sins that I confessed in my last confession.”

The woman was stunned. “Did I hear you right, bishop? You actually want me to ask Jesus to tell me the sins of your past?”

“Exactly. Please call me if anything happens.”

Ten days later the woman notified her spiritual leader of a recent apparition. “Please come,” she said.

Within the hour the archbishop arrived. He trusted eye-to-eye contact. “You just told me on the telephone that you actually had a vision of Jesus. Did you do what I asked?”

“Yes, bishop, I asked Jesus to tell me the sins you confessed in your last confession.”

The bishop leaned forward with anticipation. His eyes narrowed.

“What did Jesus say?”

She took his hand and gazed deep into his eyes. “Bishop,” she said, “these are his exact words: I CAN’T REMEMBER.’”

Like the story above, Psalm 51 is about confession, and about experiencing the gift of God's grace:

Theme and Vocabulary of Confession (VV 1-2)
1 Have mercy on me, O God, because of your loyal love! / Because of your great compassion, wipe away my rebellious acts! 2 Wash away my wrongdoing! / Cleanse me of my sin! 

Confession (VV 3-5)
3 For I am aware of my rebellious acts; / I am forever conscious of my sin. 4 Against you—you above all—I have sinned; / I have done what is evil in your sight. / So you are just when you confront me; / you are right when you condemn me. 5 Look, I was guilty of sin from birth, / a sinner the moment my mother conceived me. 

"Imperatives" (VV 6-14)
6 Look, you desire integrity in the inner being*; / you want me to possess wisdom. 7 Sprinkle me with water and I will be pure; / wash me and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Grant me the ultimate joy of being forgiven! /  May the bones you crushed rejoice! 9 Hide your face from my sins! / Wipe away all my guilt! 
10 Create for me a pure heart, O God! / Renew a resolute spirit within me! / 11 Do not reject me! / Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me! 12 Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance! / Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey! 13 Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways, / and sinners will turn to you. 14 Rescue me from the guilt of murder, O God, the God who delivers me! / Then my tongue will shout for joy because of your deliverance. 

Praise of the Unburdened (VV 15-17)
15 O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise**. 16 Certainly you do not want a sacrifice, or else I would offer it; / you do not desire a burnt sacrifice. 17 The sacrifices God desires are a humble spirit / O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject. 

An Appendix Added at a Later Time (VV 18-19)
18 Because you favor Zion, do what is good for her! / Fortify the walls of Jerusalem! 19 Then you will accept the proper sacrifices, burnt sacrifices and whole offerings; /  then bulls will be sacrificed on your altar.

The first encounter German Lutherans have with Psalm 51 is usually in the form of the old hymn:  "Ein reines Herz, Herr, schaff in mir, schließ zu der Sünde Tor und Tür". And most American Lutherans grew up singing: "Create in me a clean heart,  O God, and renew a right spirit within me". Both are renditions of VV 10-12.

But there's so much more to this psalm, often called Miserere for its first word in Latin.

Psalm 51 has been listed under the Penitential Psalms since the early 5th century. According to the classification suggested by Walter Brueggemann, it is one of the Psalms of Disorientation. "These psalms reflect the brokenness of life when it is no longer orderly but savage.  Spoken out of the depths, they are still bold acts of faith". 

The petition that begins our psalm (VV 1-2) provides the theme and introduces the necessary vocabulary.  First, it asks for three attributes of Yahweh: mercy (chanan), loyal love (chesed), and motherly compassion (rachamim); then the Psalmist requests a threefold cleansing of her sin, in increasing intensity: blot out (machah), wash away (kabas) and purify (taher).

Brueggemann observes that the first three terms belong to the language of covenant, while the remaining terms are cultic words; he states, "the cultic acts of forgiveness are a mode through which the actual pardon of Yahweh is made available".  In other words, the transformative action of cleansing repairs the covenant.

In the actual confession (VV 3-5) the Psalmist looks at sin as a theo-logical problem ("Against you—you above all—I have sinned"), says unambiguously that God is  one hundred percent right ("you are just when you confront me") and ends by saying that she has no claim against God because she is sin-sick ("I was guilty of sin from birth").

The Psalmist begins the long section dubbed "Imperatives" (VV 6–14) with a statement Brueggemann calls "strange and noteworthy".

הֵן־אֱ֭מֶת חָפַ֣צְתָּ בַטֻּח֑וֹ
 וּ֝בְסָתֻ֗ם חָכְמָ֥ה תוֹדִיעֵֽנִי׃
Look, you desire integrity (אֱמֶת, emeth) in the inner being / you want me to possess wisdom (חָכְמָ֥ה, chokmah).

Here, chokmah is not paired with chesed (see my most recent post), but with emeth. אֱמֶת can mean firmness, faithfulness, sureness, reliability, stability, continuance, truth, or (as in the NET translation I use above) integrity. The Psalmist states that God longs for human beings who embody integrity.

The new life characterized by integrity of the inner being cannot occur before God takes some action: in the imperatives of VV 7-14 God is urged to  purge, wash, fill, hide, blot out, create, put, cast not, take not, restore, uphold and deliver.

VV 7–9 describe forgiveness in the cultic language of the psalm's introduction. The well-known subsequent passage (VV 10–12) begs for a clean slate ("clean heart"), using three times the term ר֫וּחַ, (ruach, “spirit/wind”); as this is the same word signifying the life-giving wind that swept over the formless void in the creation story, we see that the Psalmist asks God for nothing less but to start her own creation over.  VV 13-14 indicate a transition from utter misery to a faint glimmer of hope, as the Psalmist envisions teaching sinners and praising God for her deliverance.

The Praise of the Unburdened is expressed in VV 15–17.  The mood has changed.

אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח
O Lord, open my lips ...

This is a line many of us recognize from the liturgy of Matins.  When I was four or five years old, my Dad held Morgenandacht (Matins) every weekday morning, and I loved walking over to church with him. There was always so much to see: not just the inside of the baroque building but also the "little old ladies" that showed up with us every morning. One of the few things I remember distinctly was the chanting:

"Herr, tue meine Lippen auf / dass mein Mund deinen Ruhm verkündige. Eile, Gott, mich zu erretten / Herr, mir zu helfen".

"O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise.  O God, come to my assistance! / O Lord, hasten to help me!"

Only in the context of the full anguished psalm can we fathom the power of V 15: "The very lips which diminished the self are now able to exalt God ... The dismantled self, characterized in verse 17, requires a shattering of one’s spirit, a brokenness of one’s heart ... True worship and new living require a yielding of self to begin again on God’s terms". (Brueggemann) 

*  I chose "inner being" (NRSV), rather than "inner man" (NET).
**Restored to the wording of the NRSV.

08 March 2015

Chesed and Chokmah (Lätare / Lent 4)

Psalm 107

It was in my first congregation, in the South Bronx. One day the parsonage was broken into; the thieves had broken a hole into the wall, taken everything that was of any value, and left through the front door which they left wide open, with the lights turned on. 

That night we temporarily boarded up the hole. The next day I came back from a hospital visit, and found the boarded-up hole opened again. That week, the parsonage was not broken into two or three, but four times. Every night before I went to sleep, I made sure I had my iron pipe sitting under the bed.

I had no other place to go at the time, and fear started to wear me out. Then, one of the last nights in the week, I came home, and the house had been broken into for the fifth time. 

I couldn't take it any more. I called some Manhattan friends, and asked whether I could spend the night in their house; they said I could but they wouldn't be home until late that night. I would have to wait around until they could pick me up. I packed and decided that I wouldn't wait in the house. 

I took my stuff and walked over to the church. I needed a sanctuary, quite literally. I sat down and cried. I screamed at God, and I said, "I can't take this any more, God. I've had it!"

And as I kept crying, as I begged for God to answer but heard nothing, not a thing, it was as though a big bulldozer came and pushed away everything I lived for; my dreams, my hopes, my future, even the next day — all disappeared in the despair of that night. I couldn't think beyond this night, and I heard myself saying words I never thought I would say. "There is no sense to life any more." And I kept crying.

Do you know what it is like to hope against hope, what it is like to hope anyway, to hope just because you remember the goodness and love of God?  I did remember God as I was sitting in that Bronx sanctuary. And that sure was not an act of my will or a result of reasoning or reflection. 

I was still crying; but through the haze of my tears I looked and saw the piano and the red hymnals on top, ... and I remembered bits and pieces of a Christmas hymn by Johann Sebastian Bach (Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier = Besides the Manger Here I Stand), a hymn that I had been drawn to as a child because its minor key was so haunting.

I sat down at the piano, opened the hymnal and played the tune.  I started to sing the old words by Paul Gerhardt:

"Ich lag in tiefster Todesnacht, / du warest meine Sonne".

When deepest night of death I faced, / you, Child, became my sunshine.*

As I sat there singing, I re-membered what had become dis-membered: I connected with the fact that even the ugliest and deadliest clouds of my childhood had been conquered by the sun of God's love.  Life came back to me. I hoped against hope.

Going through tough times and finding your way back to trusting God, that's the major theme of Psalm 107.

Call to Thank God (VV 1-3)
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, / and his loyal love endures! 2 Let those delivered by the Lord speak out, / those whom he delivered from the power of the enemy, 3 and gathered from foreign lands, / from east and west, / from north and south. 

Thanks for Food and Water: 
"People from the East" (VV 4-9)
4 They wandered through the wilderness on a desert road; / they found no city in which to live. 5 They were hungry and thirsty /  they fainted from exhaustion. 6 They cried out to the Lord in their distress / he delivered them from their troubles. 7 He led them on a level road, / that they might find a city in which to live. 8 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loyal love, / and for the amazing things he has done for people! 9 For he has satisfied those who thirst, / and those who hunger he has filled with food. 

Thanks for Setting Prisoners Free: 
"People from the East" (VV 10-16)
10 They sat in utter darkness, / bound in painful iron chains, 11 because they had rebelled against God’s commands, / and rejected the instructions of the sovereign king. 12 So he used suffering to humble them; / they stumbled and no one helped them up. 13 They cried out to the Lord in their distress / he delivered them from their troubles. 14 He brought them out of the utter darkness, / and tore off their shackles. 15 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loyal love, / and for the amazing things he has done for people! 16 For he shattered the bronze gates, / and hacked through the iron bars.

Thanks for Healing the Sick:
"People from the North" (VV 17-22)
17 They acted like fools in their rebellious ways, / and suffered because of their sins. 18 They lost their appetite for all food, / and they drew near the gates of death. 19 They cried out to the Lord in their distress / he delivered them from their troubles. 20 He sent them an assuring word and healed them / he rescued them from the pits where they were trapped. 21 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loyal love, / and for the amazing things he has done for people! 22 Let them present thank offerings, / and loudly proclaim what he has done! 

Thanks for Rescuing the Mariners:
"People from the South" (VV 23-32)
23 Some traveled on the sea in ships, / and carried cargo over the vast waters. 24 They witnessed the acts of the Lord,  / his amazing feats on the deep water. 25 He gave the order for a windstorm, / and it stirred up the waves of the sea. 26 They reached up to the sky, / then dropped into the depths. / The sailors’ strength left them because the danger was so great. 27 They swayed and staggered like a drunk, / and all their skill proved ineffective. 28 They cried out to the Lord in their distress / he delivered them from their troubles. 29 He calmed the storm, / and the waves grew silent. 30 The sailors rejoiced because the waves grew quiet, / and he led them to the harbor they desired. 31 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loyal love, / and for the amazing things he has done for people! 32 Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people! / Let them praise him in the place where the leaders preside! 

God Controls Nature (VV 33-38)
33 He turned streams into a desert, / springs of water into arid land, 34 and a fruitful land into a barren place, / because of the sin of its inhabitants. 35 As for his people, he turned a desert into a pool of water, / and a dry land into springs of water. 36 He allowed the hungry to settle there, / and they established a city in which to live. 37 They cultivated fields, / and planted vineyards, / which yielded a harvest of fruit. 38 He blessed them so that they became very numerous. / He would not allow their cattle to decrease in number.

God Delivers the Needy (VV 39-43) 
39 As for their enemies, they decreased in number and were beaten down, / because of painful distress and suffering. 40 He would pour contempt upon princes, / and he made them wander in a wasteland with no road. 41 Yet he protected the needy from oppression, / and cared for his families like a flock of sheep. 42 When the godly see this, they rejoice, / and every sinner shuts his mouth. 43 Whoever is wise, let him take note of these things! / Let them consider the Lord’s acts of loyal love!

Imagine a Festival of Thanksgiving at the Jerusalem Temple. Biblical scholars suggest that Psalm 107 might have been used at (and perhaps written for) such a festival.

Like the piers of a mighty bridge, the first and the last verse hold together the "span" of this "super-sized" psalm of thanksgiving.  The key word in VV 1 and 43 is chesed. As I said in another post a few weeks ago, the word חֶ֫סֶד (chesed) denotes loyal devotion, faithful love and steadfast passion.  While the word can describe anyone's "unfailing, faithful covenant love", here it talks of God's faithfulness.

VV 1-3 instructs the People of God to give thanks for the fact that God in his amazing love gathers people from all directions: "from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south".

Using a kind of liturgical formula language that utilizes frequent repetition the Psalmist then provides four vignettes in VV 4-32.  We are told of wanderers rescued from the desert, of prisoners set free, of ill people healed, and of sailors ("mariners") saved from shipwreck. It is possible that each vignette represents one of the directions mentioned in the introduction (see my section headings in the psalm above).

The remaining two parts talk of the actions of God in creation and toward those who are poor and needy.  Each part portrays God as both, punishing the wicked ones who don't care for God's chesed, and saving those who have prevailed in it.

Because it ties back into my story at the beginning I want to mention one more key word.  It shows up for the first time in V 27 and then reappears in V 43, the second "pier". That word is חָכְמָה (chokmah), often simply translated as "wisdom".

Michael Fox defines chokmah as “a high degree of knowledge and skill in any domain" and thus displays the fact that the Hebrew term encompasses so much more than its English counterpart “wisdom”.

When in V 27 we are told the mariners are at their wit's end, the word chokmah reveals the passage's connection with wisdom:

חָ֝כְמָתָ֗ם תִּתְבַּלָּֽע׃
(ḥā·ḵə·mā·ṯām tiṯ·bal·lā‘)

This is a more literal (and much more powerful) translation: "Their wisdom was suddenly swallowed up". That's exactly how I felt in that Bronx sanctuary.

In V 43 we see chokmah tied together with chesed.

... מִי־ חָכָ֥ם וְיִשְׁמָר־ אֵ֑לֶּה
(mî- ḥā·ḵām wə·yiš·mār-’êl·leh)

"Whoever is wise, let him take note of these things! / Let them consider the Lord’s acts of loyal love!"

* my own translation, in blank verse.

01 March 2015

Speech that Reveals God: A Many-Splendored Thing (Okuli / Lent 3)

Psalm 19

Pattern of up and down 
movement from a 
single solar musical note.

The rain has stopped, the clouds have drifted away, / and the weather is clear again.
If your heart is pure, / then all things in your world are pure. 
Abandon this fleeting world, / abandon yourself,
Then the moon and flowers / will guide you along the Way.

This poem is by Ryokan (1758-1831), a Zen Buddhist hermit-monk/poet and beloved figure in Japan.  Even as he describes the world as fleeting, he sees it as enchanted and invites us to become one with it.  

His words at the end of the poem, "the moon and flowers will guide you along the Way" seem like a good segue to Psalm 19, as it, too, suggests that the world around us has something to say to us.

VV 1-6. Wordless Speech.
The heavens declare the glory of God; / the sky displays his handiwork. 2 Day after day it speaks out; / night after night it reveals his greatness. 3 There is no actual speech or word, / nor is its voice literally heard. 4 Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth; / its words carry to the distant horizon. / In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun. 5 Like a bridegroom it emerges from its chamber; / like a strong man it enjoys running its course. 6 It emerges from the distant horizon, / and goes from one end of the sky to the other; / nothing can escape its heat. 

VV 7-10. Timeless Speech.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect and preserves one’s life. / The rules set down by the Lord are reliable and impart wisdom to the inexperienced. 8 The Lord’s precepts are fair and make one joyful. / The Lord’s commands are pure and give insight for life. 9 The commands to fear the Lord are right and endure forever. / The judgments given by the Lord are trustworthy and absolutely just. 10 They are of greater value than gold, than even a great amount of pure gold / they bring greater delight than honey, than even the sweetest honey from a honeycomb. 

VV 11-14. Confessional Speech.
11 Yes, your servant finds moral guidance there / those who obey them receive a rich reward. 12 Who can know all his errors? / Please do not punish me for sins I am unaware of.  13 Moreover, keep me from committing flagrant sins; do not allow such sins to control me. / Then I will be blameless, and innocent of blatant rebellion. 14 May my words and my thoughts be acceptable in your sight / O Lord, my sheltering rock and my redeemer.

הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם מְֽסַפְּרִ֥ים כְּבֽוֹד אֵ֑ל
וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֝דָ֗יו מַגִּ֥יד הָרָקִֽיעַ׃
“The heavens declare the glory of God; /
the sky displays his handiwork.” (V 1). 

The verbs סָפַר (spr) and נָגַד (ngd) point to speech as one of the themes of this three-part psalm.

1.The first part of Psalm 19 is about Wordless Speech: the witness of God's creation. What we so easily call "inanimate" is seen by the Psalmist as quite the opposite:

"All of creation is taken to be lively, responsive (conscious?) creatures, whose work is obedience (fruitfulness) and praise ... Israel ... takes creation seriously in and for itself as reference to Yahweh. This is not simply aesthetic delight, though it may include that. It is a theological witness to the wondrous reality of Yahweh." (Walter Brueggemann).

Far from being a void, the sky is the very word of God -- a Torah of nature that can be read by anyone. It is as legible as the written law.

This Torah tells of a Creator who breaks forth in sun and rain, who enters the physical world. One can follow this word by following the course of the sun in the sky, like reading a scroll right to left.

Walt Hearn, in his Scientist's Psalm, rhymes:

Earth we live on, merely one / Planet of a minor sun / Join this entire galaxy, / Showing forth His majesty!

Beyond our own galactic rim, / Billions more are praising Him. / Ten to some gigantic power / Times the height of Babel's tower.

Can a star declare God's glory? Can it have a voice to be able to sing God's praises? Astronomers have a surprising answer to those questions.  Scientists at the NOAO (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) have found that our sun is like a musical instrument. It rings like a bell, and vibrates like an organ pipe.

In an attempt to measure what is going on inside the sun, they have tracked the sound waves eminating from the sun. Just like a piano has 88 keys or musical notes, the sun has 10 million keys or notes.

The computer graphic above shows the pattern of up and down movement from a single solar musical note:  Blue shows the parts of the sun that are moving up, and red shows the ones moving up. You can find several clips with the sounds of our sun on YouTube; a link to one is below.

You can't dance to the song, but it makes it clear that the stars do indeed sing. They do have a voice to declare the glory of God.

2. The second part of our psalm is about Timeless Speech, the written Torah. At this point, the psalm moves out of metaphor and changes into more prosaic language. The focus is no longer on God’s "handiwork" in space, but on created humans and speech.

The section begins with a sentence containing the word Torah: “The law of the Lord (תּ֘וֹרַ֤ת יְהוָ֣ה) is perfect and preserves one’s life."

The psalm then makes seven statements referring to God’s instruction as found in Scripture. James T. Bartsch summarizes them:

- Perfect Speech (affecting a person's soul, V 7a)
- Sure Speech (affecting a person's mind, V 7b)
- Righteous Speech (affecting a person's heart, V 8a)
- Brilliant Speech (affecting a person's sight, V 8b)
- Clean and Eternal Speech (affecting a person's spirit, V 9a)
- True and Righteous Speech (V 9b)
- Desirable Speech (V 10)

What are these words of the Lord’s instruction worth? "They are of greater value than gold, than even a great amount of pure gold / they bring greater delight than honey, than even the sweetest honey from a honeycomb".

3. The third part of Psalm 19 is about Confessional Speech. Speaking to God directly and calling himself "your servant", the Psalmist acknowledges that he cannot be righteous through Torah alone. He asks God to acquit him, to clear him of guilt.

Since the social environment of life makes the observance of Torah difficult and encourages insolent people who scorn Torah piety, the Psalmist prays that God protect him from domination by their prestige and power.

The last verse, "May my words and my thoughts be acceptable in your sight / O Lord, my sheltering rock and my redeemer", often used by preachers before the sermon, reveal that the psalm is composed for oral recitation in an act of worship.

Solar Sounds Clip:

25 February 2015

Jews, Christians, Muslims: Covenant Siblings (Lent 2)

Genesis 17: 1-7(8). 15-16(17)
Psalm 22

In 1965 Flannery O'Connor published a short story entitled "Revelation". Ruby Turpin is a large Southern woman who is stuck in a narrow way of perceiving the world. She feels her actions and decisions make her superior to black people and those she calls "white trash." The story opens as she and her husband Claud enter a doctor's crowded waiting room. She insists that he take the last vacant chair. She notices a dirty toddler with a runny nose lying across two seats and is quietly affronted that the child's dirty, uncouth mother doesn't make him move over for Mrs Turpin to sit.

Mrs. Turpin strikes up a conversation with a "pleasant" woman who is apparently there with her college age daughter named Mary Grace. The daughter is studying a book with the title "Human Development," and only looks up from her reading to glare hatefully at Mrs Turpin.

She and the pleasant woman chat about the importance of being hard working, clean, and having a good disposition. They also talk about being grateful and how it is important to be thankful for the good things you have been given in life.

As the pleasant lady and Mrs Turpin chat, Mary Grace seems to grow angrier. The pleasant lady begins to speak about Mary Grace in the 3rd person: "I know a girl ... whose parents would give her anything..." and obviously frustrated, says that "this girl" should be grateful for all she has in life. Claud then suggests that "this girl" ought to be paddled.

Outraged, Mary Grace hurls the book, "Human Development", at Mrs. Turpin, lunges across a table, and clutches Mrs Turpin's throat. The book strikes Mrs. Turpin above her eye. The girl is subdued and given a sedative by the doctor and nurse who call an ambulance.

Mrs Turpin now has a visceral feeling that Mary Grace has a message of truth for her. Before Mary Grace succumbs to the sedative, Mrs Turpin feels the need to confront her: "What you got to say to me?" she asks Mary Grace. She sees some kind of revelatory light in Mary Grace's blue eyes. "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog," whispers Mary Grace as the sedative takes effect and she is taken away.

Mrs. Turpin finds this comment very unsettling, and she wonders if it may have been a message from God, who may be trying to intervene in her life. Hating the notion, and still upset, she returns home.

While hosing down her own hogs in their sty (which she calls a "pig parlor"), and obsessing on what she is terrified may be an intrinsically true message from God, Mrs. Turpin rages. She scolds God, demanding to know how she could possibly be herself -- the upstanding, polite, good Christian she sees herself as -- and a "wart hog" at the same time. As the sun sinks low in front of her at the pig sty, she angrily echoes Job's question to God: "Who do you think you are?" She then has a vision of redeemed souls winding their way to Heaven as if on a highway of crimson light "through a field of fire". 

What is telling about her vision is that she, Claud, and "proper" white Christians are at the back of the throng. In front of them, arriving in heaven first, are all the people Mrs Turpin considers inferior and unworthy of either her or God's love. At the rear of this great parade into heaven she sees the faces of herself, Claud, and her proper Christian friends as they appear "shocked and altered" as "even their virtues were being burned away." 

This seems to be her revelation: that even what she considers to be basic human virtues are incomparable and expendable to God's all-loving embrace. There, the vision ends and she stands stunned holding onto the walls of the pig sty for a moment, then walks back to the house slowly as the sun sets behind the tree line.

Each of us is familiar with Ms. Turpin's narrow ways of thinking.  We all know at least one narrow and inflexible "Ms. Turpin" among our acquaintances.  But do you ever look in the mirror and find yourself staring at Ms. Turpin?

This week's Old Testament lesson from Genesis 17 delivers one reason why none of us has any business running around spouting narrow-mindedness.

When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am the sovereign God. Walk before me and be blameless. 2 Then I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and I will give you a multitude of descendants." 

3 Abram bowed down with his face to the ground, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer will your name be Abram. Instead, your name will be Abraham because I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you extremely fruitful. I will make nations of you, and kings will descend from you. 7 I will confirm my covenant as a perpetual covenant between me and you. It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations. I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 I will give the whole land of Canaan -- the land where you are now residing -- to you and your descendants after you as a permanent possession. I will be their God. ... 

15 Then God said to Abraham, “As for your wife, you must no longer call her Sarai; Sarah will be her name. 16 I will bless her and will give you a son through her. I will bless her and she will become a mother of nations. Kings of countries will come from her!”  17 Then Abraham bowed down with his face to the ground and laughed as he said to himself, "Can a son be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?"

As last Sunday's Old Testament reading brought us God’s covenant with Noah, this Sunday we are presented with God’s covenant with Abraham.  Covenants in the ancient Near East were not just legal documents but also expressions of a relationship between two partners.

This relationship aspect is even more pronounced in the covenants between God and the People of God. A central element of the Abraham stories is that God makes promises, mostly in the first person.

Note also that Sarah is not treated as a footnote or even a sidekick: in our text she receives a promise in her own right, not simply through Abraham. Kings of countries will come from her! (VV 15-16)

One of the striking elements in Genesis 17 is the emphasis on "descendants".  Four times in this chapter we hear of the great numbers of Abram and Sarai's descendants. The "exceedingly numerous" nations that will come from Abraham's line will belong to God, and God will be theirs.

וְנָתַתִּ֣י לְ֠ךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ֨ אַחֲרֶ֜יךָ אֵ֣ת אֶ֣רֶץ מְגֻרֶ֗יךָ 
And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings. (V 8)

When the captives sat "by the waters of Babylon", they were telling each other the stories about  these ancient ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. In the midst of their lonely exile experience, hearing these stories reminded them of the goodness of God, who can turn barenness into new life and utter hopelessness into a bright future.
I imagine the captives smiling as they recalled just how ancient Abram and Sarai were when God called them to get up and leave everything they knew to walk into the unknown. And now, some twenty years later, this ancient couple is receiving the ridiculous promise of land and descendants. 

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Abram is rolling on the floor with laughter (V 17) when he hears the outrageous announcement that the two of them would become the ancestors of a multitude of nations. 

The end of Psalm 22 fits perfectly into this discussion, as the Psalmist describes how God's blessings spread in ever-widening circles:

27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 28 for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. ... 30 They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done*.

This is nothing less than the story of our ancestors in the faith. The outrageous promise of God begins to take shape when indeed this stone-old couple has a son, Isaac (which means in plain English, "Someone's Laughing"). Today we who are Jews, Christians and Muslims consider Abraham and Sarah our spiritual ancestors.  

Together with Jews and Muslims we Christians are "covenant siblings". That fact won't change just because we can't seem to find a way to make peace with each other.

As mystics in all three religions have asserted again and again, we are all One: not just as Jews, Christians and Muslims, but as all of humanity, to the ends of the earth.  In fact, we are also one with those who came before us and one with those who haven't been born as yet!

Since all creation is One, we have no business turning away from any part of creation ... to do so is not only an insult to God, but such narrow-minded and bigoted ways harm the human family as a whole.

I want to end with words by King Hussein I of Jordan: "For our part, we shall continue to work for the new dawn when all the Children of Abraham and their descendants are living together in the birthplace of their three great monotheistic religions, a life free from fear, a life free from want—a life in peace".


*While my Scripture quotations are usually from the NET Bible, in Psalm 22:30 I chose the translation still in my ear from many a Good Friday service: that of the Book of Common Prayer, as adopted by the LBW.

21 February 2015

Where Are You, Lord? (Reminiscere / Lent 2)

Psalm 22

Ravi Zacharias tells the story of Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and survivor of the Holocaust, when he was forced, along with a few others in a concentration camp, to witness the hanging of two Jewish men and one Jewish boy. The two men died right away, but the young lad struggled on the gallows. Somebody behind Wiesel muttered, “Where is God? Where is He?” Then the voice ground out the anguish again, “Where is He?” Wiesel felt the same question irrepressibly within him: “Where is God? Where is He?” Then he heard a voice softly within him saying, “He is hanging there on the gallows, where else?”

Elie Wiesel's powerful experience describes the "shattering disorientation" Walter Brueggemann has called "the pit"; so does this Sunday's psalm.

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? / I groan in prayer, but help seems far away. 2 My God, I cry out during the day, / but you do not answer, / and during the night my prayers do not let up.  3 You are holy / you sit as king receiving the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted /they trusted in you and you rescued them. 5 To you they cried out, and they were saved / in you they trusted and they were not disappointed. 

6 But I am a worm, not a man / people insult me and despise me.  7 All who see me taunt me / they mock me and shake their heads.  8 They say, “Commit yourself to the Lord! Let the Lord rescue him! / Let the Lord deliver him, for he delights in him.” 9 Yes, you are the one who brought me out from the womb / and made me feel secure on my mother’s breasts. 10 I have been dependent on you since birth / from the time I came out of my mother’s womb you have been my God.  11 Do not remain far away from me, / for trouble is near and I have no one to help me. 12 Many bulls surround me; /powerful bulls of Bashan hem me in.  13 They open their mouths to devour me / like a roaring lion that rips its prey. 

14 My strength drains away like water; my bones are dislocated /my heart is like wax; it melts away inside me. 15 The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery / my tongue sticks to my gums. / You set me in the dust of death. 16 Yes, wild dogs surround me— a gang of evil men crowd around me; / like a lion they pin my hands and feet. 17 I can count all my bones / my enemies are gloating over me in triumph. 18 They are dividing up my clothes among themselves; / they are rolling dice for my garments.  

19 But you, O Lord, do not remain far away! / You are my source of strength! Hurry and help me! 20 Deliver me from the sword! /  Save my life from the claws of the wild dogs. 21a Rescue me from the mouth of the lion, / and from the horns of the wild oxen! 

21b You have answered me! 22 I will declare your name to my countrymen! / In the middle of the assembly I will praise you! 23 You loyal followers of the Lord, praise him! / All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! / All you descendants of Israel, stand in awe of him! 24 For he did not despise or detest the suffering of the oppressed; / he did not ignore him; / when he cried out to him, he responded. 25 You are the reason I offer praise in the great assembly / I will fulfill my promises before the Lord’s loyal followers. 26 Let the oppressed eat and be filled! / Let those who seek his help praise the Lord! / May you live forever! 27 Let all the people of the earth acknowledge the Lord and turn to him! / Let all the nations worship you!  28 For the Lord is king / and rules over the nations. 29 All of the thriving people of the earth will join the celebration and worship / all those who are descending into the grave will bow before him,  / including those who cannot preserve their lives. 30 A whole generation will serve him; / 
they will tell the next generation about the sovereign Lord. 31 They will come and tell about his saving deeds / they will tell a future generation what he has accomplished.

By assigning only the "happy half" of our psalm on the Second Sunday in Lent, the lectionary steers us away from that stunning first verse (not to be heard in worship until Good Friday). But it doesn't quite succeed, does it?  

אֵלִ֣י אֵ֭לִי לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי

Even a quick glance makes me shiver; something about that cry of despair makes my blood run cold:

"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? / I groan in prayer, but help seems far away."

The Hebrew verb עָזַב  (aw-zab') means "to leave, forsake, or loose" and is related to an Arabic verb meaning "to be remote or absent". This powerful word included in its ancient context the male prerogative to divorce (literally to “forsake” one's wife). The psalmist states that God has removed himself, left behind, departed from, or even “loosened himself”!

This Psalm of Complaint accuses God of being unreasonably, unexpectedly, and inexcusably absent.  The complaint is followed by a series of petitions that implore God to be present again; finally, there is a celebration of rescue.

In the following passage from Isaiah, God states that he has left Israel, for a time:

I left you (aw-zab'), but only for a moment.
    Now, with enormous compassion, I’m bringing you back.
In an outburst of anger I turned my back on you—
        but only for a moment.
It’s with lasting love
        that I’m tenderly caring for you.
 (Isaiah 54:7-8)

Even though those verses, too, have a "happy end," Israel consistently found that it had good reason to worry about its relationship with God, for now and then God chose to be absent. Brueggemann describes this as the tension between God's self-regard and God's regard for Israel.

Because God will not and cannot be controlled, but is free, there are no clear-cut answers to many of our questions. Walter Brueggemann illustrates the starkness of this by answering some of the anxious questions:

"Where now is your God? Here and everywhere, but in ways one cannot administer.
How long? Until I am ready.
Why have you forsaken? My reasons are my own and will not be given to you.
Is Yahweh among us? Yes, in decisive ways, but not in ways that will suit you."

Far from getting lost in feeling powerless, the waiting of the psalmist is the tough and tenacious sort that I alluded to in a recent post. Instead of crying incessantly or kicking someone, he begins what Brueggemann has called the way out of the pit:

First, he voices his complaint directly to God, the source of help. Second, he offers specific petitions. Finally, he thanks God.

Elie Wiesel was once asked whether he believed in God. He answered, "No", explaining that after the holocaust he could no longer believe in God;  but then he added, "I'm a Jew, I must believe in God, so what I do is believe against God."

Taking God with utmost seriousness even to the point of risking your faith --  as both Elie Wiesel and our psalmist do -- is hard work, and such wrestling is not very popular.

Denial is cheaper: "I never go to church on Good Friday," said one of my church members, "it's just too sad". Along with my member, many "happy-happy-joy-joy" people don't want to deal with suffering, so they skip over Friday and go straight to Sunday. But if we are honest, we know that's a bad idea.

Would I entrust a "happy-happy-joy-joy" brother or sister with my pains and tears, with my loneliness and doubt?  I'd be a fool to do that.

I would look for a person who is willing to stay with me on my "Friday of Pain" or on my "Saturday of Waiting". That person would never try to make me feel better or drag me away to a "happier" Sunday, but cry out with me in my Gottverlassenheit (Godforsakenness).

So. When you worship this Sunday, enjoy the "happy" half of Psalm 22, but don't forget that the psalmist started out at "My God, my God, why?", that before he got to praise and thanksgiving he had to wrestle, and give blood, sweat and tears.