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01 July 2015

Desiring God As Much As Air (5.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 6)

Psalm 123


A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. "Master, I wish to become your disciple," said the man. "Why?" replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment. "Because I want to find God."

The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water.  As he was kicking and struggling to free himself, the master held him there for a minute (or three).  Then he pulled him up out of the river.

The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. "Tell me, what did you want most of all when you were under water."

"Air!" answered the man. "Very well," said the master. "Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air."

Just as in the story, the theme of Psalm 123 is Desiring God.



1 To you I lift up my eyes, / O the one who dwells in the heavens. 
2 Behold, as the eyes of the 
servants (look) to the hand 
of their lord, / As the eyes of the 
maid servants (look) to the hand
of her mistress, / Thus our eyes 
(look) to the Lord our God, / 
until he shows favor to us.

3 Show favor to us, O Lord, / 
show favor to us, / for we are 
overwhelmed with contempt. 
4 Our inmost being is 
overwhelmed with the mockery 
of the ones who are at ease, / 
the contempt of the proud. (NICOT)



Beginning with Charles Spurgeon commentators have noted a common theme linking psalms 120 through 123: whereas in Psalm 120, the psalmist looks up from despair, in Psalm 121, she looks up to the hills. Then, in Psalm 122, she looks up to the Temple. Finally, in Psalm 123 she looks up to God.

Samuel Cox admires our psalm for its "charm of unity".  "It limits itself to one thought, or rather it expresses a single mood of the soul -- the upward glance of a patient and hopeful faith."

The pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem (Psalm 123 is one of the Songs of Ascent) compare their trust in God to the relationship of trust between servants and their masters and mistresses.

Behold, as the eyes of the servants look to the hand of their lord, as the eyes of the maid servants look to the hand of her mistress, thus our eyes look to the Lord our God, ... until he shows favor to us (V. 2).

Just like obedient servants look up to their masters and mistresses for nurture and protection, masters and mistresses "show favor" to them.

The word translated here as "show favor", שֶׁיְּחָנֵּֽנוּ, comes from the Hebrew verbal root חָנַן (ḥānan; mercy, graciousness).

Matthias Jorissen's Metric Psalter aptly summarizes V. 1-2:

Zu dir im Himmel, HERR, zu deinem Licht 
erheb ich mein Gesicht. 
Wie auf die Hand des Herrn die Knechte schauen 
und seiner Güte trauen, 
wie sich die Augen einer Magd nicht wenden 
von ihrer Herrin Händen, 
so sehen wir in unsers Lebens Not 
allein auf dich, o Gott.


The second half of the psalm (V. 3-4) repeats the phrase "show favor", but now in a much more urgent tone:

V. 3
חָנֵּ֣נוּ יְהוָ֣ה חָנֵּ֑נוּ
ḥān·nê·nū Yah·weh ḥān·nê·nū;
Show favor to us, O Lord, /
show favor to us,

כִּֽי  רַ֝֗ב שָׂבַ֥עְנוּ בֽוּז
kî-rab  śā·ba‘·nū  buz
for we are overwhelmed with contempt.

The word שָׂבַ֥עְנוּ in Line 2 is from the Hebrew root שָׂבַע (saba; become satisfied, being satisfied, drink their fill, have in plenty; have it in excess, become weary).

Even though the word is usually used with food, here what the singer and her contemporaries are fed excessively is בּוּז (buz; contempt, that which makes people despised or a laughingstock).

In using "satisfaction" in such unusual way, the Psalmist employs hypocatastasis, an elegant figure of speech that "declares or implies a resemblance, representation or comparison" and "has more force than a metaphor or simile, and expresses ... a superlative degree of resemblance" (Wikipedia).

As contempt is being pushed down the throats of the Psalmist and her contemporaries, they simply cannot "stomach it" any more.

In V. 4, the hypocatastasis is repeated: Our inmost being is overwhelmed with the mockery of the ones who are at ease;  also, בּוּז (buz) is used with the article ha to paint the character of the contemptuous people around the Psalmist: the proud.

This is how Jorissen renders the second half of our psalm:

Erbarm dich, HERR, wie du es stets getan, 
und sieh uns gnädig an. 
Wir mußten ja seit ungezählten Tagen 
der Menschen Wut ertragen. 
Wie wurden wir mit Spott und Hohn betrachtet, 
entwürdigt und verachtet! 
Zu lange schon erleiden wir den Tod. 
Erbarm dich unser, Gott!

"Come back when you want God as much as you want air" -- the hermit's advice points the way for all of us servants of God.  "Lifting our eyes to God" is more than just good advice for days when we are in trouble. As Clifford states (as referenced by Nancy deClaissé-Walford), such looking up is an act of defiance, in that we defy all the other "gods" around us that lay claim to our lives.


24 June 2015

A Wondrous Imbalance (4.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 5)

Psalm 130


Les Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 
Folio 70r - De Profundis.
 (The Musée Condé, Chantilly)


In the 17th century there was a Zen monk named Master Hakuin who was well respected for his work among the people.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near Hakuin. One day, without any warning, her parents discovered she was pregnant. This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Master Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the child needed.

A year later the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth - the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.

Hakuin willingly yielded the child, saying only: "Is that so?"


Not unlike those of a certain Rabbi Jesus, Master Hakuin's actions fly in the face of all common sense. His curt response “Is that so?” seems to turn upside down every sense of justice:

When he is accused of being responsible for the girl's pregnancy, he gives what amounts to a verbal shrug. And as he is vindicated, and the mortified parents come to apologize and to take back their grandchild, his reaction is the same: “Is that so?”

You may not think so from the story, but Master Hakuin was a wise man. His paradoxical refusal to get angry or to seek justice opens up new ways of thinking about forgiveness.

What enables Hakuin to remain so even-tempered in the face of great injustice is his unconditional regard for others and himself.

The theme of Psalm 130 is forgiveness.


Crying Out to The Lord.
1 From the depths I cry to you, O Lord. / Lord, listen to my voice. 2 Let your ears be attentive / to the voice of my entreaties.

Trusting in The Lord.
If iniquities you keep account of, O Lord, / Lord, who could stand?  4 But there is with you forgiveness / so that you may be revered.

Waiting for The Lord.
5 I am confident in the Lord, my inmost being is confident, / and for his word I wait expectantly. 6 My inmost being (waits expectantly) for the Lord, / more than those watching for the morning, / those watching for the morning.

Call to Trust The Lord.
7 Wait expectantly, O Israel, for the Lord, / for with the Lord is hesed, / and abundantly with him is deliverance. 8 And he will deliver Israel / from all of its iniquities.  (NICOT)


My most recent memory connected with Psalm 130 goes a few years back: singing Cantata 131 by a famous contemporary of Hakuin, J.S. Bach, with the Cornerstone Chorale under its Music Director Richard Stout. 

Even though this work is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas (he composed it as 22 year old organist) and even though it doesn’t have all the formal elements his later cantatas do, I think it’s hauntingly beautiful.  

I distinctly remember being annoyed with the quirky habit of pronouncing “Aus der Tiefe” as “Aus der Tiefe-e”. Yet it seems as though choirs all over the world do it that way, and at least one scholar claims that this pronunciation adds to the “haunting” quality of the “depths” the psalm's first word denotes.

V. 1
מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ יְהֹוָה
mim·ma·‘ă·maq·qîm qə·rā·tî·kā Yah·weh
From the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

אֲדֹנָי֮ שִׁמְעָ֪ה בְק֫וֹלִ֥י
’ă·dō·nāy  šim·‘āh  bə·qō·w·lî
Lord, listen to my voice.

The first word in Psalm 130 is מַעֲמַקִּים (maamaqqim) with the preposition "mim" (from) added in front. The word is a plural form of עָמַק (amaq) and means "depths".

The second word, קְרָאתִ֣יךָ, is from the Hebrew root קָרָא (qara; cry, call, shout).

The third word is יְהֹוָה (Yahweh), one of the two words for God used in our psalm. (The other is אֲדֹנָי֮, Adonai, see Line 2).

As you can see above by counting the words, a powerful statement like Line 1 can be done in three words in Hebrew -- the English translation needs nine.

But what are those depths the Psalmist speaks of?

Most commentaries agree that the Psalmist employs here an ancient metaphor for chaos well-known to her contemporaries: the depths of the sea.

She cries "from the depths of the sea" because someone or something makes her feel alienated. As she cries out to Yahweh, we feel her anguish, her sense of abandonment, her sense of deep sadness.

The Message Bible renders V. 1, "Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life! Master, hear my cry for help!"

Walter Brueggemann muses about the tone of the Psalmist, reflecting on the fact that in the Songs of Ascents (of which our psalm is part) God is addressed as King:

"From where should the ruler of reality be addressed? One might think it should be from a posture of obedience, or at least from a situation of prosperity and success, indicating conformity to the blessed order of creation. One ought to address the king suitably dressed, properly positioned, with a disciplined, well-modulated voice. But this psalm is the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere."

He then reminds us of Exodus Chapter 2, the beginning of Israel's liberation story:

The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Ex 2:23b-24)

If you and I heard V. 2 for the first time, this might very well the point where we would worry about our audacious Psalmist: Let your ears be attentive / to the voice of my entreaties

But ... apparently she is not smashed to Smithereens, as she presses on in V. 3 with a rhetorical question: If iniquities you keep account of, O Lord, / Lord, who could stand? 

Then we get to the theological center of Psalm 130:

V. 4
כִּֽי  עִמְּךָ֥  הַסְּלִיחָ֑ה
kî-  im·məkā  has·sə·lî·ḥāh;
But there is with you forgiveness,
Denn bei dir ist die Vergebung,

לְ֝מַ֗עַן תִּוָּרֵֽא
lə·ma·‘an  tiw·wā·rê
so that you may be revered.
daß man dich fürchte.

The Hebrew word translated with "forgiveness" is סְלִיחָה (selichah), a seldom-used noun derived from the verb סָלַח (salach; to forgive, pardon, spare).

But there is with you forgiveness so that you may be revered.

Notice the odd pairing of forgiveness with fear/reverence.

Björn Schwenger suggests that we let V. 4 sit on our tongue so we can taste its sweetness.  He then spells out what a lot of people might expect the Psalmist to have said instead: "With you there is judgment and punishment, so that people fear you."

This is a stunning revelation about God: that forgiveness is there before anything else ("ex nihilo" as Brueggemann puts it), and that reverence follows from it.

It can be said, then, that reverence is born in the marvelous experience of God's forgiveness.

A phrase often used by German theologians comes to mind: "die vorauslaufende Gnade Gottes" -- literally "the Grace of God that runs ahead of us". It's God's version of unconditional regard; his love wins out no matter how badly we mess up. What wondrous imbalance indeed.

In his hymn "Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir" (Out of the depths I cry to Thee) Martin Luther perfectly matches the "wondrous  imbalance" proclaimed by the Psalmist:

Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel,
Bei Gott ist viel mehr Gnade.
[Although our sins are manifold,
God’s mercy is more powerful.]*



...

*the translation in blank verse is my own.

15 June 2015

"Don't Get Old. It's a Bad Idea!" (3.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 4)

Psalm 103

For material on Psalm 107, parts of which are assigned for June 21 in the RCL, see my post dated 3/11/15. This post is on Psalm 103, assigned for this Sunday in the German lectionary; in the RCL, portions of this psalm are assigned to Epiphany 8B.


“There is not enough room,” the people were crying. “There is not enough room.” It was true.

The plants of the plain grew so high and thick and close that no hook or knife was able to clear a path through them. Thick hedges of weed and bramble threatened to choke the trees that towered over them and locked them in an eternal shade of leaves.

Food was scarce for there were few places to grow it. But that was only a part of the problem. A far greater threat hung over the people. Death had never yet visited the world. So everything lived and multiplied, growing bigger and bigger, never growing old, threatening to crush the earth itself under the weight of all that teeming life.  The cries of the people grew louder and louder. “There’s not enough room. We need more room,” they pleaded.

High on her mountain-top, Kali, the goddess of death, sensed the cries of the people and stirred in her sleep. The pleading was insistent and demanded a response. It wakened Kali, angered that she had been disturbed. She rushed from her bed, throwing a robe around her shoulders, and flung open the bedroom window.

The sight that met her eyes softened even her hard heart and soothed away her anger. Piled below her were crowds of people, their arms a forest reaching out to the sky. They were hemmed in by a thick avenue of trees, so tall that they blotted out the sky. Birds filled their branches, singing shrilly. Animals of every kind threaded their way warily through the throng. The stench of sweat and the shrill, panicky pleading were everywhere.

Kali gazed at the misery, pondering what to do. Then she turned from the window and called urgently for her servant Time. “The conditions below must not continue for a day longer. Bring me my cloak,” she ordered. “Then harness the horses and hitch up the chariot. You and I are going on a long journey.”

So Kali wrapped herself in her long, red garment. Then with long fingers she eased the key of her treasure chest into its lock and, when the lid was opened, pulled parcel after parcel from its dark interior until the whole of the room, from floor to ceiling, was piled high with them, each gleaming in the gold wrapping that covered them.

When Time brought the chariot to the door, Kali ordered that he fill it with her gifts. All the time, her seven black stallions pawed the ground, nervous, excited, eager to move. At last, all was ready and Kali mounted the chariot where Time was waiting. He handed her the reins.

A single crack of the whip and the horses raced across the face of the sky, carrying them ever downwards to the earth and all its misery.

Kali made sure she didn't miss anyone. She visited every house, every town and village. At each stop she ordered Time from the carriage, his arms full of gifts for all who lived or grew there.

Eagerly, the gold wrapping was torn apart to reveal Kali’s gifts. But there was no excited response. For them, Kali brought decay, mold, dust, rust, dry, withered shells, wrinkles, coldness, ageing.

For the first time that day, leaves changed their color and began to fall. The stems of plants grew dry and cracked and turned back downwards to the earth.

On that day too, the people knew first the mark of wrinkles on faces, a stiffness of limbs and joints and eyes that no longer saw clearly. Soon, too, they discovered death and its pain of loss, at first amongst the animals and then amongst the people themselves. The elders were leaving, moving aside to make space for the children.

Kali returned from earth, exhausted from her long journey. Since then, she returns often to greet each one who moves aside to make space for others. But now she sends Time ahead of her to warn that Kali is on her way and present his own special gift. For Time brings the gift of white hair and he covers it in the golden wrapping of wisdom.

Kali, the Hindu goddess, is meant to symbolize the wholeness of life: life and death, beauty and ugliness, motherliness and destructiveness. In the story above she introduces humanity to death and decay, in order to restore balance.  Psalm 103 covers almost every topic the People of God discuss; one of those topics is death and decay ...


Call to praise (VV. 1–2)
1 Praise the Lord, O my soul! / All that I am—praise his holy name! 2 Praise the Lord, O my soul! / Do not forget all of his benefits!

Stanza 1: The Individual's Perspective (VV. 3–8)
3 The one who forgives all your sins, / who heals all your diseases, 4 Who redeems your life from the pit, / who crowns you with hesed and mercy, 5 Who satisfies your life with good, / so that your youth is renewed like an eagle. 6 The Lord accomplishes vindication / and justice for all who are oppressed. 7 He made known his ways to Moses, / his deeds to the children of Israel. 8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, / slow of anger, but abounding in hesed.

Stanza 2: The Community's Perspective (VV. 9–16)
9 He does not always accuse; / he does not maintain his grievance forever. 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins / he does not repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, / so great is his hesed toward those who fear him — 12 As distant as the rising is from the setting,  / so has he distanced our sins from us. 13 As a father has mercy upon children, / the Lord has mercy on those who fear him— 14 For he knows how we were formed; / he remembers that we are dust.   15 
A human being—like grass are its days, / like a wildflower, so it flowers. 16 But a wind blows against it and it is no more, / and its place acknowledges it no longer.

Stanza 3:  Humanity's Perspective (VV. 17–19)
17 But the hesed of the Lord — / it is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, / and his righteousness is for the children’s children, 18 To those who keep his covenant, / to those who remember to do his commandments. 19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens; / his kingdom rules over all.

Call to praise (VV. 20–22)
20 Praise the Lord, O his angels, / O mighty ones who do his bidding, / who obey the sound of his word!  21 Praise the Lord, all his hosts, / his ministers who do his will! 22 Praise the Lord, all his works, in all the places of his dominion! / Praise the Lord, O my soul! (NICOT)



The lyrics of two musical versions of our psalm don't just show the variety of styles; they also show a discrepancy in the translation of the first word:


Bless the Lord, my soul,  
and bless his holy name,
bless the Lord, my soul, 
he rescues me from death.
(Taizé)

Lobsinge Gott, erwecke deine Kräfte, 
mein Geist, sein Lob sei immer dein Geschäfte. 
O bet ihn an, sein Nam ist Majestät. 
Lobsing dem HERRN, erheb ihn, meine Seele! 
Er sorget treu, daß dir kein gutes fehle. 
Vergiß den nicht, der dich durch Huld erhöht.
(Matthias Jorissen, Metric Psalter)


The phrasing of the Taizé chant ("bless the Lord") follows the majority of English Bible translations, while the Jorissen Psalter follows Martin Luther's translation by using "lobsinge Gott" (praise the Lord).

Here's the Hebrew original:

V. 1
בָּרֲכִ֣י נַ֭פְשִׁי אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה
bā·ră·kî nap̄·šî ’et-Yah·weh;
Praise the Lord, O my soul!

וְכָל־קְ֝רָבַ֗י אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם קָדְשֽׁוֹ 
wə·kāl qə·rā·bay, ’et-šêm qodhsho.
All that I am — praise his holy name!

The question is how the first Hebrew word of the psalm, בָּרַך  (barak), should be translated.  It is true that the word's chief meaning is "to bless", but standard dictionaries offer as a secondary definition "to bless God as an act of adoration: to praise".

The translation I use (from the NICOT commentary, written by Rolf Jacobson) renders בָּרַך as "praise". Jacobson explains that the word in this context carries "the sense of declaring God to be the source of blessing, and thus should be translated as praise or perhaps 'worship'."

The combination of נָ֫פֶשׁ (nephesh, soul, living being, life, self, person) and קֶ֫רֶב (qereb, inward part, midst, here translated as "all that I am") suggests that the Psalmist begins the psalm with a self-exhortation: She instructs her soul, her inner being, to praise Yahweh. By extension, we are instructed to enter into a similar dialogue with our own inner beings.

Though Psalm 103 covers many topics, the key to the entire psalm is God's חָ֫סֶד (chesed)*: "The message of the psalm is that if one wants to know God’s heart, the very center of the Lord’s character, one needs to wrap one’s mind around the concept of hesed." (Rolf Jacobson)

As if moving in concentric circles, the Psalmist praises God's chesed from an individual's, a community's and finally humanity's perspective.

In the first stanza, she praises Yahweh for forgiveness, health, rescue, honor, satisfaction, renewal, vindication and justice; in the second she is grateful for Yahweh's patience, mercy and forgiveness, culminating in a beautiful metaphor about God's grace: "As distant as the rising is from the setting,  so has he distanced our sins from us" (V. 12). So great is God's chesed that he has decided that our sins are taken to the direction exactly opposite from where we are.

Amanda K. Gott talks about the power and passion contained in Yahweh's chesed: "The God that embraces us lovingly, holding us tenderly like a parent or a lover, is also indomitable. God’s chesed involves pillars of smoke and fire and whole new lives being brought up out of dust, ashes and ruins. ... It is a loyalty so un-breakable that it defies human reason and human ways. Merciful, yes, but also very mighty, very powerful, with a grip that holds us relentlessly."

I am especially intrigued by the section at the end of the second stanza, which indeed speaks of death and decay: "As a father has mercy upon children, the Lord has mercy on those who fear him —  For he knows how we were formed; he remembers that we are dust. A human being—like grass are its days, like a wildflower, so it flowers. But a wind blows against it and it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer." (VV. 13-16)

Human life, reminds us the Psalmist, is short. And then one day, nobody will remember us.

When I was a young pastor, one of my elderly parishioners told me, "I tell you, Pastor, don't get old; it's a bad idea."

Some twenty years later I am starting to see what she meant. When I visit my family these days, I find myself pointing at teenagers I cannot recall seeing before. They are the kids of my many cousins, almost all of whom I remember only as little kids.

"A human being — like grass are its days," says the Psalmist. And,  "A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last", says the Book of Job.

I know this to be true.

I know it deep down in my bones:  I am more forgetful.  I need more sleep.  My joints ache sometimes. Gone are the days when I could go through a day of work after two or three hours of sleep.

And when I try to read the small print on medication bottles, my eyes remind me that I am getting old.

"A human being — like grass are its days" -- what does this mean?

Of the two possible answers, the first one is from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Our lives flee like a shadow.
Or like an hour on a stage. 
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: It is a tale told
by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

An idiot ... signifying nothing. The first answer leaves no hope. It is awful and depressing.

The second answer comes from our psalm:

A human being — like grass are its days, like a wildflower, so it flowers. But a wind blows against it and it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer. But the hesed of the Lord -- it is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness is for the children’s children. (VV. 15-17)

Even though the first half of that section almost sounds like Shakespeare's somber and depressing words, the second half turns it all around: "But the hesed of the Lord".

In other words, human lives are meaning-filled because of God's grace: because God wants them to have meaning. Our lives have meaning because our heavenly parent has given so much chesed, so much love, ever since he called us each by our names (Isaiah 43:1) all the way to where we are today.

One day he will come for each of us, as the one who planted his trees many years ago and who has decided it's time to transplant us to a place where our leaves cannot wither any more.
   
The people who know us might not know you or me one day, but God in his chesed won't forget any of us. The quote above comes to mind, that we find ourselves in a "grip that holds us relentlessly."

Because of God's love, we shall live.

Another illustration of that "grip" of God is a well-known statement from the Song of Salomon: "For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave". (8:6b)


---
*The translation above leaves the word untranslated (see VV. 4, 8, 11, 17), taking into account that scholars think no single English word can capture the spectrum of meanings it encompasses.

10 June 2015

Weary Skeptics Welcome (2.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 3)

Psalm 92



There was once a woman who had heard of the Fruit of Heaven. She coveted it.

She asked a certain dervish, who was known as Sabar:  'How can I find this fruit, so that I may attain to immediate knowledge?'

'You would best be advised to study with me', said the dervish. 'But if you will not do so, you will have to travel resolutely and at times restlessly throughout the world.'
     
She left him and found another, Arif the Wise One, and then found Hakim, the Sage, then Majzup the Mad, then Alim the Scientist, and on and on.      

She passed thirty years in her search. Finally she came to a garden. There stood the Tree of Heaven, and from its branches hung the bright Fruit of Heaven.

Standing beside the Tree was Sabar, the dervish she had begun her search with.        

'Why did you no tell me when we first met that you were the Custodian of the Fruit of Heaven?' she asked him.

'Because you would not then have believed me. Besides, the Tree produces fruit only once in thirty years and thirty days'.

The woman in the story above has a strong desire to get the Fruit of Heaven, but finds herself searching for thirty years until the joyful moment when she "gets it".  Joy is the theme of Psalm 92.



Praising God (VV. 1–5)
1 It is good to give thanks to the Lord, / to make music to your name, O Most High; 2 to declare in the morning your hesed, / and your faithfulness in the night 3 upon a harp and upon a stringed instrument, / upon the melody of a harp.  4 For you, O Lord, cause me to rejoice in your deeds; / in the works of your hands I shout for joy!  5 How great is your work, O Lord; / how deep are your thoughts.

Victory Over the Wicked (VV. 6–11)
6 A stupid one does not know, / a fool cannot understand this;  7 though the wicked grow like grass and all the evildoers bloom, / they will be destroyed forever. 8 You are on high forever, O Lord. 9 For surely your enemies, O Lord, / surely your enemies, O Lord, will perish; / all evildoers will be scattered. 10 You have raised my horn like that of a wild ox; / you anoint me fresh oil. 11 My eyes have looked (in triumph) on my enemies; / As evil ones rise against me, my ears hear ——.

God’s Care for the Righteous (VV. 12–15)
12 The righteous bloom like a palm tree; / and like a cedar in Lebanon they grow. 13 They are planted in the house of the Lord; / in the courts of our God, they vigorously bloom. 14 They still bear fruit in old age; / they are full and green; 15 proclaiming that the Lord is upright, / my Rock, and there is no wrongdoing in him.  (NICOT)


The first time I encountered Psalm 92 was when we learned Rolf Schweizer's jazzy 1966 tune in children's choir; the text is straight from Martin Luther's translation, which, after all its many revisions, still (and ingeniously) gives the Hebrew word ט֗וֹב (tov, good) a culinary twist by rendering it as "köstlich" (delicious or tasty):

Das ist ein köstlich Ding, dem Herren danken und lobsingen deinem Namen,
das ist ein köstlich Ding, dem Herren danken und lobsingen deinem Namen, du Höchster.

The Psalmist clearly tries to inspire us to joy ... and she insists that this joy is appropriately expressed not just occasionally, but at all times:

Des Morgens deine Gnade und des Nachts deine Wahrheit verkündigen
auf den zehn Saiten und Psalter, mit Spielen auf der Harfe.


In Hebrew, V. 2 looks like this:

לְהַגִּ֣יד בַּבֹּ֣קֶר חַסְֽדֶּ֑ךָ
lə·hag·gîd  bab·bō·qer ḥas·de·kā;
to declare in the morning your hesed

וֶ֝אֱמֽוּנָתְךָ֗ בַּלֵּילֽוֹת
we·’ĕ·mū·nā·tə·kā, bal·lê·lō·wt
and your faithfulness in the night

Once again, chesed is found  in a prominent place; this time it isn't combined with emeth (truth, see my last post) but another word that, like emeth, is derived from the Verb אָמַן (aman, believe); that word is אֱמוּנָה (emunah, faith, steadfastness, fidelity, firmness).

The Psalmist begins by saying that it is "delicious" to thank God and to proclaim God's lovingkindness and faithfulness, and to do so morning and night.

Thanking God at all times. That sounds good, but ... we all know those days and weeks and months when life is tough, when we drag ourselves out of bed in the morning, run through our day as best as we can and then fall into bed at night, only to start the whole thing over a few hours later. My whole last week has felt that way.

Were there moments of joy and thanksgiving in that week now past? Yes, but they were few and far between.

After the week I've had, the words of the Psalmist (about how giving thanks is "delicious") seem odd and shrill somehow, as if from another world.

As I immersed myself into this psalm, I realized that it belongs to a cluster (90-92) meant to respond to "the theological crisis posed by the exile" (Walter Brueggemann). That suggests that the Psalmist is quite familiar with skeptical reactions like my own; Psalm 92 in all its boisterous joy is a response to those who were bone-weary (tired to their bones), not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually.

How does the Psalmist deal with a weary skeptic like me? She invites me to sing with her!

She sings a song of God's chesed and emunah, a song about God's saving deeds; reluctantly I begin to follow her. She grabs my hand and starts dancing ahead of me (V. 4):

 כִּ֤י שִׂמַּחְתַּ֣נִי יְהוָ֣ה בְּפָעֳלֶ֑ךָ
kî śim·maḥ·ta·nî Yah·weh
bə·pā·‘o·le·kā;
For you, O Lord, cause me to rejoice in your deeds

בְּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֖י יָדֶ֣יךָ אֲרַנֵּֽן
bə·ma·‘ă·śê yā·de·kā ’ă·ran·nên
... in the works of your hands I shout for joy!

But even as she drags me into her dance, I am still hesitant, saying to her, "But the history of salvation is history. It was way back when God walked our mothers and fathers through the Red Sea; it isn't now!"

The Psalmist says, "Then and now matters little to God. Time's a human thing." She adds, "Now come, stubborn one", even as she walks me past the first part of the psalm.

As I mumble that her psalm, like many others, uses the contrast between wicked and righteous, she says, "Get out of your head, you need your heart for this". She keeps pulling at me until she makes a sudden stop, at the eighth verse.

"Here we are," she says, "this is the center of my psalm, and it is the answer to many of your questions. It is the reason for the joy of which I sing.  Use your heart, and really listen."

V. 8
וְאַתָּ֥ה מָר֗וֹם לְעֹלָ֥ם יְהֹוָה
wə·’at·tāh mā·rō·wm,
lə·‘ō·lām Yah·weh
You are on high
forever, O Lord.

"You see," says the Psalmist, "in the midst of our national catastrophe we discovered that God is not a local god as we had thought; we found him to be quite mobile: the God of the Universe. When we were dragged into exile, he was right there; not knowing that he was mobile, we were afraid he had abandoned us."

"He is God for all people, for every place, for every time", she says.  As I shrug, she grins and says, "I think it's time you drop your scowl and realize that God is everywhere you are, even when you feel lost in your various exiles." Then she says, "And now you need to sing my song with me:  The righteous bloom like a palm tree; / and like a cedar in Lebanon they grow." (V. 12)


Stephen Mitchell chose to change metaphors in his rendition of Verse 13: 

"[The Righteous] are planted in the dark soil of God, and their leaves keep turning to his light."  

I love the sound of that. My friends, may our lives be so: that we keep turning our leaves to the light, always remembering that we are planted in the dark soil of God!

And when, some time soon on your journey, you get bone-weary and don't quite know just where God has gone, remember the old line, "'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home".

Weary Skeptics Are Welcome.





03 June 2015

As Sure As Day Follows Night / So sicher wie das Amen in der Kirche! (1.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 2)

Psalm 138


It was a cool evening in ancient China. Chuang Tzu's friend went looking for him at the local inn. He found Chuang Tzu sitting at a table, sipping his drink in a contemplative mood.

"There you are!" Chuang Tzu's friend greeted him. "I thought by now you would be telling everybody another one of your stories. Why so quiet?"

"There is a question on my mind," said Chuang Tzu, "a question about existence."

"I see. Would you like me to leave you alone to your thoughts?"

"No, let me share it with you. Perhaps you can provide me with your perspective."

"My perspective is of little value, but I would be glad to listen." He pulled up a chair.

"I was out for a stroll late in the afternoon," said Chuang Tzu. "I went to one of my favorite spots under a tree. I sat there, thinking about the meaning of life. It was so warm and pleasant that I soon relaxed, dozed off, and drifted into a dream. In my dream, I found myself flying up above the field. I looked behind me and saw that I had wings. They were large and beautiful, and they fluttered rapidly. I had turned into a butterfly! It was such a feeling of freedom and joy, to be so carefree and fly around so lightly in any way I wished. Everything in this dream felt absolutely real in every way. Before long, I forgot that I was ever Chuang Tzu. I was simply the butterfly and nothing else."

"I've had dreams of flying myself, but never as a butterfly," Chuang Tzu's friend said. "This dream sounds like a wonderful experience."

"It was, but like all things, it had to end sooner or later. Gradually, I woke up and realized that I was Chuang Tzu after all. This is what puzzles me."

"What is so puzzling about it? You had a nice dream, that's all there is to it."

"What if I am dreaming right now? This conversation I am having with you seems real in every way, but so did my dream. I thought I was Chuang Tzu who had a dream of being a butterfly. What if I am a butterfly who, at this very moment, is dreaming of being Chuang Tzu?"

"Well, I can tell you that you are actually Chuang Tzu, not a butterfly."

Chuang Tzu smiled: "You may simply be part of my dream, no more or less real than anything else. Thus, there is nothing you can do to help me identify the distinction between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly. This, my friend, is the essential question about the transformation of existence."


Just like the butterfly in this classic Taoist story is flying free of the limitations imposed by gravity, we are invited to find joyous freedom: a liberating spiritual state in which we transcend our fears.

Psalm 138 describes the joyous freedom the People of God experience when they surrender their need to control, and put their trust in God.


In the presence of gods (VV. 1-3)
1 I give thanks to you with all my heart; / in the presence of the gods I make music to you. 2 I bow down toward the temple of your holiness, / and I give thanks to your name / because of your hesed and your faithfulness. / For you have made your name and your word great. 3 In the day that I cried out, you answered me; / you have made me courageous; / in my inmost being is strength.

In the presence of kings (VV. 4-6)
4 All the kings of the earth will give thanks to the Lord, / for they have heard the words of your mouth. 5 And they will sing in the paths of the Lord, / for great is the glory of the Lord. 6 Though the Lord is exalted, / the lowly he sees / and the haughty from a distance he knows.

In the presence of enemies (VV. 7-8)
7 If I walk in the midst of oppression, / you cause me to live in spite of the anger of my enemies. / You send forth your hand and your hand delivers me. 8 May the Lord do favorable things on my behalf. / O Lord, your hesed is for all time; / May the doings of your hands not come to an end. (NICOT)


Psalm 137, the psalm preceding this week's, expresses the bitterness of the captives in Babylon:

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (Psalm 137: 1-3)

The implicit question is: "How could we sing our songs here? Won't we just set ourselves up for more scorn and ridicule?" Psalm 138 is often thought of as an answer to that question. Writes Nancy DeClaissé-Walford:

"In the aftermath of the Babylonian exile, the Israelites questioned their very identity and future as the people of God." She goes on to say that Psalm 138 and the psalms following it celebrate "a new realization by the people that they can continue to exist as a specially called people by acknowledging God as their sovereign and worshipping faithfully."

After she speaks of giving thanks and making music, the Psalmist continues:

V. 2
אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֨ה ֶ אֶל הֵיכַ֪ל קָדְשְׁךָ֡ 1
'eš·ta·ḥă·weh ’el- hê·kal qād·šə·kā
I bow down toward the temple of your holiness

וְא֘וֹדֶ֤ה אֶת שְׁמֶ֗ךָ 2
wə·’ō·w·deh ’et-šə·me·kā,
and I give thanks to your name

עַל חַסְדְּךָ֥ וְעַל אֲמִתֶּ֑ךָ 3
‘al- ḥas·də·kā wə·‘al- ă·mit·te·kā;
because of your hesed and your faithfulness.

Rolf Jacobson reminds us that the Hebrew word translated in line 2 as "and I give thanks", וְא֘וֹדֶ֤ה, is a form of יָדָה. (yadah, to know), and that the grammatical form it takes here means to "cause someone else to know."

While at least one commentary suggests to translate yadah in this context with "confess", I would suggest "testify" or (better yet), "bear witness".

Jacobson concludes that "... giving thanks Old Testament style has less to do with some internal feeling of gratitude and more about sending God a thank you note. And the thank you note that God desires is to tell others what God has done."

We are to be witnesses of the Good News not just to those in our congregations. As the Psalmist includes gods, kings and enemies, we are sent to testify in our neighborhoods, towns and countries, and ultimately in the whole world "what God has done", and what God can do.


But it is line 3 above that brings us to the center of what the Psalmist wants to communicate, in the hendiadys ("two for one") figure of speech formed by the words חָ֫סֶד (chesed) and אֱמֶת (emeth).

While חָ֫סֶד is often translated with kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, or steadfast love (see my post on February 4), אֱמֶת means truth, firmness, or faithfulness.  The word emeth is derived from the Hebrew word אָמַן (aman),  meaning to “be firm, reliable, permanent.” We use a participle of this verb after every prayer as we say אֹמֵן, Amen.

The Hebrew words chesed and emeth describe God's character as trustworthy.  This means, says Jacobson, "that the promises God makes can be trusted ... that the laws that God ordains are good ...  that the guidance and providence that the Lord offers are better for us in the long run than our own wills for our own lives."

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not, 
thy compassions, they fail not;
as thou hast been thou forever will be.

When we surrender our need to control people, places and things, and trust our faithful God instead, we will experience joyous freedom.

God is faithful. This is "As Sure As Day Follows Night", or as Germans might say, "So sicher wie das Amen in der Kirche."

אֹמֵן -- Amen.

27 May 2015

Our God Grants Shalom, Not War (Trinitatis/The Holy Trinity)

Psalm 29



Once upon a time, an angel came to Earth to see human beings and their world, because he had heard so many stories of the planet's splendor. The beauty of the world pleased him: sunlit mountain peaks and and rainbow-colored valleys, dark forests and mighty rivers, animals both fierce and gentle.

Everywhere there was such beauty. But when the angel saw human beings, he was truly awed, for he heard the music of the human heart and the song of the human soul. He deeply fell in love with the human mystery.  Earth and its inhabitants had so moved the angel that he hesitated to leave. But finally it was time for him to go.

Since he felt so enchanted and so enriched by his experience on Earth, he decided that before going back to his own world, he would help some human beings on their way. He looked about, and saw four persons walking together.

He approached them and said, “I have come to grant one wish to each of you.” As luck would have it, they all were spiritual seekers.

The first one spoke up, “I have striven incessantly to pursue divine truth, but it has been nothing but struggle, struggle, struggle. Give me spiritual peace!”

“But struggling is one of the joys of life,” said the angel, not understanding the first seeker’s wish. “Give me peace!” insisted the man.  So the angel shrugged and changed the youth into a cow that chewed the grass of a distant pasture, slowly and contentedly.

A bit disturbed, the angel turned to the next aspirant. “God is pure but I am not,” she said. “Please rid me of all impurities, of passions, emotions, desires.” 

“But they are the very fount of life!” said the angel. “But I don’t want life, I want purity!” insisted the second person. She then closed her eyes and waited. In a split second she disappeared, and in a faraway temple, a marble statue appeared in her likeness.

The third one said, “Make me perfect; anything less will simply not do.” He vanished but did not reappear anywhere, for nothing on earth is perfect or can be perfect.

Just as he thought that human beings were oddly frustrating, the angel turned to the fourth seeker. He said to the woman , “And what is your wish?” “I have no wish,” she said. “No wish at all?” “None except to be human, fully human and alive.”

A near-smothered joy began to stir within the angel. He looked longingly upon this blessed woman. As he embraced her with deep love, the angel said, "A human being fully alive -- that's the Glory of God." The fourth seeker continued on her way singing the glory of life and dancing the joy of the universe.

When the angel reached heaven, God asked him, “What were you doing on Earth? Tinkering with my creation?” The angel said, “I am sorry, but those four people had such deep longings; I simply helped them out.” God said, “That’s right. I was just inquiring.  But talking of longings, do you have any wish for yourself?”

The angel said, “Make me like the fourth seeker. Send me back and make me the way she is. Like her, I want to be fully human and fully alive.  The Glory of God."

The major theme of Psalm 29 is the Glory of God.


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)



Scholars seem to agree that Psalm 29 is one of the oldest parts of the Psalter, and that (given the many parallels with the hymns among Israel's neighbors) it is likely that the psalm makes use of a hymn about the Canaanite storm and fertility deity Baal-Hadad.

Clearly, a thunderstorm is being described when we hear this: "Your voice is the voice of the waters / When they thunder as foaming towers. / Those plunging waters, those swelling words / Your voice booms out its power. / It sings with majesty / Breaking the cedars to splinters /And the cedars of Lebanon shiver to hear it." (V. 3-5, as rendered by Norman Fischer)

Baal, the weather god, was said to carry seven arrows of lightning, and when he went to war, thunder would be heard. As if to snub the old Canaanite myth, the phrase ק֥וֹל יְהוָ֗ה (qō·wl Yah·weh = “the voice of the Lord”) rumbles through our psalm exactly seven times.

Even though we detect echoes of the old Baal mythology in our psalm, the Psalmist affirms that instead of believing in a pantheon (which among others included the weather god) Israel believed in just one God, the God of Creation. For the Psalmist, the thunder was simply the voice of majestic and glorious Yahweh, who rules over all things.

V. 1
הָב֣וּ לַֽ֭יהוָה בְּנֵ֣י אֵלִ֑ים
hā·bū lə·Yah·weh bə·nê ’e·lîm;
Acknowledge the Lord, you heavenly beings,

הָב֥וּ לַ֝יהוָ֗ה כָּב֥וֹד וָעֹֽז
hā·bū lə·Yah·weh kā·bō·wd wā'oz
acknowledge the Lord’s majesty and power!

In VV. 3-9 Yahweh is shown to be so powerful that he can twist the immense cedars of Lebanon. The powerful "voice" of Yahweh in various natural phenomena is a display of what V. 1 calls Yahweh's "majesty and power" (כָּב֥וֹד וָעֹֽז).

The word translated here as “majesty”, but more often with "glory", is כָּב֥וֹד (kabod) in Hebrew, a word derived from a root with the basic meaning of “heavy.”

In its literal sense, the word is used to describe the weight of many every-day things; one example is the weight of Absalom's big head of hair (you might remember from Sunday School that Absalom was David's third son!).

Beyond the literal, kabod took on extended meanings.  Thus a rich person could be said to be “heavy in wealth” -- much as we might say someone is "loaded". Thus people could be said to be loaded with great power or honor -- and it is this extended use of kabod that leads to the sense of God's kabod, as in majesty and glory.

There isn't much talking going on in our psalm: while Yahweh speaks only in the mighty voices of nature, the people gathered in the temple exclaim but one word, כָּב֥וֹד (kabod): Everyone in his temple says, “Majestic!"

When in Isaiah 6 the cherubim are crying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts", they don't continue, "the whole earth is full of his holiness”; instead they exclaim, "the whole earth is full of his glory (כָּב֥וֹד)".

While those believing in Baal might well respond to the voice of their god by shouting  "Danger Ahead!" or "Watch Out!”, those believing in Yahweh only cry kabod -- "majesty" or “glory”.

Even though the Psalmist states that her God is kabod, "loaded" with majesty and glory, and conveys that he is to be respected, she doesn't continue by demanding submission. Rolf Bouma writes, "There is no mention of spoils of war or conquering armies or triumphant parades".

While a god of war only grants war to his subjects, the last word of the whole psalm shows that Yahweh cares for and loves his people. The God of Israel, majestic and glorious as he is, grants שָׁלוֹם (shalom):

V. 11
יְֽהוָ֗ה עֹ֭ז לְעַמּ֣וֹ יִתֵּ֑ן
Yah·weh ‘ōz lə·‘am·mōw yit·tên;
The Lord gives his people strength;

יְהוָ֓ה יְבָרֵ֖ךְ אֶת עַמּ֣וֹ בַשָּׁלֽוֹם
Yah·weh yə·bā·rêk ’et-‘am·mōw
bə-šā-lō-wm;
the Lord grants his people security.

Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, explains just what sort of security shalom brings:

"The biblical vision of shalom functions always as a firm rejection of values and life-styles that seek security and well-being in manipulative ways at the expense of another part of creation, another part of the community, or a brother or sister. The vision of the biblical way affirms that communal well-being comes by living God’s dream and not by idolatrous self-aggrandizement."

One more thing.  The exclamation "Majestic" by the People of God gathered in the temple (V. 9b) is immediately followed by Yahweh's enthronement (V. 10).

Having tamed the chaos of the ancient floods, he has firmly established his throne atop the flood, symbolizing that the conquest is final.

As Matthias Jorissen (in his metric version of our psalm) celebrates Yahweh's enthronement, it becomes clear once more just how little Israel's Yahweh has in common with Canaan's Baal.

Herrlich ist der HERR!, ruft aus
jede Stimm in seinem Haus. 
Auf der Urzeit Fluten wohnt 
Dort der HERR, der ewig thront. 
Er ist König aller Zeiten, 
herrscht bis in die Ewigkeiten. 
Er wird seinem Volke geben 
Heil und Frieden, Kraft und Leben.

(Glorious is the Lord!, proclaims
every voice that's in his house.
There atop the ancient floods
lives the Lord enthroned forever.
He is King of every time,
reigning in eternity.
He will grant to all his people
peace, salvation, strength and life)

22 May 2015

Canticle for Pentecost

Psalm 104. Acts 2.

Refrain:
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)