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14 April 2015

Remaining Aware of God's Presence When Things Get Tough (Misericordias Domini / Easter 3)

Psalm 4

There was once a Zen monk who was being pursued by a ferocious tiger. Running from the tiger, the monk raced until he came to the edge of a cliff. 

He glanced back, and saw the growling tiger about to spring. The monk spotted a rope dangling over the edge of the cliff. He managed to grab it and slowly, very slowly began shinnying down the side of the cliff. 

Whew, he thought, I am out of the clutches of this monstrous tiger. What a narrow escape! 

But as he looked down, he saw a quarry of jagged rocks five hundred feet below. He looked up and saw the tiger poised atop the cliff with bared claws. Just then, two mice began to nibble at the rope. What to do? 

That moment the monk noticed that within arm's reach a strawberry bush was growing out of the face of the cliff. He plucked the one beautiful shiny strawberry growing on the bush, ate it, and exclaimed, "Yum, that's the best strawberry I've ever tasted in my entire life!"

If he had been preoccupied with the rock below (the future) or the tiger above (the past), he would have missed the strawberry he had been given in the present moment.

My Zen story shows how one monk manages fear and anxiety; Psalm 4 shows how the Psalmist does it.

Intro: Searching for God (V 1)
1 When I call out, answer me, O God who vindicates me! / Though I am hemmed in, you will lead me into a wide, open place. / Have mercy on me and respond to my prayer! 

First Stanza: How Long? (V 2-5)
2 You men, how long will you try to turn my honor into shame? / How long will you love what is worthless and search for what is deceptive? (Selah) 3 Realize that the Lord shows the godly special favor; / the Lord responds when I cry out to him. 4 Tremble with fear and do not sin! / Meditate as you lie in bed, and repent of your ways! (Selah) 5 Offer the prescribed sacrifices / and trust in the Lord! 

Second Stanza: What goodness? (V 6-8)
6 Many say, “Who can show us anything good?”/ Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord*. 7 You make me happier / than those who have abundant grain and wine. 8 I will lie down and sleep peacefully, / for you, Lord, make me safe and secure.

"When I call out, answer me, O God" ... The beginning of our psalm might remind some of us of a popular song from Taizé:

O Lord, hear my prayer / O Lord, hear my prayer / When I call, answer me.  / O Lord, hear my prayer / O Lord, hear my prayer / Come and listen to me.


The Introduction (V 1) makes use of two pairs of words: call/answer and constriction/space:

בְּקָרְאִ֡י עֲנֵ֤נִי
bə·qā·rə·’î  ‘ă·nê·nî
"when I call, answer me"

בַּ֭צָּר הִרְחַ֣בְתָּ
baṣ·ṣār hir·ḥaḇ·tā
"[when I was] me in distress,
you have enlarged"

Luther's take on the second pair of words is instructive: "Als mir eng war, hast du es weit gemacht". "When I was in a tight spot, you created breathing space for me."

As the Psalmist turns to prayer, she asks for vindication and mercy; these terms foreshadow the troubles that are only hinted at in the verses to come.  She has no particular request, other than that God hear her (answer me) and grant her some peace of mind (lead me to a wide open place).


The First Stanza (VV 2-5) asks a question many of us have asked whenever we were in trouble: How long?

כְבוֹדִ֣י לִ֭כְלִמָּה
ḵəḇōwḏî liḵlimmāh
"[How long will you turn] my glory
into shame"

"You men, how long will you try to turn my honor into shame? / How long will you love what is worthless and search for what is deceptive?"

The source of the Psalmist's anxiety is described as "men", persons of significance or influence, as distinct from the common people. In their persistent pursuit of vanity and lies, they have made the Psalmist’s כָּבוֹד (kabowd: honor, reputation, character) a כְּלִמָּה  (kelimmah: ignominy, confusion, dishonor, reproach, shame, "a nothing").

Says James Luther Mays, "In the culture of ancient Israel, honor was of the greatest value; it is in most societies. Honor is the dignity and respect that belong to a person’s position in relation to family, friends, and the community. It is an essential part of the identity that others recognize and regard in dealing with a man or a woman. In Israel its loss had tragic consequences for self-esteem and social competence. Shaming and humiliating a person was violence against them worse than physical harm."

Feeling hemmed in and constrained by human enemies, she asks God to give her room:  to release her from the straits and pressures to which she has been subjected.

But even as she asks the question we know so well: “How long?”, she finds an answer. "Realize that the Lord shows the godly special favor; / the Lord responds when I cry out to him." 

No matter what they say, they know the truth as she does! The godly (חסיד, chasid) is both the one who has experienced God’s faithful love (חסד, chesed) and the one who has learned to show that love to others.

The first stanza ends with six imperatives, again arranged in pairs: tremble/don't sin; meditate/repent; offer sacrifices/trust God.

This is how Norman Fischer** translates VV 4-5: People, tremble / And be upright / Commune with your hearts / In the deep of night / Awake on your beds. / Be still: / Offer that / For it is fitting / Trust it / For it is the rightness / Of all that is.


In the Second Stanza (VV 6-8) the question is, What goodness?, and it's not the Psalmist who is asking, but skeptics and doubters around her.

“Who can show us anything good?” they growl. Can your God really do any good? This is when the Psalmist recalls the old blessing which she has heard hundreds of times during worship: “The Lord will make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord will lift up his face to you and give you his peace” (Num 6:25–26).

In an "ironic reversal" (Erich Zenger) of the Aaronitic Blessing, she squashes any uncertainties that might have stirred within her and others during this assault: "Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord".

As she prays, it dawns on her that there is an inner sort of joy that surpasses all the joys gained from owning more stuff.  What is a successful harvest (of corn and grapes for new wine) compared with her inner joy?

The Psalmist's inner joy is connected with shalom, the theme of the last verse: I will lie down and sleep peacefully (literally "in shalom") / for you, Lord, make me safe and secure.  Many of us know this last verse from singing Compline.  

These words have been used for evening prayer for so long because it's such a powerful way of invoking God's protection during the night.  

The German word used by Erich Zenger comes to mind: Geborgenheit, a word that carries within safety, peace and security.  It is also a word that is less abstract than any of those three; it paints the image of a mother sheltering her newborn child in her arms. 

In the midst of whatever we are experiencing, good or bad, the Psalmist invites us to remember and to say, "I will lie down and sleep peacefully, / for you, Lord, make me safe and secure."

That's enough for me. There is no need to worry about what was, or what will be, since God is with us right now and right here, and promises to never leave us.


*In V 6b I have replaced the wording of NET ("Smile upon us, God") with that of NRSV.

**Norman Fischer. Opening to You. Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms. 2002.

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