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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.

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.

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