Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Psalm 25

Psalm 25 

"To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul."

This psalm is a favorite of the lectionary coming up several times over the course of the three years.  On a walk, I was thinking about what to say about this psalm.  I don't propose to give you anything that is groundbreaking, rather, if you have given 15 seconds more of your day to thinking about the psalm for Sunday, I feel that I have done a good job.

Read the psalm and think of what comes to you.  What verses give you pause?  What stands out to you?  What words make you think?  What verses challenge you?

These are some of the questions that we can ask ourselves.  As we dig deeper, maybe we can discern what certain words mean, their origin and their use in the time that the psalms were written.  Perhaps we can see that there are certain literary forms that the psalms take on like the poetic forms with which we are familiar.  But, for now, as followers of Jesus, or at least enthusiasts of the psalms, we must read and chew on the words we are given.

The word that comes immediately to my attention is "soul."  The original language of the psalms was Hebrew - soul meant something like breath, or any living being with breath - more specifically, it was what defined life; what we may call today our "self."  Such a confusing word this is!  We use it for various purposes and where it gets out of control is the thought of what may happen to it after we die - another blog article for sure!

"To you, O LORD, I lift up my [self]."

To our ears, or eyes, this makes a little more sense with what the psalmist is singing in this psalm.

"To you, O LORD, I lift up [all that makes me a living being]."

I think that we're starting to capture the meaning of the psalm, maybe just a little bit.  The psalmist goes on to praise God for deliverance from his enemies and then to ask God to instruct him in the ways of God.

If the word "soul" came to my attention, so also did the idea of being instructed.  Over the course of the psalm, the idea of teaching and covenant is lifted up ten times.  This is not unusual in the psalm tradition.  Not only would one conceive of pledging one's whole self, but it was the Law, the covenant with God and his people that compelled those singing the psalm to seek to be taught and corrected by this living God of the covenant.

If you have read the books of 1 and 2 Kings, you know that the history of Israel and Judah is spiraling out of control until just about the last minute when King Josiah takes the throne.  At eight years old, he begins to reign and it's not long before someone "stumbles" upon the scrolls of what is believed to be Deuteronomy.  Josiah instructs that it must be read and, upon hearing the words of the Law, rips his clothes for the lawlessness of his people.  With a Law-minded King, the people repent for a short while until his lawless son, Jehoiakim takes the throne without mind of any of his father's decrees.  From then on, it's a few short steps and the people of God are exiled to a foreign land (Babylon) singing their songs (psalms) for an unknown people.

The tension and balance of keeping the covenant is the drama of the Old Testament.  God calls a people, gives them a binding covenant, they obey, rebel, obey, rebel and on and on.  God comes to them even in their wickedness calling for their repentance through the preaching of the prophets and for a while, they repent.  But it isn't long before they are in the dog-house again.

When Josiah's servant found the scroll, he came to him and said something to the effect of "Hey, look what I found in the house of the LORD."  The people of God had lost their way.  They didn't even know what the scroll was in the Temple!  For generations before Josiah, they had been turning away and it was Josiah who brought them back, for a short time, to the ways of the covenant.  They hadn't even been celebrating the Passover!

Lest we give them too hard a time, we are a sinful people just as much as they were.  Psalm 25 calls us to remember the God of the covenant.  Psalm 25 calls us lift our whole selves to this God of the covenant asking for instruction, for teaching and for correction.  This psalm reminds us that God is not a disciplinarian seeking to embarrass his subjects, but rather calls us to covenant through his love, moreover, his steadfast love.

Maybe our prayer should be that God keep us close to his word.  Lutherans have a hymn for this, "Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word."  Happy singing!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

One Generation Shall Laud Your Works to Another, Psalm 145

Psalm 145 came up in the rotation to read this summer and I remember the day that it came up, I just couldn't get enough of it.  The expansive language and imagery, the vastness of what the psalm requires was just too much for me and yet I kept coming back.  For this week's meditation, rather than walking through the whole psalm, I'd like to take a verse and "chew on it" for our purposes as the Church and as a church.  I encourage you, beyond this one verse, to take time and pray/sing psalm 145 on your own.

One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. (verse 4)

I was telling a family this week after church that I had a low-level "bummed out-ness" over the summer.  I was hesitant to call it a "depression" because this is a very real thing with which many people we know struggle.  I just felt as though I wasn't getting any fulfilment or challenge.  My sense of hope was hanging on a little more loosely than I felt comfortable with.

Then, I had my first children's choir rehearsal of the season.  "Oh, yeah, that's it!"  That's what was missing.  Over the summer, whether teaching adults in sunday school classes or leading them through a discussion on a book that we have read, or working with my adult choir, I work primarily with adults.  I love these folks who are committed to the work of ministry at Good Shepherd (where I serve) but there is something different about working exclusively with people who aren't in elementary school.  We all come to rehearsals, meetings, book groups, with baggage or bias.  It's how we're wired.  As long as it doesn't prevent us from growing, it's probably OK.  Kids, however, are just learning.  They are so fresh and without opinion (the younger they are) and when they do have an opinion, it's not personal, it's very direct.

One of the lessons that I am teaching the First Choir (Kindergarten-2nd grade) is how to use a hymnal.  Some of them have trouble reading and can't count over 100, but we are learning how to use the hymnal nevertheless.  For centuries, hymnals have been central to keeping people on the same page (pardon the pun) in worship.  Therefore, if I can teach them how to use the hymnal at an early age, then hopefully its value and importance will stick with them for the rest of their lives.

The hope is that once they practice this kind of behavior in choir rehearsals, they will go out and in worship pick up the hymnal and try to be engaged in worship.  Nay-saying adults tell me that this is above the level that the kids think on  -- to that I say, "shame on you."

The hope, that kids will pick up the hymnal at least sometimes in worship, is fulfilled from time to time with great delight.  Sunday, my wife was telling me that she saw the youngest member of our choir, a 5 year old who has just started kindergarten, pick up her hymnal after the sermon, attempt to find the hymn that we were singing, fighting off the help of her father and then finally joining the song that the whole assembly was singing.

This isn't all.  A few months ago in a vespers service, I look over to see one of the first graders in my choir singing enthusiastically the psalms with the congregation.  If you watch these guys sing in a context like worship, there is a focus that they have which is unmatched in any adult.  It's not because adults are bad, it's just that we have lost something that children have.  It's a willingness to fully engage in what they are doing.  Up until a certain age (I can't quite tell at this point) kids LOVE to sing  -- then, something happens, and they join the rank of most adults who don't like to sing or feel inadequate doing so.  But, what if we could learn something from the little ones who sing without regard for the opinions or biases of anyone else?

This is what comes to mind when reading this verse.  We often think that the recounting of the works of the Lord in worship, be it through the spoken word or the sung word, is for our individual learning.  Though that might be part of it, the primary reason for the reading of texts and singing of hymns is the very proclamation of the works of the Lord; it is the recounting of the deeds of the God of Israel, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  When we sing, we sing as an assembly of young and old, passing on the song to the young.  It is this pattern of proclamation, this giving of the song, this teaching to recount the deeds of the living God that will preserve the young throughout their days. 

It is our responsiblity to train the young to sing, not to write them off as being young and somehow an exception in worship.  Does this mean that our 5 year olds are going to sit still and hang on every word in worship? Of course not!  But, it does mean that singing with our kids, praying with our kids, listening with our kids will train them in the way that they should participate in the liturgy.  As they get older, setting a standard of participation and engagement in worship will stick with them for the rest of their lives.  What a gift we have to give! 

One middle-schooler who loves to sing and keeps me going!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Psalm 98

I'm sorry to have neglected this blog for so long.  I hope that what you read can be helpful in your approaching the psalms.  The psalter is like a good wine.  You know it's good, artistically and perhaps culturally, but the taste may not be what you're expecting.  Maybe you get something bold when you're looking for something smooth.  Maybe you're challenged when you're looking for comfort.  Either way, there is always something unexpected when we approach the psalter.  And, to carry the metaphor further, like a good wine, the psalter can be an acquired taste, though once acquired, we tend to treasure it and on our best days share what we love with others.

My thoughts kept coming back to Psalm 98 today.  This Sunday is September 14 and for centuries, September 14 has been recognized as Holy Cross Day.  Beginning in the fourth century, it was a day to celebrate what legend has as the finding of the actual Holy Cross.  Tradition, thankfully, has turned it into a day to celebrate the victory of the cross of Christ and the saving work that the cross and resurrection afford.  This psalm is an apt psalm to go with the lessons for Holy Cross Day.

Take a minute to read it by clicking here.

This psalm comes in the middle of a chunk of psalms that are doxological (praise).  These psalms sing over and over the line "sing to the LORD a new song" or "make a joyful noise unto the LORD." They call on all creation to join the song of redemption.  Each of these psalms, beginning from about psalm 93 through psalm 104, praise God in a very direct way and always lifting up his saving work for the people who are called in his name.

Something about the phrase "sing to the LORD a new song" got to me today.  I have been chewing on this phrase in my mind and discerning where to go with it.  So many times, this phrase is used by musicians like me to encourage congregations to be about singing to the Lord a new song; be it a literal new song, or to remember the song by which we're called.  But my thoughts were different today.

When you read about the battles fought in the Old Testament, particularly in the books of the Kings, or when you read about the dedication of Solomon's Temple in both accounts (Kings and Chronicles), you see this phrase over and over again: Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his steadfast love endures for ever.  Even what we know of as the psalter was used in portions of the historical books as the songs that the people would sing upon winning the battle, dedicating the temple, or hearing the law in the assembly.  This is THE song of the Old Testament.  The people of Israel were constantly turning, disobeying and returning to God.  God would say that he would write them off, but constantly, he would come back to them out of his goodness and his steadfast love.

What does this mean when we see the command, the acclamation to sing God a new song?  Perhaps I can illustrate it with a story from my own life.

I got married about five years ago.  When you're finishing up college, you're in the middle of what you think is a temporary identity struggle but what actually turns out to be the entrance to adulthood. Crossroad's Grill was a greasy spoon in my hometown that I went to often.  It was the Wednesday before I was to be married and my dad wanted to treat me to dinner at Crossroads.  This place was great - it had the best hotdogs, fries, onion rings - fill in the fried blank.  It was the place that my friends and I would go to after exams were over.  It was the place my wife and I later deferred to on Friday nights.  But, this evening my dad and I went, a rare and wonderful treat.

We sat there and ate our respective fried goodness, a little of which goes a very long way.  We talked about a lot of things.  We talked about my being almost done with school (I had only a semester to go).  We talked about Christmas coming up in about 10 days or so.  Actually, I am only guessing that we talked about these things based on the context.  The only thing that I really remember is how satisfying that evening was, sitting there, chowing down with my dad on one of the last evenings that I would not be a "grown up" married off with new challenges.  There was a feeling of contentment that was very real and can still be felt today, but only as a memory.  It was as if, though I had been saying "I love you" for years, I wanted to say more.  I wanted to say something that would express the joy of that moment in time that was more that "I love you," that was deeper than "thank you" that was fuller than anything I could think of.

This is what I believe the "new song" is in the verses in and around psalm 98.  For centuries the people of Israel were proclaiming the steadfast love of the LORD.  Though this was still their message, it was almost not enough of a refrain; words couldn't capture the full nature of God's saving help.  All of creation is summoned in the verses of psalm 98 and following to join this song.  The new song is beyond words and in fact, all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God! The psalmist commands trumpets to sound, people to shout, the sea and all that's in it to rejoice, the lands and all who dwell in the lands.  The rivers themselves will clap over the rocks and the hills will break out in joyful singing because it is the Lord Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who comes to judge the world, reconciling all things, making all things right again.  It is the Lord triumphant, riding on the cherubim, surrounded in clouds of darkness and majesty calling all creation to the goodness of his judgment and to the faithfulness of his love.

This is a song, like our God, that can never be contained.  This is a song that will always be new because God's mercies are always new.  This is a song, a new song, that will always be new because even our words are not enough to express the joy and love of God.

My experience with dad was not unlike experiences we all have whether in relationship with others or relationship with nature.  There is a fullness that we can't quite express because we're human.  By nature of this grasping for fullness of expression, we are always looking for that new song and singing with the fullness that we can muster.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Flourishing Flowers of the Field, A Meditation on Psalm 103:15-17


"But the merciful goodness of the LORD endureth for ever and ever upon them that fear him; and his righteousness upon children's children;"  Psalm 103:17 (Coverdale)

This verse has been ringing in my head for months now.  In fact, the psalm like an ear worm has worked it's way into my thinking.  Psalm 103 is so vast and has many layers.  To unpack it, reflect on it and dig for more could fill up a book or more and should be reserved for much better writers and thinkers than I.

Though, I am left with this nagging feeling that I should write something about this psalm.  Let me start with this verse.  The first word is "but," leaving us to read what came immediately before:

"The days of man are but as grass;
for he flourisheth as a flower of the field.
For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone;
and the place thereof shall know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the . . . "

There is something oddly comforting about scripture that openly admits that humans are dying.  Be it psalm 90, or James' writing in the New Testament, or even Jesus telling us not to worry about tomorrow, there is something about confronting the notion of our death that is refreshing.  Think about how much of our lives, in our culture, is viewed as immortal, invincible. We plan for years at a time.  We treat our bodies as if nothing can hurt them.  We're surprised when we look older in pictures.  It's almost as if all of the negative things that come with aging and dying were supposed to happen to someone else.  Sure, they look older because they are getting older, but me? 

Not only is there something comforting about scripture's confrontation with the idea of dying, but also with its tying our dying to the natural process of life.  "As for mortals, their days are like grass;" (NRSV) We are all like the grass that we see come and go every year.  Those leaves that will be changing colors and falling to the ground over the next few months are pictures of our mortality.  At once, we are given youth, energy, time, resources, choices and with the choices we make, we flourish.  We use our time and energy to grow and develop based on how we treat ourselves and our existence.  If that time is used for good, we grow for good; likewise, if we use that time unwisely, then our "flourishing" may be lacking.  Nevertheless, we have this vital resource, most of us, called time and energy and thus we flourish.

But, as soon as we flourish, the wind passes over and we are gone.  Moreover, within a few generations, your unique life, gentle smile, hopeful words are gone and remembered no more.  Even some of the most famous will be forgotten in a hundred years, and certainly in a thousand years.  Death is the great equalizer; it is the same in every generation.  The wind that passes over the flower of the field shows no mercy and just as the flower grew from the soil, so is it returned to the earth.  Perhaps this flower in its death and return to the earth may provide some nourishment to the next generation, but when it is gone, it's gone and sooner or later, remembered no more.  The beauty is replaced by another flower.  The flourishing is the work of another generation.

We do everything we can to resist this notion.  And, why shouldn't we?  It really makes no sense in the context of our lives.  If we're open to it, we are surrounded by such immense beauty that it is, at times, overwhelming.  If we were to take a pause and think of the "flowers" in our lives rather than complaining about the weeds, the beauty would be astounding.  But, this isn't a lesson about looking for the flowers in your life; this is a confrontation with our own mortality, something that is so humbling and startling and that has been on the minds of psalmists and hymn writers for generations.

There is a haunting feeling when we lose someone we love.  Having experienced so many profound moments with someone in life and shared the depth of existing leaves us rebellious to the notion that we or those that we love will be forgotten.  No matter how comforting it may be to think that they are "in a better place," we have to pick up the pieces of their loss and get to know them (for lack of a better phrase) in a different way.  This isn't to mention a serious contemplation of our own dying, a pervasive thought that has kept Woody Allen in business for decades.  This reflection of our own mortality is almost beyond what we're capable of thinking, but the bards of every generation sing the song of our own end.  Natural or unnatural, scary or comforting, the wind passes over and we are gone.


the merciful goodness of the LORD endureth for ever and ever upon them that fear him...

Some translations say "from everlasting to everlasting."  The people of Israel didn't perceive a God that was out to destroy the world like the God we see described from time to time in our own culture.  God was celebrated for creation.  God was blessed for creating and pronouncing it good.  For the psalmist, the merciful goodness of YHWH is a timeless, spaceless banner into which creation is taken.  Over and above the natural processes as we see them (life, death, wind, grass, etc.) God's love is the natural constant, a backdrop that is permanently fixed.  But, even the word "backdrop" is challenging because it is this love, this steadfast love that surrounds the natural on every side. 

Our lives, like a breath, come in and go out.  But, the mercy, the love of God is for ever and for ever.  It's existence is beyond our concept of time and it's motion "forward" is beyond our perception.  Galaxies, stars, planets exist and then are gone.  The world as we know it exists in one way and then it is gone.  Our contribution to the earth will be what it is while we are here, then it is gone, remembered no more.  But, God's mercy endures for ever.  It is this mercy, this constant, that holds all things together.  As Christians, we believe that this love took its shape in Jesus Christ who (to quote St. Paul) is "all and in all," and to quote St. Luke from Acts the one in whom "we live and move and have our being."  This steadfast love of God links all of creation together as a constant.  It is this love that gave birth to creation.  It is this love that sustains and renews creation.  It is this love that draws us into a new (to us) reality of God at our death.

Therefore, if it is this love in which we were created and have our being, in which we are sustained and renewed in Christ, what is our role in our brief existence?  Is it not to live out this love in our own humble and clumsy but fully human way?  If this love is the constant that fills creation, is it our role in our short stay to bring out this love, to highlight its beauty and to show it unabashedly to all?  The flourishing flowers of the field, all rooted in the same soil, all returning to the same soil take their nourishment from the steadfast love of God in which they were created.  This love calls us in many and different ways to to show forth beauty and love to the world.  This is more than doing good for the sake of doing good; it is a radical understanding of the universality of the steadfast love of God filling all things and enduring unto the ages of ages. 

At this, I am humbled and challenged.