Heschel, for your Sabbath Day #4

To the Romans technical civilization was the highest goal, and time for the sake of space.  To Rabbi Shimeon spiritual life was the highest goal, and time for the sake of eternity.  His conclusive comfort was: in spite of all dedication to temporal things, there was a destiny that would save the people of Israel, a commitment deeper than all interests–the commitment to the Sabbath.

This then is the answer to the problem of civilization: not to flee from the realm of space; to work with the things of space but to be in love with eternity.  Things are our tools; eternity, the Sabbath, is our mate.  Israel is engaged to eternity.  Even if they dedicate six days of the week to worldly pursuits, their soul is claimed by the seventh day.

(From chapter 4 of The Sabbath)

A persistent theme throughout Heschel’s work is the fundamental difference between “pagan” and “Jewish” conceptions of time.  That “fundamental” difference is highlighted here and may be stated as:

  • Pagan viewtime is for the sake of (the conquest of) space.  This view of time leads to an understanding that the purpose of life is accumulation of money, goods, power… the building of our own “personal empires” (the Romans are a macrocosm of that in the passage above).
  • Jewish viewtime is for the sake of eternity.  This view of time leads to an understanding that the purpose of life is “menuha” – wholeness, repose, and rest… the total consecration of our “selves” for the end for which we were made (the eternal Sabbath is Heschel’s symbol for this).

So part of the logic of the 7th day is to remember – in time – the end for which we were made, which leads to an orientation of time towards wholeness (shalom) and not towards conquest.  Sabbath anchors eternity in time, and therefore makes time a home for the flourishing of eternity.

May God’s eternal rest flourish in and around you this weekend, and always.

Peace.

Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119 #5 (He)

Once again, we recap the journey:

  • Aleph (vv. 1-8): the horizon is perfection
  • Beth (vv. 9-16): the path is God’s gracious speech
  • Gimel (vv. 17-24): the commitment to Yahweh’s “way” makes us by definition strange (something we’ll have to grow increasingly comfortable with)
  • Daleth (vv. 25-32): sooner or later, followers of Yahweh “hit the wall“, and when they do, Yahweh has them right where he wants them

What happens on the other side of “the wall”?  The Psalmist continues –

33 Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees;
then I will keep them to the end.
34 Give me understanding, and I will keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
35 Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
36 Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain.
37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word.[b]
38 Fulfill your promise to your servant,
so that you may be feared.
39 Take away the disgrace I dread,
for your laws are good.
40 How I long for your precepts!
Preserve my life in your righteousness.

We’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth saying again because this text is a perfect example of it… There is a longstanding tradition within Protestant Christianity to treat Old Testament faith as “just a bunch of rule-keeping”.  The Old Testament believer is looked at as a symbol of the “dead religion” which we’re all hoping to escape from, which thankfully Paul (and later on Luther) did in fact liberate us from.  “No more rule-keeping and dead religion!” we declare, “All is grace!”

Well, not so fast with that whole line of thought.  Of course in Jesus’ day and Paul’s day (and even the Psalmist’s day) there were those in Israel who did not perceive the “hard core” of what obedience to Yahweh was all about.  And of course there were those for whom Torah obedience devolved into “merely” legalistic ritual observance.  But may I be so bold as to suggest that such persons represented defections and aberrations from Yahweh’s intention?

Listen to the language of the Psalmist… each line of this stanza begins of course with the Hebrew letter “He” (pronounced “hay”) and (with the exception of verse 40), leads off with a verb in the “Hiphil” stem.

Now that may not sound like a big deal to you… but it’s actually an INCREDIBLY theologically significant maneuver (linguistically speaking), for the Hiphil stem carries a “causative” sense with it, the effect of which is that we are to hear the Psalmist saying, “Do this to/for/in me Yahweh!”  Let us listen to the verbs:

Teach me… and then I will keep… (v33)

Cause me to understand… and then I will keep Torah and obey it with all my heart… (v34)

Direct me in the path… (v35)

Turn my heart toward your statutes and not towards unjust gain… (v36)

Turn my eyes away from empty things… (v37)

Just listen to it… “Teach me”, “Illuminate me”, “direct me”, “turn my heart”, “turn my eyes”… this is not a person who is slavishly following some cold standard.

This, rather, is a person who has seen the beauty of Yahweh’s life-giving way, has hit the wall in their own efforts, apprehended their limitations, and has come to the place of poverty of spirit in which their soul reaches out for Yahweh’s assistance… “Show me how to do this!” this person cries.  “And show me how it all connects… help it make sense to me!”  And even more, “Cause my heart to stretch out towards your way!” and “Keep my eyes away from things that have nothing to do with this life-giving way!”

This is a plea for God’s enabling grace if ever there was one.  And here again, we find, perhaps to our surprise, that the Psalmist and Protestantism’s favorite pre-Luther theological figure, Augustine, are on equal footing – “Grant what you command; command what you will!” said Augustine.  “Enable me to follow you” said the Psalmist, “and I will keep your instructions straight to the end.”

It’s in moments like this of reading and meditating on the Psalms when it starts to become obvious to me why the Church has always seen in the Psalter the voice of the One in whom the whole of God’s people is summed up – Jesus, David’s (to whom much of the Psalter is ascribed) True Son.

The Psalter of course was always the favorite prayer book of the ancient Jew, and as such it must have been the favorite prayer book of Jesus (we have ample evidence in the Gospels that Jesus was well familiar with the Psalms).  Let your imagine wander for a moment… to an adolescent Jesus at prayer:

Teach me, Father…

Give me understanding…

Direct me in the path…

Turn my heart…

Turn my eyes…

Fulfill your promise…

Let your imagination wander further, to a now grown Jesus in the desert, during the days of his temptation:

Teach me, Father…

Give me understanding…

Direct me in the path…

Turn my heart…

Turn my eyes…

Fulfill your promise…

Let it wander still further, to Jesus in the last hours of his life, in the Garden of Gethsemane…

Teach me, Father…

Give me understanding…

Direct me in the path…

Turn my heart…

Turn my eyes…

Fulfill your promise…

Take away the disgrace I dread…

Preserve me in your righteousness!

Jesus, David’s Son, lifted up and brought to a climax the whole spiritual ethos of the Psalter.  The desperate pleas of the Psalmist became his desperate pleas as he threw himself time and time again at the mercy of his Father.  The Psalmist’s cry for public vindication (which is also a public vindication of Yahweh’s way) – “Fulfill your promise to your servant so that you may be feared!” – is “filled up” in his death, resurrection, and ascension whereby the Faithful One, Christ Jesus, is vindicated by his Father as Lord of All, to whom the nations will finally come and worship.

And as such, he bears in his body the destiny of those who put their confidence in him.  

This is at least part of what we mean in the Church when we say that we pray “in the Name of Jesus”… it is a realization that when we pray, we are praying “in, with, and through” the One who filled up in his life the whole spirituality of the Psalter.  He is the ultimate horizon of Israel’s, and hence the world’s, cries to God.

Who knew?  May you pray the Psalms today, and find yourself thereby in the company of Jesus.

Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119: #4 (Daleth)

Let us recount the journey so far:

  • Aleph (vv. 1-8): the horizon is perfection
  • Beth (vv. 9-16): the path is God’s gracious speech
  • Gimel (vv. 17-24): the commitment to Yahweh’s “way” makes us by definition strange (something we’ll have to grow increasingly comfortable with)

And so the next leg (each line beginning with the Hebrew letter “daleth”) commences:

25 I am laid low in the dust;
preserve my life according to your word.
26 I recounted my ways and you answered me;
teach me your decrees.
27 Let me understand the teaching of your precepts;
then I will meditate on your wonders.
28 My soul is weary with sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
29 Keep me from deceitful ways;
be gracious to me through your law.
30 I have chosen the way of truth;
I have set my heart on your laws.
31 I hold fast to your statutes, O LORD;
do not let me be put to shame.
32 I run in the path of your commands,
for you have set my heart free.

The journey began so energetic and hopeful.  “I will obey your decrees!” (v8) the Psalmist cried.  “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches!” (v14)… “I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word!” (v16) he loudly proclaimed.  And even “though rulers sit together and slander me,” he declared, “your servant will meditate on your decrees!” (v23).

And now… as was likely inevitable… he hits the “wall.”

My nephesh (“soul”) clings to the dust… (v25)

Now when the Psalmist uses the word “nephesh” (soul), he doesn’t mean what WE usually mean by “soul”.  For us, the “soul” is that ephemeral, invisible, “misty” part of your total self that may or may not actually be real.  For Hebrew writers, however, the “nephesh” referred to the totality of our living being (which includes “invisible” things but is so much more than that), as in Genesis 2:7 which states that “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being,” – the words “living being” of course being a translation of the Hebrew “nephesh.”

So when the Psalmist announces that his “nephesh” is clinging to the dust (“dust” of course being a prominent symbol in the Bible of mortality and consequently, humility), he is saying quite literally: the whole of my being, all that I am… it’s flat on the floor… “on the mat”, as it were… 

He’s “hit the wall.”

And yet…

In the midst of that…

Perhaps precisely because of that…

…He stretches out towards God.  “Preserve my life according to your word…” (v25)  “teach me your decrees…” v26)  “strengthen me…” (v28)  “be gracious to me…” (v29)  “don’t let me be put to shame…” (v31)  His lips resound with desperate cries for help.  He can’t do it and he knows it.

And right there… in that moment… Yahweh has him exactly where he wants him.  In the place of full acceptance of his limitation and mortality, and consequently total abandonment to God.

At the breakfast table this week, Mandi and I began working through the Beatitudes with our kids.  Yesterday, appropriately I suppose, was the first one:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of God is theirs!

How to teach this to a 5 year old, a 4 year old, and a 2 year old… I wondered to myself.  So I went ahead and began with the words.  “Guys, what is ‘poor’?  Do you know what that means?”

(They did not.)

“You know those people we see sometimes when we’re driving – standing by the side of the road holding up signs?” I queried.  “Oh yeah, we’ve seen those guys!” they announced.  “Well those guys are poor – very poor. Most of them have no homes, no food, and very few clothes.  That’s the reason they ask for help on the side of the road.  They are TOTALLY DEPENDENT on the kindness of other people to survive.”

“So to be poor ‘in spirit’,” I continued, “must mean to be completely dependent on God for our survival, right?”

(They agreed)

“And Jesus says that when we’re poor in spirit, we’re blessed… and why?  Because we’ve thrown ourselves at God, and we know that unless he’s kind to us, we’re not gonna make it.”

In my own life, this has constantly proven to be the case.

When I “hit the wall” in my efforts to be everything I’ve been called to be in creation and redemption…

Then I am blessed.

When I “hit the wall” and am totally frustrated with my husbanding and parenting…

Then I am blessed.

When I “hit the wall” and feel like I am without answers for a relationship that has gone awry…

Then I am blessed.

When I “hit the wall” and realize that I cannot be everything that the congregation I get to serve needs me to be…

Then I am blessed… then I am on the doorstep of the kingdom!

The quicker we come to embrace our weaknesses, our inabilities, our vulnerabilities, our limitations… the TOTAL PAIN of our finitude and mortality, the better it will be for us… for God’s desire for us “dusty” human beings is that not that we would rise up in hubris, puffing out our chests, pulling ourselves up by our moral bootstraps, and proving once for all that we really ARE awesome and capable and amazing… but rather that we would stretch out towards his illimitable grace and kindness and find therein the joy of having abandoned ourselves to the God “from whom all blessings flow.”

Paul said it beautifully:

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Co 12)

Which sure sounds a lot like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…

And when we embrace this, chances are we’ll be able to say with the Psalmist:

You have enlarged my heart! (v32 – more literally in Hebrew)

So may you – with JOY – embrace your “dustiness” this day… when you “hit the wall”, may you know that you are blessed… may your dustiness in every way push you to reach out to God, “in whom we live and move and have our being”, and may God “enlarge your heart” with his goodness.

Grace and peace.

Prayers for my Bloom family, on an ordinary Tuesday…

For my Bloom family (and any who overhear) today:

Brothers and sisters:

You are the people of Jesus

May you know it deep in your bones today

May your commitment to his way mark you out as different

And may that difference be blessing for the world

May you be marked by your poverty of spirit, by your grief over the vandalism of shalom in God’s good world, by your gentleness and humility, and by your longing for things to be made right;

May you know the kingdom.

May you be marked by the mercy which triumphs over the world’s cold standards of justice, by the purity and singleness of heart that enable you to both “see” and “say” God, by an eagerness to throw yourself into the uncomfortable and unpopular work of bringing shalom in a world that loves conflict, and by your willingness to suffer for everything that belongs to Jesus and his Father.

May you bring the kingdom.

May you see yourselves as salt, as light, and as a city of heaven situated right smack in the country of death; may faith, hope, and love fill your hearts with courage and fortitude to remain in the “Way”, even when it’s hard;  may the poor be lifted, the weak made strong, and the lost be found through your lives today.

And may Denver have more light…

Much more light…

Because of you.

Amen.

Heschel, for your Sabbath Day (#3)

On Fridays (since it’s the Arndt family “Sabbath”), I’ve been posting little snippets here on the blog from Abraham Heschel’s marvelous little book The Sabbath (if you haven’t done it yet, for goodness sakes, please buy it soon).

These snippets are from chapter 2, in which Heschel argues that practicing Sabbath helps us reclaim the dignity of our “selves”, and by proxy, the dignity of our labor as well… it helps us stand, as he says, “beyond civilization”.  Enjoy!

Technical civilization is the product of labor, of man’s exertion of power for the sake of producing goods.  It begins when man, dissatisfied with what is available in nature, becomes engaged in a struggle with the forces of nature in order to enhance his safety and to increase his comfort.  To use the language of the Bible, the task of civilization is to subdue the earth, to have dominion over the beast…

Is our civilization a way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe?  Is civilization essentially evil, to be rejected and condemned?  The faith of the Jew is not a way OUT of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject, but to surpass civilization.  The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the act of surpassing civilization…

The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from work is not a depreciation but an affirmation of labor, a divine exaltation of its dignity.  Thou shalt abstain from labor on the seventh day is a sequel to the command: “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work.”

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshiping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature–is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?

The solution of mankind’s most vexing problems will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it…on the Sabbath we live, as it were, independent of technical civilization…man’s royal privilege to conquer nature is suspended on the seventh day.

Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119 #3 (Gimel)

The Psalmist has described the horizon of the journey for us as a sort of “completeness” of love and obedience in God (vv1-8), and he shown us how the “substance” of that journey – the “in what does it consist” of it – is an unbroken delight in and attention to the very “word” of God… a “word” that comes from the interiority of God-self, addressed to the interiority of the human “self”.  The next leg of the journey commences, each line beginning with the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, gimel:

17 Do good to your servant, and I will live;
I will obey your word.
18 Open my eyes that I may see
wonderful things in your law.
19 I am a stranger on earth;
do not hide your commands from me.
20 My soul is consumed with longing
for your laws at all times.
21 You rebuke the arrogant, who are cursed
and who stray from your commands.
22 Remove from me scorn and contempt,
for I keep your statutes.
23 Though rulers sit together and slander me,
your servant will meditate on your decrees.
24 Your statutes are my delight;
they are my counselors.

Up to this point, the main characters in the plot have been the Psalmist, his God, and that God’s speech to him.  Now for the first time, a new character steps onto the stage – what we might broadly call “the world.”  And what the Psalmist senses, deep down in his bones, is that his commitment to the “word” of God, as manifest in Yahweh’s “Torah” (his “law”, or more literally, his “instruction), does something to him… it makes him something… the first words of verse nineteen spell it out:

ger anochi va-aretz

Literally:

(a) stranger/sojourner (am) I in the land

Disciples know that commitment to Yahweh and his way makes them “odd”.  Torah roots them in another reality and hence marks them out as different.  The Psalmist knows it.  He feels it in the core of his being.  He is a passer-through… a “stranger”… a “sojourner”… in a fundamental way, he does not belong.  He is an “alien.”  And he is treated for the most part as such.  He is often scorned and vilified; misunderstood and rejected; slandered and spoken negatively of.

And yet…

Something beautiful happens because of this.  He draws nearer to God.  The “oddness”, which he experiences both WITHIN himself (in the form of awkwardness) and FROM OUTSIDE OF himself (in the form of rejection of various kinds) pushes him to find his “home” more and more not in the “aretz” – the land – but rather in Yahweh.  He is learning to make Yahweh his “portion”.  “Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees” (v23).

He is an expatriate longing for the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of home.  And he knows that this place is not it.

You are odd, friend.  And the sooner you come to grips with it, the better off you’ll be.  An enormous part of the journey towards moral and spiritual perfection is learning a certain comfort-level with our basic “strangeness”… becoming friendly with “oddness”, experiencing ourselves as strangers and learning to be okay with it.

But that is where the rub lies.  At a core level, what it means to be human is to be connected to others.  When we meet people on the bus or plane, something within us longs to strike up a conversation, finding common ground.  Why do we do that?  Because we want to feel connected.  It is part of our humanness.

Which is why we experience rejection as such a threat.  On some deep, existential level, it feels like negation. Like we’re being thrust into some outer darkness… a void… and we a-void “voidness” at all costs.

We need to face that fear, for the truth of the matter is twofold:

  1. We’ll never be able to help the world unless we first learn to stand apart from it
  2. To claim our “oddness” as a basic part of our identity is emphatically NOT negation, for it thrusts us into deeper communion with the One who is the very source and ground of all “being” – namely, God.

Communion with God is the only way we’ll ever attain enough creative distance to speak a critical and liberating word to a world that is hopelessly confused.  How can we say “no” to the pathologies of our day unless we’ve learned to say “yes” to the Goodness of God?  The “no” and the “yes” are all bound up together.  As Karl Barth once beautifully put it, “In his ‘no’ God utters his ‘yes’…”

We might say that the reverse is true for disciples, that “In our ‘yes’ to God we also utter our ‘no’ to the world”… a “no” that paradoxically also turns out to be a “yes”, for our very existence will be to the world that “word” that calls the world to be what God intends for it to be.

As Jesus put it: “You are the light of the world.”

Only when we claim our oddness.

“Game On” Viral Video & The Problem of Christians and Politics

Most readers of this blog know that I don’t do a lot of commenting on politics here.  But sometimes you just gotta say SOMETHING.

My sister showed me this video this past weekend.  It’s a music video put together by a Christian family in Oklahoma in order to help the Rick Santorum campaign.  Take a gander.

The catchy little video’s garnered over a million hits on YouTube.  It’s a fun little two and a half minutes and I must confess that I find myself humming it here and there.

Nevertheless, there are problems.  I have no interest here in commenting on the political or social values of the Santorum campaign, but rather to critique the questionable assumptions that seem to be at work in this video; assumptions that I think many Christians, on both the Right and the Left (and the various iterations between those two poles) carry around which do – in my opinion – hamper both our witness and our effective engagement in the political sphere.  Let me name them:

1) Utopian idealism focused through the lens of political achievements.  “There will be justice for the unborn; factories back on our shores…” and so on and so forth.  Much good can be achieved through politics, to be sure; and much evil can be prevented.  But my goodness, this kind of utopian idealism places unreal and thoroughly unmanageable expectations on politics and politicians.  It happens in every political cycle.  People get caught up in a wish-dream… THIS candidate, THIS party, THIS movement… THIS IS FINALLY IT!  A new epoch of peace and prosperity is upon us, and this is the guy who will get it done!  Seriously.  Enough already. Temper the hyperbole please.  Following from that…

2) The idolization of political figures.  “He’s been faithful to his wife and seven kids; he’ll be faithful to us…” Never mind the non-sequitur.  This placing of leaders on such a high pedestal has not often worked out for us in the past.  If Rick Santorum gets elected, he is going to disappoint his supporters.  You can take that to the bank.  Just like Obama has disappointed many of those who got him elected… just like Bush disappointed many who got him elected… and so on and so forth.  Politicians, let us remember, are flawed human beings like the rest of us are.  Add to that the inherent complexity of trying to manage both their convictions about what’s right and their political existence, and you have a recipe for disappointment.  Stop worshiping idols please.  It’s bad for idols and worshipers alike.

3) Constantinianism.  Long-standing habits of thought are hard to break, and one of the longest-standing thought-habits among Christians of all political persuasions is the assumption that America is a “something” that “we” (whoever “we” are) have to “get back” from “them” (whoever “they” are), and that seizing the levers of political power is the best way to get that done.  We are like Jewish exiles living in Babylon hoping that if we unseat the Babylonian rulers, we can turn Babylon into the Jerusalem.  Silliness I say, for:

  • it is debatable that there is a “we” who ever really “had” America in the first place
  • we are not altogether sure what “we” should do with America once we “got it back”
  • we do not have a good track record of wielding power in any event, and
  • it is not altogether clear that God is very interested in us being “in control”

In a nutshell, that’s my beef with the video.  The driving assumptions lead to deep disappointment, the elevation and subsequent cannibalization of leaders, and and “us vs. them” mentality which fails to remember that our struggle is not against flesh and blood.

Now of course some are fuming angry with me right now, because they think that I’m advocating some kind of withdrawal from the political sphere.  I am not.  I am suggesting the following:

1) That we value political engagement for what it is and not overload it with utopian hopes.  Some “goods” can be achieved in the political sphere, but not all of them; and even if we get the “right” people in power, the nature of our government (what with its checks and balances) means that progress towards our ideals is often slow and halting, at best.  So let us have a chastened view of the power of politics.

2) That we stop placing leaders on a pedestal, for all of the reasons previously stated.  Rick Santorum is a less awesome guy than these girls and their family imagine.  And it is for both Rick’s and their good that they should realize it.  No one has ever lived up to unrealistic expectations, for obvious reasons… THEY ARE UNREALISTIC.  So let us remember that leaders are flawed human beings at best.

3) That we stop trying to “get America back from ‘them’ ” and start seeing the political sphere as a place where a plurality of interested parties grapples with issues related to the common good.  America is a community with different voices at the table.  The goal is not wresting power from someone else’s hands but working together for the common good.  Some will have different opinions about what the common good is.  And then, at times, we’re going to find ourselves at loggerheads, apparently unable to ram our issues through.  And that will be an okay thing.  We’re not in charge.  God is in charge.  And this isn’t our home.  The Kingdom fo God is our home.  We are “resident aliens”, working for the peace of the city to which we are sent into exile (see Jer 29), not trying to take the city back for ourselves in a coup.  So let us remember our role as aliens and strangers; let us stop pretending like this place is “ours”; and let us bring our convictions to the table, working for the common good like everyone else, understanding the inherent limitations therein.

Hopefully that will keep us all healthier and saner.

Peace.

Andrew

Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119 #2 (Beth)

(See here for #1 of this series)

The journey of discipleship has begun.  The horizon is full conformity to God and his ways, and nothing less.  Perfection is where this is all headed – the “self”, completed in God.

But how is that achieved?  The Psalmist will tell us here along the second leg of the pilgrimage: Psalm 119:9-16 – each letter of this stanza beginning with the Hebrew letter “beth”.

9 How can a young man keep his way pure?
By living according to your word.
10 I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.
11 I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.
12 Praise be to you, O LORD;
teach me your decrees.
13 With my lips I recount
all the laws that come from your mouth.
14 I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.
15 I meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.
16 I delight in your decrees;
I will not neglect your word.

Bammeh” – “in what” – is how this section begins.  As in – “what is the substance of” the life of faithfulness about which the Psalmist is speaking?  And though we are not told how old the Psalmist is, he uses a lovely little word that helps solidify in our minds a sort of theoretical framework for all of this:

na-ar

A “na-ar” is a young person, a youth, a beginner, someone who’s just starting out on this path.  The Psalmist wants us to know, in a theoretical way, “in what” the journey towards moral and spiritual perfection consists.  So he employs a simple pedagogical device; not unlike the catechism or confirmation classes that many of us took in our youth to prepare us for full entry into the church.  He sets down a question, and then provides the answer:

QUESTION: In what shall a beginner’s way be [made] pure?

ANSWER: By keeping/guarding it according to [Yahweh’s] word

The Hebrew word used there for “keep/guard” is the word “shamar”.  It is the same word that’s used in Genesis 2:15 to talk about Adam’s responsibility in the Garden – that is, he was to “cultivate” and “shamar” (keep, guard, protect) it.  Elsewhere when this word “shamar” is used, it is used to talk about what the priests and Levites did for the Temple/tabernacle: they would “shamar” it against defilement.  Keep it sacred.  Holy.

Echoes of Eden and Temple ring in our ears here… our lives are sacred space to be zealously watched over.  We set our lives apart for God, for he has set us apart for himself.

And this we do by attending passionately to his speech.

Now the speech – the “dabar” – of God is no idle thing.  According to Scripture the speech of God is powerful.  By the “word” of God the heavens were made.  His speech DOES things.  He makes the worlds by his speech,  and addresses himself specifically to us by disclosing his name – “Yahweh” – the “I am that I am” – the “I will be with you” One (see Exodus 3) who leads us into human flourishing.  And of course in Christian thinking, when God speaks, “Jesus” – the “Word made flesh” – is what he has to say in a final and full way (John 1; Hebrews 1).  Jesus “the Word” leads us to the Father’s heart.

And so it is with all God’s speech, here in an anticipatory way… Yahweh talks… the interiority of the Divine being – which is all goodness and love – makes itself manifest in speech, and addresses the interiority of the human soul, rebounding in answering devotion.

The Psalmist declares:

With my whole heart I seek you!

I have hidden your word in my heart!

Teach me your decrees!

With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth!

I rejoice in following what you’ve said!

I meditate on your precepts!

I delight in your decrees and will not forget your word!

What the Psalmist hears, he loves.  The speech of God uttered straight from the heart and through the mouth of God, addresses the Psalmist straight to the core – to the “heart”, the very center of the self – and comes back out through the mouth of the Psalmist: “with my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.”

From the Divine Heart, through the Divine Mouth… To the human heart, and from the human mouth.

Love rebounding in praise and obedience.

The “beth” part of Psalm 119, interestingly, begins with talk of “words” and “ways” (v9), and ends with talk of “words” (v16) and “ways” (v15)… and in the middle is all this stuff about delight in and attentiveness to the Divine speech.

The message could hardly be clearer: the human way is perfected in the Divine way as the human heart attends itself in passionate devotion to the Divine “word”.

An analogy from the world of music.  A pianist hears a piece by Rachmaninov, is gripped by the beauty of it, and decides to try to play it.  She might just sit down and try to play it from memory.  But then of course her “way” in “re-presenting” what she heard will fall woefully short of the full beauty of the piece.  How will she bring her “way”, her “re-presentation” of the piece into full conformity with Rachmaninov’s intentions?

She’ll have to find the sheet music.  She’ll have to be able to read and understand it.  She’ll need to find a way to let Rachmaninov’s “word” make its way into the interiority of her soul – the totality of her being – so that the piece can rebound back out of her in such a way that Rachmaninov would be able to say, “That’s EXACTLY what I was thinking.”

The “word” of Rachmaninov bridges the gap between the pianist and the artist, bringing them into communion with each other.

That is why it is said that the “first word” of Israel’s life is “Shema” – “Hear” – as in:

Shema Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One…

God speaks.  We listen.  We “commune” with God in his “word”.

The implications of this for Christians are endless… ENDLESS…

Heschel, for your Sabbath day

A joyful, if challenging, passage from Heschel’s “The Sabbath” for your Sabbath day:

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil  He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.  He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.  Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soil.  The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.  Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

To the biblical mind…labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is NOT for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor.  The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.  Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work.  “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of the creation of the heaven and the earth.”

The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.

Impressive passage.

What if…

…we really believed that the world would survive without our help?

…we understood that “what we do” (i.e., work) is but a slice of our lives, and not the whole?

…we truly embraced the idea that we were not “beasts of burden”?

…we saw Sabbath as the foundation and climax for life, the lens through which we understood what it meant to be really human, rather than a mere “interlude” or a “refresher” so that we can get on with the “real business” of life (i.e., work)?

What would change?

May your Sabbath meet you with joy today (or tomorrow 🙂 )

Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119 #1 (Aleph)

I remember the first time I sat down to actually READ Psalm 119.  I was in grade school at the Christian school I attended.  Maybe 5th grade or so.  I had heard about the mythically long Psalm 119, and though I had been reading the Bible for a couple years at that point, had never worked up the nerve to give the legendary Psalm a go.  So one day, during a class devotional time in which we were all encouraged to make use of the time however we liked, I decided to give it a try.

It was in every way as long as I expected, and maybe a bit longer.

But my goodness I felt accomplished having read it.

That sense of “whew, I finished it” is perhaps appropriate to the nature of Psalm 119, since it recounts the long and oftentimes arduous struggle of a person who has deliberately set out on the way of devotion, experiencing God’s help throughout, and does so using a lovely poetic device: the acrostic.  Most English Bibles will note in the margins that each section of Psalm 119 begins with a succession of different letters in the Hebrew alphabet (that’s what an acrostic poem is).  So, in the first section, each line begins with “aleph”; in the second section, each line begins with “bet”; in the second section, each line begins with “gimel”, and so on and so forth.

In this way, the Psalmist again is trying to communicate: “Here is a more or less complete picture of the journey of devotion… the ABCs of fidelity to the God we’ve come to know and worship.”  (Interestingly, chapters 3 and 4 of Lamentations are also an acrostic… can you guess what they’re trying to communicate?)

And so it is… the journey of longing love for God and faithful submission to his ways begins with the letter “aleph”, the first letter of a powerful Hebrew word, “Ashre” – “Blessed”:

1 Blessed are they whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
2 Blessed are they who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart.
3 They do nothing wrong;
they walk in his ways.
4 You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
6 Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
8 I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Several things to note:

A picture is being painted, and with it, a theological vision for life.  The Hebrew word “ashre” – “blessed” – is one of two words we translate as such, but whereas the other (“berakah”) denotes something like a promise of what will be, this word marks out something that IS RIGHT NOW.  “Well off”, “fortunate”, even “happy” are good ways to render this word.  Who’s got the good life?

The Psalmist is clear: the person who has “the good life” is a person who has achieved full conformity to God and his ways.  “Blameless” (v. 1) is the Hebrew word “tamim”, coming from a verb that means something like “complete” or “finished”.  In other words, the person with the good life is someone whose ways have, through an often arduous process, come to reflect fully the divine will.

Not a person with money…

Or talent…

Fame or fortune have nothing to do with this theological picture…

Nope.  None of those things.  Nor any of the things we usually equate with “having the good life.”  Instead, it is conformity.  Obedience.  Submission.  Surrender.  Perfect reflection of Yahweh’s purposes for humanity.

More still, apparently Yahweh’s intention for humanity is nothing less than this “full conformity”.  As the Psalmist says in verse 4, “You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed (or “kept continually”).” Perfection is the horizon of human devotion.

Against this backdrop, and quite naturally, the Psalmist senses the tension between Yahweh’s will and his own life.  When he considers the beauty of Yahweh’s will, and then looks at his own state, he is quite frankly embarrassed.  But the embarrassment is no self-loathing.  No, the embarrassment arises out of the purity of his soul.  He is a person who sees and loves what is good.  A burning vision of “the beauty of holiness” rests in his soul, and he is distressed that his life doesn’t live up to it.  So what does he do?

He cries for help.  “I will obey your decrees!  Do not utterly forsake me!”  He knows that he’ll never live up to Yahweh’s transcendently beautiful will for him if Yahweh himself doesn’t enable him.  So he pleads… “Don’t leave me alone in this!  I need you!”  His love leads him to throw himself completely at Yahweh in surrender and an ardent desire to please…

And so the first beginning sketches of a portrait of discipleship have been laid down.  A heart alive to Yahweh, longing for his beauty, aware of the disparity between his life and that same beauty, and pleading for help to live up to all that Yahweh intends for him…

A compelling portrait.  Two final observations:

There is a tendency in the Christian Church to treat the Old Testament as “just a bunch of legalism and rule-keeping.”  The New Testament is about love and grace while the Old Testament is about religious drudgery and trying to “earn our way” with God.

This first stanza of the Psalm should dispel that notion, for…

1) There is nothing in this Psalm that is at odds with Augustine’s memorable line: “Grant what you command, and command what you will.”  Augustine saw rightly that what God commands, he also enables us to live up to.  He commands what is good for us; he enables us to live up to his good.  This is ESSENTIALLY what the New Testament teaches: God himself makes possible and enables human devotion.  The Psalmist, the New Testament writers, and Augustine would probably enjoy each other’s company in this regard.  And…

2) It is longing love that drives the Psalmist’s obedience, and confidence in Yahweh undergirds and makes possible that love.  And here again we here echoes of Paul… “faith working itself out in love”… and Jesus… “whoever loves me will obey what I command”… Confidence in God makes possible a love that throws itself at He Whom the heart loves in full devotion.

Quite simply: there is not a shred of difference between love and obedience.  For that is what love does.  It gives itself to what it loves in ways that are appropriate to the relationship… and when we are in relationship with our Maker, what is more appropriate than abandoned obedience and surrender?

Love gives itself, and gives itself utterly.  As St. John of the Cross said:

 There He made me gently free // had honey of revelation to confide // There I gave all of me // hid nothing, had no pride // There I promised to become his bride // Forever at his door I gave my heart and soul, my fortune too // I’ve no flock anymore, no other work in view // My occupation: love.  It’s all I do.

Enraptured with Yahweh’s beauty, and longing for it to be made manifest in his life with every shred of his being… the Psalmist’s soul should inspire us.  Would to God that we would be like him.