Archive for July, 2010

A new series: The Psalms in Our Worship (Part 1)

by   |  07.28.10  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

I thought I’d start a series on the Psalms to augment the discussion on worship.  I don’t want it to be 150 posts long because that requires too much of a commitment.  So, instead, I’ll just write on the ones that jump out at me.  Purely an arbitrary choice, but there it is.  They’re all wonderful, and worth hearing, but there is the possibility of overkill.

Psalm 1, then.

“Blessed is the person who does not walk in the council of the wicked or stand in the road of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.”

By opening the Psalter this way, the organizer and collector of these 150 hymns from Jerusalem’s temple, whoever he was, wanted to open the collection with a benediction.  The blessing tells us who the ideal reader and singer of the book is to be, namely, the person who actively avoids involvement in plots and schemes that lead to evil.  A curious verse, really.  You would expect the person to stand in the counsel and walk on the road, but this person does the opposite, or rather avoids the opposite.  Very arresting.

Then there’s the description of the ideal reader and singer of these Psalms.  This person responds to the Torah with pleasure.  He or she is attentive to Torah to the extent of “meditating” on it all the time.  Actually, our English word “meditate” is too weak.  The Hebrew word means something more active (the same word appears in Psalm 2:1).  It’s like when you pace the floor back and forth all night talking to yourself about whatever is on your mind.  That’s the ideal reader’s response.

And so the Psalmist compares this person to the most beautiful things he knows, the beauty of nature.  Those of us who live in west Texas understand this.  Trees are precious things.  Green is a wonderful color.  And virtue is too.  A life well lived is the ultimate act of biblical interpretation.

Something to do: Please let me hear which is your favorite Psalm.  I’d like to talk about it!

Notes from an alumna

by   |  07.16.10  |  Alumni, Justice, Mission of God, New Wineskins, Theology

It’s always wonderful to watch the work of our alumni and alumnae, both those who are just beginning the life of ministry, and those who have been at it awhile.  You will enjoy an article one of our recent graduates, Jordan Wesley, wrote in the current issue of “Wineskins.”  It’s called “Why Justice Matters.”  Hear the voices of our younger Christian leaders as they remind those of us who are not so young anymore of what really matters.  Jordan is a terrific person making a real difference, and I know you’ll enjoy reading her work.

And, while we’re talking about that, please let us know what you’re doing.  We hope this blog will grow into a commons for communicating with each other about the important things in life.  Until then, all the best.

Renewing worship: Lessons from the Prophets (Part 3)

by   |  07.13.10  |  Bible, Change, Christianity, Church, Contextual Theology, Hope, Justice, Prophets, Worship

This Sunday, I’m supposed to preach a sermon on Isaiah 41, a gorgeous text inviting Israel to come to God, not in fear but in trust and hope.  It’s a powerful text, and in many ways an easy one to preach.  But it’s got me to thinking about a couple of things.

First, notice what the text says: “I the Lord am your God, who grasped your right hand, who says to you, ‘Do not be afraid; I will help you’.”  This is a text about the mercy of God.

This leads to a broad observation: the key to Christian theology is the confession that God has mercy on the world — on all of us collectively, and on each of us individually.  God knows we need mercy, as anyone can recognize.  Our history weirdly mixes together tragedy and irony, salted with just enough comedy to make it all bearable.

Christians always struggle with a tragic view of life because we know too well the power of sin.  We suffer under no illusions, so much so that our honesty often gets us killed (hence Christianity’s history as a community of martyrs).  But in our struggle we must never allow the tragic sense to overwhelm us.  Because we, in the final analysis, do not believe that the world is a place of tragedy.  Because God is merciful, hope is possible.

Then my second thought, also a bit random.  In preparing to preach I always listen to music.  Channeling my inner nerd, I think that means classical music for me.  And this time it meant Bach’s “B Minor Mass,” which opens with about 10 minutes (10 minutes!) on the two Greek words “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”).  On and on it goes.  Why?  Undoubtedly our ancestors had longer attention spans than we do (which wouldn’t be hard).  But more importantly they knew they needed God’s mercy, and that they would get it because of who God is, and that as recipients of mercy, they should properly worship God.

So, to tie these thoughts together, I think a focus on God’s mercy on us would get us out of the phony worship discussions some of us seem stuck in, in which we must choose between legalism and entertainment/personal fulfillment as frames of reference.  What if we thought of worship as the assembly of those in need of mercy and grace?  What if we joined those who cry out to God in doing so?  Would that make a difference?

I’ll let you know how the sermon went (unless it’s a disaster).  But let me know how the reframing of worship as the search of mercy might make a difference in your context.  I’d like to hear from you.

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word

Renewing worship: Lessons from the Prophets (part 2)

by   |  07.06.10  |  Baseball, Bible, Caregiving, Christianity, Church, Hospitality, Prophets, Theology, Worship

This overly long post — overly long because of too little time to make it shorter — tries to pull together two difference experiences to comment on a third.  Perhaps you can make it all make sense.

First an allegory from baseball: Last week, my family and I were sitting in the Ballpark in Arlington during a two and a half hour rain delay.  It was misting a little (okay, a lot), but still was enjoyable enough.  People played everywhere, with kids and parents enjoying time out together.  On the whole, it was a beautiful time, and it reminded us of the grace that meets us everywhere if we are still long enough to notice it.

But as we sat talking, I started to think about the people around me, and being a theological educator, began to muse a bit about what the experience might say about worship, which after all is a human event (to which the Holy Spirit puts in an appearance, to be sure).  The ritual of baseball, with its numerology, focus on proper administration of rules, and appropriate acknowledgment of the keepers of the story (umpires and sportscasters and wise old players) inevitably reminded me of worship.  But that’s an old story, and there are lots of books on the theology (or Zen or whatever) of baseball.  So that’s not worth pursuing much here.

What is interesting is how much pleasure we all took in a game that is steeped in ritual and has been performed countless times before.  We did not know the precise outcome, though we did know that after nine innings or so, someone would win and would do so in a way that has been done before, maybe many times.  There is comfort in that mix of predictability and unpredictability.

So it is with Christian worship.  Some things are expected, and we know that the meaning of what we do lies not in our own volition or desire but in something far older and deeper and more beautiful.  And yet within the context of a tradition, a set of practices by a community over time, lies room for the unexpected and even the startling.  In worship, we become better people because we learn to care for things that matter, and thus for each other.

Watching families at the ballpark teaches you something else about worship, the importance of caring for one another.  I got to explain to my daughter about triples and infield flies, just as on Sunday I can initiate her in the far deeper and more holy experiences of God’s grace.  Care for the other before God figures prominently in Christian worship.  It is part of how that experience makes us better.

Second, a citation from a delightful article:  In the current issue of Harvard Magazine (www.harvardmagazine.com), the anthropologist Arthur Kleinman talks about his life with his wife Joan, formerly a leading scholar of classical Chinese, now stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.  He writes about his experiences, “… caregiving is a foundational component of moral experience.  By this I mean that we envision caregiving as an existential quality of what it is to be a human being.  We give care as part of the flow of everyday lived values and emotions that make up moral experience.  Here collective values and social emotions are as influential as individual ones.  Within these local moral worlds — family, network, institution, community — caregiving is one of those things that really matters, but usually not the only thing.”

For me, this call to give care in order to be fully human (which, for Christians, means made in the image of God) clarifies what worship is about too.  It is prayer for those in need, whether Christian or not.  It is proclamation of God’s tender care for the least of us.  It is celebration of our togetherness.  It is defiance of the silences that cripple lives and keep us from each other.  Worship knits together the insecure and lonely teenager with the widow who has no one to talk with.  Worship humbles the proud and exalts the humble because it allows us to see ourselves, to some extent, as God sees us, neither more nor less.  It is thus the ultimate act of caregiving.  Often it is painful, often it is difficult, but always it is an experience that pushes us from our comfortable seat and allows us to slow down enough to find grace.

Next time, worship as a means of grace.  Your comments to this post, meandering as it is, would be appreciated!

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word