Archive for August, 2010

The Psalms in Our Worship (Part 5)

by   |  08.27.10  |  Uncategorized

As we turn to Psalm 8, let me present here a talk I gave a couple of years ago in chapel.  I’m not sure what to add, so maybe it will be of use to you.

Out of the Mouth of Infants

“O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth.”  The Bible is a very surprising book.  The more you read it, the more surprising it is.  And few texts are more surprising than today’s psalm celebrating the stunning beauty and dignity of humankind.

Consider the surprising line “out of the mouth of babes and infants you have established strength.”  What does it mean?  I know we like kids, but come on!  Actually, if we forget for a moment the sentimentality that surrounds very small children – the infants and babes – we realize that in fact they are deeply troubling beings.  They are untidy in their persons and surroundings.  Sloppy eaters.  They smell bad, and they hardly ever make deadlines.   Thanks to the invention of disposable diapers, they are a major factor in the pollution of the planet.  You can never consult them for advice on your love life.  Hardly the place to go when you want to build a foundation for anything, much less something as significant as God’s plan for defeating his enemies, whoever they are.

Of course, the psalmist knows that, and if he’s like the other composers of psalms in our Bible, he’s nobody’s fool and not given to sentimentality.  He – or maybe she – knows very well that there is a still darker side, not to children but to the lives that some of them must lead.  Indeed, most of the time when you see this pair “babes and infants” in the Old Testament it’s in the context of warfare.  “Babes and infants” cry out in pain as the invaders pour over the city walls.  Children, the aged, and the sick are the victims of invasion, famine, drought, and disease.  While some ride in their SUVs from soccer game to piano lessons to gymnastics, with a quick stop at Pizza Hut thrown in, other children live different lives.

“Different lives” means that 91 of a thousand children born in the developing world – many of the 60 plus countries from which your fellow ACU students come – will die before the age of 5, while in the west the number is 9.  The psalmist would not be surprised – though still dismayed as we no longer are – to see on the television news a few years ago the pictures of 10 year old boys toting guns in the civil war in Liberia.  Or to hear of the children who live in the tombs around Cairo, or their brothers and sisters who pick through the trash in Manila.  Or the children of New York and Dallas and Abilene whose parents cannot both feed them and provide them with medicine.  And for the ancient Israelites, these would not be mere statistics but flesh and blood and bone and fat.  Humankind.  “What is humanity that you are mindful of him, a human being that you pay attention to him?”

As I say, the psalmist is not blind to all this.  Surely the condition of children is proof enough that humankind is seriously flawed, and perhaps beyond redemption.  So why talk so oddly about babes and infants?  Because there is another possibility, another vision.  People of faith recognize that God has not given over his world to the warlords and the billionaires.  The powers that be will fade away – even the world’s last remaining superpower.  To express this alternative vision, the psalm uses the language of divine warfare, language that began with the mythologies of the ancient Near East but in Israel came to be about not God’s fight with a sea monster, but his triumph over men and women, Pharaoh and Jezebel, who use their power and wealth only to accumulate more.  The message of Scripture is that God will tear apart stone by stone the walls of fear and prejudice that diminish human dignity.  And with the power of love, unchoked by pride, God will overwhelm his enemies by restoring to them and to us all the true depths of dignity he intended for us originally.

Nor is this all.  In his book Ordinary Resurrections, Jonathan Kozol tells the story of Stephanie, a young girl from a poor neighborhood in the South Bronx.  Raised by her single mother, she longs for security and safety.  In response to Kozol’s question of what would make the world a better place, she says, “What would make the world better is God’s heart…. I know God’s heart is already in the world.  But I would like it if he would … push the heart more into it.  Not just halfway.  Push it more!”

It’s a naïve way of putting it, corny almost.  But still, that’s the vision.  The psalmist sees it too.  Humankind fills all the ecosystems ancient people know about – land, sky, and sea.  And we engage all of creation responsibly, recognizing that our actions have consequences.  We are responsible, as all entrusted with rule and crowned with glory and honor have to be.  And the dignity of humankind is not just a set of empty platitudes, but a living, breathing reality that informs all we think and do and care about.

So the vision is more than just an idle dream, a vague pleasant-sounding utopia we can talk about in the comfort of our churches.  It is a challenge too, a clarion call to care, to work, to sweat, to sacrifice, to make a difference.  And it is our call as people, Jews and Christians and others, who take seriously the words of this psalm.

Let us see this vision.  In those quiet moments when we are alone with God and ourselves, let us dream of a world in which no children go hungry or are beaten or ignored.  Let us commit our lives and talents and skills – the wonderful things you have the luxury of studying at this place – to the realization of this dream.  Let us dream of building this new reality, realizing this glorious vision, embracing this tomorrow of the soul.  For then the words of Jesus will no longer be just words, but the way things are: “Let the children come to me.”  And as we in awe whisper to each other, “What is humanity that you are mindful of him,” we hear from the mouths of the littlest of us we hear the grace-filled words, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

Mark W. Hamilton

Graduate School of Theology

The Psalms in our Worship (part 4)

by   |  08.24.10  |  Uncategorized

It’s been awhile since the last post.  Things have been busy here, with all sorts of pre-semester work, including a great trip by our faculty to DFW to meet with ministry leaders there, and as recently as yesterday, the inauguration of our 11th president.  Classes have started, including a group of 3 students and me reading Isaiah in Hebrew.  Wonderful stuff!  Thanks for your patience.

Psalms 3-14 include a series of songs that an ancient scholar, maybe in the 2nd or 3rd century BC, connected to David.  The connection allows these texts to become words of a pious Jewish person, and thus of any faithful believer.  Today I want to offer a brief reflection on Psalms 4-7, which belong together in some ways.  They all ask God for help, and they explore Israel’s deep longing to be in God’s presence, where peace and justice flourish.  They also acknowledge that for several reasons, humans often do not live there.  Faith is not about either escaping the messiness of life or pretending that the ugliness is unreal.  It is about longing for the end of evil and committing ourselves to the vision of that end.  To be a person of faith is to live between the times, to be people welcoming another world….

I asked my fifteen-year-old daughter to read Psalms 4-7 with me the other day.  “What stood out to you?” I asked.  “Well, it seems like there’s a contradiction.  Sometimes he [the Psalmist] seems to say ‘God punish the sinners,’ but sometimes the prayer is ‘God, please overlook the fact that I’m a sinner.  So which is it?”  Very  good question, which is why it’s always a hazard to ask teenagers to read the Bible!

But of course the collectors of the Psalter were well aware of the tension, and they left it here on purpose.  On the one hand, we experience the subtle mixture of fear and expectancy of the Psalm 4: “Answer me when I cry out, o my righteous God…. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer.”  God seems distant because of the various adversaries and adversities we face, and we hear the prophetic call to “sacrifice just sacrifices and trust in Yahweh.”

On the other hand, we also experience the sharp contrast stated in Psalm 5: “You should cause the speakers of lies to perish, the violent and quarrelsome person who offends the Lord.  But as for me, because of your abundant mercy, I go to your house.  I bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.”  Life is a social affair, and it requires commitments.  Some people defy God by running over other people.  Some people recognize their dependence on God and therefore live humbly and justly with others.  It is not always easy to know who is who, or which one we are.  We have to pay close attention.  Sometimes we pretend to be one while really being the other, and even our pious language can betray us.  Thus I think that the Psalmist is not one of those arrogant believers who self-righteously brands “those people” as the problem.  He or she recognizes that we are all the problem.  The statements paraphrasable as “I worship you” is not a boast but a commitment, and an expression of a desire for a certain kind of relationship and thus a certain kind of society.

Next time, I’ll slow back down and work awhile on Psalm 8.  But I wanted to say a few words about Psalms that deserve to be reclaimed.  Stay tuned for more!

The Psalms in Our Worship (part 3)

by   |  08.13.10  |  Uncategorized

One of the more disturbing aspects of worship in Christian congregations today is the strong bias toward good cheer and superficial encouragement, no matter the circumstances, no matter the feelings that people bring with them to the service, no matter how much we have to hide or deny to keep up the facade.  In some places, we do not confess our sins, do not acknowledge systemic evil in the world, do not lament the suffering of people (unless someone runs a plane into a building), as if we believed that hope can only survive in a pretend world.

The trouble is not just that such an approach to worship makes us all into liars, which is bad enough, but that it robs us of the real possibilities of hope.  The blithe optimism of the “power of positive thinking” is hope’s most implacable enemy because it teaches us that the world is pretty much okay the way it is, if only we just click our heels together and wish to be home.

Now that may sound sour, a bit like someone who prefers Mondays to Fridays, as I’ve been accused of, but let’s talk it through.  Lament.  That’s the word for today.

Almost half the psalms are laments of one sort or another.  The first one we come to in the Psalter is Psalm 3, and I’d like to think about it just a bit.

The Psalmist opens by trying to get God’s attention in order to elicit God’s compassion.  Someone surrounded by enemies, human or otherwise, deserves the compassion of everyone, especially of someone who can bring relief.  Especially of God.  The Psalmist is confident that God protects the vulnerable, and therefore that the vulnerable can confidently ask God for help.  The wild confidence of the worshiper in God’s mercy and knowledge of the adverse situation allows the Psalmist to express what he or she may not fully believe: God is a shield, a source of glory (or maybe just praise, as opposed to the scandalmongers who attack the author), one who answers from the Holy Mountain, and so on.  Yet as the Psalm progresses (verse 7), it’s clear the whatever God CAN do hasn’t been done yet, hence the call upon God to “arise.”

There are a lot of things to say about lament, and we’ll discuss some of them in later posts.  But for now, it’s worth noticing the honesty of the one crying out to God.

Now another thought.  Who are the enemies?  A later interpreter of the Psalms, probably in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, gave us the superscription (“a psalm connected to David, when he fled from his son Absalom”).  That person thought that the enemies were Absalom and his crew.  But of course, originally all the Psalms were anonymous, and the connection of them to David’s biography is a later development.  What’s interesting is that the enemies are unspecified.  Anyone can pray this psalm at any time.

And now my thought.  I tend to assume that I get to play the role of the lamenter in these psalms.  I have enemies who don’t appreciate me, don’t agree with me, don’t sympathize with me.  You do too.  But what if I’m the one against whom someone is crying out?  What if I’m the one against whom God needs to rise up in order to protect the vulnerable?  The thought is almost unbearable, which is why I wish our worship times had space for confession of sin and forgiveness, and why I wish they were a lot more inclusive of all kinds of people and not just those who look and act and even smell like me.  Then we could bear the thought and do something about it.  We could be different.  Maybe the lack of lament is the most lamentable thing of all.

We’ll pick this back up next week.  Blessings to all this coming Sunday as we come to the God who hears lament and does something about it.

The Psalms in our Worship (part 2)

by   |  08.09.10  |  Uncategorized

Thanks to everyone who wrote about the first post in this series.  I always wonder if anyone is reading these, so it’s wonderful to receive such excellent feedback!  I’ll get to your suggestions in time.

For now, let me go to Psalm 2.  One of the most brilliant interpretations of the psalm is the one in Handel’s “Messiah,” which puts it just before the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  God’s triumph over the evils of the world comes about in the resurrection of Jesus, when God justifies the righteous and foreshadows the ultimate triumph over death and Evil writ large.  Handel made this jump because it had been suggested to him by the use of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25-31.  The intensity and jumbledness (what’s the right word?) of the voices in Handel’s song capture just the right mood to understand the madness of the foes of God in the Psalm.  I can hear the music in my head as I write, perhaps suggesting that I need some help!

But never mind that.  The Psalm makes four moves.  Verses 1-3 describe the threats that foreign nations pose to little Judah.  Verses 4-6 describe Yhwh, the God of Israel, as the ruler of the world.  The Psalmist challenges the normal understanding of reality, which counts and weighs armies and treasuries as part of its moral calculus.  “Think again,” the Psalmist says.  Verses 7-9 offer the perspective of the king in Zion, the descendant of David, who relies on divine protection against overwhelming odds.  Then verses 10-12 conclude by calling on the nations’ leaders to repent of their evil ways.

What to make of this little song?  Modern scholars tend to think of it as a political hymn, probably from a coronation service.  I think that makes sense for its original setting, as best we can recover it.  But the book of Psalms has reused it for different purposes, placing it alongside other hymns that have other meanings.  Somehow, it must speak to the wise reader and singer of the book, the sort of person that Psalm 1 has said the whole collection is designed to aid in his or her pursuit of God.  What should we learn from the Psalm?

Many things, perhaps, but let me name two.  The first is that, since God truly is the benevolent and just sovereign of the world, we should not be intimidated by other claims to absolute value, whether political, economic, intellectual, or spiritual.  God is God, and we are not.  But, by the way, we should also not confuse “lack of intimidation” with belligerence (as so often happens with Christian defenders nowadays.  As I write this, I’m thinking of Anne Rice’s very public departure from Christianity while stating that she does not want to leave Christ.  We’ve all felt that way sometimes.)  The quiet confidence that God will make the world right, even when we don’t know how that will happen, underlies our lives of worship.  As we Arkansas might say (but don’t; I’m making this up), the banty rooster struts most when he’s least confident in his crowing.

Second, this trust directly affects how we worship.  I’m not sure if I can get this part of the post in a clear logical order, but let me try.  Do we struggle so much with performance in worship — whether that means getting it right for God or getting it right for people — that we come to think that God is someone we can manage, or that God is some sort of being whose superiority means we must try to be impressive (like I try when I present a report to our board, say)?  Or does the kind of trust that allows the psalmist to count the enemy hordes and say that one single promise from God outperforms all of them also inspire us?    Worship is not a performance.  It is life.  And life is worship.

Thank you for your interactions on this series.  There is more to come, and we will stay here awhile.  Let me hear your reflections on this and other Psalms and their implications for life.