Archive for December, 2010

Pain and the Great Physician: The Psalms in our Worship 17

by   |  12.28.10  |  Uncategorized

One of the greatest truths about human existence is that it is painful.  Not always, not to the same degree for all, not always pointlessly.  But to live is to experience pain.  Despite our culture’s almost pathological fear of pain and the extraordinary lengths to which we go to avoid, or at least hide it, it is real.  And it is part of us.

The question is, what do we do about it?  The Psalms speak often of human pain, drawing God’s attention to it artfully and persistently.  Thus Psalm 25, to take only the latest example, squeezes the experiences of alienation and emotional suffering into the mold of art by surfacing the human longing for God’s deliverance.

Take the art first, and then the pain.  The psalm is an acrostic, with each verse starting with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  This artistic form might seem to us a pedestrian one, perhaps because we have only seen it used in bad sermons and puzzles for elementary school children.  However, Hebrew poetry uses it often with extraordinary skill (for example, Psalms 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145; Lamentations 1, 2, 3, 4).  It was also used in Mesopotamian poetry at times.  The idea is to see how beautifully the poetry can flow even within such a straitjacket.  Such poetic craftsmanship allows the raw emotions expressed in these words not so much to be tamed as to be made available to ever new audiences.  There are a few glitches in the transmitted Hebrew text, with the waw verse (v. 5b) being two short, the qoph verse gone missing, and the resh verse duplicated (vv. 18 and 19), or rather probably being conflated from two different versions of the psalm.  But no matter: we can still make sense of the psalm.

What are the emotions?  Some are of pain, and some of joy.  The psalmist contrasts shame and humiliation (vv. 2 and 19), which come from contact with human beings, to self-awareness, moral and spiritual enlightenment, and belonging, which come from God.  He or she asks God to remove youthful sins (v. 7).  But much more significant is the psalmist’s trust in God as the source of such forgiveness, as well as a whole series of corollaries.  These include the defense of the poor (v. 9), and divine protection of the righteous (all the language about steadfast love and faithfulness).  There is also a vision of a new person characterized by the diligent pursuit of virtue (v. 12) and repentance (v. 18).  Thus the psalmist moves from a sense of disgrace to a new social location of belonging and trust.

One form of pain is shame, a sense of failure of some sort.  While the complete absence of shame would produce a society of criminal sociopaths, its over-functioning leads to a the break down of social connections too.  By giving up the pain of shame and surrendering it to God, the only accurate judge of human behavior and thus the only trustworthy guide to whether or not we are who we need to be, the psalmist moves from pain to promise.  It’s a resolution worth celebrating during this season of the year.

Mercy Project

by   |  12.17.10  |  Students

At ACU Graduate School of Theology, we are convinced that deep learning requires real-world engagement. Contextual education–the phrase we use to describe this approach–reimagines the “classroom,” and “study;” and it means that we get to watch students partner with God in truly amazing ways. Working on behalf of enslaved children in Ghana, West Africa, Chris Field (Master of Arts in Christian Ministry, Executive Director of Mercy Project) is one such student. These are his words:

His name is Tomas, and he is about nine years old. He sits perfectly still in the middle of a small wooden fishing boat and watches my every move closely. I reach my hand out to him, and he slowly reaches back. As his small, dark hand embraces mine, these incredulous words form in my mind: “I am holding the hand of a slave.” Tomas lives in Ghana, Africa where he fishes on a boat fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. Tomas was probably sold by a desperate mother, for about $20, to a man she hoped would be able to send Tomas to school and feed him three times each day. Instead, his life is miserable, full of dangerous work and only enough food to keep him alive.

Unfortunately, Tomas is just one of an estimated 7,000 children working as slaves in the fishing industry of Ghana. These are the children we are working to help. These children are the reason we started Mercy Project. Our initial focus was to raise as much money as we could to help the children in slavery. But it didn’t take us very long to realize that the scope and depth of the problem would require more of us. Long-term solutions to the issue of child slavery in Ghana would have to include economic development- economic development that attacked the poverty and lack of economic opportunity that “forced” men to buy children like Tomas in the first place. This is why we are working to transform Ghana’s economy by creating new industry and businesses that are not dependant on child slavery. This economic development and opportunity gives viable alternatives to the country’s current economic choices. We believe this transformation is what will help us save Tomas and the other children working as slaves in Ghana.

This Christmas season, in the midst of all the celebration, I keep catching myself thinking about Tomas. I am sad that–on the outside–he has little reason to celebrate. But I am grateful for the chance to work on his behalf, and I am hopeful that his next Christmas will be full of joy. We invite you to join us in praying for Tomas and all of the hurting people in our world. Could there be a more fitting way for us to celebrate the humble birth of our Lord Jesus?

Who can ascend? Who indeed? The Psalms in Our Worship 16

by   |  12.16.10  |  Uncategorized

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

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

Psalm 24 is one of the best known in the Psalter, thanks in part to Handel’s Messiah, which gives us a beautiful choral arrangement of the last few verses.  But the majesty of that oratorio can mask an important piece of the psalm, namely, its inquisitive nature and the longing it expresses to be part of something just out of reach.

Psalm 24 is a pilgrimage psalm.  It asks what qualities are required of those who would go up to the Temple to worship (“who can ascend the hill of Yhwh?”) and describes what sounds like a procession of the Ark or some other symbol of God (“lift your tops, o gates, and be elevated you ancient doors, so the glorious King may enter”).  For Protestants, the idea of making a pilgrimage to a holy site may seem alien, but of course it is all over the Bible.  The conviction behind pilgrimage is that, while God is everywhere and is approachable wherever the human heart genuinely longs for the approach, there are places on earth where, because of history and ritual and the special significations of the worshiping community’s experiences with God, the encounter is more profound or even easier.  Hence pilgrimage to those places.  Hence the pilgrimage to Jerusalem that figures in this psalm and in such a large collection of Psalms as 120-134 (The Psalms of Ascent).

But there is something still deeper here.  The pilgrim of the psalm must think about more than just a physical locale or a building or even the wondrous experiences of worship there.  She or he must also ask about the state of her or his own life.  There is simply no separation between the internal and the external, the private and the public, in the life of the worshiper.  What appears on the outside reflects closely what flourishes on the inside.  (“Out of the fulness of the heart, the mouth speaks,” somebody said!)  Imagining coming before God makes us better people.  And striving to be better people makes us want to come before God.  It’s all connected.

So the psalmist knows this.  Wholeness and peace come when we know this.

Finally, then, that brings us to the most interesting verse in the psalm, verse 6: “This is the generation of those seeking Him/of those seeking your face, o Jacob.”  There are several odd things about the line.  First of all, what is “this”?  The most obvious answer would be to look at verse 5, which talks about receiving a blessing and righteousness.  The parallelism of 5a and 5b would make us think that righteousness is the blessing, that the loyalty of the ethically and spiritually mature person to God matches God’s loyalty to that person.  Fair enough.  But then the line takes a truly surprising turn in 6b.  We expect it to read, “the one seeking your face o Lord.”  But it does not.  It says “Jacob.”  Scholars have, understandably, emended the text in various ways, and all the ancient versions try to alter the line to what we expect.  Maybe the change is in order.  Or maybe the Hebrew text’s shift is deliberate, not in order to turn the reader from seeking Yhwh, but in order to emphasize the fact that seeking the welfare of God’s people is the same as seeking the presence of God.  Again, everything connects together.

So who can ascend the hill of the Lord?  Anyone who truly wants to.  All we have to do is throw away the sins that easily beset us and be still enough to celebrate the triumph of the glorious king who enters the place where an expectant people long for that entry to happen.  May that happen during this season of Advent, and well beyond.
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Leaves of Grass and Slurps of Water: The Psalms in Our Worship 15

by   |  12.04.10  |  Uncategorized

There are famous words, and very famous words.  Psalm 23 offers the latter.  One of the best known and most beloved of all the 150 songs in the Psalter, this one is at once familiar and strange:  Strange because it mixes two powerful images (shepherding, or rather being shepherded, and feasting); strange because its very concreteness (grass, gloomy valleys, sloppily poured wine, confounded enemies witnessing the psalmist’s triumph) masks a grasping for the indescribable and even unimaginable peace of which we humans dream; strange because whatever comforts we find in the text also expose our ordinary pursuits of security as the flimflam jobs they are.  It’s a gorgeous little psalm, really.

The main abstraction here, of course, is the first word: YHWH.  God, the object of our most passionate longing, escapes quantification or even representation.  Hence the Bible’s flight to metaphors of all sorts to capture something of the elusiveness of the divine.  It is as though the piling up of images, sounds, and smells will allow us to begin to feel the presence of God and then to understand (rather than the other way round).  We speak of ourselves as well-fed sheep safe from wolves, bedded down on soft grass.  We speak of death (not the “shadow of death,” as the older translations have it, but “gloom” or “deep shadow” caused by overhanging cliffs in the narrow ravine), not as a menace, but as a transition still marked by safety.  We speak of social triumphs like meals in which the formerly dishonored and oppressed are honored.  These bits and pieces of our own lives seem, somehow, to be the best ways of speaking of life eternal and life with the Eternal One.  And so it goes.

I thought about this psalm this week as I ran, or sometimes stumbled, from one meeting to another.  What things — tangible, palpable things — signify the presence of God.  What do Christians feel when they believe God to be present?  For me, the sounds of music betoken divine help: Bach and Gregorian Chant, yes, but also Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn.  The sun shining in my office window, the pine trees just beyond the glass, the birds flitting from limb to limb.  For a Christian, the perseverance of such things, the beauty of life itself point to the creator.  I do not mean that they prove the existence of the creator.  Perhaps the cosmological argument really has fallen on hard times.  But they do help us experience the divine because they remind us that God is beautiful, as well as holy or powerful or all the other attributes that fit the definition of the abstraction “God.”  By thinking of myself as a cared for sheep or a guest at a large smorgasbord, I grow closer to God.  Who would have suspected it?  The psalmist did, and we do, too.