Archive for July, 2011

Spirituality for Religious People: Old Testament Perspectives

by   |  07.12.11  |  Uncategorized

Here are some thoughts on spirituality in the Old Testament, which I take to be spirituality for those of us who don’t make good mystics but would like to make good Christians.  This is from a talk given a few months ago to our faculty.  I’d welcome your comments.  (Mark Hamilton)

How do we speak of spiritual formation in the Old Testament?  It is much like talking about the wetness of water or the automobileness of Bugatti.  It seems redundant.  After all, the Old Testament is full of prayers, wise sayings, stories of exemplars and antiheroes, in short, of all the raw materials of a grammar of assent to the presence of God.  Still, if I must try to say something about all this in a few moments, the best and most obvious place to begin would be the Psalter, that magnificent collection of 150 laments, hymns, wisdom meditations, and so on scanning the spectrum of human emotions from anger to zaniness – or if not that, then at least delirious joy.  In these ancient songs, we see shiny bits and pieces of the human encounter with God, all of them merging together in a gorgeous mosaic of faith.

And what a faith!  The basic conviction of the Psalter, and indeed of all biblical faith, is that the race before us is not too long, nor the foes besetting us too fearsome, nor our own strength too small that we cannot finish with success.  Evil does not win, despite all appearances.  This is so because we tread the path laid out by the one who accompanies us through the valley of gloom, the God who created the cosmos and from time to time shakes it up a bit so as to leave Mount Zion secure and its citizens confident.

Perhaps a way to begin to understand the Psalms’ sense of the presence of God is to notice how the various psalms themselves begin.  It is never, of course, easy to begin a poem.  The only things harder than the beginning are the middle and the end!  I am often glad that I have been given a way to start prayers “Dear God” or “Our Father in Heaven” so that I didn’t have to think of one.

The beginnings of the various psalms say something about their spirituality: “blessed is the one”; “Why do the heathen rage?”; “Oh Lord, how numerous are my enemies!”; “when I call, answer me”; “Hear my utterances O Lord”; “O Lord, in your anger do not rebuke me”; “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the land”; “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart”; “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?”  Those are the first ten entry points.  We could go on: “O Lord, I called you; notice me”; “I cry with my voice to the Lord”; “O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my petition”; “blessed be the Lord my rock”; “I shall exalt you, my God the King”; “Oh my soul, praise the Lord”; “for it is good to praise our God”; “praise the Lord from the heavens”; “sing to the Lord a new song”; and “Praise God in his sanctuary.”  Those are the last ten.  In between the Psalter moves those praying it from the desolation of life seemingly without God to ecstasy – all without escapism or sentimentalism or the life-denying pseudo-piety that so often passes for spirituality in our own time.  The Psalms are a nonsense-free zone. More »