Archive for ‘Bible’

GST Author Highlight

0 Commentsby   |  10.09.17  |  ACU, Alumni, Bible, Church, College of Biblical Studies, Ministry, Professors, Theology

The Graduate School of Theology has many gifted authors who are using their talents to minister to the church & the world. Below are four books that have recently been published by either GST faculty or alumni. We hope they will be an inspiration to you.

 

Meditations for the Lone Traveler written by Mark Hamilton

“In writing this book, I wanted to speak to those who feel alone in their faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Faith is not purely intellectual, but comprehensive in its impact on life. In the pursuit of faith, we are not alone.”

These twenty-two meditations on the songs, prayers, and stories of the Bible invite readers to imagine themselves as part of a world in which human beings may fully live into their sufferings and joys as part of a vibrant while still critically searching faith in God. Here we see prophets and  poets, as well as ordinary men and women, embrace the realities of life without apology or fear. For more information, click here.

 

The Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology edited by Fred Aquino

This volume brings together leading scholars in the fields of theology and epistemology to examine and articulate what can be categorized as appropriate epistemic evaluation in theology. Part one focuses on some of the epistemic concepts that have been traditionally employed in theology, such as  knowledge of God, revelation and scripture, reason and faith,

experience, and tradition. Part two concentrates on concepts that have received significant attention in contemporary epistemology and can be related to theology, such as understanding, wisdom, testimony, virtue, evidence, foundationalism, realism/antirealism, scepticism, and disagreement. Part three offers examples from key figures in the Christian tradition and investigates the relevant epistemological issues and insights in these writers, as well as recognizing the challenges of connecting insights from contemporary epistemology with the subject of theology proper, namely, God. Part four centers on five emerging areas that warrant further epistemological consideration: Liberation Theology, Continental Philosophy, modern Orthodox writers, Feminism, and Pentecostalism. Learn more here.

 

Among the Early Evangelicals written by James Gorman 

Among the Early Evangelicals charts a new path showing convincingly that the earliest leaders of this Movement cannot be understood apart from a robust evangelical and missionary culture that traces its roots back to the eighteenth century. Leaders, including such luminaries as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, borrowed freely from the outlook, strategies, and methodologies of this transatlantic culture. More than simple Christians with a unique message shaped by frontier democratization, the adherents in the Stone-Campbell Movement were active participants in a broadly networked, uniquely evangelical enterprise. Find more information here.

 

Pray Like You Breathe: Exploring the Practice of Breath Prayer written by Houston Heflin

Pray Like You Breathe: Exploring the Practice of Breath Prayer chronicles the history and practice of this unique spiritual discipline focusing primarily on the Psalms as a reservoir of language for prayer. The book can be used as a 28-day experience of prayer for individuals or it can also be used as curriculum for small groups and Bible classes. Purchase your own copy on Amazon here

Summit Review 2017

by   |  10.06.17  |  ACU, Bible, Church, Ministry, Theology

ACU Summit 2017, “Ancient Scripture, Future Church: The Choices We Make and the God We Serve,”  focused on Deuteronomy, the ways this ancient text informs the future of the church and the choices we make as we strive to serve God. Approximately twenty eight GST faculty, staff, current students, and alumni spoke at this year’s Summit lecture series! People traveled from all over the world to attend the lectures and to a partake in many valuable conversations. Below are four all day tracks where GST faculty, staff, students or alumni spoke about throughout the week.

 

Ancient- Future Bible:

The Word of God is living and active, and it has been so for millennia. The rich heritage we have from our predecessors in the faith, from manuscripts to art and from reflection to action, can be a profound source of spiritual strength today. This track, hosted by Curt Niccum, empowers Christians to engage God and his creation in new ways by going back to the future. Those who spoke on this topic were Wendell Willis, Jeff Childers, Glenn Pemberton, David Kneip and Curt Niccum. Our speakers shed light on topic such as recovering the Words of Jesus, interpreting the text about Jonah and the war over women in the Word.

Congregational Leadership:

With today’s complexities of congregational leadership, church leaders must seek wisdom as they navigate the winds of change. This track, hosted by Eric Gentry, will explore healthy leadership practices, pastoral ministry, spiritual discernment, and future

imagination for congregational leaders. Speakers included Colin & Barry Packer, Kasey McCollum, Jovan Barrington and Chess Cavitt. Topics explored included congregational grief and loss, what the church’s purpose is in this new era and leadership models for God’s Mission.

Ministering in the Small Church:

Although there is no official number that makes a congregation “small” or “large,” there are definite and noticeable differences between the two.  Most books, lectures, conversations, etc. are geared toward larger congregations. This track, hosted by Shawn D. Johnson, is intended to provide encouragement, guidance, and lessons specifically for small (but equally important) churches and those who minister to them. Tim Sensing, Shawn D. Johnson, Wes Horn and Trent Tanaro spoke wisdom about this topic throughout the week. These speakers explored conversations about size and location in relations to Churches of Christ, ministry in small towns and finding treasure in the big but also small things.

Business and Mission:

Sometimes, the mission field looks like a foreign country. Other times, it looks like the world of business. Tuesday of Summit, Dodd Roberts will host an all-day track examining “Business and Mission,” a track that will hopefully provide inspiration for potential Christian business-owners and employees as well as encouragement for those already operating as Christians in the world of business. A variety of speakers came to speak about Business and Mission in our world, which included Walter Cunningham, Chi-Ming Chien, Jarrod Brown, Gary Ginter, Lauren McAfree, Jan Martinez, Julie Sullivan, Don Simmons, Jason Fisher, Bill Job, Courtney MIlls, Matthew Rohrs and Mats Tunehag. Topics these guests spoke on included things such as “Business and Missions Abroad”, “Advancing the Kingdom of God in the Marketplace” and “From Non-Profit to For Profit.”

Download MP3 files of all the lectures for free on itunes! www.acu.edu/itunessummit

(D)evangelism & Healing after the Rwandan Genocide

by   |  09.26.17  |  ACU, Bible, Ministry, Mission

missionary familyMy name is Caleb Beck. I, along with my wife and two children, live in Kigali, Rwanda. My son Adin is ten, and my daughter Caris is seven. We moved to Rwanda in 2007 as missionaries hoping to work with those struggling to heal the wounds of genocide, and to be a part of the rediscovery of Christianity after its failure in the form of a thin Christendom version of faith in 1994.

We are a part of a team of missionaries and Rwandans who founded a Non-profit organization that works with a number of different holistic ministries with the vision of seeing “Kingdom communities of obedient disciples transforming and redeeming Rwanda”.

We live just outside of the capital city in a small rural community called Gahanga. Jenny home schools our children because we live just far enough outside of the capital that the commute through urban African traffic isn’t realistic. Our community is a mix of animism and cultural Christianity, of survivors of the genocide living next to perpetrators of the genocide, and of a modern city set right next to an ancient village. We are living in the midst of the tensions of village and urban, rich and poor, wounded but healing. However, God is becoming even more alive to us as we grow closer with this community.

Rwanda scenery

A couple of years ago, I found myself sitting amidst 5000 or so Rwandans singing hymns in cohesion without a songbook to be seen. It was not at a church Christmas vigil, but rather at a government sanctioned memorial of genocide remembrance.

This was in a section of Rwanda that had no electricity or running water, but where everyone knew the lyrics of “Come Thou Fount” in Kinyarwanda.

Rwanda was welcomed into the Christendom club last century; and they came willingly. The statistics say that 88% of Rwanda was “Christian” before the genocide of ’94.

Unfortunately, Rwanda’s evangelistic ‘success’ was also its failure.

Evangelism, as it was done, utterly failed Rwanda. It ungraciously exposed our misunderstanding and malpractice of what we thought our mission was.

To be clear, the modern English word ‘evangelism’ does not occur in the Bible and I believe that Jesus did not send his disciples out to do ‘evangelism’ as we understand it.

A disclaimer before we continue. I do believe in evangelism. The word gospel is ‘evangelion’.  I believe we have a new narrative to announce to the world which is GOOD. However, I don’t believe in (d)evangelism, the kind that campaigns and crusades for converts. The kind that idolizes “personal salvation transactions” belittling said narrative above. From here on out we will differentiate accordingly.

Jesus could be considered the worst (d)evangelist in history. In the gospels, instead of just laying it straight, he frequently chose to tell stories that required decoding. Of all the questions he was asked, he gave a straight forward answer for only two of the questions, often responding in parable or with another question.

Evidently, the practice of giving information about a particular doctrine or set of beliefs to others with the intention of converting them to the Christian faith wasn’t very high up on Jesus’ list.

Jesus did not practice (d)evangelism as we know it and did not make converts. Jesus made disciples and sent his followers to do likewise.

(d)evangelism as we know it is wrought with problems:

1.)  (d)evangelism can be done in the absence of relationship, discipleship absolutely cannot.

2.)  (d)evangelism is about converting ‘believers’, discipleship is about becoming followers.

3.)  (d)evangelism is about transaction where as discipleship is about transformation.

4.)  (d)evangelism makes “faith” about the head, discipleship makes it about the heart and body.

5.)  (d)evangelism leads to separateness, discipleship leads to union. It rejects the idea that our faith is about the transmission of correct ideas or doctrines rather than authentic life and love.

6.)  (d)evangelism distorts our gospel into a commodity.  It makes our gospel competitive instead of cosmic, something that can be sold and bought instead of a story to be lived into; making our gospel small.

7.)  (d)evangelism over emphasizes the spiritual as separate and above, discipleship integrates the spiritual and physical.

8.) and ultimately (d)evangelism has confused our soteriology (beliefs about salvation) and our mission (missiology).

(d)evangelism is not our mission, however discipleship is.

…and that starts with us, because what happened in Rwanda is not just an embarrassment for Rwanda, it is also a reflection of the inadequate conversion of the western mind, too.

It is a failure of our “references”, a failure of our “metrics”, and in some ways a failure of our “missiology”.

And, it is an invitation to once again think about these things. And maybe, if we are lucky, rediscover them for the first time.

 

About the Author: Caleb Beck is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Global Service through Abilene Christian University’s Graduate School of Theology. Beck & his family are living in Rwanda & serve as missionaries through Africa Transformation Network.

Discovering My Vocation: The Fanning of the Flames

by   |  09.05.17  |  ACU, Ancient Languages, Bible, CSART, College of Biblical Studies, Students, Theology

Recently I was browsing my TimeHop (which, for those who are blissfully unaware, is a cell phone app that mercilessly displays your unfiltered social media posts from today’s date in years past) when I came across a Tweet from four years ago that read something like this: “Is it weird that I’m actually really excited to learn Greek???” If I could talk to this four-years-in-the-past Ryne, I’d tell him that although it is quite weird for you to have shared such an arbitrary thought with the entire Internet, you will be delighted to know that your desire to learn Greek is not weird at all but will in fact be quite fruitful.

That naïve version of me couldn’t have really understood how rewarding the study of this ancient language would be. Indeed, only now in retrospect am I able to fathom the many doors that were opened to me through my study of Greek (and, eventually, other ancient languages) at ACU.

At the outset of my undergrad time at ACU I had only a vague sense of vocation. Something to do with the Bible, something to do with ministry. I was sure that the arc of my career would involve these two aspects, but I had no clearer direction than that.

The story of how my vocational understanding eventually crystallized is long and multifaceted, but for the purposes of this post, you only need to know the primary catalyst and the new ministerial yearning that it sparked within me. The catalyst was Greek; the yearning was for a ministry conducted not in a church building, but in a classroom.

The long and short of it was that I absolutely loved learning Greek. Before college, I had no particular interest in language learning, but Greek opened my eyes not only to a new skillset that I possessed, but also to new doorways through which to study the biblical text that I held so dear. My first taste of Greek was sort of like a baby’s first bite of chocolate cake at their first birthday party—I wasn’t quite sure what this new thing was, but I was absolutely sure that I wanted more.

Luckily for me, I happened to choose a university with a faculty that was uniquely and diversely equipped to give me more. Languages were a huge part of what brought me to the Graduate School of Theology for my master’s work. I had drank deeply from the well of Greek in undergrad and had dipped my toe in the waters of Hebrew, and the GST offered an opportunity for more of the same as well as an expansion of my linguistic horizons.

In my first year at the GST I got involved with CSART—The Center for the Study of Ancient Religious Texts. I’ve spoken above about the doors that language learning at ACU has opened for me, and this has been one of the biggest. In CSART, students (undergrad and grad) have the opportunity to partner with experts in textual scholarship in the study of primary biblical and early Christian texts. The project that I’m currently on, for example, is working with a seventh century monastic text called The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

studying ancient artifacts

Ryne examining books & artifacts at the Matthew Parker Library in Cambridge.

My involvement in this project, as well as in another one during my time in undergrad, opened two very tangible doors for my academic career: two summer trips to a conference in Oxford, England. The Logos Conference is hosted by the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative, with which CSART partners in its projects. Because of the generosity of the Green family (the owners of Hobby Lobby, who founded the Museum of the Bible and the Scholars initiative) as well as the work that CSART does, I was able to spend a couple of weeks each of the past two summers in Oxford with other students from all around the world listening to and learning from internationally renowned biblical scholars.

Those experiences in Oxford were especially formative for me, not just because of the academic interest they held for me but for the way they affirmed my sense of vocation. I’ve spent most of this post spotlighting the way language learning at ACU has opened doors for me, but now I want to turn briefly to that ministerial yearning I mentioned before. My affinity for ancient biblically related languages has not only been fruitful in scholarly opportunities, it has also instilled in me a deep appreciation and passion for the importance of these ancient languages in studying the Scriptures.

At those conferences in Oxford I was able to look around and see professional scholars engaged in an academic sort of ministry as well as many students like myself aspiring to do the same. My paradigm for ministry had been shifting and I was beginning to wonder if teaching the Bible and its languages in a higher education context could actually be considered ministry. For my whole life I had thought of ministry as something that was done in either a church building or a mission field, so this idea that it might also be done in a classroom was foreign and frankly a little difficult to wrap my head around. But it was in Oxford that I finally settled into this vision of ministry and fully accepted that my passion for the biblical text and its languages could and should be leveraged into a teaching ministry conducted in the classrooms of a university.

So now as I reflect back on that tweet from four years ago and I think about the excitement that preceded my first day of Greek class, I realize that that enthusiasm was pregnant with something much weightier than academic curiosity. It was dripping with divine purpose, and though I couldn’t see it yet, that purpose would dramatically reorient my world. It would open academic doors that I didn’t know existed, it would deepen my connection with the biblical text that I loved, and it would define the shape of my ministerial vocation.

I had a déjà vu experience a few days ago that helped put this all in perspective for me. As I walked into my last class of the week, I realized that it was next door to an old familiar room. I glanced inside at the handful of youthful faces—a few of which were fresh with the excitement of a new academic challenge. I recognized that look in their eyes. And I recognized the voice of the professor, introducing another batch of students to the wide world of New Testament Greek. I remembered fondly the first time I had sat in that room, excited for the challenge but naïve to the opportunity.

And then I walked through another door. With the voice of my first-year Greek professor still barely audible, I sat down in the midst of that old familiar anticipation. And with thankfulness for the way that spark of intrigue in Greek had been fanned into a full-fledged flame of passion for ancient languages, I pulled out my syllabus for Elementary Syriac. Another new door that will undoubtedly lead to more opportunities—academic, spiritual, and ministerial all.

CSART Presents

by   |  01.20.17  |  Announcements, Bible, CSART

Jonah: Interpreted, Reinterpreted, and Interred

How a small biblical story became prominent in early Christian art

You are invited to join us on the campus of Abilene Christian University for the presentation: “Jonah—Interpreted, Reinterpreted, and Interred.” This lecture will explore how a small biblical story became prominent in the early Christian art of the ancient Catacombs and elsewhere.

The lecture will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7, in ACU’s Chapel on the Hill, at the Onstead-Packer Biblical Studies Building. Dr. Wendell Willis, longtime New Testament professor in ACU’s Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry, will be the speaker.

Sponsored by ACU’s Center for the Study of Ancient Religious Texts, this lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, please contact csart@acu.edu.

CSART

by   |  11.06.16  |  Announcements, Bible, St. Catherine's

Local news highlighted the Carmichael-Walling Lectures saying,

Abilene Christian University celebrated the inauguration of the Center for the Study of Ancient Religions Texts, or CSART on Thursday. The center strives to inspire students and help them conduct research alongside established scholars. On Thursday, manuscripts that were written as long as 1700 years ago were featured.

Read more here.

Carmichael-Walling Lectures

by   |  10.15.15  |  Announcements, Bible, Church History, GST Events

Please join us fCW2015or the 29th annual Carmichael-Walling Lectures at Abilene Christian University. Lectures are free and open to the public, and will take place in Room 114 of the Onstead-Packer Biblical Studies Building on Thursday, November 12, 2015. For more information, contact Jeff Childers at ACU’s Graduate School of Theology: childersj@acu.edu.

Scripture & Women in the Apocalypse: Revelation’s Allusive Text

Dr. Adela Yarbro Collins
4:00 p.m. Intertextuality in the Book of Revelation
7:30 p.m. Women as Symbols in the Book of Revelation

The book of Revelation is rich in both Scriptural allusion and symbolic imagery.  The first lecture will provide an overview and critical assessment of scholarship on intertextuality in Revelation, highlighting the book’s use of Scripture.  The second lecture will consider female symbols in Revelation, particularly focusing on the symbolic woman of Revelation 17 often referred to as “The Whore of Babylon.”

About the Speaker:

Zurich photoDr. Adela Yarbro Collins is Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation Emerita, Yale Divinity School. She previously taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Notre Dame, and McCormick Theological Seminary. She has served as President of the Society of New Testament Studies, regional President of the Society of Biblical Literature, and on a number of editorial boards. Her recent publications include King and Messiah as Son of God. Eerdmans, 2008 (co-authored with John J. Collins); Mark: A Commentary. Fortress, 2007; “Rewritten Prophets: The Use of Older Scripture in Revelation,” in Poetik und Intertexualität, ed. Stefan Alkier et al., 2015; and “The Transformation of Paul’s Apocalyptic Ideas in the First Two Centuries,” in Revealed Wisdom, ed. John Ashton, Brill, 2014.

 

Divining Gospel

by   |  12.07.14  |  Announcements, Bible

Dr. Jeff Childers, the Carmichael-Walling Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the Graduate School of Theology at ACU, has been invited to lecture in Norway in December 2014. A select group of scholars from various parts of the world will gather as guests of the Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo in a conference entitled, The Bible as Notepad. This conference focuses on the ways in which ancient Bibles were read, edited, and marked up by actual users over the centuries. In his lecture, “Divining Gospel,” Childers will present original research on a unique Syriac Bible from the sixth century that also contains a complicated fortune-telling apparatus alongside the Gospel text. Comparing Greek, Latin, Coptic, Armenian, and Georgian sources, Childers has found that there was once a very lively trade in using Gospel books as fortune-telling guides to life, until it was suppressed by church authorities and practically stamped out of existence.

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 4)

by   |  05.06.12  |  Bible, Church, Learning

This post concludes the series on why we love the Bible, even when we also struggle with it. Thank you for reading and thinking along with me.

     Why, then, do Christians love the Bible?  In prior posts in this series, we considered some reasons for not loving it, perhaps even for rejecting it.  Some of those reasons are more interesting or challenging than others.  How one answers them does not change the fact that many reasonable, thoughtful, even kind and gracious people love the Bible and are willing to sacrifice comfort, success, and even their own lives to carry out their understandings of its basic message.  Why?

            The answers probably vary with the lover.  For some, the sheer literary artistry of the book dazzles and fascinates.  Stories and poems, proverbs and songs, laments and thanksgivings all grace the pages of the Good Book.  Who can easily forget David and Bathsheba or Daniel in the lion’s den or Mary Magdalene at the tomb?  The Bible’s ability to surface the voices of the powerless, even when the authors themselves bore some bit of power as they sometimes did, compels admiration.  Anybody with any literary sensibility at all can see that.

            But there is something more to the love than just artistic appreciation, though that is real and noteworthy.  The larger point is that we love the Bible because it talks about the human love for God, our deep longing not to be alone, and our profound awareness that we are not and cannot be.  It is a book of hope, which one must carefully distinguish from wishful thinking.  Far too gritty and realistic a book to offer false hopes or easy solutions to complex problems – unlike some of its defenders and alleged fans – the Bible nevertheless assumes the highest possible things about the nature and destiny of the human race.  Made in God’s image, accountable, redeemable, resurrect-able, capable of great good as well as great evil, human beings appear in Scripture in ways that are both honest and hope-filled.  Not an easy trick to pull off, for authors of books or any of the rest of us.

            The greatest interpreters of the Bible, whether technical scholars or preachers or artists, have understood the coherence of its ideas about human beings.  Thus Handel ends his great oratorio “Messiah,” the libretto of which consists entirely of biblical passages, with the great hymn of the angels in Revelation: “Worthy is the lamb who was slain….”  And then the Amen.  Death and pain do not get the last word; there is a resurrection in every graveyard.  Or think of the joyous opening of Haydn’s “Creation” with the word “Light” sung again and again in joy.  Darkness has its place – we need it in some ways – but it does not win in the end.  Or more recently Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the glorious resolution of all the storm and stress in Hinneh mah tov umana’im shevet achim gam yachad (“How good and how pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity”).  Humans can live together and that still unrealized possibility is worth aspiring toward.  There is something in the Bible, then, that speaks to the full resolution and restoration of all things.  Peace.  Wholeness.  Shalom.  And that is why we love the Bible.  We are not naïve about its challenges.  Not at all.  But we know that inside its riddles, past its dark paths and hidden traps lie a deeper truth.  That truth is that God is making all things new.  Who couldn’t love that?

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 3)

by   |  04.29.12  |  Bible, Christianity, Church, Identity

            In the previous post, I talked about objections that many people lodge against the Bible and thus against those of us who understand it as a book representing in some fashion a window onto the true character, practices, and convictions of God.  Obviously, the discussion here can only hint at some of the depths of the issues.  For some of them, you might consider the profound new book by Feldmeier and Spieckermann, The God of the Living (Baylor University Press, 2011).  It’s not an easy read, but is well worth the effort.

            The final two objections I noted consisted of the claims that the Bible advocates the mistreatment of various groups of vulnerable people, most notoriously the Canaanites but also women.  Let me briefly think about those issues.

            First, the Canaanites.  A number of biblical texts seem to advocate the eradication of the aboriginal settlers in Palestine.  The Bible never advocates ethnic cleansing of anyone else, indicating that the writers considered the Canaanites a special case.  The authors of Deuteronomy and the texts influenced by it (notably, Joshua) were concerned lest the local people persuade Israel to practice idolatry, or at least those are their stated reasons.

            Does the fact that the Canaanites present a special case reduce the horrible level of immorality associated with their extermination, if it actually happened?  No, of course not.  Can we reasonably argue that, well, they were uniquely horrible human beings and so their removal was justified, much as some people believe capital punishment for heinous criminals is justified?  Doubtful, since it is hard to imagine an entire population, including women and children, so sunk into depravity that execution was the only way to prevent the spread of their contaminating influence.

            There is, we must admit, not easy way to deal with the case of the Canaanites.  Christians who take seriously Jesus’ calls to love or the earlier prophets’ call to justice will find it impossible to work toward a fully convincing defense of the anti-Canaanite texts.  There are a few qualifications to be made, however:

  1. The ethnic cleansing never happened.  There is no archaeological evidence of mass destructions of the pre-Israelite population.
  2. In fact, the Canaanites survived as a recognizable population for centuries after the birth of Israel.  Solomon impressed them into forced labor, for example.  They were “the other” for much of this time, but were not eliminated.
  3. The texts advocating their elimination seem to be much later than the events they purport to describe.  The first few chapters of Deuteronomy, for example, assume settlement in the land and arguably even exile and deportation for Israel and Judah (scholars debate this point).  That is, the call for elimination seems to be a sort of historical fiction retrojected into the past in order to show how things went off the rails.  (Remember what I said last time about how texts may not be what they seem at first.)
  4. This means that the texts about the Canaanites aren’t really about them at all, but about the desire for a sort of national purity.  Still a problematic idea, perhaps, but not the same as massacre and mayhem.
  5. And, yes, the Bible does contain some apparently old stories about how various Canaanite individuals and groups became integral parts of Israel.  Think of Rahab, the ancestor of David, and also the Gibeonites.  There must have been many others, and probably a DNA test of these ancient people, if such a thing were possible (which it is not), would have found lots of Canaanite ancestors for some Israelites at least.  This is not very surprising, by the way.  You may have seen the recent study of the gene pool in Scotland, which found lots of folks with Moorish, Asian, Corsican, and other gene markers in people with unobjectionable Scottish names like Hamilton, McDonald, and Stewart.

There is more to say here – much more – but maybe this suffices for now.

            But what about the women, to paraphrase Abigail Adams?  We have to acknowledge two things: (1) ancient texts assume a world of limited choices for many people, including women; and (2) Christianity has a very mixed record of validating the lives of women.  Here a good bit of history would help us.  We would learn that the history of women’s roles in Christianity has been very complex.  On the one hand, Christianity made space for women to be something other than a commodity under the control of a father or husband.  The creation of monastic life for men and women in the Middle Ages made space for a new way of living that made gender roles worked out in the dominant culture far less important.  Many of the modern moves toward full equality have their foundations in this earlier period.

            Moreover, it should be clear that much of the contemporary religious defense of sharply delineated gender roles has little real backing in the Bible itself.  For example, conservative Christians often speak of male headship and the need for women to have a primary responsibility in the home while men work outside it.  Both of these are simply bogus ideas.  Or at least they are greatly oversimplified.  Male headship is not a biblical term or concept in any meaningful sense.  It is a ghost idea, a misreading of texts.  And the situation in which home and workplace are sharply differentiated is a product of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not the first.  Much of the current discussion in church thus seems to reflect a fairly gross ignorance of history.  It is almost as deep as the ignorance outside the church.

            Having said all that, on the other hand, we should not pretend that the Bible is really a modern feminist tract very cleverly disguised.  Rather, I would argue that the Bible reports gender roles of past eras without necessarily endorsing them, and that, more importantly, it shows how real human beings work toward general principles of dignity and honor for all within the realities that they face.  Today we face different realities, but we still seek the dignity of human beings before God just as our ancient forebears did.  We could simply reject that history and the texts that came from it, but as the historian Simon Schama put it once in an interview on Dutch television (which you can see on Youtube), to be ignorant of the past is to be locked inside the mind of a small child aware neither of where we come from nor where we might go.  So we do not ignore this history or dismiss this book simply because it does not reflect our own historically conditioned, flawed, and temporary perspectives.  Rather, we seek to find behind the surface appearance of things the ideas that really matter.  When we do, we learn that all human beings are made in the image of God and are worthy of the fullest consideration.

Next time, Part 4 of 4 will appear!  We will return to the original topic of why we Christians love the Bible, in spite of all the difficulties we can name, of which we are all certainly aware.

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 2)

by   |  03.29.12  |  Bible, Gospel

This is a continuation of a prior post on the Bible and what it does and does not say.  The series will continue next time as well.

To respond to the claim that the Bible is immoral, a claim often made in our current world,  it makes sense to try to unravel several distinct charges that can be made against the Bible on moral grounds:

  1. The authors claim that God favors some people over others, while also arguing that “God is no respecter of persons”;
  2. They attribute to God behaviors, attitudes, and values that in a human being would be considered highly unworthy or immoral;
  3. They advocate, or at least defend, violence against vulnerable people, most notably the Canaanites, but also others; and
  4. They turn a blind eye toward slavery and the mistreatment of women.

All of these would be serious charges if true.  A demonstration of them would reduce the Bible to a heap of nationalistic texts more worthy of Fox News than of a great religion.  The fact that some Christians attempt to defend imperialism, warfare, racial or economic discrimination, and other horrendous practices in the name of the Bible certainly makes the task of defending it harder.  Still, I will try to understand it, in part by rescuing it from some of its self-appointed defenders and in part by showing that many of the charges against have little or no basis in fact.

To take the first charge first, it is very important to understand what the Bible actually says about the election of Israel.  Hate-groups on both the left and right of the political spectrum have often used the biblical notion of election to brand Jews as arrogant or dishonest.  At many historical points, the attack on election has linked directly to persecution.  It is thus highly surprising that some enlightened secular critics of Christianity on the political left should employ such simplistic understandings of biblical teaching.  In the Bible, election does not imply some sort of special treatment.  It implies higher standards of justice and peace.  Nor is election an end in itself, for as the single most important text on the subject, Genesis 12 puts it, “in you shall all the nations of the world be blessed.”  Judaism’s contribution to human civilization has been almost incalculable, especially given the small number of Jews who have lived at any given time.

Nor does the Christian understanding of the Church’s election as a grafting onto Israel (see Romans 9-11) imply special treatment, since the Church understood itself as people redeemed from sin, not as people who have merited a relationship with an ever-benevolent God.  When critics charge Jews and Christians, and thus the Bible, with self-promotion in pursuing a doctrine of election, they simply do not understand what we are saying.  In fairness, we often do not understand well ourselves.  But the problem lies much less with the Bible or the religious doctrines of the two faiths than with our failure to live out the implications of our own beliefs.

The second objection is more serious, and it has occupied biblical interpreters since at least the first century BC.  The great Jewish biblical interpreter Philo, roughly a contemporary of Jesus, already addressed this question in a series of commentaries on the Pentateuch.  His answer, which has often been followed in one way or another, was to interpret the biblical texts about God’s emotions and actions metaphorically, even allegorically.  In such a construal, God does not really express anger or joy, sorrow or frustration.  Such attributions of character or behavior are simply the closest human equivalents for untutored minds.

Such a strategy has obvious problems, not least that it seems simply to dodge the text’s plain statements in the interests of a predetermined agenda.  But is this really what Philo and his countless followers are doing?  After all, texts do signify in many different ways, and metaphor is an important one, widespread in many cultures and bodies of literature.  Moreover, given the fragility of human language, its lack of precision even for describing human lives, is it really so implausible to think that our words and discourses would suffer from serious limitations in their talking about an infinite being?  Surely Philo’s approach is not as off-base as it seems at first.

To get hold of the biblical approach to divine characterization, we might propose several considerations.  (1) Things may not always be what they seem in a text.  For example, when Yahweh asks the Satan to consider his servant Job and then allows the poor man to experience various trials that would prove his valor, we do well to ask what is going on.  On the one hand, the Almighty seems to have immense confidence – almost too much confidence – in human capacity for virtue.  On the other, Yahweh’s motivations are not entirely clear.  Not only must the reader allow for the demands of a narrative – a character has to initiate a trial in order for the following theological discourse to have some connection to human experience – but the precise motivations of Yahweh are not entirely clear even within the narrative.  By wagering on human integrity, doesn’t God (in the story at least) intend to disagree with those human beings who would defend cosmic justice by erasing the dignity of their own species?  In other words, how do we take the narrative itself, as a realistic representation of an event in history or a history-like happening, or as a parable not to be taken literally?  Surely the last options makes most sense of the literary goals of the book of Job.  Thus it would be silly to imagine that the author of Job imagines God as a puppet-master working humans through their paces to illustrate his own superiority (which is never in question in the book of Job or the Bible as a whole).

(2) If texts are not always what a superficial analysis of them would make them seem to be, how do we know when we’re giving them due consideration?  The short answer is that we have to become better readers, attentive to subtlety.  This is not some exercise for a small elite group.  It is a task available to all, and in fact, a very democratic task in many ways.  The church and the synagogue have always existed as reading societies – among other things! – fostering thoughtful, engaged, life-changing consideration of story and song, prophecy and wisdom.  At least we try.  And we should keep trying.

(3) So, to continue the response to the second charge, we have to be very careful not to assume that the various biblical texts’ portrayal of God are straightforward.  We should always ask, if a text portrays God as angry, say, what the source of the anger is.  Is anger about injustice inappropriate, for example?  Would a deity unmoved by suffering or oppression be preferable to one who loved good and hated evil in some way or another?  Something to consider.

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 1)

by   |  03.16.12  |  Bible, God with us

            Why do Christians love the Bible?  Since many millions of us read it fairly frequently, and hundreds of millions of us revere it as a communication from, or at least about, a benevolent God, what in it makes reasonably intelligent people take it seriously?  These questions seem particularly acute when we recognize that many of the props that supported the Bible for some of its readers (belief in its scientific accuracy, for example) have been kicked out from under it.  They also become pressing because many of the efforts to “save” the Bible only work by suppressing any sort of careful reading or questioning of it.  Too often, Christians take refuge in sentimental, “what does it mean to you?” approaches that substitute a certain kind of approved experience or even emotional profile for any sort of activity that deserves the name of thinking.  So, we should ask the question, again, is the Bible reliable?  Why do we love it so?

            Perhaps we might begin with what the Bible is and is not.  It is not a book of science.  It says nothing about how species develop, the hydrology or geology of the earth, the size of the observable universe, or any number of other questions that we modern people are legitimately interested in.  People who love the Bible are thus free to pursue scientific inquiry full on without worrying that they will somehow transgress a spiritual boundary.  Since science is not the only way of understanding reality – and in many ways is a far less interesting and informative way than philosophy, history, or poetry – to say that the Bible is not a scientific work in no way denigrates it, anymore than saying that my child is not a supernova somehow makes her less interesting or important.  Only the crudest sort of eighteenth-century reductionism (which often is still being played out in the popular media, oddly enough) could think of “non-scientific” as a flaw.

            Also, the Bible is not a blueprint for all human societies in every time and place.  Although many of its readers attempt to read off its pages some sort of map for their lives either individually or collectively, it simply does not work this way, at least not in a simple, straightforward fashion.  There is not always a straight line between a given biblical statement and a behavior or practice in the real world of believers.  There never has been, and sensitive readers have always known that.  Moving from Bible to behavior requires careful thought in the context of a community of faith.

            What is the Bible, then?   A simple read-through would reveal a great many forms of literature, a multitude of ideas and commitment, and, in short, an extraordinary collection of human experiences and emotions.  Page after page of soaring poetry in every mode of human life from ecstasy to horror and despair.  Stories about kings and prophets, and of course Jesus of Nazareth and his marvelously self-deprecating disciples (who after all, gave us the stories of their own failures).  Visions of redeemed worlds and cosmic struggles.  All these things and more populate the pages of the Bible.  Much of it is poetry to be relished for its imagery and its profound insight into human existence.  Much else is narrative to be entered into with imagination and sympathy for the predicaments in which we find ourselves.  The very earthiness of the Bible, its refusal to embrace churchy, sentimental (that word again!), washed-out views of reality makes it both challenging and endearing.  It is still the inevitable book.

            At this point, however, many modern readers may offer objections that seems to them serious (though I personally find them much less so than I used to).  “If the Bible is just poetry or just story, then in what sense is it true?  Isn’t it just propaganda for somebody’s beliefs somewhere, maybe even just a power play?”  One hears this sort of thing all the time, and it makes sense to try to respond to it in some way.

            The first objection strikes me as the less serious.  We might well ask a question or two in response.  “What do you mean by true?”  Surely you don’t mean simply “verifiable” or “repeatable” in the way scientific experiments allegedly are.  If you do, then you are simply begging the question: only things that are verifiable and accessible to all are true because only things that are verifiable and accessible are true.  How do you know that the statement itself is true, since it can’t be testable in any timeframe or circumstance that would be manageable?

            Take, for example, the lovely little line from the Song of Songs: “Love is as strong as death.”  It comes near the end of the book after some of the most gorgeous passages in literature describing frustrated longing for one’s lover.  Is it true?  If empirical verification is our only avenue to truth, then of course we are at sea, since we can’t measure, much less compare, the strength of love or death.  Their  inevitability is our experience so far, but who can speak of the future, and who can say if “strength” and “inevitability” are the same thing?  Yet is it true?  Certainly our experience seems to indicate reasons to believe that it might be, and we often act as though it is.  I think we could multiply such examples a thousandfold, not only from the Bible, of course, but from all of human literature.  There is simply no reason to reject the Bible on grounds of scientism, since the belief that only science provides truth is simply a prejudice, an unwarranted assumption that is self-contradictory on its face.

            The second objection is thus more serious, in my view, and it is where most modern critics of the Bible land.  The claim we often hear is that the Bible is simply immoral, that it advocates practices and beliefs that hurt real people and that it attributes to God attitudes and beliefs that in a human being would be considered reprehensible.  This claim is so serious that many religious thinkers have felt a need to address it, going back more than two thousand years.  That will be the subject of my next post….

Sin as Inattentiveness, Faith as Caring Enough: The Psalms in our Worship 43

by   |  12.06.11  |  Bible, God with us, Identity

David Prital tells the story of the Baptist Ukrainians who rescued him, a Jew from the Nazis.  The poor farmer brought him into their hut and said to his wife, “’God brought an important guest to our house’,” he said to his wife.  ‘We should thank God for this blessing.’  They kneeled down and I heard a wonderful prayer coming out of their pure and simple hearts, not written in a single prayer book.  I heard a song addressed to God, thanking God for the opportunity to meet a son of Israel in these crazy days….”

Crazy days.  I guess that label has been appropriate in almost all times and places.  Since Adam and Eve first said to each other, “Things aren’t what they used to be,” we have been in a steady state of dismay at our world and the other humans sharing it with us.  And with ourselves, for that matter.  Particularly dismaying has been the persistence of evil, not so much as the result of concerted plans (the Holocaust is exceptional, after all), but as the inevitable product of inattention to goodness.  Carelessness is the root of all evil, we might say.  Or at least of evil enough.

Psalm 52 expresses fitting indignation at the persistence of indifference.  Some people, it says, “love evil more than good, stupid nonsense (Hebrew: sheqer) more than speaking justly.”  That sounds about right.  In a world awash with words, no one could plausibly argue that our choices of ideas, practices, norms, or beliefs always avoided being sheqer!  Our common human indifference to wisdom shows itself in many forms, and in all our lives.  Psalm 52 diagnoses the cause of our problems in a simple way: “Behold, no person puts God in his reflections.  He trusts in the abundance of his riches….”  By miscalculating the true source of meaning and security, human beings lose a vigorous sense of meaningful distinctions between justice and injustice, between good and evil.

Still, this is not the psalm’s last word.  Verse 8’s (verse 10 in Hebrew) “But as for me, I am like a verdant olive tree in God’s temple.  I trust in God’s loyalty forever and ever.  I will praise you forever for you have acted.  And I will trust your name, for it is good….”  In contrast to false trusts, the psalmist finds life, permanence, beauty, productivity (all symbolized by the olive grove in the temple courtyards) through the simple expedient of trusting in God.  He or she does not explain what that means in detail, but this very lack of specificity underscores the radical nature of the commitment.  To trust God in an uncompromising way requires every bit of our moral commitment, our clarity about ourselves and others, and our resolve not to take shortcuts in the life of faith.  Most of all, it requires God’s grace, not just our activity.

Trust is thus itself a gift from God, a gift rooted in relationship, and it returns to strengthen the very relationship that gives it life.  This simple psalm, which lacks all pretense of sophisticated artistry or theological profundity, calls us to the most difficult thing of all.  In our crazy times, such a call may be our only hope — and our best option.

How Religious is God? Not Very! The Psalms in Our Worship 41

by   |  11.15.11  |  Bible, Prayer, Theology

With this post, we reach a point 1/3 of the way through the Psalter.  And a lovely point it is.

Psalm 50 raises a question previously unasked in the Psalter, at least in precisely this way: what does God want from human beings?  If we remember that ancient people saw gift-giving as a way of building a relationship, with the giving of lavish gifts creating a sort of dependency or relational asymmetry, then we recognize that the question is not an idle one.  To give a gift to God is to have a relationship with God, at least as the Bible understands it.  So what sort of gift is appropriate?

The psalm considers the question from several angles.  Verses 1-6 open with a description of “El Elohim Yahweh” descending from heaven to earth in splendor.  The very heavens declare the deity’s majestic righteousness and surpassing qualities as the judge of all the earth (v. 6).   Thus the God with whom the psalmist seeks a relationship is the same God who brings justice to the world, surely a magnificent gift.

Next, verses 7-15 offer a divine oracle in which this God declines sacrifice as an appropriate gift because He owns all the creatures in the world (you can’t give something to the one who already owns it!) and because a deity does not need to eat flesh and drink blood in any case.  (Thus the psalm rejects a simplistic view of sacrifice that sees it as an act of feeding the deity.)  This section puts the relationship on a different footing than one of strict reciprocity: “Thanksgiving is a sacrifice to Elohim, and keeping your promises is a peace offering to the Most High.  ‘Call on me in a day of trouble; I will rescue you and you will honor me’.”  Weaving together oracle (v. 15) and comment on divine oracle (v. 14), the psalmist recasts the whole question.  God’s job is to save the contrite in heart, and our job is to be grateful.  Barbecue is secondary.  Let me come back to this point in a moment.

The psalm next moves to a criticism of the evildoer, i.e., the one who does not have a relationship with God.  Verses 16-21 describe people who say the right things — they look pious and obedient — but do not say the main thing.  They are people who do not truly practice the disciplines of wisdom (verse 17’s word musar, a favorite word in Proverbs to describe the life lived wisely).  Their greatest mistake lies in assuming that God is like them, just a wearer of masks and not a person of integrity.  They were mistaken, and fatally so.

The psalm ends with a summary of its position: live a grateful life.  “The one sacrificing thanksgiving honors me; he will make the way where I will show him God’s salvation.”  (The Hebrew text is actually a bit defective, but this seems to be the sense of it.)  The gift that will create a meaningful, positive, beneficial relationship with God is one rooted in human gratitude, and thus in human awareness of the truth of our dependency on God.

Now, to return to an earlier point, what does the psalmist think about sacrifice?  There is no reason to believe that he or she objected to sacrifice as such.  That position would have to wait for later generations.  But the psalm does lay the groundwork for the later Jewish realization that sacrifice was only a form of prayer (a very pleasant smelling one!), and that prayer itself was not a way of bribing God or creating obligation, but rather a way of cementing a relationship.  So the barbecue is not, strictly speaking, necessary.  A life — actions — based on a thankful heart is the key.  And it still is.

Things Worth Clapping For: The Psalms in Our Worship 38

by   |  10.03.11  |  Bible, Mission, Prayer, Uncategorized

Applause is such a strange social phenomenon.  We clap for bone-crunching tackles, masterful gymnastics routines, six year-olds at their piano recitals and famous virtuosos at theirs, baptisms and bar mitzvahs, speeches (including sermons nowadays), and a range of other activities.  We signify our approval of sterling performance, a fact that assumes (1) that we have in our heads a set of standards about what constitutes excellence in a given field and (2) that the type of endeavor is secondary (so we applaud the open-field crushing of a receiver and a baptism of a young person, often on the same day — whoever said we humans were logical beings plainly didn’t know us!).  Yet surely what we applaud determines what sorts of people we are.

Psalm 47 invites Gentiles to join Israel in its applause of the Almighty, signaling the universal scope of the rule of providence.  Why should they applaud?  Because Yhwh has redeemed Israel, thus keeping age-old promises and insuring that peace and holiness have a chance in the world.  The psalm runs to the old image of God as king (and thus as guarantor of justice and human wholeness) by singing “Yhwh Most High is awesome, a great king over all the land” (v. 2; Hebrew 3) and “for Elohim is king over all the earth…. Elohim reigns o’er the nations; Elohim sits on his holy throne” (vv. 7-8; Hebrew 8-9).  The enthroned ruler is the one who brings about life-giving order.  A few observations:

  • The setting of the song is unclear.  Is it a celebration of a particular national victory, or a song sung in the midst of a festival (Tabernacles?) about a long-standing or recurring history of redemption?  The answer might matter for how we interpret the psalm, but there is no way of knowing for sure.  As it stands, the poem has gotten separated from its original setting and thus functions as a celebration of the world’s very structure as a place under the sovereign care of God.
  • The phrase in v. 9, “Elohim who sits on his holy throne,” evokes a very old theme, seen also in Egyptian theology, of a God who is in charge of the cosmos and keeps all threats to peace and justice at bay.  However difficult such a metaphor might be for us in our democratic age, the idea of God as the perfect ruler operates throughout the Bible and is a basic assumption of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the religions that sprung from Israel.

Why is God’s kingship, brought to bear in history, worth celebrating?  If you assume that the infinite being cares perfectly for human beings and is incapable of corruption, ignorance, self-interest, inattentiveness, or any of the other frailties that mar human rule, then God’s rule sounds like very good news.  Surely for its beneficiaries this would be so.  Obedience to the dictates of such a ruler would be easy since they so obviously reflect a profound commitment to human well-being.  Obedience would not be experienced as obedience at all, but simply as the movement of the soul in response to virtue (Aristotle’s ideal).

Does the psalm assume that the nations somehow benefit from God’s salvation of Israel?  Certainly the text does not spell out how this would be so, but it is not necessary to assume that the poet was a naive xenophobe who imagined that others would enjoy his happiness, whatever their own condition.  If the non-violent, harmonious world imagined in the Psalms and prophets were to emerge, then surely everyone would benefit.  After all, the ravages of war fall on everyone in their path, not just one group.  So it does not seem too far-fetched to imagine that in the back of the psalmist’s mind — and in the minds of the congregations singing the psalm either in ancient Israel or subsequently — the prospect of divine settlement of wrongs would be an inviting idea.

Of course, the psalm is not engaging in political theorizing.  It is trying to get people to sing and enjoy the prospects of a new world.  In many ways, that option seems even more humanly inviting.  If we celebrated the possibilities of peace and justice, and celebrated the reality of such when we saw it, how would our lives and our world be different?  This week, I think I’ll try it.  Stay tuned for results!

Longing for Security: The Psalms in Our Worship 37

by   |  08.30.11  |  Behavior, Bible, God with us, Prayer

In our own times of turmoil (what times aren’t?), the need for security seems acute.  Without security, there can be no creativity, no nurturing, no healing.  But where do we obtain security?  Remember Henry Kissinger’s line, “Each success only buys a ticket to a more difficult problem.”  That seems to be true.  True security is elusive, and it does not come in this life in an ultimate sense.

Still, is it not possible to be secure even in the midst of the storm of history?  The composer of Psalm 46 thought so.  This little psalm of trust, part of the collection of the Korahite guild of psalm singers, expresses unqualified confidence in Elohim, “our refuge and strength.”  God becomes a sort of fortress for the singer, replacing all other possible sources of security, even if those sources might be employed by God.  If you’re like me, and a bit tired of religious people being society’s most vocal critics and naysayers (and conflating their faith with a sort of crude social Darwinism), the hopefulness of this psalm offers an antidote to cynicism and self-indulgent criticism of others.  “We will not fear” amid earthquake (the psalmist uses the metaphor of the moving earth to symbolize the pain of social and even psychic upheaval that human beings may face).  This is so because of the existence of the “river that makes Elohim’s city [Jerusalem, presumably] rejoice.”

The contrast of two ecological forces, earthquake and river, which in other texts may both symbolize God’s mighty power, here serves a slightly different purpose.  The reference to the river, which does not exist on any map (no rivers in Jerusalem!) but does exist in the mental maps of ancient peoples as a feature of the Garden of God, allows the psalmist to compare Jerusalem to Eden.  God, the psalmist says, provides a level of security for the righteous comparable to that experienced by the first humans in Paradise.  That’s the metaphor in play in the middle of this psalm.

Of course, the psalmist (and all the rest of us) can look at Jerusalem or any other place on Planet Earth and recognize immediately that we do not literally live in Paradise.  Anyone who imagines that we live in the best of all possible worlds clearly has a shortage of imagination!  Still….  The psalmist believes that there is a sense in which God’s presence will lead to the cessation of warfare, the breaking of weapons.  When that happens, anyone who is paying attention will hear the divine revelation, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  God’s mighty deeds of peacemaking lead to an awareness of God’s true nature, and thus our own.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were secure enough to believe all that?  Maybe someday….

Whose Marriage Is It Anyway? The Psalms in Our Worship 36

by   |  08.12.11  |  Bible, Gratitude, Psalms, Theology

Psalm 45 is one of those texts that means different things to different readers.  It seems to have begun its life as an epithalamium, a poem for a wedding between an Israelite king and a foreign queen.  Later readers connected it to Jesus, not just because they connected most things to Jesus, but because of the psalm’s statement, “your throne O Elohim is forever and ever.”  Whatever the later associations are, and they deserve their own treatment and consideration, the first reading is the one I’ll reflect on at the moment.

First, a digression.  All of us know two things about marriage.  The first is that it can be beautiful as two people come together, based on shared values and commitments and not just emotional attraction, and many of us have experienced that blessing.  The second is that marriage is difficult, not because we expect too little of it but we because we expect too much.  Or rather, we expect too little and too much at the same time.  We expect our spouse to offer us happiness, physical satisfaction, avoidance of mortality, and continuous ego-stroking.  In short, we expect the other person to complete us, not a very realistic or healthy view.  At the same time, we often do not demand of ourselves the same vigorous commitments, the same sacrificial love, or the same investment in personal growth that we expect of our spouse.  From this paradox — too much and too little — comes the marital turmoil all too familiar to our times.  And when we combine the desire for the beautiful with the hard reality of what it takes to get the beautiful, we end up with challenges.

But of course marriage has always been challenging, even in ancient times when love was supposed to be the byproduct rather than the precondition of the union.  (Ancient Israelites would’ve found the Bachelor and Bachelorette tv shows as incomprehensible as some of us do!)  This is where at least one thing in Psalm 45 could help us.

Of course, much of this psalm is difficult to translate to our experience, not merely because of its antiquity, but mostly because it concerns marriage between a king and a queen and therefore all the political aspects of that relationship.  The needs to provide an heir to the throne and to bring about peace with foreign neighbors weigh heavily in this psalm, strongly influencing its language about each marital partner and their new roles.

But there is one thing that might help us.  Notice verses 13-15  (Hebrew 14-16): “How splendid is the king’s daughter [i.e., the bride] inside, decked with golden robes… with rejoicing and celebration they are led along; they come to the king’s palace.”  There is a joy here, a sense that something important is happening in this marriage, and it is not just about politics or the pragmatics of royal life.  There is a sense of wonder here at the beauty of human beings entering into marriage.

Perhaps the sense of wonder is what is lacking from marriages when they’re in trouble.  Isn’t it an extraordinary thing to know that I can have a lifelong relationship with my spouse (my wife, in this case!) through good times and bad, through triumphs and tragedies, and even through the ordinariness of much of life?  Isn’t it amazing that the initial euphoria can give way to far deeper and more beautiful emotions, attitudes, beliefs, and actions?  Maybe if we learn that much from this psalm, that would be enough.  More than enough.  As the psalmist says in opening this song, “My heart overflows with a good word.”  There is none better.

Reputations and Memories: The Psalms in Our Worship 35

by   |  08.01.11  |  Bible, God with us, Mission, Psalms, Theology

After a bit of a break, this post marks a return to the Psalms.  Welcome back!

Reputation.  The legend is that at his trial for cheating in baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson was accosted by a young fan who said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Say it ain’t so.”  Legend or not, the saying has stuck because  we all want to believe the best about our heroes, and we never want them to disappoint us.  Their failures are our failures at some level, if for no other reason than that we believed in them.

Psalm 44 is a “say it ain’t so” kind of psalm.  It opens with an address to God speaking of how the ancestors had spoken of the deity’s mighty saving deeds in the past (notably the exodus and the settlement in the land.  The opening address also claims that Israel has been faithful, a fact that should motivate God to be faithful to them.

Then comes the big shift.  In verse 9 (Hebrew v. 10), the accusations begin.  God, says, the psalmist has abandoned Israel to its enemies, making them like “a flock for devouring” and “people sold for no price.” Israel’s fate has become the stuff of foreign proverbs (v. 14 [Hebrew 15]).  The psalmist summarizes the horror and confusing nature of the people’s fate by saying, “All this has befallen us, yet we have not abandoned you, nor have we betrayed your covenant” (v. 17 [18 Hebrew]).  Such a fate would be understandable if the people had abandoned God, yet they have not.  Say it ain’t so!

What do we make of such a psalm?  It is not unique in its frank criticism of the Almighty (see, for example, Ps 89).  The refusal to admit guilt or to pretend away the horrors of the present are at once intimidating and refreshing.  Intimidating because the sort of gall — if it is — required to say such a thing seems unusual, and refreshing for the same reason.  Few of us ever rise to such a level of honesty in our expressions of outrage, pain, and confusion.

Now, for those who believe that we must always spin our feelings when bringing them to God, such a psalm seems to present a serious problem.  For some readers, it seems arrogant or downright disrespectful.  Yet here it is in the Bible, a book not known for valuing such qualities.  So perhaps we should reconsider what we think proper speech to God is.  The claim of the psalm is that Israel has not deserved its fate, and that the suffering it experiences constitutes a violation of the covenant with Yahweh.  God, says the Psalmist, has not kept His side of the bargain.  A serious charge, if true.

Still, it is important to note how the psalm ends.  It does not end with a repudiation of the covenant or a denial of God.  Rather, it invites God to “arise and save us, and rescue us for the sake of your steadfast love.”   Be who your reputation says you are, in other words.  Save because you are the savior.  The psalmist’s lack of confidence in God gives way to a higher confidence borne of waiting and wrestling.  Yet the new confidence comes from a relationship with God that includes the sort of absolute candor that the psalm displays.

The story is that Shoeless Joe answered the boy, “Yeah, kid, I’m afraid it is.”  And so a hero drifted away.  The psalmist gives his or her hero one more chance.  Sometimes we need to as well, for God’s sake and our own.

 

Longing for the Presence of God: The Psalms in our Worship 34

by   |  06.20.11  |  Bible, Hope, Prayer, Theology

Longing for the absent lover — this is the stuff of romance.  Memories of the smells and sounds of the lost relationship, memories of times shared together, memories of the last moment of touch all cascade through the mind of the one who longs for the return of the one who has gone away.  Longing for the absent lover also describes the life of faith, for the elusive God whose presence brings life seems distant and yet ever present.  Out of the tension created by this absence that is not absence comes something we call faith.

It is fitting, then, that the second book of the Psalter opens with  Psalms 42-43, once a single poem only later split apart.  Unlike many laments, which concentrate on either physical or social suffering, this one concentrates upon the source of suffering, the absence of God.  Thus it opens with the arresting image of the thirsty deer anxiously searching for water, and closes (43:5) with an address to the very life force of the psalmist: “why are you prostrate, O my soul, and why are you troubled upon me?  Trust Elohim, for I will yet praise him.  Deliverance (comes from) my ‘Face’ and my God.”  (“Face” is sometimes a name for God, or more often, for an aspect or manifestation of God, so I am offering here a very literal translation of the Hebrew text.)  These verses bracket the lament material between them, thus moving the reader from an expression of desire to one of confidence in the Almighty.

The core of the psalm works by setting up a series of contrasts: times of celebration versus times of disquiet and anxiety, drought-stricken land versus gushing springs, and mourning for God’s absence versus hope in God’s imminent presence.  The spiritual dryness and isolation characterizing life without God elicit metaphors of ecological dryness and social isolation, a nice poetic turn.  More to the point, the refrain that recurs in 42:6 and 12 (5 and 11 in English) as well as 43:5 works to undermine, or perhaps to place in its proper perspective, the expressions of isolation and despair.

Finally, it’s not very surprising that the opening of this psalm should have been set to music in our own times (my church frequently sings at least two different tunes set to it).  Our age senses keenly the absence of God.  Choked by war, fenced in by economic insecurity, despairing before ecological degradation and leaders’ denial of the plain facts, we all sense the absence of the transcendent One.  This psalm, therefore, does not belong merely to a past age.  It belongs to us, as well.  For just as the psalm details lost confidence in ancient verities, so also it sings about a God who transcends all the truths about God and has a life beyond our ideas, no matter how cherished.  The psalmist longs for God to be God so that we all can be human beings.  I’d like to join the ancient poet in this timeless desire.  Perhaps you would too.

Of Cabbages and Kings: The Psalms in Our Worship 32

by   |  05.31.11  |  Behavior, Bible, Prayer, Theology

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

It’s interesting how things converge in your brain.  Impressions, ideas, and reflections on both stream through seeking to stick together before something else roots them out.   Yesterday, I spent time working on a survey instrument for David Miller of Princeton University, who is a leader of the “faith at work” movement, an attempt to help men and women have more integrated lives.  See his website at http://www.princeton.edu/faithandwork.

Then comes today’s self-appointed assignment, to reflect on Psalm 40,  a thanksgiving hymn praising God for an integrated life.  What have these two assignments in common?  A lot, as it turns out.

The psalm has two basic parts: verses 1-11 (Hebrew 2-12) are a straightforward hymn of thanksgiving expressing trust and hope in God, and verses 12-17 (Hebrew 13-18) step backward to the time before God’s salvation and thus offer a retrospective petition, a flashback so to speak.  Yet the two parts connect closely to each other, because salvation is never far away from the one seeking it from God, and the memory of trouble is never far away even from the most secure of us.  Life, after all, hits us in this great stream of impressions, ideas, and reflections on both.

How, according to this psalm, does one praise God rightly?  One way to answer the question is to track the verbs used for the psalmist and for God.  The psalmist trusts, stands in awe, and invites others to do the same.  God, meanwhile, turns to the pray-er, listens, lifts out of the clay pit, sets feet on firm ground, and puts a new song (the psalm itself!) in one’s mouth.  The active God makes it possible for the formerly passive, overborne human to become active again and to resume a communal role.

Another way to track the pursuit of integration is to follow the structure of the psalm, which seems loose at first, but proves to be comprehensive in scope.  The thanksgiving turns in verse 4 (Hebrew 5) to benediction: “blessed is anybody whose refuge/place of trust is Yhwh.”  It then moves back to direct address to God, praising the Almighty for doing miracles (nifla’ot are often associated with the events of the exodus, though the concept is wider — the term means less suspension of the laws of nature, than simply actions that reorder the human world so that the righteous prosper as they should).  The psalmist then considers, and rejects or at least relativizes, an alternative form of praise, namely, sacrifice.  Yhwh does not need sacrifice.  Words are enough when they bear fruit in life.  Words and deeds, divine and human, all fit together somehow.

Among the most interesting lines are those in verses 7-8 (Hebrew 8-9): “Then I said, ‘Indeed I have come.  In the book it is written about me to do what pleases you, O God.  This is what I delight in.  So your law is in my inner being’.”  The lining out of the verses is a bit unclear, or rather, debatable, here, but you get the drift.  Many commentators associate the scroll in which the psalmist reads with the one written for the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, and thus argue that the psalm as a whole is a royal psalm.  This thesis is possible, though far from certain.  It seems also possible to think of the psalm as fairly late and thus as a specimen of a type of piety that emphasized the importance of the Law of Moses.  There is nothing obviously kingly about the psalmist (in contrast to the case with a number of other psalms), though we cannot rule out the possibility that we are supposed to imagine here a king delivered from national trials.

However you slice it, the ideal narrator of the psalm is someone who has experienced tragedy and deliverance and is now grateful for it.  He (or she) has found an integrated life rather than one divided up into little pockets in which faith has no bearing on anything else or vice versa.

In times of stress such as ours, we need this psalm.  Whatever my objective experience, it is easy to find life’s problems, to highlight disappointments, and to underscore tragedies.    But this little poem describes someone who found another way by the simple expedient of trusting God and seeking guidance from Torah.  What a concept!  It is this extraordinary willingness to make a commitment that marks the person of faith off from the rest of the human race.  Without such trust, we have no hope.  With it, many things are possible.

Why God Loves the Penitent: The Psalms in our Worship 30

by   |  05.11.11  |  Bible, Identity, Theology

Repentance — such an old-fashioned, churchy word, so reminiscent of unctuous preaching and Elmer Gantry hucksters.  Or so some of us think.  Yet, even if the word has fallen on hard times, the idea of change, of renouncing bad habits and poor commitments, of rethinking what we love still makes sense to most of us, and rightly so.  Few people outside the confines of the world’s privileged elites of power, wealth, and celebrity are so convinced of their own perfection as not to acknowledge the need for repentance now and then.

Psalm 38, one of the Psalter’s penitential psalms, lays out both the need for repentance and the steps such an action requires.  As in most laments, the poem expresses the suffering of the poet (and all subsequent singers of the song) in terms of bodily pain and decay (verses 1-14 sound like a hypochondriac’s dream world, though in this case, the description is true), and in terms of social isolation (verse 11’s [12 in Hebrew] “those loving me and my neighbors stand before/apart from my affliction; those formerly near me stand way back”).

Unlike most lamenters, however, the psalmist takes responsibility for sin, as in verse 18’s “for I recount my inquity and have remorse for my sin.”  At the same time, this psalmist does not cower before a distant God who remorselessly punishes sin.  Rather, the psalmist associates God with his or her suffering, not only by pointing out to God that the arrows of the Almighty have already brought enough pain to get the sinner’s attention, but also by commenting on the performance of the psalm itself, describing it as a way of reaching out to God.  So verse 9 [Hebrew 10] says, “O Lord, before you is all my desire, and my sighing is not obscured from you.”  The psalmist has done all he or she can do and now awaits salvation.

Hence the poem’s conclusion: “Do not abandon me, O Yhwh my God.  Do not be far away from me.  Hurry to my rescue, O my saving lord.”  For the psalmist, the most devastating consequence of sin is its isolation from God, its capacity to shatter hope in a meaningful and orderly world, and thus its capacity for utterly crushing the soul of the sinner.  Other texts, of course, talk about other consequences.  But here the radical individualism of repentance comes to the fore.  I, and not someone else, am a sinner.  I must change.  I must find my way back to a merciful God.  Individuality is both a blessing and a curse.  The naked “I” is most manifest as a consequence of sin; the aloneness of the individual is the result of our capacity for evil, not the highest good.  And yet I cannot shift responsibility from myself to another, for in doing so I erase myself and lose all opportunity to be part of a relationship with others.

But then again, repentance in this text and in general rests on a key assumption about the nature of the human being and thus of God.  That assumption is that God desires human beings to change, grow, mature, and live according to justice.  Repentance is not a futile begging for mercy, nor is it a way of appeasing an otherwise stubbornly hard-nosed God.  Repentance is not a way of crushing human independence, as the Romantics of the modern and postmodern period often understand it (see, for example, Shelley’s poem “Prometheus Unbound,” and in some ways Aeschylus’s ancient original, “Prometheus Bound”).  Repentance is a way of keeping us from crushing ourselves.  It is an act of turning back to the course of goodness and life, for our own sakes.  Repentance matches our deepest desires with our outward actions.  And as such, it is a gift of mercy we give ourselves.

This week, there are some things I need to repent of.  Maybe it’s the same for you.  And next week, there will be more.  Let us have the courage to receive forgiveness and healing through the honest discipline of repentance.

What do we see? The Psalms in our Worship 29

by   |  04.27.11  |  Bible, Hope, Justice

You may have seen the movie “Joyeux Noel,” about the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front.  Young men from Germany, Scotland, and France stop fighting for a day or two in order to sing from trench to trench and then play soccer and even celebrate mass together.  The Scots priest who led that worship service notes about it that it was a sort of altar by which even those who weren’t devout warmed themselves.  He and his men — all the men on both sides of the No Man’s Land — are later disciplined by higher-ups who find human contact across walls of hate to be bad for discipline.

The movie ends when the priest’s superior, a particularly unctuous and sanctimonious bishop, tells the new soldiers come to replace the fraternizers that they must remember that “The Germans are not like us.  They are not the children of God.”  An understandable sentiment in the heat of war, but a tragic one nonetheless.  We choose what we see, whether the face of the human being behind the mask of the enemy, or just the mask itself.  The choice is ours, and it matters.

For some reason, Psalm 37 reminds me of this movie, just a bit.  The elegant little acrostic, which works better than some do because it is more fluid, is a wisdom psalm.  It edifies its reader or singer or hearer by painting a sharp contrast between the wicked and the good.  Perhaps the text was designed to help young people remember more easily some basic moral precepts and their religious underpinnings.  Many of the lines can stand on their own, almost as proverbs do.  But together, they form a fairly comprehensive picture of well- and ill-formed human character.

The contrast between good and evil here is sharp.  The good trust God, avoid undue anger, find satisfaction even in a little, give generously and lend readily, speak about justice, and so on.  The evil do the opposite in every respect.  And the fate of each is sure.  Perhaps most striking are verses 8-11 (the he and vav verses), especially the off verses, 9 and 11. (EXPLANATION ALERT: often in Hebrew acrostics some of the verses start with the successive letters of the alphabet, aleph, bet, gimel, etc., but between each of these letter verses is a verse or two starting with some other letter but explaining the main verse that begins with the next letter in the alphabet; Lamentations 1 and 2 are good examples.  I hope this explanation is not more unclear than what it explains!)  Verse 9 says “For the evildoers will be cut off, but those trusting in Yhwh will inherit the land/earth,” while verse 11 repeats and then expands on the idea by saying, “the poor will inherit the land/earth and will delight in the abundance of peace” (Hebrew: shalom; NRSV’s “prosperity” is somewhat unfortunate as translations go).  The New Testament’s Beatitudes clearly allude to verse 11 when they say that the “meek will inherit the earth.”

The text thus claims that, while we may see the profound evil that exists in human relationships and structures, as well as in every individual, evil is not the last word.  It is possible to live as people of integrity and therefore to receive the validation of the Almighty.  That is, the Germans really are like us, caught up in sin but also susceptible to redemption.  We have before us real choices about good and evil, not merely a fated imprisonment in a world of woe.  Morality is a hopeful thing after all.

So what do you see?  The soldiers in the movie, and one may assume in the real trenches almost a century ago, learned to see in the scared young faces of the men across No Man’s Land a vision of themselves.  We are together in our sins and in our redemption.  The land’s ultimate owners will not be those who grasp it by force or deceit, but those who recognize its true lord and live as that lord made us to do.   Maybe that is the thing most worth seeing of all.

The Praiseworthy God: The Psalms in Our Worship 25

by   |  03.08.11  |  Bible, Mission of God, Psalms

One of the most useful words in Hebrew is the little particle ky (sounds like “key”), which means either “because” or “so that” (causal either forward- or backward-looking), or sometimes “when.”  Maybe I like it because I always want to know why something is so or at least why people think it’s so.  “Because” is a good introduction to further conversation and reflection.  It takes you somewhere.

In Psalm 33, “because” in verse 4 introduces a long list of reasons for praising God.  The psalm opens, like a typical hymn, with a call to praise (verses 1-3).  And then it recognizes the potential for doubt in the minds of worshipers by offering reasons.  Let me stop on this point a moment.  Hymns always assume that those of us singing them both believe and question the ideas, values, and commitments we’re singing about.  We sing the songs in order to reinforce our convictions, and sometimes to deepen and challenge them.  Hence “because.”

So what is it about God that is praiseworthy?  The psalmist lists some remarkable character traits.  Some of the epithets of God include “lover of righteousness and justice,” “gatherer of the sea waters,” showing that this psalm, like many others, thinks of creation and the enactment of justice as two closely related divine activities.  God brings order and purpose.

However, the psalm’s preferred way of speaking of God is through verbs of action, all worth tracing.  Thus Yhwh’s steadfast love fills the earth (v. 5), and Yhwh’s words are the means by which the world was created (v. 6).  (Again, notice how creation and justice-making go hand in hand.)  Verses 6-9 seem to be a summary of Genesis 1 or at least the main ideas there, with creation being simply an act of divine speaking (“he spoke, and it was so”) and thus of divine justice-making.

The actions continue in a new section beginning in verse 10.  Here the psalmist reflects on the futility of the schemes of the powerful nations of the world, noting that neither wise counsel nor military power can ultimately bring stability.  We, of course, know that too, and have received a clear reminder in recent weeks as the Middle Eastern dictatorships have collapsed to be replaced with God-knows-what.  But then again, people of faith never forget this point.  The lessons of history — besides the one that there are no lessons! — surely signal to us the ultimate futility and even folly of human pursuits of power.  The psalmist takes this basic insight a step further by celebrating Yhwh as the God of history, the great maker and unmaker of human rulers.  God here becomes the one working for justice, using whatever human allies are at hand, but also holding them to account.

The conclusion comes in verses 18-22.  God is praiseworthy because of the persistent care for men and women who honor (v. 18) God and await the effects of God’s steadfast love.  When humans engage in trusting praise (and, as the prophets would add, live out the implications of that praise in their moral choices and actions), then God cares for them by rescuing them from death and all its allies and manifestations.  The relationship is reciprocal (both sides have obligations) but asymmetrical (those obligations are not equivalent, since humans are not equivalent to God).  Reciprocity and relationship are the surest tokens of God’s praiseworthiness.

The psalm ends by naming the creative tension in which believers always live.  Singers of the psalm call out, “O Yhwh, may your steadfast love be upon us, just as we wait for you.”  The reality of salvation is always almost present, just beyond our fingertips, and we long to grasp it fully.  We can taste it and smell it, and we long to make it fully our own.  And out of this longing for what we already have in part comes the awe that makes us whole people before the One who created us and all things.

The Sweet Joy of Forgiveness: The Psalms in Our Worship 24

by   |  02.24.11  |  Bible, Psalms

Blessed is the one whose transgression is lifted off, whose sin is covered over.  Blessed is the one to whom Yahweh does not attribute guilt and in whose spirit is no treachery.

One of the hardest parts of writing anything is knowing where to begin.  The Psalmist could hardly have chosen a better opening.  In just 15 words in Hebrew, Psalm 32 offers a picture of a possible reality.  Conceiving of sin as a burden to be carried or a blemish to be hidden, this text enters into the very soul of the follower of Israel’s God.  The faithful life is about the removal of the terrible weights that crush us.  Faith is a search for the lighter, healthier, saner approach to life.  The person who experiences such removal of the weight of sin can now live with confidence in the saving power of the Almighty.  Emotions and actions follow, as well as reinforce and celebrate, the liberation given.  And, in many ways, the actions and feelings of lightness of being are themselves resources for preventing the reacquisition of the weight.

Yet this change of status has not come easily for our author.  Rather, Yahweh has disciplined the pray-er of this psalm (vv. 3-4), leading the penitent human being to acknowledge his or her sins (v. 5: “I made my sin known to you and did not cover up my guilt”).  A curious thing here: verse 1 celebrates the covering over (Hebrew: kasah) of sin by God, while verse 5 recognizes that for human beings to cover over (same verb!) sin is highly inappropriate.  To obscure sin is a divine prerogative.  Repentance, which implies truth-telling about our failures, is ours.

And this is why the righteous praise God.  The removal of the evil in the life of an individual or a group is an extraordinary miracle, and one well worth celebrating.  Nor is the celebration our job alone, for the one who finds God to be a hiding place (v. 7) also hears the divine voice offering illumination and guidance (vv. 8-9).  The conversation about forgiveness includes those who experience it, and the God who gives is.

For me, thinking about sin and forgiveness this way is immensely helpful.  In our conversations in church, we seem too wedded to one image of sin, the judicial one.  The overemphasis makes us say many silly things (such as the idea that all sins are equally bad or that God abhors sin so much he can’t be in the same room with it, making God sound like a paranoid germophobe).  It’s helpful to correct our speech by thinking about other aspects of sin, whether it is weight in this text or debt as in the “Our Father” or disease in other places.  Evil has many dimensions.  And God can triumph over them all.

Postscript: If you want to read more about images of sin in the Old Testament and early Judaism and Christianity, read Gary Anderson’s little, but very learned and readable, book Sin: A History (Yale University Press, 2010).

Deliverance 101: The Psalms in our Worship 23

by   |  02.22.11  |  Bible, Psalms

Having grown up in a family in which my dad had a steady job and our schools were safe and our churches more often encouraging than not, deliverance is a hard concept for me.  What does it look like?  Not everyone has this problem because not everyone has mastered the art of projecting illusions.  But those of us who do imagine ourselves to be self-contained could use a refresher.

Psalm 31 offers such a primer.  It’s an odd psalm really.  It seems to go in several directions at once, almost as though its creator wished to evoke either the mental turmoil of the one seeking deliverance or the ecstasy of the one receiving it.  Some scholars have thought of it as two or even three different psalms welded together (much as one sees in 1-2 Chronicles, for example).  This is possible, but the text has come down to us as a single work.  As the commentator Samuel Terrien puts it, “It is a cry of fear and love for the Lord, which ends with an exhortation addressed to all true adorers of Yahweh.”  Nicely said.

The psalm opens by expressing confidence in the God who provides deliverance, coupled with a plea for further deliverance (v. 1 [2 in Hebrew]).  On the one hand, the psalmist sees God’s rescue as an abiding reality, as one of those anchor points for the life of faith.  Yet, on the other hand, deliverance is also an ongoing need, and thus a future possibility.  It is never a final result, a reality that is fixed and immovable.  Deliverance is a process, and it is also a relationship in which the one delivered recognizes her or his ongoing contingency and thus dependence on God.  (And as Christians aware of the eschatological dimensions of God’s work, we would add that final deliverance comes only when God makes all things new and draws us into the divine being at the end of time.)

The psalm then offers us an anatomy of deliverance that includes the end of shame (or perhaps we would say, alienation), moral clarity about idolatry and the ways it produces disloyalty to God, a deeper awareness of the possibility of humans having a trusting relationship with God, and finally a new capacity for celebration concentrating on the praise of God.

This last part, beginning, in verse 19 (20 in Hebrew), seems to many scholars to be a separate psalm.  Perhaps it originally was a free-standing hymn.  No one knows.  But I am interested in the fact that it has been associated with the cry for deliverance early in Psalm 31.  What is the connection?  Since the association of two such elements appears in many psalms, it would be good to know the answer.

Perhaps part of the answer is that human beings who can celebrate and can give due honor to God (and as appropriate, to other men and women) are free.  They are no longer enslaved to whatever evil had previously shackled them.  Even if they remain in the outward condition of subjection to evil, their capacity for rejoicing marks them as liberated people.

This last idea requires some further development.  Hear the words:

How great is your goodness, which you hid away for those honoring you!

You made them for those taking refuge in you, in the presence of human beings.

You hid them in a secret place before your face [perhaps: a secret place only you knew about],

away from human contamination.

You hid them in a booth away from quarrelsome [or maybe, gossipy] tongues.

The image is of a God who tucks away the best possible gifts until human beings truly need them.  The psalmist expresses the confidence that not only God’s work, but even the timing and execution of that work, reflect divine care for our weakness.  Such hard-won confidence, the result of suffering and spiritual struggle, allows the psalmist to celebrate in public and to invite others to join in, whatever their personal experiences.  And so the deliverance spreads, accentuated and reinforced by the words of a community whose collective memories allow it to recall its best experiences before God as a model for all things to come.

Perhaps there is no better way to end these remarks than with the ending exhortation of the psalm itself:

“Love Yahweh, all his loyal followers, Yahweh the protector of the trusting and the ruler over the rest who act too proudly.  Be strong all who hope in Yahweh, and [God] will strengthen your heart!”

  This is how delivered people talk.  I’d like to join them.

Beyond Gratitude: The Psalms in Our Worship 22

by   |  02.13.11  |  Bible, Gratitude, Psalms

I often hear that the proper response to God’s grace is gratitude.  This is true, as far as it goes, but seems a bit passive.  Worse, in human beings, gratitude often turns to resentment at the humiliation caused by disproportionate, un-pay-backable gift-giving.  So I often wonder if we can say more.

In the Psalms, as we have already seen, the laments and hymns of praise have a close relationship to each other.  The laments often end with a promise to praise God for deliverance, once it comes.  And hymns often refer back to the calamity whose termination and redemption have led the singer of the psalm to praise.  Psalm 30 fits the latter category.  It reminds the hearer that the composer has experienced tragedy (verses 2, 7 [Hebrew 3, 8]) and has sought Yhwh’s help (verses 2-3, 11-12 [Hebrew 3-4, 12-13]).  God has aided him or her  in unspecified ways.  Hence the hymn of praise itself.

But today I am struck by the psalm’s comment on the whole experience of redemption: “For his anger lasts a moment, his favor is lifelong.  In the evening weeping takes up lodging, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”  The faith of the psalmist is not simply a matter of gratitude for services rendered.  It is a deep-seated, radical, existentially transformative  trust in the basic character of God as one who seeks to extend mercy to all.  This God rescues those who ask from death itself, allowing not even the most powerful force in the universe to defeat humanity.  This God works for a culture of respect (“my foes have not rejoiced over me”).  And this God forms a community who testify to their own experiences of grace.  It’s not just gratitude in play here.  It’s deeper than that.

In exploring the theme of grace, a theme fundamental to Christian understanding of the human relationship with the divine, we must come to know and feel the deep sense of responsibility it imposes on us.  As the old hymn says, “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.”  Constrained.  Debtor.  To be.  But to be free of that debt is to have nothing at all.  This too is something for which to be grateful, and so much more.