Archive for ‘Psalms’

Back to Beauty: The Psalms in our Worship 39

by   |  10.10.11  |  Prayer, Psalms

Christians and Jews have acquired unusual views of what constitutes beauty.  We tend to start with the idea that God is, by definition, beautiful.  I’m sure that’s true, as far as it goes.  But even that’s a difficult concept, since the God of the Bible seems at times difficult to call attractive (mysterium tremendum et fascinans: the mystery both attracts and repels, remember).  Perhaps we could argue that our language about God is beautiful, and it certainly can be, though even there the beauty can be a painful one.  So it would be an interesting challenge to work out an entire Christian aesthetic.  And some have done so in various ways: maybe I’d point you to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar as a fine recent example.

Sometimes, however, things are more straightforward, and religious sensibilities do lead one to beauty.  Think of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or da Vinci’s “Last Supper” or, in literature, Dante’s Inferno/Purgatorio/Paradiso or Milton’s Paradise Lost, just to name the most obvious examples.  Or in more recent times, Bernstein’s painfully powerful Kaddish or the hymns of Ralph Vaughn Williams.  The quest for God, and thus for a true appreciation of ourselves, produces a desire for beauty.

The author of Psalm 48 certainly shared such a quest.  The elegant little celebration of the beauties of Jerusalem opens and closes with praises of the incomparable God who is known through the blessings falling to Israel.  In the middle come a complex description of what sounds like an imagined appearance of foreign tributaries in Jerusalem.  (I say imagined, because such kings, as far as we know, never did this in real life.)  Instead of being a place under threat, Jerusalem is a place of security, justice, hopefulness, and joy.

Note the various ways in which the psalm refers to Jerusalem:

  • City of our God
  • His holy mountain
  • Beautiful
  • The praise of all the land/earth
  • Mount Zion at the ends of the North (a reference to the old Canaanite idea in which the mountain of the deity was in the far north; hence another way of saying “city of our God”)
  • Town of the great king (God? the human king?)

Verse 4 (Hebrew 5) introduces a new section, according to which the rulers of the world gaze upon the splendors of Jerusalem and are overawed at the majesty of Elohim.  This idea of the attraction of the nations to God takes many forms in the Old Testament, beginning with Exodus 15’s certainty that the neighbors of Israel will fear their God to Isaiah 40-55’s belief that the Gentiles will come to seek peace with Israel and its god to the later New Testament view that the nations should enter the path of salvation alongside Israel.  Psalm 48 has a place along the path of the history of this idea, and a very pleasant place it is!  Jerusalem, the psalmist believes, will become a symbol for every virtuous person in the world.

Why?  Note verse 10’s words of praise: “Your praise, Elohim, befits your name until the ends of the earth.  Your hand is full of righteousness.”  In other words, God is praiseworthy precisely because God is righteous.  Worship does not emerge out of fear, but out of the sensible recognition of God’s superlative qualities.  Jerusalem helps people come to that recognition, and so it becomes a symbol of God’s presence among human beings.

How can interest in a place point us to God?  That’s a topic for further discussion.  Stay tuned!

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.


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.

The Grace of Declaration: The Psalms in Our Worship 13

by   |  11.08.10  |  Psalms, Worship

The core claim, or at least a core claim, of Judaism and Christianity is that the One God loves and cares for all the creation.  Unlike Gnosticism, which believed that the world was a big mess from which God must rescue the few worthy humans in whom specks of cosmic light had somehow become embedded, the faiths that came from Israel believed that God created a universe, pronounced it “good,” and filled it with all sorts of splendid beings, including one species made in the divine image (you and me, as it happens).  From this central cluster of ideas a great many others hang.

In such a world, divine grace is pervasive.  Mercy is an ever-present reality giving color and meaning to all existence. Divine justice is the good news that mercy will prevail over the corruption and self-serving behavior of some of the creatures.

Psalm 19 celebrates such a world.  The psalmist gives two basic sets of reflections, which turn out to be one.  Verses 1-6 (2-7 in Hebrew) announce the universe’s announcement of the splendor of God.  All the cosmos seems to be joining in the party, which is much like a wedding in its all-out exuberance.  The psalmist knows that this idea is highly metaphorical (no one hears the voices of the celestial bodies, literally speaking), but their celebration is evident nevertheless.

Verses 7-9 offer a series of propositions that turn out to be essentially equivalent.  Six manifestations of wisdom exist: the law of the Lord, the testimony of the Lord, the instructions of the Lord, the command of the Lord, awe before the Lord, the judgments of the Lord.  They have six results: restoring life; enlightening the naive; gladdening the heart; giving light to the eyes (i.e., giving insight — even our English word helps us here!); offering permanence; and constituting total rightness.  It would make just as much sense, I think, to rearrange the results, matching them to the manifestations of wisdom in all possible permutations.  So, for example, all six things can restore life or gladden the heart.  The order is somewhat arbitrary.  Admittedly, v. 9a’s “awe before God” is more about what we do, while the other five are about what God does, but the distinction isn’t hard and fast.  Justice is both a divine and a human activity, for example.

The end of the psalm talks about both how wonderful these qualities of God’s world are, and how wonderful it is for human beings to participate in them, that is, to join the rest of creation in its celebratory dance around the divine throne.

Frankly, I like thinking of the ways of God in this way.  We have, for some odd reason, come to think of divine command as a burden, and joyless duty imposed for reasons not always easily discernible.  What a wrongheaded understanding!  Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate the sort of meaningful order imagined by Torah, or in more Christian terms, of Christ’s pattern of life that we imitate as disciples?  The freedom from anarchy and the phony pursuits of the worldly achievement surely should be sources of joy.

The point to remember, of course, is that not everything we have imposed on ourselves over the years were really either wise or connected in any way to the divine.  We often make laws on topics that God seems quite uninterested in.  We worry about who says what in church, for example, forgetting the fact that for any of us to say anything is a miracle, and that we reduce God to a petty being indeed who cannot listen to all human beings equally.  How badly we’ve squeezed the joy out of our life as community by our obsession with rules that Scripture doesn’t really make!

There is much more to say.  Psalm 19 is rightly one of the most famous.  But for now, we will pass to others.  Just don’t forget to come back.  The dance will go on with or without us!

Works, Merits, and Grace: The Psalms in Our Worship 12

by   |  11.03.10  |  Psalms, Worship

What must we do to be saved?  Pure religion is visiting orphans and widows….  Blessed are the peacemakers….  On and on it goes.  The Bible pervasively talks about faith coming to life in action.  Hands and hearts move together toward God.

It has taken me quite a long time to figure out how human activities and divine grace connect to each other.  (In the interests of truth-telling, let me say that I still don’t have it figured out and don’t expect to, since only God knows these things.  But still, trying to understand pays off immensely.)   Like many others, I have had to move from a works-righteousness orientation to one that acknowledges the mercy of God (prevenient, sustaining, eschatological, all at once).  In this way of seeing things, human activity becomes an expression of God’s mercy in two senses: we are sustained by God’s grace and mercy, and our actions come to imitate that mercy as we extend grace to others.

The author of Psalm 18 (equals 2 Samuel 22, more or less) see things this way, too.  The psalm itself consists of several parts (vv. 1-3 an address to God; vv. 4-5 a statement of prior distress and impending death; vv. 6-19 a description of God’s dramatic actions of salvation, phrased to sound much like the deliverance in Exodus; vv. 20-24 an oath of innocence (to which I’ll return); vv. 25-45 a meditatation on the surpassing nature of God; and vv. 46-50 a final praise of God — at least that’s one way to organize it, and there are others).  Each part contributes to an overall image of a God who acts decisively to bring about righteousness in the world. The God who acts must take sides in the human situation because, while all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, some of us have fallen a lot more than others, and our behaviors are more destructive.

This realistic appraisal of the human condition leads to the first of two big ideas, each underpinning this psalm, to consider.  That is this: in the Bible, the justice of God is not seen as something to balance against God’s mercy, but as essentially tantamount to mercy and grace.  God does the right and brings about a world in which the right is done, and this fact is very good news.  At least, it’s good news for everyone who seeks the right.  Gone is the popular idea among evangelical Protestants that somehow justice is a diminution of love or even its opposite. All those sermons promoting cheap grace in the name of ending legalism can just go out the window.

The second idea appears in vv. 20-24.  Here the psalmist talks about works.  Someone trained in the pop-Calvinism of contemporary American religion might find such statements as “Yhwh rewarded me according to my righteousness, compensated me because of my clean hands” a little too self-important or even highly dishonest.  But the psalmist does not see it that way.  He or she is not claiming moral perfection in every little thought or attitude, but rather a basic disposition toward life.  This disposition is characterized by a desire to “keep the ways of Yhwh,” which is equivalent to both “avoiding evil before God” and carefully assessing one’s life in terms of God’s judgments (acts of justice, v. 22) and placing one’s life before God for evaluation (v. 23, “I was blameless before him”).  The psalmist thinks that human behavior can form a pattern that is commendable, not that we are irremediably sinners who must always hope that God can ignore reality and pretend we are not what we are.

The trouble with the opposing view, the one very popular in church, is that we run the risk of saying that God doesn’t care about righteous behavior.  And we run the risk of turning God into a sloppily sentimental rich uncle of the human race who ignores our faults even when they hurt us.  The psalmist wants to take us another way.

I thought about all these things this week when reading a charming little book by Arthur Kleinman, a medical anthropologist at Harvard.  His book, What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger (Oxford University Press, 2006), chronicles several lives as men and women experience mental health issues that ultimately derive from moral failures of one sort or another.

Here are some of his conclusions, which relate to the narrative that the psalmist tells.  “… moral mentoring can intensify danger unless it enables individuals (and collectivities) to break out of local dialects of moral experience that underwrite violence by mobilizing inhuman responses to threats to what we mistakenly hold to be most at stake.  Moral responsibility is not itself enough; it must be balanced with critical imagination” (p. 192)

How do we break out of our own limited language for moral experience and enter into a broader one (which for Christians means, the language of Scripture and the church)?  Let’s take that up next time.