10 August 2009

A meditation on Psalm 130

I had a fun time wrestling with the text this week. It's sinking in that I am unemployed; a couple more rejection letters came; longterm frustrations with DH recurring; some sort of bug dropping my serotonin just to magnify everything else; and then my grandmother (not unexpectedly) died. I think I needed the sermon more than the congregation, but it's not a bad pulpit supply lesson -- although perhaps a bit more teachy than preachy.

When I began seminary three years ago, I didn’t have a very good knowledge of the psalms. I knew snippets from here and there, after all, they in all sort of songs we sing! I had memorized the 23rd, the 100th, and the 1st; but I didn’t have the depth and breadth of understanding of the psalms that I had of much of the rest of the Bible. After all, they’re so…. Different. These are the emotions and prayers and hymns of people from thousands of years ago. This is the age of rational, "just the facts ma’am", study. And they’re Poetry. And poetry loses something in the translation. What can 4000 year old poetry tell me about God? or about me? I was a computer science major. An engineer. I didn’t go for those emotional bits of the Bible.

Then, last summer, while I was doing a chaplaincy internship at UPMC, I encountered a woman in the hospital who was facing a terminal diagnosis. This woman had been taught that to express any uncertainty or fear was a lack of faith. That it was an insult to God to have doubts and fears. So I took her for a walk through the psalms.

The Psalms are a treasure trove of emotion: great joy, great sadness,great anger, great despair, determination, and thanksgiving. The full spectrum of human emotion. Because God made us to have emotions and God created out bodies with adrenaline and serotonin and endorphins and all sorts of hormones that run wild with those emotions. God expects us to have emotions including fear and even despair. Just look at David, a man after God’s own heart. Look at some of the psalms he wrote. OY! That’s emotion. The psalms help us give voice to our emotions and even to express those emotions to God.

I was originally going to use this Psalm as a secondary text, but then, as I spent time with it this week and as I studied it, it really started to resonate deep within me. Now, bear with me a moment, but I came to truly appreciate this psalm when I went through it in Hebrew. Poets like to use words with layers of meaning and words that play off one another. The Psalmist was no exception. I’m not going to turn this into a Hebrew lesson :) but there are some things that the English translation just plain loses.

If you look closely at your Bibles, you’ll notice that verses 1, 3a, 5, and 7 have “the Lord” in small caps while verses 2, 3b, and 6 have “the Lord” in regular text. The poet is using 2 different ways of referring to God. The first one, the one rendered in small caps in your Bible, is the Name Of God. Somewhere along the line, Jewish Rabbis had decided that you couldn’t take the name of God in vain (that’s number 3 on the big list); anyway, you can’t take the name of God in vain if you never say it. To honor this concern, Christian translators have usually followed their example. So name of God, YHWH, is shown in your Bibles as Lord in small caps. You can distinguish it from the regular word for lord if you know what you’re looking for, but as translated, it won’t be spoken and inadvertently taken in vain, and most of the time it doesn’t make a big difference in reading the passage. But in this psalm, it’s important to note that the poet is going back and forth between the personal, intimate name of God and God’s title as Lord.

It’s like being on a first name basis with the Queen: she may be Lizzie, Mom, or Grandmum in private; but never forget that she is “Your Majesty”.

The use of the title of “Lord” for God reminds us that we’re dealing with the great Lord and creator of the universe to whom we owe our very existence. The personal name reminds us that we worship a God who desires relationship, who has granted us the right to come and call Him by name. By alternating between these two forms of address, the Psalmist reminds us of the power and majesty, as well as the love and approachability of God. By holding these extremes in tension, the poet squelches our human tendency to consider God as EITHER forceful and distant OR loving and manageable. So, a little later, when the poet speaks of our sin and God’s forgiveness, it is with a full understanding that it is loving grace that allows us to approach; it is also what allows the poet to tell the rest of the congregation in v7 and 8 that God has the power and will to redeem us from all our iniquities. God’s not going to let our sins keep him away from his children and God has the wherewithal to make that happen.

So, now that we have permission to come before the Holy One of Israel, what is the occasion under which we approach? “Out of the depths I cry to thee”, the depths were chaos, frequently used to refer to the realm of the dead, a metaphor for great distress, even unto death. That’s where the poet is, in distress and chaos, basically in a place he considers like hell. We’ve most of us been in a similar place. You know how that feels. So what does the poet do? Does he throw a pity party? Does he tell God it’s unfair? No. In verse 5 he says “I will wait for YHWH”. That sounds rather bland and boring. Not “send down your angels to rescue me NOW!” not “I will climb out of the pit” just, “I will wait for YHWH”. For this we read the psalm? To watch a man sit at a bus stop? But there is a strong lesson here. The Hebrew word for “wait” and for “hope” are the same. There are 2 different words used in verse 5, the first translated “wait”, and the second “hope” but either Hebrew word could be translated either way. The Hebrew language doesn’t separate Hope in God from Waiting for God. The Hebrew word means to wait with expectation. We know it’s coming, we’re just _waiting_ for it. The big difference in the two words is that the first means more to endure, still with expectation; and the second is used only for faith in God.

So now lets look at that again, the poet’s life is in the pits. But he’s going to endure, to persevere, putting his expectation in the word of God. But what does that mean, God’s “Word”? Well, this side of the reformation, our first thought is scripture, and the Torah would have been part of the poet’s thought, but he certainly didn’t just mean the words on the page. Here again we have a Hebrew word that just doesn’t translate well into English. The word here means word/event/deed. Inseparable. What you say IS what you do, total integrity. After all, this is the God who spoke creation into existence. word/event/deed are all one. The poet is choosing to trust God in the context of everything God has said/promised/done for His people. It wasn’t just “how does my personal life look right now” it was, “How has the Holy One of Israel dealt with his chosen people through history?” In other words, to wait in expectation on the Lord is to quit asking “why?” or “why me?” or “when will it be over?”, and start looking at WHO is in control.

Who is in control? Verse 7 reminds us the primary attribute of God on which the poet was depending. Not omnipotence, omniscience, immutability or any of those other concepts we actually inherited from Greek religions. No, the primary attribute of God to the Jewish people and therefore to the poet was hesed. Hesed – it has been translated here as steadfast love, others translations use loyalty, goodness, kindness; the KJV uses lovingkindness (one word), others use fidelity, or occasionally, mercy. The most important thing in putting our trust in God is God’s love and care for us. And God’s history of care that shows us God is reliable.

The Israelites used to rehearse their history of salvation all the time. Just to say “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” was to recall the stories of each of these men and their interactions with God. Many prophets begin with, “The Lord who brought you out of Egypt” – the Jews are admonished to never forget the history of God’s work with them. And the story of God’s work with the Jews is the story of God’s steadfast love.

Puritans were encouraged to keep a diary to examine the work of God in their lives. Each person examined their spiritual growth and insights, but they also used these diaries to record answers to prayer and the places where they saw God’s hand moving in their life – what they called “the providences of God”. Then, they would go back and read these diaries, some would even underline and dog-ear passages to find them more readily, and these Puritans would use the diaries to bolster their faith when life was rough. As one Puritan woman recorded (in her diary of course!): “My own experience has ever proved to me that thou art the God that has fed me my whole life long, the God that didst never leave me upon the mount of difficulty, but always appeared and wrought deliverance[i] The diaries served much like a family photo album or memory book and the woman was like a child going through the stories with her father, recalling all the times he’s been there for her. Not abstract stories of someone else’s life, but clear, first hand experiences from her own. She remembers all the times the Father has been there and she knows he will continue to be. She didn’t dwell on the bad things happening in her life, she didn’t look for someone else to blame, she moved forward in life, remembering the God that would see her through. She remembered her personal experience of God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love, and she could trust that it would continue – even if it didn’t make sense now. Let’s look at that psalm again, with what we know now:

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O YHWH.

2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

3 If you, O YHWH, should account for iniquities;
Lord, who could stand?

4 But there is forgiveness with you, thus you may be revered.

5 I endure for YHWH, my soul perseveres,
and in his word and deed I will hope.

6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

7 O Israel, hope in YHWH!
For with YHWH there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.

8 It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

There we are. Life isn’t always what we want or what we think it ought to be. We can’t truthfully say we understand why rotten things happen. Some times we don’t like the place we’re in. But we remember WHO is in control; who is the Lord of the universe and of our lives. And we can remember what God has done for us in the past. In the midst of the depths, when life doesn’t make sense, I will endure, trusting the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who gave his son to redeem our iniquities, I will trust God to do what is right in the context of all humanity and all time. That’s not always an easy thing to do. That’s why we remember all of God’s providences like the Puritans did. By remembering the past providences of God we are free to trust our lives to him even when we don’t understand. We’re free to say “I don’t know what’s going on, but I know I can trust God to come through this time, because I remember how God has come through for me before.”

Thanks be to God.

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