This week our reflections come from the Psalms. The Psalms are not just intended to be read. They are the prayers and songs of worship of Israel and, by extension, also of the church. They were the prayers and hymns Jesus and the early Christians prayed, and which unite Jewish and Christian people of faith across the ages. To rightly understand the Psalms we need to find ways to make them our own prayers. Some people do this through praying them as their own words to God. Some do it through journaling, as I have done here, thoughts these psalms bring to mind. Some use breath prayer, a type of centering prayer which uses words of the Psalms as its focal point.
The power of the psalms is that they are not just heavenly minded, but very earthy. They remind us that the children of Abram worship a God willing to stoop down and be concerned about a small people caught in slavery and oppression. For Christians they are a special reminder that we experience God as one who actually redeems us by entering into our lives. In Jesus we see God entering into the depth of human existence to show us God is available not just in heaven but in every nook and cranny of our own lives.
In his classic book The Source of Life Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann talks about the vision of life such a way of experiencing God brings about:
“God’s Spirit which makes us live does not merely free the soul from its miscarried love. It also liberates the body from its tensions and its poisons. The new spirituality comprehends the whole of life, not just the religious sides that used to be called ‘the life of faith’ or ‘prayer life’. The whole of life as it is lived is seized by God’s vital power and is lived ‘before God’, because it lives ‘out of God’. What we call prayer in a one-sided way includes rejoicing and complaint before God, and lays before Go the life we live and suffer. Faith isn’t something special, cut off from everything else; it is the trust in life which finds utterance in all the ways in which we express life. This being so, we can also see this new spirituality as a new lifestyle…”
This call to discover all of life as the realm of the holy is the call of the Psalms. As you crack open your Bibles with me, I invite you to let the Psalms not just be dead words on the page but be words you come to experience and live out through lived practices of prayer. And let the earthiness of their words invite you to let your here and now life in this word become your prayer not just in your words but in your actions, relationships, your work, your friendships, your family life, and your relationship with those in your community.
What a difference a life fully lived in this earth can bring!
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
This psalm was pretty terrifying to me as a little child, where it was a regular song of worship in my parent’s church which was a part of the Adventist “Church of God” tradition. Growing up in a church where sermons about Jesus as soon-coming King to judge the worlds often involved rich imagery of mountains melting in Jesus’ anger, seeing these images of mountains melting at God’s coming caused my heart to quake. Reading them now, I know the Psalmist was not thinking of Jesus either in a first or a second coming. Instead the Psalmist probably had in mind when God appeared like fire over the mountain to the shepherd Moses. God did this first in a burning bush that was not consumed when God called Moses to preach, and later atop Sinai when God appeared in a pillar of flame to carve a covenant with the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What a different image is evoked from this Psalm with that background!
What I get from this Psalm today is not terrifying but humbling. God is more real, more permanent than the mountains upon which we meet God, whether they are the mountains of Sinai or Appalachia. God’s light is brighter than the sunlight which is but a dim morning mist by comparison. God’s presence is nearer than the air I breathe, closer than the blood pumping within my veins. These words remind me what is real. They invite me to imagine the idols of the world melting with the mountains beneath the shining brightness of the Lord, not because God is angry but because idols are exactly those things we cling to as permanent and solid when they are not. All in our world will one day melt and fade, unless it is gathered up into eternal life by the resurrection God. On their own, they melt and fade to less than dust.
I believe that God chooses to sweep up each person and creature that has lived upon God’s earth, and in God’s skies, into this new eternal resurrection life regardless of whether they appear good and beautiful in the world’s eyes. In that resurrection we will not need to fear losing ourselves each other, or the gifts of life, but instead seeing us and them transformed and gloried. But on our own and on their own, it is not so. Resurrection is a pure gift. And such a gift is from God, not from us.
Because of this, leaning on any earthly thing, earthly relationship, earthly philosophy, earthly religion, or earthly pursuit is leaning on sinking sand because as this Psalm reminds us without God they are sinking sand. They will let us down. When they fail us, as friends, jobs, family, and our own ingenuity will do, we naturally become angry. But when we feel that pain and anger we need to stop and hear its message. The heartache whispers truth to us. That pain and anger we feel in those moments is but a reminder. It whispers to us the fact that these things are not intended to be the solid foundation upon which we live. Not even Christianity and the church (or your religion, if you are not Christian) can do this. All of these are limited. Only God, as you find God in relationship with you, is so solid, real, and alive to ever and always be able to carry the load. And the amazing thing is this: when you learn to lean on God for your all and all, not fading contingent creations, it frees you to embrace all of those created things that will fail you if you treat them as a firm foundation. You can embrace the gifts they give while accepting their limits and vulnerabilities because you know each of them, like you, are flawed, limited, and in need of grace and strength from something greater than themselves to reach the goal. So by handing back whatever it is you’ve put in God’s place as an idol to God, you are freed to receive it back as a precious gift again you can get more joy out of.
God is the source of the foundations of the earth. Science tells us the foundations of the earth are more than just the ground beneath our feet but also the gravity that holds it in place, the sunlight that flows from the sun it circles, and the binding forces that holds its atoms together. These elements make the solid ground on which we stand possible. But the Psalmist says they are less permanent than God. Again we are called by the Psalmist to embrace the impermanence and fading nature of those things on which we want to bank our hopes and which we feel cannot be shaken.
It is hard to accept that things that ought, in every human sense, to be steady as granite instead are as flimsy as Mica which sheds from the side of the mountain at a finger’s touch shiny and thin like paper. I fight this word whenever I am reminded it. It is easier to imagine that the things I see about me, the people I know, and my own will power can be solid ground. They can in fact sometimes be something to lean on, but without the abiding presence of the One who makes space for all things within the all-embracing Spirit, we would not have them. And whereas they will fail you, Psalm 102 reminds us that God will not.
Also there is a language here of God relating to us with hospitality and generosity. God’s laying foundations is also about God making space and time for creatures like you and me whom God can welcome as children and friends to grow, thrive, choose, create, and be. We often fail to recognize that God’s creation of you and me, and our world, is in fact an act of hospitality and generosity. God makes room in God’s self for others, room for you and me, in such a way we are free to love, to turn our backs, to cooperate with God, to fight against God.
Ultimately early Christians looked at the purpose of such hospitality and generosity as being so that God was making room and space for all of us within the love relationship God had always enjoyed as Father, Son, and mothering Holy Spirit. In some mysterious way God made what is so you and I might join in that unending dance they ever share in, that embrace of love that is eternal, in the life of God itself. It’s a great mystery, but also a reminder that even when we feel neglected, abandoned, forgotten, we are not so by God. It also includes a challenge for us to strive to embody that divine hospitality and generosity in our life and our life together.
Psalm 105 invites us to search and seek for our God. This is an unusual image for the spiritual life. It I almost as if the Psalmist has suggested God has hidden God’s self in this worldlike the pirate treasure I grew up hearing tales of being buried in the sands along Carolina beach. This image for the spiritual life reminds me of the early Christian saying, attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas: “I am the all. Split a log, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me. ” When God is not evident to us, it is not that God is not there. God is after all the life force animating all things, the love that binds us together, the ground of our being, the source of our strength and comfort. There is no place that one could truly be hid from this reality. However we allow stress, worry, the busyness of life, our pain, messages of despair from the world around us to cloud our vision so we shut the eyes of our heart. God is always, ever, hiding in plain sight. Searching and seeking for our God in the way this Psalm talks about us doing in the spiritual life is about slowing down from the busyness, so we awaken ourselves to this present moment. In this moment, in this place, God is present. All the grace that is needed for me to move forward that next step I must move is already here. For me prayer and meditation – whether that is meditation in silence, on Scripture, with nature, or even on the events of my day — all give me space to open up to that of God which is already present. For all of us, whatever spiritual practices we claim as our tools for this treasure hunt, this spiritual journey is a daily seeking, without which we lose sight of God as God is already present, embracing us and each moment
Psalm 107:33-35, 41-43.
Hear the promise. God in our past has moved rivers, shook nations, to set free the oppressed, and deliver the poor and needy ones. We see this not just in the history of Israel but also the fall of apartheid, and the Civil rights movement in our day. The promise is God is still the same, still on the side of the oppressed, the poor, and the needy. When you feel abandoned, this verse is a challenge to remember how God has already worked deliverance in your life. What rivers has God moved, what things has God shaken, for your freedom to come to you?
This Psalm is also a call to embrace the promise God is still doing that for you. I think it also is a challenge. When as a society we face situations like Ferguson, like faced in the Middle East today, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, like homophobia and homophobia, who are the oppressed? And where is God at work for them? Too often we take these promises just personally, forgetting this word of promise and challenge is to us a society. The promise is if we are either those oppressed, or those at work against oppression, that just as God moved in freeing a nation of slaves from the greatest empire in the world, Egypt; just as God worked to free people of color from Jim Crow and apartheid, so God is at work in hands, voices, and even tweets to set those oppressed free today. And though the night might be long, the tears of the present fall like sheets of summer rain, God will bring liberation as sure as the morning sun will rise again. Yet it is also a word of challenge. There is a wrong side to history — the side of oppressing others. We are called by this verse to weigh our souls to discover in what ways we prop up systems of oppression out of our own desire for our convenience, or even our own laziness and apathy. Not a one is wholly guilty, nor a one wholly innocent of this failing. Yet as we learn to look for and listen for God in our histories personally of liberation from oppression and also those of our community at large, we can learn to lift our eyes and see where God is at work to join God there.
Psalm 113:4-7 introduces me to a whole new name for God: God the stooper. I was always told growing up, “don’t stoop, don’t slouch”. Yet our God is the stooper. We are invited here to envision God high and lifted up, seeing the grand scheme of history and creation like a man on a tower seeing the great landscape, like a woman in a plane looking down and seeing the whole nation at one glance. Yet we are told God is not content to sit, high and lifted up, exalted over us. No, God is a stooper, stooping down to us. God leans down reaching into our brokenness and our pain, in order to lift us up. This is true for every one of us. God became one of us, bearing our pain, guilt, and sorrow to raise us up to share in God’s life, goodness, friendship, and life eternal. This message is for all of us, but it has special significance for how God raises up the oppressed: the slave people of Egypt, under Egyptian imperial thumb; oppressed slaves in America a few generations ago; the people of color in South Africa under apartheid. The Holy Spirit comes down into the shared experience of heartache as the heart’s cry to deliver and is the voice and the cry of liberation and peace. Thank God that we serve a stooper! Thank God that God hears our heart cries!
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Psalm 116:14-17 is an interesting prayer to pray “I am you servant and the child of your handmaid”. For some of us it is easy to see our earthly mother as a handmaid of the Lord than others. Some of us experienced our earthly mother as the one in our life who expressed faith, spirituality, values, and taught us the way of Christ. For others, our mother may have been absent, inconstant, or abusive, so to speak of her as one who served and represents Christ is hard to do. For someone like that, this prayer can be hard. It can be hard to see Christ in someone who is absent, inconstant, or abusive. For many of us, such a prayer is complicated because we can see both in our earthly mothers. This prayer of Scripture invites us to meditate both on how our mothers did and did not live out this image of “handmaid” of the Lord.
Another complication of this image is that in our culture I think “handmaid” implies a place of quiet service, where one is seen and not heard. For me, some of the most powerful lessons my mother taught me about what it means to follow Christ were where she was not the quiet, soft-spoken person who simply accepted life. I think of when she returned to graduate school and sought her dream of working with special needs children. In times like this she discovered in God her own strength and power, and lived boldly in faith & confidence. It is important to remember that handmaidens of the Lord include not just quiet women but also Deborah who led the armies of Israel into battle, Rahab the harlot who helped shelter the spies of Israel, Tamar who used her worldly wisdom to prove publicly the injustice she endured so justice might be served, Ruth & Esther who used their wisdom and beauty to outwit the patriarchy of the day to help their family and their people be saved from disaster, and Judith who was a mighty warrior of God. In history hand-maidens of the Lord included Sojourner Truth prophet of abolition of slavery and women’s equality who boldly proclaimed in a world that said “women be silent” that God could turn the world right side up by the hand of a woman and “ain’t I a woman?” Handmaidens of the Lord include women like Joan of Arc who led the armies of her people to freedom and women like Corrie Ten Boon who sheltered Jews who were hated and hunted by the NAZIs. Being a hand-maiden of the Lord is to be a woman who is a co-creator, fellow worker with God in helping set right the world in the ways it is broken.
Another meaning to me of this prayer “I am a child of your handmaid” is a reference to Jesus. Mary says to Gabriel to let it be as he has said, for she will be God’s servant or handmaid. In that “yes” Jesus is able to be born of Spirit into this world. This prayer is a reminder, as Sojourner Truth is remembered for saying, of the power of one woman to turn the world aright for choosing to let her unique power as a woman to be a co-creator with God foster new life to enter our world, new life that changes the course of all of human life, and all of creation. It also is a reminder to us that our Savior, Jesus, was born, burped, fed, raised, and taught by a woman. Whenever Jesus prayed this prayer, He too was taking time to recognize the mother who raised Him, just as we recognize our own mothers and all women of faith who have shaped us when we pray these words. Jesus acknowledged as we can His own humanity, weakness, and frailty. Jesus has been there, where we are, and identifies.
I think a way to hear “I am a child of your handmaid” is also to hear it in a different way. Galatians calls the community of faith “Jerusalem above, our mother”. There is a sense in which praying this prayer is to recognize one’s self as a child of this spiritual mother. We can think of the women of faith who modeled for us the life of Christ, taught us the words of Christ, and challenged us prophetically on our short-sightedness. We can hear their voices, whether they are living on this earth or have risen beyond this veil of tears into the glory prepared for them after death already. We can remember their examples and lessons.
Of course, as Augustine once said, “the church is a whore but she is our mother”. Recognizing ourselves as children of handmaiden church means recognizing the ways the church has nurtured us, loved us, taught us, modeled for us right but it is also, as with our earthly mothers, learning from the ways it has failed. As a mother may fail to love perfectly, so the community of faith often loves imperfectly. Sadly I have sat many a long hour hearing the stories of people who are Christian, as well as from other faiths, sharing how they experienced abuse at the hands of the church, how they experienced being belittled and pushed out at times for their sexuality, ostracized at times for their education, and mocked at times for not fitting the picture that their faith stereotyped as beautiful and good. I too have experienced the heartache from times when the community of faith is not the parent it should be. From this experience we can learn how we can better mother and father others in their faith. We can learn the lesson of laying prejudice, unfair expectations, legalism, judgmentalism, and whatever caused us heartache at the altar of God to be given up so that we may truly model love.
A final helpful meaning for me of this prayer “I am a child of your handmaid” is to recognize God the Holy Spirit as a mother figure for us. In Scripture, the Holy Spirit is repeatedly likened to a mother. In Genesis, the Holy Spirit is depicted as brooding over the waters of creation and chaos as a mother bird brooding over her nest of eggs as she waits for them to hatch. In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is feminine, and in the Psalms again and again maternal language is used for the way the Spirit relates to us — taking us under Her wings, like a mother hen her chicks. In the Gospels the Spirit comes upon Jesus hovering over him like a mother dove brooding over her babies. And throughout the Bible, labor pains are an image for the work the Holy Spirit does within us and all living things, as the Spirit attempts to transform our pain, our sinful paths, our social failings, into places new life and healing is borne.
Seeing the Holy Spirit as our mother and the mother of all living has for me been a helpful way to pray this prayer. It allows me to embrace all the positive models of motherhood and womanhood I encounter as symbols for the ultimate love, care, and strength expressed in all living things by the Holy Spirit while also acknowledging the many ways each motherly figure I have known has failed to perfectly live out that love. The motherly love and care I do know through these mothering figures is a work of the Holy Spirit in my life through them. Even when no human mothering figure is present, I can experience God mothering me in the embracing arms of God the Holy Spriit. I can hope through the Spirit that all of us can learn more fully to express the Spirit’s love for all people, for ourselves, and all of creation, as we learn to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in the world.
How do you experience and know God through this prayer to God as a child of the Lord’s handmaid? Who has been the handmaiden of the Lord in your life?
Psalm 124 is a reminder that all deliverance, liberation, freedom, and fullness of life is a gift of the Creator God. Our Creator is our Liberator, our life-giver, our guide in life. We are challenged to not just accept our deliverance from addiction, affliction, oppression by others, or mistreatment. We are challenged not to simply enjoy the gifts of a full life, of meaning, of hope, of inspiration. We are challenged not to just relax with friends and family. We are challenged also to take time to thank God for each of these gifts each day. How have you experienced God as your liberator? As your giver of life, even in the fact of certain death? I invite to you add a comment sharing your experience.