“…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life….” (Deuteronomy 30:19b)
God tries to make it easy for us. Here are two ways, God says:
One way is to love God, obeying God’s commandments and walking in God’s ways. This way leads to life and prosperity.
A second way is to turn away from God, to refuse to listen or obey, to give your heart to other things, idols of your own making. This path leads to adversity and death.
Not a difficult choice, really, and yet not an easy one for most of us either.
These two paths are set before us again and again in Scripture. Take Psalm 1, the psalm appointed for today. There are two kinds of people, the psalmist suggests: the “righteous,” who have chosen the first path, and the “wicked,” who have chosen the second. (Make no mistake: you are not misreading the psalm if you take from it a fairly black-and-white picture of reality. You will also not be incorrect if you see this same pattern popping up over and over again in the rest of the Psalter.) The psalmist is making a very clear distinction between these two types of people, with not much in between by way of spiritual categories. Here’s what he says:
In the scriptures, we are consistently called “children of God,” not “adults of God,” but “children of God.” The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 40, is spoken to you, a child of God:
I waited patiently upon the Lord;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure. (Psalm 40:1-2)
The psalmist begins, “I waited patiently upon the Lord.” You will know something about this, when you are having to wait in life. This kind of waiting is not an eager waiting, where you are pirouetting around with great expectation about something wonderful you just can’t wait to happen. It’s not a waiting where you are jumping up and down, because you can hardly wait. This kind of waiting implies suffering, when you are dreading something, or when you are stuck in a seemingly-intractable situation which is imprisoning. You are waiting patiently because you are powerless in-and-of yourself to rise above your insufferable circumstances. The English word “patience” comes from Latin patientia which means, literally, a “quality of suffering.” And suffering you are as you wait patiently, hopefully, desperately.
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, rest, joy, and recreation.
The first week of November a dozen people walked to Emery House, our retreat center in West Newbury. They walked from downtown Boston, walked over 50 miles in three days. They were from Ecclesia Ministries which offers spiritual companionship to homeless men and women in Boston. Both homeless and housed, they walked in community on a spiritual pilgrimage, staying with host churches along the way. We at Emery House had the honor of being their destination: together we celebrated and feasted, shared silence and reflected aloud, rested and prayed.
This morning I want to reflect on how today’s Gradual Psalm relates to the Gospel, and what it can mean to us. Psalm 138 does not really fit the usual theme of Lent. It is a Psalm of thanksgiving and of Praise. “I will give thanks to you, O Lord…I will sing your praise.” (v. 1) As with other Psalms it can be understood on more than one level.
“Emotional labor” is a term for the work we do when we disguise our feelings. If we’re sad, we may pretend to be cheerful; if we’re angry or irritated, we may affect a calm, untroubled façade; if we’re tired, we may put on a perky face. We’re all socialized to do this when circumstances call for it, or seem to call for it. Some professions require a great deal of emotional labor—ordination usually entails a great deal of emotional labor to meet peoples’ high expectations of clergy.
Want to read more about the psalms? Check out these titles the Brothers recommend.
Read more about how to pray with the psalms:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible
Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit
C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms
James Sire, Learning to Pray Through the Psalms and Praying the Psalms of Jesus
Try praying with a different version of the psalms:
The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter (W.W. Norton, 2007)
The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation, Translated by Pamela Greenberg (Bloomsbury, 2010)
Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill (Continuum, 2000)
Psalter for the Christian People: An Inclusive-Language Revision of the Psalter of The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Edited by Gordon Lathrop and Gail Ramshaw (Liturgical Press, 1993)
Go deeper into the psalms:
If you’ve never read much of the book of Psalms and don’t know where to begin, you might want to start with these psalms, which one of the Brothers selected as among his favorites: Psalms 19, 24, 27, 42, 46, 62, 67, 71, 84, 85, 98, 100 (“the first psalm I ever memorized at age nine”), 148, and 150.
When I was a seminarian at Sewanee, my liturgics professor, Marion J. Hatchett, was the chair of the text committee for The Hymnal 1982, and since I didn’t know that this was the sort of committee to which one was appointed – in all my experiences of committees to that point volunteers were welcome – I approached him and said, “I hear that you’re on the text committee; I’d like to work on that.” Fortunately, he did not tell me that I was an upstart (he likely assumed that, as a PhD in English, I would at the very least know how to punctuate). Instead he said to me, “Well, actually, we’re having a meeting in Nashville in a few weeks. Why don’t you come along and see what you think.” Of course, what was really happening was that they were seeing what they thought of me. Apparently, I was not completely useless, since they invited me to keep coming. Bit by bit, I’d help out with the revision of a few lines, then a stanza here, a paraphrase there. The first time I wrote a hymn on my own was because we had the tune Bridegroom by Peter Cutts, but found that the old words were just not salvageable. So I was asked to write a hymn text to fit that tune. The resulting hymn was “Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song” – my first hymn. That’s how it transpired that I worked my way up from revisions to paraphrases to hymns of my own.
In the tradition in which I was raised, the Christian Reformed Church, a predominantly Dutch Calvinist denomination headquartered in western Michigan, the psalms played a prominent role in worship. In fact, the Psalter Hymnal, the official hymnal of the denomination in which I grew up, gave about two-thirds of its pages to the words of the psalms set to music. In the tradition in which I now practice my Christian faith – the (Anglican) monastic tradition – psalms are a mainstay of worship as well. We Brothers sing and pray the psalms several times a day, moving again and again through a cycle which covers the entire Psalter.
Contemplative Humility: A Meditation on Psalm 131
O LORD, I am not proud;
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast;
my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD,
from this time forth for evermore.
Apart from their grouping under a shared, descriptive superscription, “Song of Ascents,” the psalms numbered 120-134 seem a motley crew at first glance, unconnected, even fractious: some are individual laments, others collective thanksgivings; some laud the joys of domesticity while others the glories of the assembly at worship; communal doxologies contrast with a single penitent’s cry for divine mercy; personal pleas for deliverance from enemies are juxtaposed with hymns of gratitude for national protection.
Yet the designation “Song of Ascents” indicates their commonality and interrelationship, for all are psalms of pilgrimage – toward and into God. And as such they are hymns for an upward journey experienced on two levels simultaneously, the outer and visible, and the inner and unseen. Outer and visible, since pilgrims traveling on foot to Jerusalem, whether coming from north or south, east or west, must physically ascend through hill country. For though not itself one of earth’s great peaks, Mount Zion presents a sometimes arduous climb, whether approaching via Roman road or overland. But also inner and unseen, for pilgrimage entails a moment-by-moment commitment to rise to the new life which is God’s gift to us in Christ. The temple to which we make ascent is the Lord’s own crucified and risen body, of which we are members.
The “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” of which Paul speaks is made in humility in walking through life, day to day: feet treading the ground of reality, of paradox, upward ascent implying true groundedness. Humility stilling the soul (the word humility derives from humus, the soil, earth, and clay from which we come). Speaking of fears, trials, losses and hopes, dreams and lasting meaning. Making the ascent to God’s dwelling place in pilgrimage, we learn that it is very much within, trusting in humility as a child on its mother’s breast, nurtured, caressed, kissed, sung to, suckled.
Psalm 131 comes as an oasis on the way, a place of respite for the journey, a reminder of the Holy One who has preserved us in life to this very moment, and who promises life yet more abundant, even beyond our wildest imagination, when the pilgrimage ceases. This hymn of humility invites us to revel in remembrance of God’s love, which first brought us into being and which at this moment as always delights in our companionship.
“O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks,” we pray, first confessing our forgetfulness in acknowledging ourselves as entirely dependent on God alone, a vital truth which we often refuse through our illusion of self-sufficiency.
“I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me,” the Spirit prays from deep within. And though we have occupied and still do so occupy ourselves with reactive, unconsidered words or actions, the Source of all being invites us to rest from our striving and wait patiently upon Love.
“But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” Here in the midst of pilgrimage we come upon an image of God unique in the scriptures: God as the nursing, nurturing mother; God gently rocking and calming the weary and hungry child who seeks the security of unconditional love. We pray to return to the child-like dependence, even vulnerability, by which alone we enter the kingdom and the security of God’s embrace.
And so our journey in prayer comes full circle: “O Israel, wait upon the Lord, from this time forth for evermore.” We travel on in humility, joined to the community of God’s chosen, and knowing even now of our union with the One to whom we ascend. The stance of waiting is pregnant with expectation, the hopeful assurance of seeing things which are now hidden from our sight. It is to trust in God’s unfailing generosity, which ever provides not what we think we need, but what we actually need – in the right degree and at the right time. The unexpected is made visible to the contemplative heart, which watches and waits on God in all circumstances.