God in the Center, not in the Gaps

When God moves from being a theological construct to being a divine Thou

Bible text: Psalm 23

I think it’s safe to say that Psalm 23 is the most beloved passage in all of the Bible. It is a hymn of quiet confidence in God. And for that reason it has spoken solace to many an agitated heart.

It is so familiar, however, that we can easily miss its remarkable artistry. Its author is a superb poet.

Two Dominant Metaphors

We see that in his use of metaphors. Two dominate the psalm. One is the metaphor of the shepherd. The psalm starts out with that ringing declaration: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. The line is like the mighty bells of a great cathedral reeling out their joy on Easter Sunday.

The shepherd leads his flock into nourishing pastures. He protects them from predators. He is the model of the ideal king, whose chief job is to provide for and protect his people, especially the most vulnerable in society. (For another Hebrew reflection on ideal kingship, read Psalm 72).

The second metaphor the poet uses is the metaphor of the host. God is said to be a superlative host. He welcomes the traveler. He spreads before him a wonderful meal. He grooms his guest’s hair with fragrant olive oil. He fills his guest’s cup with overflowing wine.

You can appreciate why this image would speak so powerfully to its original audience when you remember that travelers in the ancient Near East relied on the generosity of local residents to provide them with food, drink, and shelter from bandits. Inns and hotels were rare.

In the Old Testament when God is described as a good shepherd, he is usually seen as the shepherd of the people of Israel. But in Psalm 23, the poet sees God as more than a national provider. God is MY shepherd. Faith has moved from a community into an intimately personal level.

Trust against a Backdrop of Danger

Both of these metaphors play against a backdrop of danger and potential despair. The psalmist is walking through a valley of deep darkness. He consumes his meals aware that his enemies are jealously looking on. Evil lurks in the shadows, like a tiger just waiting for the opportune moment to pounce. Anxiety enwraps his life.

Yet the poet remains confident. At the moment in the poem of greatest danger, when he is walking through the valley of deep darkness, he sounds out his confidence in these resounding words: I fear no evil, for you [God] are with me.

Here is where we particularly glimpse his artistry. First, this is the point in the psalm where the poet stops talking about God and starts talking to God. The sentence turns from third-person discourse to second-person address. The language shifts from testimony to prayer.

This is the point when God becomes something more than an intellectual construct. God becomes someone whom the poet not only thinks about, but also meets. God as theological It has become God as divine Thou.

God at the Center

But here is something more amazing. The “you” in verse 4 comes at the exact middle of the psalm. The Hebrew word for “you” is atah. And in the psalm in Hebrew, 27 words precede it; 27 words follow it. At the exact center of the poem comes the divine “you.”

At the heart of biblical faith, God is not one who stands on the outskirts of life. God stands at the center of our lives as well as at the center of the universe. Now that needs to be said forcefully in our day and age.

In years past there was an old tradition in science of appealing to God when we confronted mysteries in nature. We looked at a natural process. We didn’t understand how that process worked. So we’d invoke God as the hidden hand behind nature. A scientist as eminent as Sir Isaac Newton did that when he ran up against puzzles in the universe that he could not solve.

But as science progresses and more and more of the mysteries of nature are solved, the God of puzzles keeps being pushed more and more to the margins of life and the universe. After a while, God is no longer needed as a hypothesis to explain the world.

That is the attitude of many people today, especially scientists. They can dispense with God, because they don’t need God as an explanation.

I was recently watching a TV interview by Bill Moyers with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson is the host of the new National Geographic TV series called Cosmos. It looks at what modern science tells us about the amazing evolution and structure of our universe.

In the interview Tyson comments that if we look upon God as the answer to nature’s mysteries, then we really have to abandon that kind of God. For that kind of God will be progressively whittled away by the advance of science.

“If you are going to stay religious at the end of the conversation,” he says, “God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian whom Hitler executed, said something similar in a letter he wrote a friend from his prison cell. As he reflected upon his prison experience, he said:

…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. For the frontiers of knowledge are inevitably being pushed back further and further, which means that you only think of God as a stop-gap…[God] must be found at the center of life: in life and not only in death; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in activity, and not only in sin. [Letters and Papers from Prison, Letter dated March 25, 1944]

The psalmist does what Bonhoeffer says needs to happen. He finds God at the center of his life, not just in its gaps.

If we ask, How do we begin to do this?, I answer: Do what the poet does. Begin to pray. In prayer, we may not yet have truly placed God in the center of our being, but we begin that process. For in prayer, we relate to God as that eternal Thou, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. We not only speak to God, but in contemplative prayer, we also begin to listen to and for God. In this two-directional process of prayer, a relationship with God grows that in time becomes central to everything we are and do.

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A Pastor’s Greatest Burden

Among the many responsibilities a pastor must juggle, which causes the most distress?

Bible text: 2 Corinthians 11:21-28

In the latter portion of 2 Corinthians (chapters 10-13), the apostle Paul defends his ministry against a group of traveling preachers who charge that Paul is a weak and unimpressive apostle, if not a false one. What the Corinthian church needs are bold, assertive, eloquent leaders. Paul in their eyes does not measure up. He is too meek, low-key, and self-effacing.

This debate over what kind of leadership the Corinthian church needs reminds me of much of what we read in the media and business journals about what makes for an effective CEO. Our preference, too, is for bold, assertive, and eloquent leaders, not for someone who is meek, low-key, and self-effacing.

In his response, Paul adopts the same techniques we see in good resumes. He brags about his leadership. We get a sense he is uneasy doing this. He apologizes for it. But he employs the same rhetorical cannon that his opponents do.

In particular, in chapter 11, verses 21-28, he lists all the many trials and tribulations he has endured in his ministry. It is a long list. It includes floggings, imprisonments, stonings, shipwrecks, constant dangers in his travels such as flooding rivers and bandits, hunger, and nights sleeping in the cold.

It is an impressive list. As we read on we feel a sense of crescendo as the trials and tribulations pile up. Life has been hard for Paul.

In such rhetorical flourishes, the last item in the list is usually the capstone. Its position as last makes it the most prominent item in the list. There is nothing that exceeds it in its ultimacy.

And what holds this position in this ascending list of troubles? “And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (Verse 28).

What is Paul’s greatest burden among the many burdens he has endured? It is his pastoral anxiety for all the churches he has founded. He worries constantly about their welfare. And as we all know, worry can lead not only to unsettled days, but also sleepless nights.

I find what Paul says about his ministry rings true with my own experience as well as the experience of many pastors. There are many things that can make a pastor’s job difficult. There are stewardship campaigns to run. There are programs, like Sunday schools, to manage. There are buildings to keep up. There are volunteers to recruit to do the work of the church. There are ministerial meetings to attend. There is the need to work in time and space for service to the community. And then there is the constant pressure to write sermons that not only hold a congregation’s attention, but that also feed its spirit.

But I am not sure that any of them matches the burden of anxiety that a responsible pastor feels for the welfare of his or her congregation and the welfare of every individual in it.

Have I said the right thing to that parishioner in the hospital? Have I provided the right counsel to the couple who are contemplating divorce? Have I fed my congregation with the right kinds of sermons? Are my parishioners growing in faith, hope, and love? Have I provided the vision that will help my congregation sense and claim its call? How do I reconcile two feuding members of the church?

In the midst of all these anxieties about the congregation, there are also the anxieties over whether I am giving enough time and attention to my spouse and my children? How will we manage on the inadequate salary my church is paying? Am I finding time for the spiritual disciplines that will enable my spirit to grow as well as others’.

These are the kinds of anxieties that can assault a pastor’s peace of mind. And they can take a toll on the pastor’s health, emotions, relationships, and ultimately his or her commitment to the call.

When Jesus calls upon his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him, maybe that call becomes concrete for pastors in their willingness to accept this burden of pastoral anxiety. We certainly have in Paul a welcomed role model.

A special note: I want to acknowledge that this posting comes out of a conversation I recently had with a fellow pastor, the Rev. Katie McKown, pastor of Scottsville Baptist Church in Scottsville, Virginia. She is the one who called my attention to this remarkable statement by Paul. I had never seen it before.
Katie, too, writes a blog in which she reflects on the joys and challenges of serving as a pastor. She titles its Hermeneutics in High Heels. I am blown away at times by some of the touching, yet profound things she writes about. I commend it to your reading.

How Did You Receive the Spirit?

A vivid religious experience lies underneath one of Paul’s strong debate points

Scripture text: Galatians 3:1-5
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (RSV)

In his letter to the Galatian churches, we find Paul employing a number of rhetorical tools to support his argument that Gentile Christians do not need to adopt Jewish practices to establish their Christian identity. Those tools include personal invective as well as rabbinic and Hellenistic approaches to interpreting the Old Testament.

But I find the most curious argument he makes in Chapter 3, verses 1-5 (see quotation above). In this argument, he appeals to the Galatians’ religious experience. How did they receive the Holy Spirit? By practicing the Jewish law or by hearing the gospel with faith?

What is curious about this argument is his assumption that his hearers will know exactly what he is talking about. His argument would carry no water if his hearers had scratched their heads at this point and asked: What do you mean about receiving the Spirit?

Apparently these Galatian Christians had had some powerful religious experience that they knew without question was an experience of the Holy Spirit. What we modern readers would like to know is just exactly how had they experienced the Spirit.

Did they experience the Spirit in the kind of emotional phenomena that today we associate with the Pentecostal tradition? Did they experience the Spirit in terms of dramatically changed lives, maybe in terms of dramatically changed consciousness or dramatically changed behavior?

Or did they experience the Spirit in terms of witnessing miracles in their midst, possibly dramatic healings? In verse five, Paul makes a reference to miracles. Is that how they had experienced the Spirit?

I don’t think the text makes at all clear just how the Galatians had experienced the Spirit. But that they had had some kind of vivid experience of the Spirit is certain. Otherwise Paul could never have used this argument in his debate with them.

I’m fascinated by Paul’s rhetorical turn in these verses because I question that this kind of argument would work with most Christians in churches today. I suspect that most Christians today (unless they came out of a Pentecostal environment) would have no idea what Paul was talking about. The Holy Spirit is simply not a vivid experience for many believers today.

Is that because our churches have done a very effective job at quenching the Holy Spirit? Or is it that we have so identified the Spirit’s presence with highly emotional phenomena like speaking in tongues that we completely miss the Spirit’s presence in other ways? Or is it that we have done such a poor job of teaching about the Spirit that we cannot recognize the Spirit’s presence in our midst?

I ask these questions during this week that follows Pentecost Sunday. I ask them because I wonder what it would be like in our churches if we had such a vivid experience of the Spirit in our individual lives and in our congregational life that we could respond with clarity, conviction, and enthusiasm if Paul stood in our midst and asked: How did you receive the Spirit?