Darkness Is My Only Companion

Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament like no other.

person standing next to tree

Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

It’s a common misperception that the Old Testament psalms are all songs of praise or thanksgiving. The reality is that the majority of them are desperate pleas for help in times of trouble. Scholars label them psalms of lament.

The troubles listed in these laments are the many troubles and tribulations that afflict human beings. They include: life-threatening illness, anxiety, malicious gossip and reputation smearing, social ostracism, betrayal by friends, murder by ambush, oppression by the rich and powerful, defeat in battle, foreign invasion, even old age.

What is striking about these lament psalms is that the psalmists bring all these troubles before God. The lament psalms are poetic prayers. They plead for God’s saving intervention.

And in most, there is not only a fervent plea but also an ardent hope that God will come soon to save them. Yet if God delays, the psalmist remains confident that God will nonetheless come. A good example is Psalm 22, where after the psalmist expresses his torment in anguished terms, he concludes the psalm in confident praise.

The Israelite Horror before Death

Psalm 88, however, stands apart from all the other lament psalms. For one thing, it contains one of the most vivid descriptions of the ancient Israelite’s expectation on the afterlife. That expectation did not involve a belief in either a heaven or a hell. Instead all the dead, righteous or evil, entered the subterranean world of Sheol (also called the Pit). We see this world described in verses 3-6 and again in verses 10-12.

This land of the dead was a shadowy world where the dead subsisted in a drained-out ghostly existence. We might think of them as zombies. What was most distressing about this world of the dead was that God was not present in it. God abandoned them.

We experience the bleakness of this vision of the afterlife when we hear the psalmist talk of the dead as …those whom you [God] remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. (Verse 5). This is intensified when the psalmist rhetorically asks: Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? (Verse 10) The implied answer, of course, is No.

In this language we see how much of an existential horror death is to the ancient Israelite mindset. The expectation of resurrection has yet to dawn in the Israelite consciousness. This is important to remember when we read the language of salvation in the Old Testament. It does not mean going to heaven when we die. Rather salvation language talks of God’s intervening rescue of us in the trials and tribulations of this life. The Exodus story is the great epic of salvation in the Old Testament.

A Dialogue of Accusation

The second striking feature of Psalm 88 is the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God as the source of his troubles. In Verses 6-7, he moves to second-person address, saying, You [God] have put me in the depths of the Pit…your wrath lies heavy upon me.

This accusatory speech continues as the psalm progresses. Inverses 13-18, one accusation piles onto another:

O Lord, why do you cast me off?

            Why do you hide your face from me? (Verse 14)

I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. (Verse 15)

Your wrath has swept over me;

            your dread assaults destroy me. (Verse 16)

 I am astounded at the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God of being the cause of all his troubles, in effect, his enemy. If biblical faith is to be understood as trust, then here we see its almost negation. The only vestige of faith that I can identity in this psalm is the fact that throughout the psalm, the psalmist continues to address his complaints to God.

The psalm in fact is a prayer, for it begins O Lord, God of my salvation(Verse 1). The psalmist has not cut off his dialogue with God, even though the tone has turned angry and vituperative. This psalm calls to mind the boldness of Job as well as he contends with God over the cause of his misery.

At the Bottom, Despair

The final striking feature of this psalm is its ending. The psalm comes to an abrupt stop on a bottom note of deep despair:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.(Verse 18)

This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the verse. But the Psalter in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer gives it an even more desolate expression.

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,

            and darkness is my only companion.

Here the psalmist finds himself in profound and deep isolation. He sees no reason for hope or confidence that God will hear his prayer or reverse his situation. It is certainly the starkest verse in all the psalms and possibly in all of the Bible. Whereas the other psalms of lament have various expressions of hope and confidence in God, this one stands apart in its utter hopelessness.

A Psalm for Humanity in Its Depths

I find myself amazed that the editors of the psalms should have included this psalm in their collection of ancient Israelite poetry. The tendency of most pious would have been to exclude it as a perversion of faith.

I am glad the editors did not. It seems to me this psalm gives expression to those times when our own faith hangs on by something as fragile as a spider’s silk strand. These are the times when life experiences throw us into such confusion and despair that we can see no light at the end of our tunnel.

At such times, we, too, know darkness as our only companion. I certainly have experienced such times in my own life, especially in my young adult years. It is reassuring that the psalmist seems to give us sanction for lifting up such times of depression to God, even if it must be in the words of accusation, desperation, and despair.

It is also why this psalm can speak powerfully to people trapped in a downward spiral. Once when I was serving as a hospital chaplain, I visited a patient who was suffering from a serious kidney disease that had endured for ten years. She was a good church woman. But as we talked, she expressed her weariness with God who did not seem to respond to her prayers for healing. She felt, she said, so utterly alone and abandoned, especially as her friends at church continued to enjoy robust health.

I suggested that I read a psalm to her and then ask if it expressed how she was feeling. I read Psalm 88. When I finished, she looked at me and said, “Chaplain, I don’t feel that bad yet.” This psalm may have been helping her to realize that her faith was not yet at such an end as she thought it was.

One of the things that has always drawn me to the Bible is the astonishing range of human experience that its words give expression to. Its understanding of the realm of faith is far more expansive of human experience and emotions that most religious people dare go.

 

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The Third Authority

Israel’s wisdom tradition offers a third source of revelation.

Whenever I have read the Old Testament, I have sailed hastily through the Book of Proverbs. It didn’t seem to offer much beyond strange musings about Lady Wisdom and then a chaotic collection of proverbs. Nothing tied together for me. I decided it was not worth much of my study time.

Pemberton

Then I read the newly published book, A Life that Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom by Biblical scholar Glenn Pemberton (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018). He turned my attitude about Proverbs around 180 degrees. For one, he illuminates some of the repeated themes that weave through the book, themes that deal with living the good life as understood by ancient Israel’s sages.

Israel’s wisdom traditions were not primarily speculations about God, but reflections on what it means to live the good life. The good life is understood as more than a moral life. It is also a life that is healthy, stable, and successful. It is much more concerned with what we today would say are secular matters than religious, although the sages always see the good life grounded in a fundamental fear or reverence for God (see Proverbs 1:7and 9:10).

The source of their reflections is not the revealed word of God in Israel’s scriptures, but insights gained from observations of daily life and experience. Israel’s sages are also highly sensitive to wisdom coming from cultures and peoples outside of Israel. For example, scholars have noted that one section of the Book of Proverbs (22:17-24:22 ) draws extensively from the Instruction of Amenemope, a literary work of wisdom sayings from ancient 13thcentury B.C. Egypt.*

Three Sources of Authority

Pemberton offers one insight that was particularly striking to me. He says that in ancient Israel three sources of authority were recognized when talking about God and life with God. They held equal positions in Israel’s theological discussions.

The first source was what we might label the written word of God, contained in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The Torah told the origin stories that constituted Israel’s identity. They also held the laws and regulations that governed Israelite behavior and worship.

The authorized interpreters of Torah in ancient Israel were the priests. They had responsibility for teaching Torah to Israelites. By the time of Jesus the scribes had largely supplanted the priests in this role, while the priests concentrated on ritual.

The important matter is to note that when an ancient Israelite asked how he or she should behave, the priest would point to the revealed Torah for answers.

The second source was what we might label the oral word of God. It was the word of God that came through dreams, visions, inspirations, or even the direct voice of God. It was the special province of Israel’s prophets.

Pemberton describes the prophets as resembling prosecuting attorneys. They were primarily concerned with challenging Israel for its failures in keeping God’s covenant, especially in fulfilling the two great commandments to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Their favored way of delivering their word was through oral sermons, oracles, and enacted parables.

The third source was what we might label the observed word of God. This was received through a careful study of God’s creation and especially the ways human beings lived in that creation. It was the special province of Israel’s sages.

Pemberton says that this wisdom coming from the sages was also regarded as part of God’s revealed word. “They accept these insights [coming from their observation] as normative and God-given, just as the prophet regards a vision and a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.” [Pemberton, page 9]

What this means is that theological discussion in Israel appeals to three and equal sources of authority: the written word of God, the oral word of God, and the observed word of God. The three supported, counter-balanced, and supplemented each other.

Attestation of the Three Authorities in Scripture

As evidence for this, Pemberton appeals to three passages in the Old and New Testaments. The first comes from Jeremiah. The prophet has offended the public with his largely negative message that Jerusalem will indeed fall to the Babylonians. In reaction some of the populace plots to silence him. He will not be missed, they say:

“Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah—for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.” [Jeremiah 18:18]

What Pemberton notes in this passage is the combination of priests, wise men, and prophets as sources of God’s word. None is given priority over the other.

This same linkage comes in a passage in the prophet Ezekiel. It likewise denounces the complacency of the Judahites as they face disaster before the Babylonians. Says Ezekiel:

Disaster comes upon disaster,

                        rumor follows rumor;

they shall keep seeking a vision from the prophet;

instruction shall perish from the priest,

                        and counsel from the elders. [Ezekiel 7:26]

Here again we see priest, prophet, and sage as equal sources for guidance from God.

Lest we think this is a purely Old Testament perspective, Pemberton then quotes Jesus in his denunciation of the hypocrisy of Pharisees, saying:

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth….[Matthew 23:34-35]**

Commenting on this tri-fold division in Israel’s mindset, Pemberton concludes: “The prophets, priests, and sages of Israel all served the same God. The Lord simply used them to provide a more robust theology, a fuller picture of the life of faith, and a sharper image of the God who is larger than any one portrait.” [Pemberton, page 14]

A Christian Application?

Pemberton goes on, however, to suggest that this three-fold source of authority may also provide a fruitful pattern for theological thinking among Christians. Who among persons or groups today most resemble each of the three ancient interpreters? For successors to the priests, he suggests pastors and preachers who look to Scripture for God’s word and guidance.

As for successors to the prophets, it becomes a bit trickier. Most Christians today do not generally trust persons who claim to see God or hear God speak directly to them. Rather he suggests we see the prophets’ successors as those who speak out on the prophets’ chief concerns which center on faithfulness to God and justice issues in society.

Lastly as successors to the sages, he suggests we might turn to counselors, therapists, and scientists who rely primarily upon personal experience, careful observation, and accumulated knowledge for their insights.

This last suggestion raises an important question for most Protestants. With our fundamentally Protestant conviction that all authority for theology rests in the Bible and in the Bible alone, Pemberton asks, how will we respond when modern-day sages show up at our doors? “Would we toss them aside as secular and irrelevant advocates of situational ethics? Or would we welcome them to the table? I regret to inform you that Proverbs will not let this question go unanswered.” [Pemberton, pages 13-14, italics his]

I will admit this is a question that I have seldom thought about before. Yet I can see that how we respond will indeed have a deep impact on how we do our theological thinking and preaching.

_________

* It is also worth noting that another piece of Old Testament wisdom literature is the Book of Job. It tells the story of a righteous man living in Uz. He is not an Israelite. Yet the issue under discussion in the book–why do the righteous suffer?–is one of the most troubling and profound not only in Jewish thought, but also in all human experience.

** As I read these passages I was reminded of the canonical structure of the Hebrew Bible. It is divided into three portions:

  • The Torah: The five books of Moses
  • The Nevi’im: The prophets (consisting of the historical books and the classic prophets),
  • The Ketubim: The writings where we find Israel’s literary works of wisdom (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) along with the Psalms and other assorted writings of the Hebrew Bible.

 

Our Ego and God’s Kingdom

Spiritual growth involves a surprising paradox.

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St. Martin’s Cross at Iona Abbey

As I read through some of the popular modern writers on the spiritual life (for example, Richard Rohr), I encounter a paradox that has baffled me.

These writers like to talk about the two stages in the spiritual life. In the first stage, normally associated with our youth and young adult years, our challenge is to develop a strong identity and a strong ego. This is very important, they say. We need a strong identity and ego in order to assume our proper place in life in our world.

But in the second half of our spiritual life, we are called upon to surrender if not our identity, then especially our ego. The second half of life is about letting go, letting go of everything we have worked so hard to acquire: our social achievements, our well polished skills, our professional competence, our wisdom and knowledge, and ultimately of our very body in death. This is necessary to rise to the fulfillment of our spiritual destiny.

As I said, I have found myself baffled by this paradox. If developing a strong ego is so important, then why is it imperative to surrender that ego in the second stage of life? Is that saying that these writers are engaged in a contradiction? In the end is our ego not as important to acquire as these writers say? How can I make sense of such talk?

I’ve wrestled with these questions for some time. Here’s how I came to a personal resolution for myself.

The Importance of the Ego

I think daily life as well as modern psychology both demonstrate the importance of young people developing a strong personal identity. Without such a strong identity, young people will prove unable to stand resolute when the gales of life, such as social and work pressure blow against them.

Along with that identity, young people need to develop their God-given talents and acquire the skills and knowledge they need to hold down jobs and invest themselves in service to the world. Education and training are of fundamental importance.

I argue that all of this is part of developing a strong ego. So what’s the problem with a strong ego? There is no problem with a strong ego per se. What becomes the problem is the ends to which we put that ego, with its talents, hard-won skills and knowledge. Do we use them all simply to advance our own well-being and self-aggrandizement?  If so, then we adopt a basic stance of ego-centrism in facing the world. Our lives are all about me and my well-being.

Or do we place our talents, our skills, and knowledge in service to a purpose beyond just our own well-being and self-aggrandizement? Do we marshal our identity into service to something that exceeds our own person? If we do not, then our egocentrism does indeed become an obstacle to growth, both in the spiritual life as well as in healthy human relationships.

That purpose that goes beyond our own welfare and enrichment may take many forms. It can be a devotion to a family, a business, a community, or a social or political cause. It can be a religious vocation. It often takes the form of patriotism or some form of nationalism. It is why when we become involved in a cause greater than ourselves, we can feel that our lives are more expansive, more meaningful.

Jesus’ Counsel

All this can be very good, but I think Jesus suggests that it does not go far enough. In all of these cases, devotion to a greater cause than ourselves can be corrupted into another form of egocentrism, as we try to impose our own vision and desires upon the cause we serve.

Jesus offers an alternative in his Sermon on the Mount when he preaches:

…strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [the necessities of life, like food and raiment] will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. [Matthew 6:33-34]

It does not seem to me that in this counsel Jesus is denying the importance of a strong ego, especially those talents, skills, and knowledge that we bring to our daily living. But he is directing us to put those assets to work in a cause greater than our own self-survival and enhancement. Place your life in service to God’s kingdom, says Jesus.

If we are serious in following his counsel, we will find that truly seeking the Kingdom of God constantly challenges our own conceptions and desires as to what serving the kingdom of God is. God defines the kingdom, not us, and what the kingdom needs. If we truly seek the kingdom of God first, we will constantly be challenged to subordinate our own ego needs and demands to that spiritual reality. And that will often be experienced as a form of death.

Yet the paradox is that as we consent to that kind of death of the ego, we find that our service brings the very enhancement of life that our ego so ardently desires and presumes it is giving up when it consents to its death.

Here it seems to me lies the resolution to the contradiction that I said has so baffled me.

______________

Author’s Note:  I think we can attribute the popularity of this vision of the two halves of the spiritual life to two important writers of the early 20thcentury. They are the psychiatrist Carl Jungand the scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Both writers have had a profound influence on conceptions of the spiritual life that we find reflected in popular writings today.

 

 

 

Paul’s Pious Phonies

Paul’s critique of religious hypocrisy has a contemporary bite.

Venice_Carnival_-_Masked_Lovers_(2010)

The word hypocrisy derives from the masks that actors once wore in drama.

You don’t get very far into the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans before you encounter his sharp critique of hypocritical Jews in chapter 2. Paul is severe on his fellow Jews who seem to elevate their noses as they assess the many failures and flaws of the Gentiles. We might call them Paul’s pious phonies.

These Jews take great pride that God’s Torah has been given to them. They therefore know God’s will. This gives them a sense that they hold a superior responsibility for instructing others in that truth. We hear that attitude coming through in this question posed by Paul:

…if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law [Torah] and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself?

Who do you think you are when you judge and condemn others, asks Paul, when you yourselves commit the very same sins? All you are doing, he contends, is storing up God’s judgment on yourselves.

A Pointed Message for Christians, Too

It’s a pretty devastating critique. Christians, however, have no reason to feel self-satisfied. If Paul were to visit most churches today, he might level the same charge against a good many Christians. We Christians have no grounds for feeling superior over our Jewish cousins, let alone unbelievers.

Many of us, like the Jews Paul critiques, hold this idea that we are in possession of the Truth, with a capital T. Therefore we have no hesitancy in telling others how to live. I know this because I grew up in just such a church environment. I was constantly being told what I should believe and how I should behave. Church members harbored no doubts about the truth because they were self-proclaimed Bible believers.

But many did not live by the standards they proclaimed, especially the very stringent standards they proclaimed about our sexual lives. Just witness the many TV evangelists over the last 40 years who have been caught up in sexual scandals. The same could be said about financial scandals or irresponsible fundraising.

It gets worse as we broaden our vision beyond the evangelical world in which I grew up. Just take the continuing revelations of sexual abuse that are rocking the Roman Catholic Church. Nor is it just ethical breaches we must note. We can also cite the extreme bitterness shown in local church and denominational fights over power to control church administration and to define doctrine. The picture is not pretty.

The consequence of this Jewish behavior, says Paul, is that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles. They violate the third commandment by making wrongful use of the name of the Lord. They bring a blemish on the good reputation of God.

The same can be said for Christian hypocrisy. Many atheists and agnostics cite the hypocrisy and judgmentalism of Christians as the primary reason they have no time for religion. It also underlies the attitudes of many today who claim to be spiritual, but not religious. Trust in religious institutions and religious leaders is low. It is not hard to find some of the compelling reasons why.

This should be a serious concern as Christians assess their own behavior as well as hold church authorities accountable.

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Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek.  Reproduced by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

 

 

The Setting-Things-Right God

The gospel releases divine power to set the world right.

I have led many adult Bible study classes. I have never, however, taught the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I have two good reasons.

First, the theology of Romans is dense. Paul manages to pack so much into the letter’s text. When I try to unpack it into easily digestible segments for an audience that has little or no knowledge of the Bible, it resists such a breakdown.

Second, many of the words Paul uses have a different emphasis in the Greek and Hebrew from their equivalent translations into English. The English words in our translations can therefore mislead, confuse, or even distort what Paul is saying.

One example is the word righteousnessas used in Romans 1:16-17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

The words righteous and righteousness are not common words in daily English conversation, at least not outside of church circles. When we do use them, we usually understand them to refer to something that is morally upright or virtuous.

For that reason, the words in English do not have an appealing emotional association. The most common use of the word righteous is in combination with the word self, creating the hyphen word self-righteous. Self-righteousness has the flavor of an alienating hypocrisy. Most often we hear it used in describing grim, buttoned-up religious folk.

If we have this idea of righteous in mind when we hear Paul talk about the righteousness of God, we are likely to be confused. It’s going to convey an idea of God in the negative sense of self-righteousness. This in turn feeds the common conception of God as a severe and demanding judge.

Exploring the Biblical Meaning of Righteousness

If we are going to understand these two crucial sentences of Paul, we must do some work exploring the meaning of righteousness in the wider context of the Bible. For we can be sure Paul is using it with its Biblical meaning front and center.

The Greek word that Paul uses that English translators translate as righteousness is the Greek word dikaiosune. It, too, is a translation for the Hebrew word tsedaqah. This Hebrew word can sometimes mean something that conforms to the moral character of God.

But with the Hebrew prophets it gains an extended meaning. When used of God, it refers to the work of God to establish justice in the land, especially on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged (summarized by the stock phrase the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien). In the intertestamental period, it also becomes associated with alms giving.

So the word righteousness comes to take on the meaning of God’s compassionate efforts to set things right in the world against all that fractures and corrupts God’s creation. It is, in short, a synonym for salvation. Salvation is also understood in the sense of restoring things as they should be, but presently are not.*

In Paul, this divine setting of things right is not limited to human individuals. It extends out to include society and the whole cosmos. God’s righteousness is God rescuing the whole creation from evil, corruption, and disintegration, and particularly rescuing humans from sin and death.**

Paul’s Confidence in the Gospel

With this understanding of the righteousness of God in mind, we can then begin to realize the astounding claim that Paul makes in Romans 1:16-17. In the gospel message about Jesus Christ, especially the message of his death and resurrection, we have revealed how God is at work to set things right in his troubled and corrupted creation. This is God coming to creation’s rescue or, to use a synonym, to creation’s salvation.

What Paul seems to be saying is that every time we preach the gospel, we are releasing God’s power into the world to continue that rescue mission–first in the lives of believing individuals and ultimately within the whole cosmos. It opens our eyes to see what we have always hoped for, but could not see: God compassionately coming to our rescue. In the words of the gospel hymn: I once was blind, but now I see.

That healing of our spiritual vision then allows us to begin to realign our own lives with the often hidden and seemingly humble work that God is performing in the world. We can begin to behave in ways that are consistent with how God is working to rescue us from the unseen powers and forces that keep human beings in bondage.

When we read Romans 1:16-17 in this light, we realize the immense confidence Paul has in the sheer preaching of the gospel. It is charged with power to change lives and even social settings.

But it seems to me that it only exercises this great power when the gospel we preach is not a message about God’s stringent demands for our strict ethical uprightness. This false preaching leads to a vision of God as an angry, vindictive judge whose goodwill we can never really count on. Rather if we would release the power of the gospel, it must be a gospel about God’s compassionate love for the world, a compassionate love that will go to the ultimate extreme to restore a corrupted world to health, wholeness, harmony, and abounding life.***

This gospel gives us a God whom we can love, adore, and trust because this is a God who is truly for us, not against us. Thanks be to God!

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* For the Biblical understanding of righteousness, I am particularly indebted to the entry on “righteousness” by N.H. Snaith in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, New York: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1950. Pages 202-204.

** The particular wording that I use in this sentence comes from N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. Page 399.

*** For my understanding of what constitutes the good news of the gospel, see my previous posting from February 14, 2016 titled Can You Summarize the Gospel in One Sentence?

 

 

 

Let All that Breathes Praise the Lord

Exuberant music must have filled temple worship.

Jan_van_Eyck_-_The_Ghent_Altarpiece_-_Singing_Angels_(detail)_-_WGA07642

The angelic choir from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, ca 1430.

If we are to believe the Old Testament psalms, exuberant music must have filled the air during temple worship.

Psalm 33, for example, issues its call to worship with these words:

Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous.

            Praise befits the upright.

Praise the LORD with the lyre;

            make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.

Sing to him a new song;

            play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.(Psalm 33:1-3)

Psalm 150 mentions the array of musical instruments that were used: trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, strings, pipes, and cymbals. Other psalms (e.g., Psalms 4795108,  150) bear witness that people joined in with singing, shouting, clapping, and dance. What an amazing sound must have arisen from the temple’s courts.

I am particularly struck by the mention of dance, something usually absent from Christian worship today. We must keep in mind that the people did not sit in pews when they came to worship at the temple. They would have stood in the temple courts and walked around during the sacrifices.

As the music mounted, I can well imagine that the people would have spontaneously begun to sway and move with the rhythms. We are even told that King David broke into ecstatic dance as a liturgical procession carried the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14-15).

In fact, I wonder if temple worship did not resemble more what happens in exuberant African-American worship services than in most of the churches I attend where worshippers sit motionless and rigid in hard, wooden pews.  African-American choirs sway and move in rhythm as they lift their voices in song.

A few other Protestant groups have also been noted for their physical movement in worship. It is the reason the Shakers got their name. Outsiders were struck by their practice of rhythmical movement in their worship times.

Today charismatic Christians sometimes revive the practice of dance. I once attended a charismatic Roman Catholic wedding. At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom did not race down the aisle as at most weddings I attend. Instead they led the congregation in a joyful dance weaving up and down the church’s three aisles. Most of the congregation stood in bewilderment. A few joined them, including myself. I thought their dance expressed the joy of the ceremony we had just witnessed.

Outside of Christian circles liturgical dance has often formed part of worship. One thinks of the circle dances performed by native Americans or by African tribal cultures.

Were Reformation reforms truly reforms?

During the Reformation church leaders of the Reformed tradition insisted that all practices of worship should have explicit scriptural sanction. It is the reason that Reformed congregations limited all singing in the church to the singing of metrical psalms. When hymn writers like Isaac Watts began to compose fresh, new hymns, many Reformed congregations were scandalized. They saw no place for “human songs” in divine worship.

I find it curious that with their insistence that all worship practices have scriptural warrant that Reformed church leaders never approved of the use of dance in worship. It certainly had scriptural warrant too, if we listen carefully to the psalms.

Probably that was because the Reformed tradition put such a premium on the service of the Word. Worship was centered around the reading of Scripture and its explication through the sermon. It was worship geared to the ear, not the feet. As a result, Reformed worship became very wordy and non-physical.

Though the Reformers may have thought they were purifying worship, in my opinion they were, in fact, impoverishing worship. They left no place for the body and the senses in worship. For me that comes across as a great loss, not an improvement.

I, therefore, welcome the return of exuberant music and dance into Christian worship. By temperament I gravitate to the majestic music of J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Wolfgang Mozart. (Their music, too, can be exuberant. Just listen to the Sanctus in Bach’s B-Minor Mass and you cannot help let your soul soar.)

But I also appreciate the role that rock bands, folk music, and jazz can play in worship today. They too are a way for people to praise the Lord in voices and styles expressive of who they are.

So in a time when many congregations fight battles over worship styles and music, I say, Let exuberance flourish. That is one message of the psalms. Let all who have breath praise the Lord!

Added Note:With all that I have just written about the role music, clapping, and dance played in temple worship, there is also some evidence in the psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament that periods of silence may have been a part of temple worship, too. Whether Psalm 62 is the voice of an individual or a group may be debatable, but Habakkuk 2:20 seems to be a very explicit reference to a role that silence played in the temple service:

But the LORD is in his holy temple;

                        let all the earth keep silence before him!

Worship today may need times for silence just as much as it needs times of joyful exuberance. We can think of silence and exuberance as the yin and yang of Christian worship.

Words, Words, Words

A psalm theme: The power of human language to do good and to do evil.

In the musical “My Fair Lady” there is a scene about three-quarters of the way through the play. A British aristocrat named Freddy Eynsford-Hill has fallen in love with Eliza Doolittle. He launches into a passionate love song to her.

She abruptly interrupts him, screaming (in lovely musical notes, of course):

Words, words, words, words.

I’m so sick of words.

I get words all the day, first from him and now from you…

If you are in love, show me.

 Those lyrics came to mind when I was recently reading Psalms 12and 15. We live in a society drowning in words. Words on TV, words in advertising, words in news media, words in political debate, words on Twitter and in e-mails, and constant daily conversations.

What Psalms 12 and 15 do is remind us of the power of those words, whatever our intent in speaking them. For example, Psalm 12 raises this lament about the unrighteous and their malevolent use of language:

They utter lies to each other;
    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
    the tongue that makes great boasts….(Psalm 12:2-3)

On the other hand, words also have beneficent power. Psalm 15 bears witness to that when it praises:

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
    and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
    and do no evil to their friends,
    nor take up a reproach against their neighbors….(Psalm 15:2-3)

When we read these sentiments, we should keep in mind that in ancient Israelite society the psalmists would have been thinking not primarily of the written word (important as it is), but of spoken words. Ancient societies were predominately oral societies.

That fact adds to the power of the psalmists’ assertions. When we speak, we communicate not only through the words we choose, but also through our pitch and tone of voice. The simple words “Don’t touch that” can be said matter of factly. Or they can be filled with a sense of menace depending upon the tone of voice we use.

The power of oratory

That’s why I think oratory has been such a powerful medium of communication through most of human history. It has been said, for example, that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, people said, “How well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes, the greatest orator of ancient Greece and the bitter opponent of King Philip of Macedon, finished speaking, people said, “Let’s march.” His words provoked action.

We saw the same thing happen in the 20thcentury with the oratory of Winston Churchill. In 1940 many people thought that it was inevitable that Great Britain would fall to the armies of Nazi Germany. It was just a matter of time.

They were wrong. Why? One reason is the bravery of the British Spitfire pilots. Another was the power of Churchill’s oratory. His words gave backbone to British morale. His words proved in the end powerful guns indeed.

We all know as well the power of oratory to be incredibly destructive. Oratory has the power to unleash forces of hate and violence that can wreak havoc with the lives of people and the peace of nations.

We need only turn again to World War II for the most revealing example. Would there have even been a war if it were not for the powerful oratory of Adolph Hitler? His words played a key role in unleashing the forces of hatred and genocide that marked that long conflict.

Other psalms decry the wicked engaging in violence and murder. But what Psalm 12 does is make clear that what precedes such violence is malicious and deceitful speech.

Biblical wisdom for Americans

This is an important message that I believe all Americans need to take to heart. We take great pride in our First Amendment right to free speech. That is a precious freedom. If we as a society are to establish wise policies that support the well-being and prosperity of all our citizens, we must ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard.

We also need to remember that our right of free speech carries with it a heavy responsibility if we are not to let our words destroy us. We can do great harm by deceitful, hateful, and intemperate speech. How many marriages or families have been torn apart by an argument that got out of hand or by an insult that was said in high anger?

We are seeing a lot of angry, intemperate speech in our society today, spoken not only by politicians, but also by ordinary citizens. That speech, wherever it comes from, works to deepen distrust among us.

As a result, too many of us, I believe, are beginning to question that we can ever know the truth. In John’s gospel account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, we hear Pilate ask cynically, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) He apparently thinks it is impossible to know the truth. One hears similar sentiments today when we hear a politician say on TV that truth isn’t truth.

So if we cannot know the truth, how do we resolve conflicts? By naked power. Whoever is strongest gets the privilege of defining truth. This is something post-modernism constantly asserts.

I think, however, we need to be cautious if we buy into such an assertion. If we act as if all truth claims are simply disguised power plays, then I believe we are planting dragon seeds. We must not be surprised then when dragons begin to roam our society.