The Lament Psalms

The Bible’s sanction for bringing our rawest feelings to God.

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Among people who do not read the Bible often, there is a misconception that the Book of Psalms is a collection of praise songs and thanksgivings. The reality is different. A large number of them are poems of complaint and sorrow.

Scholars call these songs the lament psalms. In them the psalmist (or the assembly that sings or chants them) cries out in anguish to God. The anguish may well up from a threatening situation in the psalmist’s life, such as a serious illness that looks as if it is going to be fatal (Psalm 38) or a bout of depression (Psalm 88)*.

More often the anguish is a result of cruelty or injustice that the psalmist is experiencing. The injustice may be a betrayal by a psalmist’s best friend (Psalm 55). Or it may be vicious gossip that one’s neighbors are spreading in the community (Psalm 109). Or it may be ambushes or violence that one is suffering in the streets (Psalms 56 and 64).

The source of the anguish may not, however, be personal. It may be national. It may be the exploitation of the poor and marginalized by the powerful classes in society (Psalm 109). Or it may arise from the devastation brought upon the land by foreign invaders (Psalms 74 and 79). Or by a threat to annihilate Israel (Psalm 83).

Though many, the sources of the anguish all stir up a desperate cry to God that often begins with words like these:

How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

            and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)

Language of Shocking Violence

What is so disconcerting about these lament psalms is the violent language the psalmist uses in regard to his enemies. He curses his enemies and cries out to God to wreak revenge on those who are attacking and oppressing him.

A good example is Psalm 109. Here the psalmist’s enemies are maligning his reputation in the community. They speak hate. They spread lies. They say to themselves:

Appoint a wicked man against him;

            let an accuser stand on his right.

 When he is tried, let him be found guilty;

            let his prayer be counted as sin.

May his days be few;

            may another seize his position.

May his children be orphans,

            and his wife a widow.

May his children wander about and beg;

            may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.

May the creditor seize all that he has;

            may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.

May there be no one to do him a kindness,

            nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. (Psalm 109:7-12)

The psalmist takes up their very words and turn them against them. He asks God to bring the same fate upon them and their families. We are in the realm of something approaching a blood feud.

In Psalm 137, the hatred of the psalmist is turned against the Babylonians who have leveled the city of Jerusalem and killed or exiled its population. The psalmist reaches a climax in his hatred when he wishes that some other invader will come and dash the babies of the Babylonians against the rocks just as the Babylonians did to the Judean babies.

This is strong stuff. Many of us recoil against such bitter prayers. So much so that many churches will ban the lament psalms, especially the cursing psalms, from recitation in their liturgies. Others will exclude them from published editions of the psalms.

There is a danger in this banning, as the writer Kathleen Norris reminds us all in a beautiful essay on the psalms.** These lament psalms bear witness to the fact that life is full of suffering, pains, and injustice. She quotes a Benedictine nun, who once said, “The human experience is full of violence, and the psalms reflect our experience of the world.”***

If we are to have an authentic worship life, we cannot ignore the hatred and injustice in the world, especially within our own inner selves. That is the rationale for beginning a worship service with a confession of sin. We come before God with mixed emotions. We are people of light anddarkness. People of love and, yes, hatred. That is our reality.

Retaining Laments in Our Worship

Keeping the lament psalms in our liturgies and in our Bibles does raise the question: How do we deal with these difficult and emotionally complex psalms? How do we integrate them with the admonition of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? Let me say a few things about how I handle these psalms.

One, the lament psalms give us sanction, I believe, to bring our rawest feelings into our relationship with God. The words of these psalms are strong, but they do reflect our most painful experiences. When we try to suppress these strong feelings from our consciousness, we drive them into our unconsciousness where they can fester and wreak havoc with our lives. This is the very personal experience of military veterans suffering from PTSD.

The first step to healing is to bring our most troubling feelings into the open. And the lament psalms provide a model for doing so.

This does not mean that God–or we–may fully approve of the feelings we are releasing. There may be morally troubling aspects with those feelings. But we cannot deal with feelings that remain buried and hidden from sight.

The lament psalms in fact gives words for expressing feelings we may not yet be able to articulate for ourselves. I’ve been told that after the event of September 11, 2001, many churches who incorporated lament psalms into their liturgies of sorrow and remembrances found those very psalms expressed best what many in the congregation were feeling. The language of the lament psalms remains relevant over and over again.

Prayers of Violence Directed to God

Two, we need to notice that the lament psalms are usually addressed to God. That means they are prayers. That’s very important in my book.

The psalmist is expressing raw feelings, but he is expressing them to God, not directly to his enemies. He may be wanting God to act on his violent requests. But when we bring our violent feelings to God, we may be surprised with God’s response.

God may choose not to act on our requests, for to do so would violate his own character as a loving Father. Instead God may in a sense say to us, “Now that you’ve brought your desires to me, let’s begin to work on them. Let me begin to heal them.” That can happen by God bringing us into a change of perspective that ends up in transforming our desires and feelings.

We see this very action modeled in Psalm 73. The psalmist begins with a lament about how the wicked seem to experience no negative consequences from their evil actions. They seem to prosper and enjoy health and public esteem. How unfair!

Then the psalmist says he walked into the sanctuary of God (Psalm 73:17). There he underwent a change of perspective. He saw how God had set them in slippery places and how they can be destroyed in a moment.

As a result, he undergoes a dramatic change of attitude.

When my soul was embittered,

            when I was pricked in heart,

I was stupid and ignorant;

            I was like a brute beast toward you.

Nevertheless I am continually with you;

            you hold my right hand. (Psalm 73:21-23)

Our lament prayers may begin the first steps in a purification process that leads to a dramatic reversal in our feelings and attitudes. At the end of the process, we may recognize how foolish we were in all the revenge we begged God for. Prayer can indeed be a transforming power, transforming us rather than our enemies.

Songs of Solidarity

Lastly, it is important too to note that most of the psalms are meant to be sung or chanted in a community of faith. Even when the psalmist speaks in the first person singular, scholars point out that we cannot always be sure if the “I” of the psalm is meant to be just an individual speaking or is a communal “I”. Is the “I” really meant to be the voice of “We”?

That is important to remember when someone complains about the lament psalms that they do not express what he or she is feeling that day. But the psalms are expressing the feelings that other members of our faith community may be feeling or that believers may be feeling somewhere else in the world. By reciting these psalms in our liturgies, we acknowledge our solidarity with believers not only who are rejoicing, but also suffering grievous sorrow and injustice.

They also tend to draw us into an awareness of how we participate not only in suffering with others, but also inflicting suffering on others. Kathleen Norris says this in a striking way.

The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values.****

So do you still want to ban the lament psalms from your worship and Bible study? I for one do not. They prevent my religion from becoming a form of escapist fantasy. They keep me grounded into real life. And it is only there that I can cultivate a wholesome relationship with God and with my neighbor.

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* Psalm 88 is unique among the psalms. A deeply anguished psalmist cries out to God, but he seems to have no expectation that God will come to his rescue. The final line is the most despairing in all the psalms:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.

** “The Paradox of the Psalms,” in Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk. New York:Riverhead Books, 1987.

*** Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 97.

**** Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 103.

 

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Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?

Close reading Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus challenges a customary interpretation.

No New Testament text has held a more prominent place in my childhood religious upbringing than John 3:1-21. It recounts a conversation Jesus holds with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus.

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A high Celtic cross at Iona Abbey, Scotland.

What my childhood churches latched onto in this dialogue was what Jesus says in verse 3. (It was always read in the King James Version.)

Jesus answered, and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Jesus then repeats what he says in an expanded way in verse 5:

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

 These two verses became the proof texts for the constantly repeated claim that unless a person was born again, no one could hope to enter into heaven when one died. This conviction gave punch to many an evangelistic appeal.

Furthermore, the born-again experience was understood as denoting a conversion experience where one confessed one’s sins and accepted Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Only if one had undergone such a conversion could one be assured that one would be saved at the Last Judgment.

It was generally assumed that this conversion experience would also be dramatically emotional. It would provide an intense sense of relief from guilt followed by a deep assurance of peace. The words of hymnody often described the experience best: Once I was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

This kind of preaching troubled me as a youth. I had not experienced any such dramatic conversion. Did that mean I was not born again? Such questioning triggered many fears.

As a result, I have long wrestled with this text. Did my religious upbrining understand John 3:1-21 correctly? There is an element of mystery about the words Jesus speak. Could Jesus mean something different from the customary interpretation I was taught as a child?

From my wrestling with this text, I have come to believe that the customary interpretation is a shallow understanding of Jesus’ message. There is much, much more to what he is saying.

Paying Close Attention to the Words

A close reading of the text demands that we give acute attention to the exact words Jesus uses. For example, his comments concern seeing or entering the kingdom of God.* The customary interpretation assumes this phrase means heaven, the place where God, the angels, and saints live.

But that is not the primary meaning of kingdom of God in the New Testament. The English phrase translates the Greek words basileia tou theou. Basileia does not denote the land or state ruled over by a king. Rather it refers to the king’s authority or power as king. A more correct translation would be kingship. That is why many modern English translations render it reign of God.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) kingdom of God is linked to God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. This parallelism is important to understanding the terminology. God’s kingdom is the reality of living harmoniously within God’s will. Certainly God’s will is fully realized in heaven. But Jesus’ message** is that the time has arrived when that will is going to be fully realized on earth as well.

The import of Jesus’ words is not about the prospect of going to heaven when one dies, but the prospect of living under God’s kingship here and now.

The next two words I note is that Jesus talks about seeing and entering the kingdom of God. Seeing is about perceiving. How can we perceive the kingship of God at work in the world and in our own lives here and now?

The general assumption of humanity is that as we look at the affairs (the often chaotic affairs) of the world in which we live, we see no evidence of God being present or at work. Rather everything usually looks out of control. How can Jesus say otherwise?

When Jesus talks about entering the kingship of God, he is talking about how we can truly experience that we are living under the beneficent rule and providence of God. How can we come to live in submissive harmony with the will of God?

Ambiguous Word

The answer Jesus gives to both questions is that we must be born anothen. Anothen is a Greek adverb that can mean both 1) again, and 2) from above. Because it can have both meanings, it is an ambiguous word. Jesus may use it because he intends both meanings. There must be a new beginning to life, but it is a new beginning coming from divine rather than human initiative.

That becomes clear from the context. Nicodemus assumes anothen means again. So he asks how a grown man can enter his mother’s womb and be born again. He assumes anothen has one and only meaning.

But verse 5 demonstrates that Jesus understands anothenprimarily as meaning from above. He does this by saying a man must be born of water and the Spirit. We are clearly dealing with a kind of spiritual birth or beginning. That becomes even clearer as Jesus then goes on to talk about the invisible wind blowing where it will. The Greek word for wind (pneuma) is also the Greek word for spirit. The critical term anothen has a dual meaning, but the spiritual meaning is primary in this discourse.

So to summarize Jesus’ statements, if one is to perceive the kingship of God in the world and to live harmoniously within it, one must undergo a spiritual initiation analogous to a natural birth.

New Birth as Spiritual Awakening

What is this new birth? I have come to believe it is a form of spiritual awakening by which a person gains the capability of perceiving God’s kingship in the world and living within it. This awakening involves a transformation in consciousness. It places within a person a kind of spiritual sense organ that allows one to perceive and enter into the world of the divine spirit.

What am I talking about? Let me turn to another analogy to explain. We now know that radio waves fill the atmosphere. They did so even before human beings came to discover them. But human beings could not tap into those radio waves and use them for communication until we developed the instruments to transmit and receive radio waves.

God’s kingship is a reality in the universe. But we do not perceive it and we do not come to live harmoniously within it until we receive the spiritual sense organ for such perception. That sense organ is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

The Spirit is a gift, a gift from God, not our achievement. Entering into the realm of God’s kingship is always a gift. That is the significance of using anothen with the meaning from above.

Jesus’ words also suggest that that gift has a beginning point. It is analogous to a birth. But Jesus’ words do not imply how that initiation happens, except for the ambiguous phrase of water and the Spirit(more on that in my next blog posting). Nor does the initiation confer spiritual maturity. The initiation launches us on the spiritual journey, but we must go deep into that journey to attain spiritual maturity.

So what do I end up with as I read this passage? I hear Jesus saying that in order to enter into life under the kingship of God we must be lifted up into a spiritual plane. That lifting up does not abolish our life in the flesh, but adds a more profound spiritual reality to our life. The gospel writer John will call that spiritual life eternal life.

Does what I have written mean that I’ve plumbed the mystery of this text? No. It remains a mysterious text. But that mystery also cautions me to be careful in how I read it. It will always evade a simple understanding.

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* Interestingly, these two verses are the only two places in the Gospel of John that the gospel writer uses the phrase kingdom of God. This phrase is used profusely in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but except for these two verses, it is found nowhere else on the lips of Jesus in John.

** Mark 1:15summarizes Jesus’ preaching as: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospe

The Siren Call of Fame

Fame issues a bogus promise of immortality.

The Bible’s authors and editors have a predisposition to juxtapose stories that they want us to read in dialogue with each other.

A wonderful example occurs in Mark 10:35-52. This passage recounts two stories about Jesus. The first (Mark 10:35-45) tells of an occasion when James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left when he enters into his glory. The second (Mark 10:46-52) tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man named Bartimaeus on the outskirts of Jericho.

I believe that Mark wants us to hear these two stories in juxtaposition. Why? Because of a phrase that Jesus asks in each story. When he is approached by James and John, Jesus asks: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:36) When Bartimaeus shouts to get Jesus’ attention and Jesus stops to talk with him, Jesus asks the very same question: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:51).

This repeated question links the two stories together. Mark wants us to reflect on the very different answers the three people give. In particular, the answer Bartimaeus gives throws a whole different light on the answer James and John give.

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America’s tower: The Empire State Building in New York City.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Tower of Babel

Another example occurs in the Book of Genesis with the two stories of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). I believe the editors of Genesis want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition, too. Let me explain why.

The story of the Tower of Babel tells of an effort by a group of people in the plain of Shinar who set out to build a city. Its crown jewel will be a tower which will extend its top into heaven.

What fascinates me in this story is their motivation. They say they want to make a name for themselves because they are afraid that they will be scattered upon the face of the earth. In response to this fear they launch a huge public works endeavor.

How does building a name for themselves protect them from being scattered? The way I understand the link is by seeing the fear of scattering as a stand-in for the fear of death.  What the people of Babel are really afraid of is the oblivion that follows upon death. After we have been dead two or three generations, who will remember us? Will we not all sink into that great mass of humanity who have died and been forgotten?

How can we prevent that?  By creating such a great name and reputation that people will continue to remember us and talk about us long after we have died. We thereby gain a measure of immortality by our continuing fame.

We see another example of this craving for a measure of immortality in the heroes that Homer celebrates in The Illiad. The warriors in that epic share the same value system as does Achilles. Achilles is offered a choice. He can live a long and prosperous life in rural obscurity. Or he can live a short life but one made shining and glorious by his constantly celebrated deeds as a warrior.

Achilles chooses the latter option. He does obtain a measure of immortality. His deeds continue to be celebrated down through the centuries of Greek history as they are sung by bards like Homer. His fame continues even unto today.*

This hope that fame will confer on us some measure of immortality makes its promises so seductive. So we spend a great deal of energy and resources on our quest for our own celebration in the realm of public opinion and the organs of the news media. I ask if it is not this same quest for immortality that Achilles and the residents of Babel crave, a quest that fuels so much of our own society’s obsession with publicity.

In the end the quest of the people of Babel is thwarted. Not only does God block the building of their tower, but also their search for fame. The text does not remember any name of the tower’s builders other than telling us they lived in the plain of Shinar.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Call of Abraham

Now let us turn to the story of the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). Abraham (then named Abram) is living in obscurity in the region of Haran when he receives a call from God. God calls him to leave his country, his family, and his native culture and migrate to a land that God will show him.

If Abram will obey God’s command, then God makes some extravagant promises to him. First, God will make him into a great nation. Second, God will bless Abram (which as the story unfolds we learn includes great prosperity). Third, God will make Abram’s name great. And fourth, God will use Abram to bring a blessing upon all peoples of the earth.

These are extravagant promises. They represent all the great dreams and cravings of kings and other potentates through the ages. These powers have exhausted immense resources in order to acquire just these desirables.

But what catches my eye when I read this story is that third promise from God. God promises to make Abram’s name great. This was the great longing of the people of Babel when they launched their tower. Abram is promised this great blessing with an amazing fame that will indeed extend down through generations upon generations and throughout the earth.

God, however, invites Abraham not to seek this blessing by his own initiative. Abraham is not instructed to go and do great deeds that will rebound with praise among the people around him, especially great deeds in war or business. Instead Abraham is invited to simply respond to God in obedience to his command to go on an undoubtedly risky venture.

Abraham does obey. The text states that obedience in one short sentence. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him( Genesis 12:4). God lives up to his promise. Abraham is today one of the most remembered and celebrated names in human history and the great hero of faith in three world religions. He is granted that measure of immortality that the people of Babel (and the heroes ofThe Illiad) so craved.

 Stories that Probe Our Inner Spirit

What links the stories of the Tower of Babel and the call of Abraham is this repeated theme of making a great name for one’s self. That theme figures prominently in both stories. That fact, I contend, is the signal to us that the editors want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition.

What these two stories can do together is provoke us to think as well about our true motivations for doing the things we do in our own lives. Are we motivated by a desire to make a great reputation for ourselves that will establish, for example, our superior status in the community? If so, are we falling for the bogus promise that the siren goddess sings.

Or are we motivated by other factors: our genuine desire to be of service to God or to the community. Or by our sheer delight and joy in doing the things that give us delight and joy regardless of whether we win recognition for what we do or not?

This is how I find reflecting on these two stories from Genesis shines a probing light on my own inner spirit.

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* Achilles has a very different take on his choice when Odysseus encounters him in the land of the dead in the eleventh chapter of The Odyssey. When Odysseus points out to Achilles his great fortune in holding such a renowned reputation as a warrior on earth, Achilles protests that he would rather be a plough man on earth working for a poor farmer than lord over this collection of dead warriors, which Achilles calls “used-up men.”

Darkness Is My Only Companion

Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament like no other.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

Welcome the Wilderness

When the Israelites leave Egypt, they take the long route to Canaan for some very good reasons.

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Former monk cells carved into the volcanic rock of the Cappadocian wilderness of Turkey.

Exodus 13:17-18 tells us that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not permit them to take the shortest route to Canaan. That way would have been the road that followed the Mediterranean coast into the Gaza region of Canaan. The trip would have taken only weeks.

Exodus anachronistically calls this road the way of the Philistines. It was the historic route that travelers, merchants, and armies followed in making the trek from Egypt to Syria and beyond. It was therefore heavily guarded by Egyptian garrisons.

Exodus tells us that God was afraid the newly freed Israelites would come into conflict with one of these armed camps and lose heart. They might just then return to Egypt. Instead God directs them into a more roundabout route through the heart of the Sinai wilderness. The journey to Canaan ends up taking 40 years.

I think, however, the Biblical text gives only one part of God’s rationale in making this change of course. There is much more going on in those 40 years than just avoiding skirmishes with Egyptian troops.

The Wilderness as a Place of Testing

For one, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery in Egypt. They have experienced a totally unexpected liberation, thanks to an unbelievable act of God’s grace. But now who is this God who has set them free? What is his character? Can he be trusted always to be for them?

The Israelites need time and experience to come to know this God who has called them. So the years of wandering in the wilderness become a time of testing, as Israel tests God to see if God will provide for them and guide them. There will be much wavering along the way. It takes time, truly a lot of time, to come to have a deep trust in this God.

In a similar way, God does not fully know who this people are whom he has just liberated from Egypt. Will they trust him? Will they follow his guidance? Or will they fight him and vex him?

Over the 40 years God will learn much about this people. He will learn that they are a mixed bag of faith and fear. One day they will covenant with God and promise to have no other god before them. The next day they will give way to anxiety and grumble about God and Moses. On occasion they will even break their promises and flirt with other gods.

In the first years of any marriage, a husband and wife are engaged in a process of coming to know each other more deeply. Will this deeper knowledge lead to greater commitment or to new alienation? Will they be able to love each other despite the flaws and failures they find in each other?

In a comparable way God and Israel are coming to know each other during those long 40 years in the desert. This process of coming to know each other takes on more intimacy because in the desert the people are deprived of the many distractions that go with urban life in a city or with rural life in a settled agricultural community. In an environment of deprivation, the partners must deal directly with each other.

Understanding this about the 40 years of wilderness wandering gives insight into the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ temptation after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). The texts say this time of temptation was 40 days long. It took place in the wilderness.

The gospel writers are clearly looking backwards at the exodus story. Just as Israel faced a time of testing in the desert, so must Jesus as he makes an exodus journey in his own life. Can God count on Jesus or not? Can Jesus count on his heavenly Father? Only a time of testing will demonstrate.

The Wilderness as the Place of Nation-Building

There is, I believe, a second important reason why Israel must spend 40 years in the wilderness.

When the Israelites fled Egypt, they experienced the giddy exuberance of a long-desired freedom from oppression. You hear their giddiness in the joyful song that Moses and the Israelites sing in Exodus 15.

But this mass of freed slaves is still just a disorganized rabble. The Israelites need a national structure that will give them an identity and a stability that will enable the work of national development to proceed. Without some organizing focus, this rabble will fly in all directions and dissipate as a people.

God clearly understands this need. He sets out to give Israel this organizing focus through the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In its wake come two important gifts. The gift of torah law will give structure to Israel’s corporate life. The gift of the tabernacle and priesthood will give it a focus for its worship.

With these gifts God begins the hard work of replacing a slave’s mindset with the mindset of a people who can confidently take responsibility for their life under God’s rule. In short, this is the task of nation building, a necessary task after any revolution.

As we Americans should especially know, nation building is not a quick and easy task. It takes time and constant vigilance. It is especially challenging to change a people’s mindset. But without that change, the risk of the people surrendering their freedom and returning to the patterns of Egyptian oppression is very high.

With freedom also comes anxiety. Too many people find the pain of anxiety so high that they will willingly surrender that freedom to someone who will relieve them of that pain.  Israel will prove just as vulnerable to that temptation as have been many peoples in history since.

The 40 years Israel spends in the wilderness constitute a noble effort to accomplish this important change of mindset. In the terms of Christian spirituality, we call that change conversion.

The result is decidedly mixed. When Israel finally enters Canaan, it will fall prey over and over again to the appeal of an Egyptian pattern of living. Yet Israel will never completely forget its calling. Its prophets will repeatedly remind the Israelites of what a converted life looks like. And Israel will seek to reform over and over again.

The Wilderness as Model for Our Spiritual Journey

Here is the power of the exodus story as a model of the spiritual journey for anyone who sincerely seeks to engage in that journey. The journey may begin with baptism or an emotional altar call response or simply a serious though rational decision for God. But however the journey begins, the start is just that, a start. The spiritual journey of conversion always remains a journey. And for all of us it takes a lifetime and then beyond to complete.

If we are serious about this journey, the exodus story tells us that periods of living in the desert are necessary stages on that journey. Those experiences deprive us of the distractions of ordinary, daily life. We can then concentrate our attention on the Lord and our life with him. In the process we hope to experience that deeper conversion of life to which the Lord calls us.

This is why the early monastic movement began in the Egyptian, Syrian, and Anatolian wilderness. The first monks fled the Greco-Roman cities for the desert exactly to escape the distractions of city life so they could concentrate their energies on their spiritual growth and maturation. In their desert cells and communities, the monks sought to become deeply converted men and women. Once that conversion was advanced, some might safely return to life in the city, there to live and serve without succumbing to a Egyptian mindset.

Though many people may not explicitly realize it, it is why spiritual retreats hold such appeal. When we go on retreat, we are returning in a sense to the desert to refocus our lives free of the distractions of our daily living. Most retreats are short in duration and so may not lead to any deep conversion. But they still give us a taste of the blessing of detachment.

This is also I believe the appeal of contemplative prayer for many people today. As we enter into the silence of contemplative prayer, we too experience a kind of return to the desert, a spiritual desert where we seek to be free of our distracting thoughts, emotions, and verbosity so we can simply be with the Lord and come to know him as he knows us.

So let us welcome the wilderness experiences in our lives. They bring their own special blessings.

 

Truth Beyond Understanding

Rationality has its limits as a way of knowing reality.

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The south transept rose window of Chartres Cathedral–for me a visual symbol of trans-rational knowing.

I am glad that the canon of the Bible includes the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Its weary skepticism provides a needed antidote to the many times we get way too confident in talking about our faith.

Towards the very end of his book, the author (known as Qoheleth, the Preacher) expresses this opinion: Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Recently I find myself saying with him: Amen.*

I have spent a good part of my life studying the Christian faith, reading theology, pondering the Bible, all in an effort to make rational sense out of this faith that I inherited from parents and the religious culture in which I grew up. In particular, I’ve wanted to see if I could separate the distortions in what I was taught from the pure truth of the gospel.

I’ve then in turn devoted great energy to sharing my discoveries with others, through preaching, teaching, writing, conversations, and even this blog.

And yet that pure, unadulterated grasp of the truths of Christianity still exceeds me. The faith I study so diligently continues to hold mysteries, paradoxes, and puzzles that I cannot resolve.

Especially puzzling are the mysterious ways God works in God’s world, ways that seem to refuse to yield to rational comprehension. This is no new insight on my part. It is the old, old message of the Book of Job in the Bible. Job resonates with anyone who tries to discern where God is at work in times of unspeakable tragedy.

What all this does for me is underscore the fact that the truth for which we long seems to exceed our rational ability to grasp it. This is not to say that truth is irrational. Neither is it rational. Rather, I have come to believe, it is trans-rational. It eludes any rational attempt to understand it or cage it in human words.

Trans-rational knowing

Can we know the truth? Yes, I continue to hope that we can, but we must approach it in a trans-rational way. What is that way? I concede that I don’t know.

That’s because it is likely to be far different from the way of knowing that we are taught in our schools, a way of knowing that goes back to the Greek philosophers and scientists that lie at the start of the Western cultural tradition. The Greek tradition assumes that the truth is an objective it that can be grasped intellectually and expressed in rational propositions. Its reward is the gift of an intellectual certainty on which we can build a secure base for our lives.

When I try to guess what this trans-rational way of knowing looks like, I am brought back to those lines in Psalm 27 where the psalmist writes:

Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,

            be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

            Your face, LORD, do I seek.

         Do not hide your face from me.(Psalm 27:7-9)

The psalmist, it seems to me, here describes a way of knowing God that he metaphorically calls seeing God face-to-face. It is a kind of knowing that is direct and deeply relational. It is a way of knowing that is hard to express in words because it is so deeply direct and relational. Yet it is still a way of knowing the Truth (with a capital T), which turns out to be not a proposition, but a deeply personal One.**

If what I say is correct, then I think we must take seriously the contemplative and mystical traditions of Christianity. For it is the mystics who bear witness to this kind of trans-rational knowing. The mystics claim that they have come to know the One, but they struggle to find words to express that quality of knowing.

Words cannot express their experience adequately. And so the words they do write can sound awfully befuddling to one who has not had their experience. Sometimes, as a result of their experiences, the mystics may abandon writing words completely. One can know what they have experienced, they say, only by experiencing it for oneself.

For me the best exemplar of this is Thomas Aquinas. There are few theologians who have relied more upon reason to express the truths of the Christian faith systematically or written more voluminous books. Of Aquinas’ scholarship, it can truly be said there was much making of books.

The trans-rational experience of Thomas Aquinas

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Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274

One of his companions reports, however, that towards the end of Aquinas’ life, Thomas heard Jesus speak to him during mass, saying “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas replied: “Nothing but you, Lord.”

It seems that afterwards he experienced some kind of spiritual vision or ecstasy. Aquinas never shared precisely the details of what he experienced. But it dramatically changed the course of his work. He stopped writing and never wrote again during the remaining months of his life.

When his confessor urged him to take up his writing again, Aquinas responded: “Reginald, I can do no more. Such secrets were revealed to me that all I have written now appears of little value.”

When I read this account, I find myself asking: In his mystical experience, did Aquinas move into that realm of trans-rational knowing where he perceived the inadequacy of words to express the Truth he had come to know directly and relationally?

There comes, it seems to me, a point in the life of any scholar (as it seems to have come in my own) when one must finally admit that reason alone cannot ultimately answer all the questions we bring to our study of life and the world.

To continue to trust in reason alone is to imprison oneself within the constantly fluctuating world of scholarly opinion or to experience emotional burnout as one seeks a certainty that constantly eludes us. What is given in this trans-rational way of knowing is not intellectual certainty, but a connection to the Truth that serves as an anchor through all the vicissitudes of life.

If we cannot make the leap into trans-rational knowing, then maybe it is wisdom indeed to follow the further advice of Qoheleth: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.(Ecclesiastes 12:13). And for most of us that may indeed be the way of wisdom in our daily living.

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* In recent months I have been experiencing severe pain in my neck. The doctor says the pain results from hyper-stressed neck muscles. The cause, he says, is the head posture I assume when I am doing my reading and writing. The making (and reading) of many books, it seems, can indeed become a pain in the neck.

** I say the One (with a capital O), because I am trying to express the idea that the Truth is not an impersonal It. But another way of saying it is to say that the Truth we seek to know is a Thou. That is the way Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, expresses it in his book I and Thou. This is a book (among the making of many books) that has had a deep influence on my thinking.