Ascent: Psalm 131

Jane_in_my_arms

Psalm 131

Lord, I am not high-minded;
I have no proud looks.
I do not exercise myself in great matters
which are too high for me.

But I refrain my soul, and keep it low,
like as a child that is weaned from his mother;
yea, my soul is even as a weaned child.

O Israel, trust in the Lord
from this time forth forevermore.

~

I love this psalm. Charles Spurgeon said of it that it is one of the shortest psalms to read and one of the longest to learn. It’s deceptive in its simplicity. Or perhaps it’s that its very simplicity makes it inordinately difficult for those of us who don’t live as weaned children in relation to God.

I must confess that I am high-minded, and sometimes I’m proud of my high-mindedness, as if it makes me a special species of human, the depth of the thoughts I think. They impress me, anyway, those thoughts. Which recognition alone ought to give me pause and induce me to lower my gaze—or at least laugh at myself!

I must also confess that I frequently exercise myself in matters too great for me. It’s a cultural tendency. We set ourselves up as prosecutor, judge, and jury (just spend a few moments on Twitter and see what I mean) without stopping to consider the insane arrogance of such a presumption, to remember how very little we know—how very little we are—and thus how utterly unqualified we are to render any kind of judgment, let alone a just one.

This psalm helps shrink us back to size; it restores us to a proper perspective. It reminds us who we are and Whose we are: we are a weaned child and we belong to God.

A weaned child is small, not totally helpless, but mostly helpless. She can do some things: walk, run, say a few words, smile, laugh, hug, hit. But most things she cannot do: read, count, reason, make her own food, walk very far. She is dependent on older, more capable people for her life and well-being. In all this we are like weaned children in relation to God.

Small children also have a limited scope of interest. They live in the immediate, the present, wholly absorbed by what is here, now. In this way also we are to be like weaned children, living in the present moment, not fearing the future or recalling the past (except as it brings us pleasure).

But there is something more, and more profound: a weaned child adores her mother. I have four children, and all of them adored me. I hope they adore me still, but if they do it is a different sort of adoration than they had when they were small. That was the adoration of trust, simple and genuine and without reservation. I was the well-spring of their beings and the source of their continued life, not because they fed on my body as they had when they were babies but because they relied upon me to care for them and love them, to provide food when they were hungry, hold them when they were scared or hurt, bathe them when they were dirty, and sing them to sleep when they were tired. I was never far from their thoughts, for I was the fundamental fact of their existence, which tethered their lives to mine in a bond of love and trust.

It is in this way that we, too, are to be as weaned children with our Lord. We are to adore Him as a small child adores his mother. Evelyn Underhill, in The Spiritual Life, says adoration is

A confident reliance on the immense fact of His presence, everywhere and at all times, pressing on the soul and the world by all sorts of paths and in all sorts of ways, pouring out on it His undivided love.

Over the past year I have come to believe—no, it’s deeper than belief—I have come to know that we cannot trust God or grow in His grace and goodness unless we receive His love. It sounds so simple, and it is. But we live much of our lives turned inward, looking at ourselves, like turtles in our shells, and God’s ever-present love falls on our hard hearts and runs off like rain off a rock. Eventually, if it rains hard enough and long enough, the rock will wear away, but in the meantime, we are trapped in the smallness of our own lives, our own frightened and loveless existence.

I see this every week in my own children who are still young enough to curl up in little balls when they are hurt or angry or ashamed. I know that ball, from the inside. It is self-loathing and self-pity and self-justification. It is anger and defensiveness and shame. All I can do when they are armored like this, curved in on themselves, their knees to their chests, their hearts in hiding, is lie beside them and love them until they relax their hold on their knees and turn to receive my embrace.

And that is what God is doing all the time. He is our perfect mother, the matrix of our existence, the ground of our being, without whose sustaining breath we would simply cease to be. He is the love that surrounds us from our birth, the everlasting arms wrapped round us. Everywhere present always, He pours out his undivided love on each one of us, calling us out of our shells, out of ourselves, and into the wideness of Himself.

Underhill continues:

Awestruck delight in the splendour and beauty of God, the action of God and Being of God, in and for Himself alone, [i]s the very colour of life… This is adoration, not a difficult religious exercise, but an attitude of the soul.

The attitude of the weaned child as she leans on her mother’s chest, in simple adoration and utter trust, wrapped in her mother’s arms of love. May we lean deeper into God and open our hearts wider to receive all that He would give.

 

The Habit of Joy

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It is Eastertide, the Great Fifty Days in which we celebrate Resurrection, Christ’s triumph over sin and death and evil. During Easter, we remember our own baptism, too, in which we died with Christ and were raised with Him in newness of life. This whole season is life and joy. Those of us in the northern hemisphere see that newness of life and joy reflected in the greening of the trees and the myriad colors of the flowers, as if creation itself were dancing for joy that winter is over and gone, the time for singing has come!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Ring the bells, sound the trumpets, bang the gongs, shout for joy! Death is defeated! Joy is here, is now!

And it is.

And it’s also not.

That’s why our task in Easter is to live in joy—and it is a task. It’s something we do. And in this vale of tears, it’s sometimes hard to do.

You wouldn’t think joy would be so difficult. After all, it’s what we all crave, right? We want joy. And yet…joy is hard. Think about it. Does it bring you joy when you yell at your kids or snap at your spouse? Does it bring you joy to fritter away an hour on Facebook and get sucked down a dozen different online rabbit trails that leave you wishing you had that hour of your life back? Does it bring you joy to hurl yourself onto your bed and curl up in a ball of teeth-gnashing self-pity? Does it bring you joy to listen to the voices of self-loathing or self-doubt or self-exaltation that seem to be constantly knocking about in your head?

No?

Huh. Those things don’t bring me joy, either. And yet—I still do them. Now why is that?


Find out the one-word answer over on The Messy Middle, where author Amy Young hangs her online shingle. She’s been kind enough to share her space with me today, so won’t you please click over and make her glad she did? :) Thanks, friends!

 
 
Photo by llee-wu, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Ascent: Psalm 130

Sunrise_Doug_Waldron

Psalm 130

Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice.
O let thine ears consider well
the voice of my complaint.

If thou, O Lord wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who may abide it?
For there is mercy with thee;
therefore shalt thou be feared.

I look for the Lord;
my soul doth wait for him;
in his word is my trust.
My soul fleeth unto the Lord
before the morning watch, I say,
before the morning watch.

O Israel, trust in the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he shall redeem Israel
from all his sins.

~

This is the version of Psalm 130 that I find in the Psalter of my 1928 BCP (Book of Common Prayer), and I love that image of the soul fleeing to the Lord before the morning watch. I recently wrote a sonnet about prayer, and that was one of its images: fleeing east, toward the dawn, through the dark of grief. I didn’t realize where it had come from…till I re-read this psalm for this post.

Despite my long years of acquaintanceship with and deep love for the BCP’s Psalter, I must confess that I prefer this psalm in the ESV. Largely that’s because of the middle section, which the ESV renders thus:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!

In Hebrew there are two verbs in this section, and both of those verbs can be translated as either wait or hope. This is one of my favorite things about the fact that God chose this language for His words to be written in: the equation of waiting and hoping. In Hebrew, waiting is never passive; it is always an active verb, including in its meaning hope and expectation. It is the eager search of the watcher for the morning, scanning the horizon, knowing that though it is dark now, dawn is coming. It is the active faith of one who knows that gray will soon seep along the edges of the black night, who watches and waits in order to herald the dawn the moment it comes.

This morning my Gospel reading was Matthew 20, which includes Jesus’ healing of two blind men:

And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”

The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”

And stopping, Jesus asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”

They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.

The blind men’s request is my prayer, too, that my eyes would be opened. I want to be one of those who watch for the morning.

Our world is broken and bruised and battered, as our Facebook feeds and the nightly news remind us ad nauseam. But cynicism and scorn, which seem to be the responses du jour, are not helpful. They lead only to despair. Far better is the honest cry of the psalmist: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!”

Do you see that? This psalm of hope and faith begins in lament. It begins in darkness and desperate need. It begins blind. And humble. Like the blind men who know they cannot help themselves, the psalm begins with a cry for mercy, a shout to be heard. In the shouting, the crying, comes the answer, slowly unfolding as the psalmist reaches beyond his present experience to what he knows is true.

And the first thing he knows is that he does not deserve mercy—but what does that matter? He knows still more: God does not mark iniquity, else who could stand? God forgives, and so he cries out to Him: have mercy!

Like the blind men who declare their desire for sight in the faith that Jesus can give them what they ask, the psalmist proclaims his faith that the God who lavishes steadfast love and plentiful redemption upon His people, the God who redeems His people from all their sins, will hear and heed and answer, just as surely as the dawn will come.

The psalmist knew all this before ever he opened his mouth to plead for divine attention. He’d just forgotten that he knew it. And so the act of crying out, the fumbling beginnings of prayer and faith, became the path to the answer he already knew. This happens to me all the time. Stuck in a rut, in an emotion, trapped in a habit of thought, overwhelmed by a situation I have no power to affect or improve, I cry out to God, “I’m in the depths here! Where are you?!?” But I already know. He’s on the cross, He’s in the grave, He’s seated on the throne of grace, He’s breathing His Spirit through me, through this world, He’s hovering over bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, He’s gathering His scattered ones in His everlasting arms. He’s incognito, unless we have eyes to see. And asking the where-are-you question or shouting the have-mercy-on-us prayer is an act of faith. It may be desperate faith, even doubtful faith, but it’s faith nonetheless: we’re turning our blind eyes to the One who can open them and enable us to see.

Psalm 130 is a perfect psalm for Easter. It begins with our present experience of sorrow, of darkness, of the felt absence of God. But the bare act of crying out to the seemingly absent Lord quickly moves the psalm out of darkness into wonder at God’s forgiveness and then into faith in His faithfulness. It holds the already and the not-yet together. It acknowledges the depths but doesn’t let us stay there. The psalmist preaches to himself, and to his people:

yes, it is dark now
yes, the heavens seem silent
but dawn is coming, the sun will rise
it has risen before and it will rise again
take heart
keep watch
let your eyes be opened
this broken, bruised, and battered world
is also God-haunted and beautiful
its heavens declare the glory of God
watch for the dawn

Christ is risen
He is risen indeed
Alleluia

 
 
Photo by Doug Waldron, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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