Lent Meditation: Psalm 3

“O LORD, how many are my foes, many are rising against me, many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God. But you, O LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, and the lifter up of my head.  I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill” Psalm 3:1-4

The Psalm begins with an honest cry, describing to God a desperate situation.  The only word of address or introduction is “O LORD”– the prayer is raw, messy, and not uttered according to formal rules or regulations.

You don’t have to get fancy and proper and have your life together when you come to God.  You come when you feel like you are surrounded on all sides by enemies, troubles, and grief.   This Psalm is attributed to David when he was fleeing from his son– who wanted to kill him.  In the face of broken relationships and possible death.  And these things that oppress us externally, they also get inside us and speak to the very inner core of who we are that there is no hope.  As the Psalm says, “there is no salvation for you in God.”  There is no remedy, no solution, no one to make things right.  You and the world you inhabit are too far gone.

But the Psalm doesn’t stop there.  The prayer continues: “But you O LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, and the lifter up of my head.”

The word for glory, kabod, literally means heaviness, weight.  It is translated variously as abundance, riches, splendor, honor, and glory (Brown-Driver-Briggs, 458).  This word, kabod, is often used to describe God’s glory (as well as the glory of kings, actual wealth, etc.).

And here the Psalmist, himself a king, radically claims that God’s glory belongs to him.  God’s honor and riches and abundance.  Or maybe rather, he is saying, “Even though I am a king and I have plenty of my own glory, when it really comes down to it, what makes my life significant, what gives me real weight and honor, what keeps me from being crushed by these circumstances is not my wealth, not my status as king, it’s God.”

And that’s what he remembers in his prayer: the glory, the kabod, the abundance and riches of God.  That is his shield and his protection from all the things that oppress him. That is what gives him the courage to pray, and the confidence that he will be answered, that his enemies do not have the final word.

Psalms for Lent

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Lent, the church season of preparation before Easter. Often, super religious folks will give up something, like chocolate.  It might seem like a silly ritual, and it can certainly be done in a way that is disconnected from much meaning.

This year for Lent I am going to read through the Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible.  I think that makes about 25 psalms per week.

Even if you’re not a Christian, the Psalms are beautiful poems about the deepest questions and anguish in life.  This book of the Bible might give you a deeper insight into what it means to be a Christian than almost anything else.  John Calvin famously described the Psalms as “the anatomy of all the parts of the human soul.”  All longing, hope, despair, and joy are contained in them.  All questions, all doubts, all fears.  And all comfort and hope.  You can find them online here, or in the very middle of any Bible.

I would love to have some company as I read through these.  Please leave a comment and let me know if you want to read through them with me during Lent!

words for lent: thirst, and when words fail

I meant to write something grand this week, something about Exodus 17 and John 4, the stories of water from wells and rocks (the readings for this week).  I would have quoted Schmemann about how we are hungry and thirsty beings, how our hunger and thirst is for God, but also how real water and bread are good and how “we’re not platonists, Laurie” as pastor Giorgio once said to me when I tried to be nonchalant about losing the greatest pair of sunglasses of my life.

There’s still time to write, on a Saturday that’s too windy to be outside (we live in a place where many days wind is the primary weather function by which a day’s activities stand or fall– John wants to work on the cars, but it’s just not feasible in 40 mile and hour wind, our usual frisbee game of course is not possible, etc.), still time to say something wonderful about the thirst of the Israelites, the thirst of the lady by the well or the chapter or two before where the empty jars are filled and turned into what must have been the best ever wine tasted in this old world.

Yes, I would have quoted Schmemann and Over the Rhine, the beautiful song with the cello and piano, and the slow words: “You’re my water, you’re my wine, you’re my whiskey from time to time……”  Or the other song about how “those that burn with thirst will lift their glass” and the lilt of her voice and how I sobbed from Nashville to the North Carolina border listening to that album for the first time just before the start of my third year of college.

It might have been very good.

God, please be our water and our wine.  Please let us hold our deepest hungers and thirsts before you, and please fill us, these empty jars, with wine.  amen.

post script, or shattered glass and scratched eye

Tonight I was washing dishes, and I reached to set a dish on the towel where the other dishes were drying, and I knocked my French press right onto the floor, where it shattered into a thousand tiny shards.  This is unusual because after several years of waitressing I got pretty good at catching falling dishes.  Above average catching skills, I would go as far as to say.  Preternatural ability, even.  Normally I could have caught it.  Somehow.  Or normally I wouldn’t have knocked it in the first place.  But somehow it toppled right down, and I stood there and started sobbing.  (Julia and April, if you’re reading this, I am so sorry I broke it, and even though John is ordering a replacement glass to go in it, it will never be the same, and part of why I was crying was because you gave it to me.)

And this Saturday I was putting on sunglasses while making a left turn and my fingernail or the tip of the glasses nicked my eyeball.  My cornea wasn’t scratched, thank goodness, but my eyeball was, and so ensued a doctor visit and $70 worth of eyeball medication.

And I’ve gotten mean– I mean, mean— with some of the kids at school this week.  One little girl– one of the kindergardeners, the worst one, bless her heart– was eating her granola bar by pulling off small pieces and sucking on them or licking them or something, getting crumbs everywhere and granola bar slime all over her hands and face, and I let loose on her.  In front of everyone.

So tonight I smashed my beautiful French press.  It’s as though everything I touch or look at gets shattered into tiny pieces.  Now, I don’t know why I am writing this out for all the world to see.  But after the glass broke I sat there on the kitchen floor and cried.  For the broken glass and my scratched eye and most of all for the invisible fragments of little children that I have scraped away with my harsh words.

And I had to think to myself: do I believe the (badly written and incoherent) words I wrote this morning?  Is there any real life to be wrung from Romans 4 for me on this kitchen floor?  So I picked my way through the glass (which John swept up, and tossed the pieces of my beautiful friends’ gift into the trash) and started thinking of barren Sarah, barren and old (the 4 year olds guessed my age was 80 yesterday during our lunch conversation about my age– which, if I had eyes to see and ears to hear, every moment with them is so precious, like little Grant who hardly talks ever at all but the last few days has been coming up to me and singing about 6 words from some incomprehensible song and then turning and walking away abruptly. Precious and beautiful.  But 80 is about how I feel, 80 and barren, and not melodramatic at all).

So I pulled out old dried up Romans 4 and read past where I read this morning:  “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver considering the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” (Romans 4:19-21)

And God has promised (well, not in these exact words, but he has), that “the healing has begun.”  Or that he will be (is?) “Like a sweet bird of youth, like a sweet bird of youth/ In my soul, in my soul, in my soul.”  The wrinkled body and dried out womb, the ones who must have scratched their heads and wondered where they went wrong, what happened to the promise of sons as many as stars, the promise to all appearances shattered like glass on the floor.  But Abraham believed, and it was counted to him as righteousness. And I have to believe, not that my flesh and bones are capable or some marvelous humanistic feat of supreme excellence in the face of trial, but that God did birth from this barren world some good thing, and through that good thing, our Lord Jesus Christ, God is bringing to life the brittle bones that clatter, the helpless fragments and the empty wombs.

words for lent: gift

The New Testament reading this week is from Romans 4.  (p.s. If you’ve been a Presbyterian too long like me and Romans has lost some of its vim and vigor for you, try Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.  It’s one of the most gorgeous books ever written.)

“For what does the scripture say?  ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due” (4:3-4)

Abraham worked.  He left everything.  But he also was a big coward and a liar and he was one of the most royally messed up people in scripture.  And one of the most loved by God.  Why?  Because God loved him as a gift.  Which is called grace.

Paul continues: “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David…” (4:5)

Abraham had works.  David had works.  Abraham left Ur and David danced almost naked for joy.  We all have works.  We are proud of something, our little garden and compost or home or grand career or great mind or that paper we once wrote or what we gave to the poor that time.  We all say, “God, look what I’ve sacrificed for you.   Look what I’ve given up.  See how I’ve loved.  See how much more I have given than that person over there.”  But that is not the place where the gift is.  We must trust “without works.”  Our works must be nothing to us.

Because we have also been adulterers and liars and cowards.  The gift (grace) is where we trust that God makes the cowards and the liars and the messed up ones holy and righteous and clean.  As we trudge through the slow days on the way to Good Friday we practice fasts, but really, we practice fasting from our goodness.  We give up our daily dance of perfection, of appearance, and of self-loathing for our constant failure to appear perfect. The scales must be clawed off (cf. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.) They must be clawed off every day.  When the scriptures say that his mercies are new every morning, it means that we need mercy new every morning (Lam 3:23).

“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void” (4:13-14)

This gift does not pass on automatically through blood or tradition or the best rule-following.  It is given new each day from the hands of a person, from Jesus.

“For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants… (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:16-17).

So it depends on faith, so that the promise (God’s love) may rest on grace.  The grace that does not leave us to ourselves.  That does not leave our identity, our legacy, our perfection to our frantic striving but bestows on us from heaven the worth we could never patch together through all our days of dishes and laundry and working behind computers with crazy people or tying little shoelaces or however we pass our days and hours.

So God’s favor remains a gift, remains grace (charis).  So that we remain joyful (chara).  So that every day we can let God claw off our impenetrable scales and call us again into life, and so that every day we can again give thanks (eucharisteo) for the gift.

words for lent: from country and kindred

The Old Testament reading for this week is from Genesis 12:1-4.  (Find lectionary readings here.)

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you….’  So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.”

The Lord called Abram out of Ur.  Made him a nation by exiling him.  And isn’t it always the same.  Leave your nets and come with me.  Put your hand to the plow and don’t turn back.  Looking back turned a wife into salt, all those years ago.  The gaze must be single and whole upon Jesus, a joyful gaze, a complete and total gaze.

The trouble we can’t muster a single gaze and pure heart.  If Israel, who had pillars of cloud and fire, who had wafers rain down from the sky, if they turned their gaze back to Egypt or to golden calves, shall we do better, we who have not seen the fire by night or tasted actual bread?  We trust in Pentecostal fire and Eucharistic bread, but the fire doesn’t appear to our sight, and we don’t lick honey-wafers from the grass like dew.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe in the stale stuff in the plate on Sunday mornings.

So the Lenten resolutions may be broken, the chocolate eaten or tobacco tasted or television watched.  Our attempts at sacrifice fail.  The leaves wither, our self-coverings wither and fall.  I have been tricked again by a smooth magazine cover that promises realness and simplicity, and all I get is ads and something about a scented tassel that costs $40.  How is that simple?  I have again spent more hours watching tv shows than reading the Bible.  Eaten a whole roll of thin mints in 10 minutes.  The ideals of simplicity, fasting, emptiness, scripture memorization, holiness… As hard as we try they crumble in our fingers.  Yes, “our love turns to rust.”

This is why we cling to Jesus.  The total surrender, the leaving behind of home and kin, the selling of all for treasure in the field, the having no place  but God to lay one’s head, was only accomplished by Jesus.  Our only hope for holiness (wholeness, fullness, joy, comfort) doesn’t lie in our fasts,  however perfectly or imperfectly we keep them.

Yet knowing this we do not turn back to the flocks and fields of Ur or the meat pots of Egypt or the fishing nets in wooden boats.  We don’t succumb to the magazines or mint cookies or television shows.  We still leave.  We try again not to turn our heads back.  We let our identity again and again be stripped of certainty, and we come to dwell again and again in the place outside the camp, the place of reproach, and we remember again that we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:13-14).  We come to the cross, and the place of sacrifice becomes a home (Ps 84:3).  Here, we sit and feast.

words for lent: ash wednesday

“Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness.” (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace)

And this, from Shunryu Suzuki, his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. (Beautiful book. Go. Buy. A. Copy. Right. Now.):

“We have to go through the gate of emptiness…

“As long as we have some definite idea about or some hope in the future, we cannot really be serious with the moment that exists right now. You may say, ‘I can do it tomorrow, or next year,’ believing that something that exists today will exist tomorrow… But there is no certain way that exists permanently. There is no way set up for us. Moment after moment we have to find our own way. Some idea of perfection, or some perfect way which is set up by someone else, is not the true way for us” (Suzuki, Zen Mind, 111).

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ…” (Philippians 3:8)

What do we cling to besides Jesus?  What, other than him, constitutes our heaven?  What prevents us from going through the gate of emptiness?   May our possessions, our glories, our proud moments, our trophies, along with our lost dreams, failures, embarrassments, all of it, be burned to ash and fall at His feet.