The Wisdom of the Psalms

In Christian spirituality, the Psalms have always had a special place.  In monastic spirituality, the singing of the Psalms forms the heart of the various daily prayer services.  In The Episcopal Church, that tradition is reflected in the use of the Psalms in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, which at one time were expected to be held every day in every parish church (I believe that in England, this is still the expectation).  But the Psalms can be difficult, for they often confront us with feelings thatmonk-praying the post-modern spiritual mind might think are inappropriate.  Think, for example, of all those Psalm verses that take delight in the idea that God will smite our enemies, and make us victorious over those who wrong us.  Not very religious thoughts, huh?

And yet, we do have those thoughts — if we are very honest with ourselves.  That’s where the psalms can become helpful — in forcing us to be honest about ourselves.  I doubt that there is a person who has ever lived who has not wished that God would smite his or her enemies.  By embracing that idea, the Psalms force us to acknowledge that we have harbored that idea at some time or another.  The mistake that people make with the Psalms is to think that this idea of asking God to smite those who are problematic for us is an idea God actually approves of.  It’s an idea God certainly understands, but one that God would prefer, I think, we move beyond.  After all, Jesus prayed the Psalms and still told us to love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us.

Actually, the Psalms themselves warn us not to misread them.  Consider these verses from Pslam 50, appointed to be said this morning (10/29/09) at Morning Prayer:

You have loosed  your lips for evil, and harnessed your tongue to a lie.

You are always speaking evil of your brother, and slandering your own mother’s son.

These things you have done, and I kept still, and you thought that I am like you.

If we are really, really honest with ourselves, we will recognize that while we don’t always speak evil, lie and talk badly about our siblings, we have at least from time to time behaved in the spirit of those words.  And because, in the beautiful poetry of the psalms, God has “kept still” during our darker moments, we have then sometimes concluded that God is just like us.  And that is perhaps what the original human sin really is:  thinking that God is like us.  I would argue that the greatest sin — or mistake — in the estimation of the Hebrew Scriptures is idolatry:  treating as God something or someone who is not God.   The Psalms, as we use them in our spiritual practice, can help us come to grips with this tendency in ourselves, and thus can help us acquire the self-honesty that is such an important part of the spiritual journey.

Of course, it would be a mistake to believe that the Psalms only confront us with the parts of ourselves we would rather not look at.  And that is part of their genius, as well.  For they do give us a break, as they send us off into praising God for life and for creation, as they admire the beauty of nature or the beauty of simply being alive.  The whole spectrum of human life is really in there, and if we stick with the Psalms over time, we can begin to appreciate their beauty, their honesty and their power to help us connect with God.

If you want to explore this further, I recommend Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book (all his books are excellent!), entitled “The Message of the Psalms.”




The Knocked-On Door

doorAt a meeting earlier this week, the facilitator opened by reading that passage from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus says, among other things, “..knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  That image of knocking on the door has remained with me, and I was particularly struck by something that I had never paid attention to in this passage before:  that once the door is knocked upon, someone has to open it for you.  I know — pretty obvious, but not an aspect of this passage I had really attended to in the past.

As I have meditated on this line, I have come to see that this is a wonderful image of community, and of the Trinity community, in particular.  As we talk as a community about the value of radical welcoming, and as I have talked in a recent sermon about the importance of Trinity as a place that welcomes the soul, the question of what we do and how we respond to the “knocked-on door” is really at the heart of that conversation.

It is perhaps more clear what we should do when someone almost literally knocks on our door — when people visit us on a Sunday morning, for example.  To make the decision to visit a church is to knock on the door, in order to discover whether and how the people of that church will open it.  It has seemed to me that Trinity does a pretty good job of opening the door to those who visit here, although I wonder how often we think about the experience of our community from the point of view of someone who is unfamiliar with us.   To try to put ourselves in the place of a newcomer might lead us to even deeper levels of radical welcoming.

Less clear, but just as urgent, is the general knocking that goes on at our door by the surrounding culture.  The Bay Area has the second-lowest rate of religious affiliation in the country, so we are told.  Yet there is no shortage of spiritual hunger here.  There is no lack of a crisis of meaning, as the tragic suicides of young people in our community this year have made horribly clear.  Faith communities in general, and Trinity in particular, have a vocation and gift to help feed the spiritually as well as the literally hungry, and to help people live with depth of purpose and meaning.   Yet, religious institutions are so often seen as irrelevant and unable to deliver what people are really looking for.

This, it seems to me, is the challenge for our time and place.  As a community, we must figure out how to open the knocked-on door to the larger community.  We must claim our relevance in the context of our culture, not by throwing Prayer Books and Bibles at people, but by inviting them into a safe space where their souls can be nurtured and deeper meaning discovered.  I have no grand plan for doing this (yet), but I believe that together we can begin to discover how to open our doors to a culture that is suffering from a crisis of meaning, a crisis of community.

Basic Human Needs

To have a place to stand is a basic human need in order that I know where I belong, and it is necessary both in relation to the places and people in my life.  It means, above all, that I have time and space for listening to the Word of God in all the many ways that God is reaching out to me.  That will be totally impossible if I am always running, late, distracted, feeling ajar and torn apart.  — Esther de Waal in A Life-Giving Way

I ran across these words recently from Esther de Waal, and my reaction was immediate:  okay, who isn’t always running, late, distracted or feeling ajar?  Her words are a reminder of how antithetical to the Spirit our modern life tends to be.  In the midst of all of our demands and commitments, when it comes to our spiritual life, we often don’t leave ourselves the time and space necessary for listening for the “many ways that God is reaching out….”

As Esther de Waal says so well, we need a place to stand — I would perhaps modify that a bit to say, we need a place to stand still.  Ms. de Waal is bold enough to call this a basic human need — yet, I wonder how often we claim this need, and make it a priority in our lives.  We do make room for other needs — we manage to find time to eat every day, we all sleep at least a little, we bathe ourselves, we cloth ourselves, we meet our obligations toward work, school and family.  But in a culture that values activity and accomplishment, letting people in our lives know that we are taking a few minutes to stand still requires a bit of courage.  Yet, this is precisely how we get to know ourselves more deeply, and it is precisely how we make room to hear what God may be trying to say to us.

Just as we acknowledge the basic human needs of our bodies, I wonder if we could also acknowledge the basic human need of our soul.  The basic need to stand still for a little while every day, and just listen to what comes out from the silence and stillness at the center of ourselves.

I wonder how that might begin to change our lives, and our relationships…….

The Order of the Soul

blizzardThe blizzard of the world

has crossed the threshold

and it has overturned

the order of the soul

— Leonard Cohen

I encountered this poem yesterday, at our Fresh Start meeting up at Grace Cathedral (Fresh Start is a program to help support clergy who are transitioning into new positions).   It struck me as a rather poignant observation about the human condition in our time and place.  It seems to me that many people have lost touch with their souls amid the blizzard of modern life.  To lose touch with the soul is to lose touch with our deepest truth and our deepest self, to lose touch with a sense of meaning and transcendence.  It seems to me that one of the missions of the church in the world today is to help people recover a connection with the soul, and thus recover a connection with the depth and mystery of life.

Leonard Cohen’s poem is quoted in a book by Dr. Parker Palmer entitled “A Hidden Wholeness:  The Journey Toward the Undivided Life”.  I thought I would share with you what Dr. Palmer has to say about it:

There was a time when farmers on the Great Plains, at the first sign of a blizzard, would run a rope from the back door out to the barn.  They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and been frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards.

Today we live in a blizzard of another sort.  It swirls around us as economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war.  It swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others.  We all know stories of people who have wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls, losing their moral bearings and even their mortal lives:  they make headlines because they take so many innocents down with them.

The lost ones come from every walk of life:  clergy and corporate executives, politicians and people on the street, celebrities and schoolchildren.  Some of us fear that we, or those we love will become lost in the storm.  Some are lost at this moment and are trying to find the way home.  Some are lost without knowing it.  And some are using the blizzard as cover while cynically exploiting its chaos for private gain.

So it is easy to believe the poet’s claim that “the blizzard of the world” has overturned “the order of the soul,” easy to believe that the soul–that life-giving core of the human self, with its hunger for truth and justice, love and forgiveness–has lost all power to guide our lives.

But my own experience of the blizzard, which includes getting lost in it more often than I like to admit, tells me that it is not so.  The soul’s order can never be destroyed.  It may be obscured by the whiteout.  We may forget, or deny, that its guidance is close at hand.  And yet we are still in the soul’s backyard, with chance after chance to regain our bearings.

The people facilitating our meeting yesterday, after we had read Leonard Cohen’s poem and Parker Palmer’s commentary on it, asked us two questions that are worth sharing, I think:

What is the blizzard for you?

And what is the rope that will get you back home?

Bad Things Happening to Good People


At a recent dinner, someone mentioned that age-old human conundrum:  why do bad things happen to good people — if God, indeed, is a good and loving God?   It is a problem that has trouble people of faith — and people of faiths — for centuries.  I remember a class I took in seminary called “The Problem of Evil”, in which we spent an entire semester grappling with the question, and with the responses of various theologians to it over the centuries.  It seems that whatever solution a theologian proposed would, inevitably, lead to other theological problems.  “Solving” the problem of evil seemed only to create new problems about God, or God’s relationship with the world.  It perhaps says something that 20 years after taking that class, I can’t remember much of anything about what we read (or perhaps it just says something about my memory).

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote an excellent book on the topic from the Jewish perspective that I highly recommend.  He was moved to consider this question in part because of his own experience, when he lost a child to an unusual disease.  It’s been a few years since I read the book. I still have it on my shelf somewhere.  I remember that I thought it was an excellent book — but perhaps it says something else that I can’t remember the conclusions that Rabbi Kushner comes to.

We might take some comfort in the fact that the question even gets dealt with in the biblical literature.  The Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures is precisely about this problem.  The reader knows that Job is an absolutely righteous man, and that no fault can be found in him (as hard as that may be to believe!).  Yet, he suffers deep tragedy and pain.  In his anguish, he cries out to God for an explanation.  And in come his friends, who give all of the standard, orthodox answers of the day.  Yet, the reader (and Job) knows that none of these theologies of evil is correct.  Finally, at the end of the book, God shows up, and puts Job in his place:  these are among the deepest mysteries of life, and sorry, Job, there is no explanation.  I have always been somewhat amazed at Job’s response to this less-than-satisfactory response.  Rather than yelling at God for being so obtuse, Job bows before the mystery of life and the mystery of God, and humbly confesses his own limitations.    Then, Job gets on with his life — he seems to leave the question completely aside.  He has grappled with it, he has “lost” in a sense, and he lets go of it and moves on.

The Book of Job suggests that there is no answer to this theological question.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  It’s a mystery, and while we may theorize about it, we will never be able to answer it in any definitive way.  To me, there is another message in Job’s story, and that is that sometimes grappling with a question is more important than finding an answer.  The more experience I have of life — and of other people’s lives — the more I have come to believe that explaining tragedy and suffering is not nearly as important as how we choose to respond to it. The deep learning of life comes not by explaining, but by living through the inexplicable.

In the course of my priesthood to date, I have walked with a number of people through some terrible things.  It is safe to say, I think, that all of them at one time or another wondered, “Why me?”  A few people were not able to get beyond this question — and I saw their spirits whither.  Most people, however, did not seem to linger on that question long.  Instead, they accepted what was happening to them, and moved into it and through it.  And in those people, I saw an amazing expansion of their spirits.  Their lives acquired a deeper dimension.   The lesson I have drawn from all this is the lesson of Job:  that the journey can be infinitely more important than the destination.

So, I’m sorry to disappoint you:  I don’t have an answer to this question, either.  But, I will say that, like Job, I have given up trying to have an answer.  When I consider the teaching of Jesus, I find that he seems to be far more concerned about what we do and how we are than what we think.  In terms of the problem of evil, this suggests to me that what we do and how we are in the face of suffering — whether our own or others’ — is far more important than our theology about it.  Perhaps this is another way of saying that the “devil” is indeed in the details, but God is to be found by moving into and through whatever life brings us, by living as courageously and as faithfully as we can.