Psalm 38

This week I have been reading the penitential Psalms. These are Psalms that confess sin. The Psalmists attribute hardship to God’s punishment for sins. In the case of Psalm 38, it’s physical ailments. I don’t know what to do with Psalms like this that draw straight line correlations between sin and catastrophe. I believe in biblical authority, but I do not believe that God sends disasters in order to punish.

As I write this, the Coastal area of Texas has experienced the worst flooding ever. Lives have been disrupted and lost. A small number of people have used social media to claim that this is punishment for everything from Texas voting for Trump to same-sex marriages. I hear things like that and think, surely there is an even greater punishment for making loathsome statements while people are just trying to survive.

The Psalmist said “I” not “you.” The Psalmist interpreted their own experience. Trying to interpret someone else’s is usually where we make serious mistakes. In this life we can waste all our time on the unholy quest for the blame grail. It’s an illusive quest with a treasureless destination. We can point fingers at who did or did not do the right thing in response. Or we can acknowledge that there’s blame to go around and that none of us know how to respond. We can affirm, like the Psalmist, that our only ultimate hope comes from God.

Psalm 32

Psalm 32 is one of the seven penitential psalm.  This designation was given to it by the Church.  The designations in the biblical text say, “Of David” and “Maskil.”  A Maskil seems to be a literary or musical term.  I’m guessing it means that the song was written in the key of G (:

The psalm begins with a couple of beatitudes.  beatitude states a blessing or a condition of happiness.  “Blessed are. . . ” or “Happy are . . . ” is the normal translation/formula.  These beatitudes emphasize the blessing of forgiveness and restored innocence  (Psalm 32:1-2).

The second part of the Psalm–Psalm 32:3-5–emphasizes the damaging effect of withholding the Psalmist’s sin from the Lord.  It had both psychological and physiological effects.  The ancients understood intuitively what we are only recently rediscovering–that the Spirit, Mind and Body interact in dynamic and integrated ways.  Psalm 32:5 is the turning point in the Psalmist’s difficulties, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”   It prefaces the promise in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”

The Psalm then moves toward an instructive place.  The Psalmist instructs those who would listen about the necessity of listening.

A Penitential Psalm

From at least the writings of St. Augustine, Christians have identified certain Psalms as “penitential psalms.”  Since the 6th century, seven psalms have been classified as penitential psalms:

Psalm 6
Psalm 32
Psalm 38
Psalm 51
Psalm 102
Psalm 130
Psalm 143

Penitential psalms acknowledge either personal or collective sin.  They lament the consequences of the sin.  They pray for God’s healing and restoration. However, Psalm 6, the first of the penitential Psalms, does not actually offer a word of confession or repentance.

It begins with a petition that God not rebuke or discipline harshly.  This initial statement about God’s wrath is what places Psalm 6 within the group of penitential psalms. Clearly the Psalmist was experiencing distress.  If we take the distress literally, it’s physical distress: bones ache (Psalm 6:2), death may be imminent (Psalm 6:5), tears and fatigue are felt (Psalm 6:7).  These symptoms may also be metaphors of the experience of sin.  The Psalmist understood circumstances of suffering to derive from God’s judgment.  While I do not believe God sends physical illness as a punishment for sin, I do believe that sin has consequences–often physical consequences.  I also know that suffering can reorient people to focus on God.  The journey of repentance does indeed begin as the penitent move God back to the center of their lives.

The psalm resolves with a word about evil doers.  One could imagine that David–as he suffered some sort of illness–might have experienced treacherous people circling him in his weakness.  They might have waited like vultures for his life to fail so that they could swoop in and feast on the carcasses.  As healing–whether it was physical or spiritual or both–took place, the Psalmist finds the strength to rebuke them.  If penitence begins with putting God in the center of one’s life and intentionally spending time with God, the next step may be for the penitent to disassociate with people who contribute to sins.  Some people are simply toxic and repentance often requires getting away from them.

Everything is Permissible but

Read 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1

As a youth minister, one of the first challenges I confronted had to do with the difficulty of talking about purity.  The world my parents and church presented to me was morally unambiguous.  Right was right; wrong was wrong.  I do not know if they ever experienced the world with such clarity.  What I do know is that, the kids in my youth group, their parents and the adults around them did not understand the world in the kinds of discrete categories that delineated my life.  This is not to suggest that they were less moral.  After all, these were good West Texas folk.  They just didn’t seem to wrestle with the same elements.  They had less clarity and less guilt.  They had less rigidity and less shame.  It was both challenge and blessing.

There’s some terrifying aspects to moral ambiguity especially for someone like me who, were it not for very clear rules, would have tried everything imaginable.  Restraint is not in my hard-wiring.  It had to be programmed in post-production.  And it has had to be reprogrammed and reprogrammed.  Yet, as someone who did want to teach moral purity, I found I had to try to make the case moral purity.  And that meant more fully understanding my own worldview.  Sometimes failing to fully understand a worldview can lead to detrimental consequences.

Like the young people and their parents I encountered in my first youth ministry setting, the people in Corinth saw more ambiguity than did their pastor—Paul.  Meat that had been sacrificed to idols would be available in meat markets.  Some Christians said, “It’s just Bar-B-Cue. What’s the big deal?”   Others said, “It’s idolatry.  Don’t eat.”  The “no big deal” crowd had developed something of a slogan, “Everything is permissible” (1 Corinthians 10:23).  God’s grace meant freedom therefore everything is permissible.  Yet, Paul wrote to say in effect—sometimes failing to fully understand a worldview can lead to detrimental consequences.  So, Paul advocated for a more moderate approach to the issue by trying to help the Corinthian Christians understand the fuller picture.  Two big concepts he tried to get them to understand.

Concept #1—Seek what’s beneficial.  Paul adds an addendum to their bumper sticker.  “’Everything is permissible,’ but not everything is beneficial.”  Paul reminded them that they were to seek what was beneficial for others.  Yes, people had the freedom to eat whatever was placed in front of them.  After all, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”  However, if eating would be detrimental (the opposite of beneficial) for someone else, then a person should abstain.  Why?  Why would a person avoid a good steak for the sake of someone else?  Because the fuller understanding of the Christian worldview meant seek the good of all and not just self-interest. Eating meat sacrificed to an idol could lead to the detrimental consequence of damaging another person’s faith. In Jesus’s words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Concept #2—Seek what liberates.  Paul repeats the Corinthians’ bumper sticker philosophy and adds another addendum.  “’Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be mastered by anything.”  Through faith we accept God’s will as the true means for human wholeness.  In the fuller understanding of the Christian worldview, a person recognizes that their life belongs to God and God alone.  Moreover, a Christian understands that living within the boundaries God has set is not a rigid and joyless life.  It is a life that truly frees.  The sin “that so easily ensnares” (Hebrews 12:1) promises freedom but leads to control.  The moral purity that seems like a burden gives us a route to independence from the things of this world and wholeness.

Advocating for Purity

Advocating for purity can be an expression of grace.

I have spent some time recently reflecting on the liturgical Psalms (Psalm 15 and 24).  These Psalms emphasize the importance of the purity of those who would enter into a worship space and worship the Lord.  Christians tend to fall somewhere along a continuum between stressing purity so forcefully as to be judgmental and so loosely as to be licentious.  Psalms like Psalm 15 and 24 lend  biblical warrant for the judgmental end of the spectrum.

The dangers of over-emphasizing purity have been experienced by many.  The over-emphasis on sexual purity can cause teens and young adults to hide their sexual experiences and sexuality questions from their parents and others who might be able to help them process.  It can lead to riskier behavior.  Also many people who grew up in sexually restrictive contexts admit struggling to enjoy sex even within marriage.  Having been told it’s bad their whole lives, it’s difficult for some to believe it’s good. Some people have so internalized moral sanctions against laziness that they do not know how to break and rest.  Ironically, they regularly violate the command about a Sabbath (the longest of the 10 Commandments) because they believe that to take a day off would be to give in to sloth. Similar kinds of dynamics can emerge around drinking, foods, finances, profanity, and pleasure.   An over-emphasis on purity can be damaging.

These negative consequences tend to make us resist discussing the importance of purity.  It can also make us fixate on sins we do not struggle with.  It’s very easy for me to rail against the evils of gambling and playing the lottery as I do not have any desire to gamble or play the lottery.  I find that what most well-intentioned folk do is simply avoid making anyone feel any sort of guilt because they know the negative consequences of guilt.  This pattern can be dangerous and even deadly.

There’s a wisdom to scripture and the Church’s commitments to purity.  Pleasures really can develop dangerous addictions.  We can in fact amuse ourselves to death.  At the beginning of Ethics Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem that included the line, “None learns the way of freedom save only by way of control.” I’m not sure who said it, but I agree with the sentiment, “I believe in taking a stand against sin.  I just believe in taking a stand against my own sin.”  So, I’d like to suggest a few things to think about in terms of how to think about purity without suffering the consequences of over-emphasis.

Understand the Difference between Regret and Repentance.
Feeling guilty doesn’t actually change behavior.  In fact, feeling guilty can convince people that they really cannot do better.  Repentance comes when we claim our power to change.

Look for the ways purity connects to wholeness.
When I asked my mother why we did not drink, she said, “Some people are predisposed to become alcoholic and other people are not, but you won’t know which one you are unless you start drinking.  I’d rather not take the risk.”  While her sons have learned that we can drink in moderation, the wisdom is still instructive.  When we treat things as vile in the eyes of God, our navigation of pleasure becomes overlayered with superstition.  When we think about what leads to wholeness we work toward best practices, moderation and health.

Embrace the encouraging force of forgiveness
I have heard countless people criticize the sort of church in which I grew up by saying we believed we could do whatever we wanted, go to church on Sunday, ask for forgiveness and do it all over again.  I never had that perception.  EVER.  But it did take me a long time to realize that God’s forgiveness does not excuse our sin.  God wants all to thrive, move forward, demonstrate good stewardship

Clean hands, pure heart

“Clean hands and a pure heart,” describes a life that is committed to God’s sovereignty inside and out.  Psalm 24 is often described as a liturgical entrance Psalm.  Like Psalm 15, we can imagine that this Psalm was used as worshipers gathered together.  It could be associated with the story recounted in 2 Samuel 6.  There King David brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem.  He is terrified of the Ark’s power and so it takes him awhile to move it into a tent he had established as the Ark’s sanctuary.  In the end, it is brought forward into the worship space with joy.  It could also be associated with a time after Solomon, David’s son, had built the temple.  It may also be associated with the Second Temple period–after Ezra/Nehemiah re-established the Temple in Jerusalem.

Psalm 24 begins and ends with a declaration of God’s glory.  In Psalm 24:1-2, God is affirmed as the creator of the world.  God subdues the waters–a symbol of chaos for Ancient Near Eastern people–and creates both the land and all of the inhabitants.  It concludes in Psalm 24:7-10 with the refrain, “Lift up your heads, you mighty gates.”  And doubly affirms that the Lord is the mighty one, strong in battle.  So Psalm 24 begins and ends with an affirmation of God’s sovereignty.

In the heart of the Psalm (Psalm 24:3-6) the Psalm describes what is expected of the one who enters the presence of God.  Clean hands describes more than ritual cleanliness.  It is a symbol of ethical rightness.  A pure heart similarly describes someone who has the right attitude.  The righteous worshiper of the Lord does not participate in idolatry.  This one does not trust in nothingness.  And this one is blessed by God.  As with other Psalms of this kind, one question I have is whether these are entrance requirements or the effect that being in the presence of God in worship has on a person. Certainly the purity of our hearts is made more pure through worship and our attention to our own conduct and lives more focused through our participation in the congregation.

Who May Enter

Psalm 15 is often categorized as a liturgical Psalm.  One can imagine that people coming to worship in the temple or one of its predecessors might stand at the temple entrance and say, “Lord, who may dwell in your tent? Who may live on your holy hill?”  And they would hear an answer from the doorkeepers of the temple about the character expected of those who worship the Lord.  The NIV uses the word “sanctuary” while the NRSV uses “tent.”  Yet, in the Exodus experience the Tabernacle was a Tent.  So, it seems probably that this could have been used to enter a worship space.

We might imagine that the checklist of items necessary to gain entrance would include elements defined by worship.  Appropriate sacrifice–check.  Worship clothing and attire–check.   Songbook–check.  Voter registration card . . . .  Yet, notice that the expectations are ethical rather than liturgical.  Psalm 15:2-3 include an ethic of speech.  The righteous speak the truth and do not slander or slur others.  It’s reminiscent of James’s instructions concerning the tongue (James 3:1-12).  Psalm 15:4 suggests an attitude of righteousness and a commitment to integrity.  The sanctuary dwellers “keep their oaths even when it hurts.”  The Psalm includes with economic integrity–lending without usury (charging extraordinary interest toward people with little or no means to pay) and refusing to accept bribes.  The end result is not a promise of sanctuary entrance, but a life of stability.  “The one who does these things will never be shaken” (Psalm 15:5c).

I believe God accepts everyone.  I struggle with texts like this that suggest that a person has to earn entrance into a worship space through good behavior.  I’m much more comfortable with the “come as you are” approach to worship.  Yet, I also believe that being in worship should have a lifestyle effect on a person.  Worship is intentional time with God.  As we encounter God’s character in our worship, we adopt God’s character in our lives.  God is all the things described in this Psalm–blameless, truthful, respectful, decent, generous, and scrupulous.  As we enter into worship, we make ourselves vulnerable to the character of God and pray that God might change us in the process.

Grandparents’ Psalm

Psalm 128 is a Song of Ascents.  The superscriptions for Psalms 120-134 identify them as such.  These superscriptions are in the Hebrew text.  The assumption is that this Psalm collection included the songs the Jewish people would sing as they made their way to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles).

A classification given by interpreters is that Psalm 128 is a wisdom Psalm like Psalm 1, 37, and 73.  Psalm 19, 111, and 112 might also be classified as wisdom Psalms.  A Wisdom Psalm discusses the path to a blessed life.  It resembles Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (possibly Job) in its theology, approach to truth, and rhetorical structure.

Another way to understand the Psalm is using Walter Brueggemann’s description of Psalms as Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.  Psalms of orientation have a sense that life is as it should be.  Disorientation Psalms reveal the hardship and lament of life.  They are the laments.  Psalms of reorientation reveal a continued awareness of hardship and pain but they also sense that change has occurred such that a new place of hope and stability has been achieved (consider Psalm 73).

Psalm 128 is a Psalm of orientation.  It states in polite and succinct ways the Psalmist’s belief that the life of the ones who follow God’s way will be blessed with material and vocational prosperity (Psalm 128:1-2) and with a blessed family life (Psalm 128:3-4).  That part of the Psalm seems to connect to Psalm 127.  And it concludes with a simple affirmation of God’s goodness.  I tend to resist Psalms of Orientation.  I resist the easy promises that God will act in predictable ways. I resist the idea that God can be viewed in mechanistic ways–you behave correctly and God will do good things for you (really? seriously?).  I almost skipped the Psalm.  On my first and second reading of it, I was bored by the time I had gotten to Psalm 128:6.  And then I saw it.

“May you live to see your children’s children.”   At 46 I still consider myself too young to become a grandfather–grindaddy–but, My daughter is at the stage in her life now where we were when she was born.  She’s been married a year, she’s finished college, and she’s pregnant. I am reminded that for the ancients, 46 would have been an old man.  There were no guarantees that a person would live long enough to “see their children’s children.”  In truth, there are no guarantees for us.  I am more aware now than I was when my daughter was born of just how precious life is.  It cannot be taken for granted. Still, I feel confident that I will see my children’s children.

Yet as I go back and read Psalm 128 in light of becoming grandfather, this is what I see.  “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in God’s ways” (Psalm 128:1).  In a few months, I become a part of the larger family that will teach young lives what it means to worship the Lord and live in reverent relationship with God.  “You will eat the fruit of your labor . . .” .  We do not now live in a world where goodness is guaranteed the blessings of reward.  The wicked thrive and the good suffer.  Without grandchildren that fact is simply something I lament.  Now, I see it as that which I must confess and from which I must repent.  My grandchildren will be born into a world that I helped create.  If indeed the world into which they are born is unjust and if it rewards the unrighteous, at least part of the blame belongs on me.  Rereading the orientation of the Psalm renews my commitment to helping shape the kind of world that will provide stability for them, blessing for them, and renewal.  I need to work for the kind of world where I can confidently prayer over my grandchildren, “May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life.”  Amen

Traffic Ticket Wisdom

I had gone to the north side of Amarillo to buy a water pump for a car.  A family had broken down in the parking lot of the church I was serving.  I frequently dealt with the people who came in for help.  Somehow we had the resources this time to purchase a needed auto part for a family who couldn’t otherwise afford repair.  I went over a very steep overpass on my way back to church.  A police officer was sitting at the bottom of the overpass.  Between gravity and my sense of urgency, I exceeded the speed limit.  I received a ticket.  The prayers I prayed on my way back to the church were what you might expect.  “Lord, here I was doing good–doing your will–helping the least of these.  Why?  Why?  Am I persecuted thus?  To be given a traffic violation while being the Samaritan who did not pass by on the other side.”  OK, maybe I’m exaggerating.  It did happen 25 years ago.  I thought of that when I read Psalm 73:13-14, “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence./All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.”  Full Disclosure:  I was sent on the errand by my boss (minister of administration); I used the church’s money; I was on church time.  It wasn’t a “pure” errand of compassion that I was on.  Nonetheless, I felt as though God should prevent bad things from happening to me because I was doing good deeds.  It wasn’t the first time those thoughts went through my head; it wouldn’t be the last.

Psalm 73 is a wisdom Psalm.  In many ways it is the prequel to Psalm 37Psalm 73 admits doubt and frustration in times when the wicked thrive and the good suffer.  Psalm 37 admonishes people not to fret when the wicked thrive and the good suffer.  Psalm 73 provides a more detailed examination of the wicked.  They do not struggle physically (Psalm 73:4), they are not burdened like other people (Psalm 73:5), they are proud (Psalm 73:6a) and violent (Psalm 73:6b).  These wicked people violate the law to love God and love others.  Instead they plan evil deeds for others (Psalm 73:7) and they scoff at God (Psalm 73:8-9).  And if all that weren’t bad enough, the wicked win popularity contests (Psalm 73:10-11).

Like Psalm 1 and Psalm 37, Psalm 73 returns to a place of asserting that ultimately the wicked perish and the good thrive.  The Psalmist comes to understand that reward may not always be material or physical.  It is spiritual. It comes in the abiding knowledge of God’s presence.  The Psalmist prays, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand” (Psalm 73:23).  And then later, “My flesh and my heart may fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).  So, while my faithfulness didn’t get me out of a ticket; defensive driving was a remarkably spiritual experience.

When the Wicked Seem to Thrive

Kesha is not the kind of singer I normally think of when I am reading and interpreting scripture.  However, in the Summer of 2017 she came out with an album entitled, “Rainbow.”  WARNING FOR MY MORE PURITAN FRIENDS:  The music has all the F-words and explicit lyrics you’d expect from a pop artist.  That said, I think it is a compelling set of songs.  The single that’s is being played on the radio right now is “Praying.”  The bulk of the Song is a very typical–I succeeded despite all your abuse–in-your-face Song.  Clearly someone (and if you know much about Kesha’s life experiences it’s several ones) has hurt her badly.  In the face of a person who has tried to oppress/suppress her she self-asserts and succeeds.  It’s the chorus and conclusion I find interesting.  She sings

“I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin'”

At the end of the song she says, “Some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give/But some things only God can forgive.”

I thought about this song as I read Psalm 37Psalm 37 is a Wisdom Psalm.  It resembles the Job in its outlook and contemplation of why good things happen to bad people and vice versa.  It resembles Proverbs in the way it offers succinct and paternalistic advice.  It describes how a person should respond to the apparent success of the wicked.  Like Psalm 1 it  contrasts the wicked and righteous.  It is a sober assessment of the present–where the evil seem to thrive–and a hopeful look at the future–where the righteous inherit the land.  Ultimately, it is an affirmation of faith that the God we serve is a God who redeems and a God who restores.

Gardner Taylor once said in an interview of Christianity Today, “God is out to get back what belongs to him.”  My friend and mentor Doug Skinner quotes this statement often.  Once I heard him say words to the effect, “My 55 years as a Christian convince me this is right.  My 30 years as a pastor convince me, the world will not give it up without a fight.”  So how do we respond to the fight?  How do we respond when the wicked thrive–Trust that the way of the wicked will not ultimately success.  “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and God will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for God” (Psalm 37:5-7).

I do wonder, though, if there’s something about praying for the wicked?  Praying that they are praying.  Praying that they are changing.  Praying that they encounter the grace of God who forgives.