Monday, March 3, 2014

Psalm 119: Relationship, not Rules

(I preached this at Newberg Friends Church on March 2, 2014.  It includes some of the material from previous blog posts, but it also includes some prayers from Psalm 119 that I've found useful.)

Newberg Friends Church
March 2, 2014
Relationship, Not Rules
Becky Ankeny

Jesus says this to you: Come to me, all you who carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you, and learn from me, for I am strong, humble and gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Myself--wife, mother, grandmother, Mom, missionary kid, teacher/professor, preacher, administrator, now superintendent

I went to boarding school from 2nd through 10th grade, except for 6th grade in Newberg.  Everything was rules, and the rules were mostly enforced through shame.

While in boarding school, I also learned scripture by heart, and two of the scriptures I learned were these: Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

Both of these come from Psalm 119, and I grew up thinking that they spoke entirely about the Bible, about keeping rules and thus about shame. Shame for not hiding enough of God’s word in my heart so that I would not sin, shame for stumbling in the dark nights of the soul. This Psalmist wasn’t my friend.

This Psalmist talks constantly about law, statutes, precepts, and commandments.  Very legal sounding.  In fact, as the Jewish Study Bible points out, the law in this psalm occupies the place of God in most psalms. I didn’t much like it. I felt I had little in common with this Psalmist. After all, I was and am in love with Jesus, who said that loving God with all I am and loving my neighbor as myself comprised the Law and the Prophets. 

Last fall, God “invited” me to spend some time in Psalm 119, so that’s what I’m doing.  What is here that can speak to my condition?  One of the first things I noticed was that it opens with the word Blessed, and I was struck for the first time by the connection between “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord; blessed are they who keep his statutes and who seek him with their whole heart” and these words “Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Blessed are the pure in heart.”  It occurred to me that Jesus might have read this psalm. I decided to study the psalm to hear Jesus how Jesus echoes it—Jesus the Word of God, who became flesh and lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  And along the way, the Psalmist became one of my witnesses in the great cloud.

The Way
I used a concordance so I could understand the heart of the Hebrew words a little better.  I won’t tell you everything I discovered, but one of the first openings into the Psalm were the words translated as “way”—derek and ‘orach.

I looked them up and found that they both mean the action of going, of walking; a journey; a path; a way towards something; and then by metaphor, a way of living or acting.  Immediately, I connected with the way as a journey toward God, each step on that journey.  When Jesus says “I am the way” the Greek word also means  travelling, a journey, a highway, and then metaphorically a way of living or acting.

So here’s what opened up for me in the Psalm as I looked at the two Hebrew words meaning way, ways, road, path, direction, journey. You can read along out loud if you like.

Blessed are those who are journeying toward innocence, health, and integrity; who walk as the LORD instructs them. They do nothing unjust; they walk as God directs them. How can a young person, a child, stay clean on the journey? By paying attention to what You say and obeying You. I have told You everything about my journey, about how I am living, and you responded to me; teach me to do what you tell me and train me to stay within the limits you set. 

I wish I were consistently paying attention to what you tell me to do. Help me to walk right past lies and emptiness; restore me to health on your path. Redirect my steps away from dishonesty, disappointment, deception, and teach me; out of Your pity and grace, direct me, instruct me. I judged my own path and returned to your way of doing things. I have decided to walk steadily and faithfully; I want to become just in the way you are just.  Help me discern and understand where you want me to go next; I ponder Your works that are hard to understand and beyond my power. I study intently what You have told me to do, and I respect and pay attention to Your road.

By being accountable to you, I become more discerning and I gain understanding; therefore I hate every deceitful and betraying path. I have refrained from causing pain, unhappiness, and misery; thus I have continued to do what you tell me. I have waited for your commands and paid attention to the truth you tell me; my whole journey is open to you. I have hurried in the direction you sent me, and you have widened my understanding and pushed back the walls of my heart, made room there for kindliness.

It is not hard for me to see the teachings and life of Jesus exemplifying this prayer, this meditation.  Blessed are the pure in heart, those purified by fire, those who have falseness pruned away; Blessed are the sincere and genuine.  Blessed are those who crave and thirst for justice, wholeness, integrity. Blessed are those who love and nurture peace and harmony. Investigate how God rules and how God is exactly who God ought to be, strong and just.  You will be exactly who you ought to be, just as our Father, who encompasses and fills up the universe, is exactly perfect.

Word, Commandments, Statutes, Precepts, Law

So I told about my dislike of rules and my association of rules with shame.  Now, I’ll dig right into the words that put me off in this psalm, and I’ll show you how in their hearts, the words are all about relationship rather than rules.  First is the word towrah, usually translated the Law:  The noun cloaks the dynamic nature of God’s interaction with human beings. The root word yarah includes the ideas of throwing, casting, pouring, raining; this active verb takes us directly to Jesus’s teachings about sowing seed, rain falling, casting pearls, and immediately we understand that God is always teaching all humans, always pouring truth over us, always sowing the seeds of God’s life in us, always casting a net to bring us human fish into the boat. Once I hear how Jesus echoes these ideas, I can read this aspect of Psalm 119 with the joy and gratitude and love expressed by the Psalmist toward the law, the continuous teaching of God in my life.

Uncover my eyes; I have seen things that are hard to understand and beyond my power in your instructions.  Give me understanding, discernment, and insight; I have been guarding your teaching; I have been waiting for and keeping it safe in my inner self, my mind, will, and heart. Proud people, liars, selfish, hypocritical people, mischief-makers, people who have not listened to your teaching have made my life miserable.  I weep rivers, my very self is endangered. It is time for you to act! People are ignoring your teaching.

Enclose me in your compassion so that I can stay alive and be restored to health. I take pleasure in your teaching. When you teach me, I value it more than gold and silver. I love your teaching. Your justice is timeless and your teaching is reliable, stable and true. Those who love your teaching have abundant health and peace, and nothing trips them up. Blessed are those who are journeying toward innocence, health, and integrity; who walk as the LORD instructs them.

Jesus uses both sprinkling/watering and laying a foundation in a couple of parables:  Whoever hears and does what I say is like a person who builds a house on stone. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who insult you and drive you away. This will show your family resemblance to your Father in heaven, who makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sprinkles rain on the just and the unjust. Quakers believe that there is a seed of God in each person; God’s teaching waters that seed and shines on it to bring it to life. The truth here is that the Psalmist from Psalm 119 is the “seed” asking for rain and sun.

Another word usually translated statutes is choq. It has in it the idea of assignments, of things coming due, of limits.  As a former English teacher, I get a clear picture of asking for learning to be demonstrated by action—say a 3 page paper, due next week, double-spaced, one-inch margins, and so on.  Also, please proofread.  Here are a couple of the verses from Psalm 119 with that meaning highlighted. 

Blessed are you, O LORD! You are good and do good. The earth, O LORD, is full of your mercy. Oh, that I were consistently completing what you assign to me. Teach me how to fulfill your assignments.  I sing about them as I journey and when I rest.  Even when I am exhausted, I do not forget your assignments.  I have stretched with my whole self to fulfill your assignments. I am happy to be humbled so that I can practice doing what you assign. Keep me steady and I will keep my eyes on what you’ve assigned me to do.  I open my hands to your commissioning, which I have loved; I turn your assignments to me over and over in my mind, I talk about them, I sing them and pray them. 

Jesus said something similar about his own relationship with God. 
I carry out nothing separately, by myself, and in fact, I say only what my Father teaches me and lays on me to say.  The one who gave me this to carry has not left me behind or abandoned me or sent me away without help, since I always do things he agrees with. Do you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I pour forth to you are not mine but the Father’s, and he carries out the work. My food is to carry out the commands of the one who sent me; my delight is to do what gives God pleasure, and to contribute to God’s enterprise in order to complete it.

Another word very similar in meaning to this one is piqquwd—usually translated precepts, it adds to the idea of assignment the responsibility for someone or something else, taking care of something entrusted to us. 

You have given us responsibility for our behavior.  Make me understand how to walk responsibly on your road. I walk beside all who respect and revere you, all who take good care of what you’ve entrusted to them. Support me, hold me up; I have decided to take on the responsibility you’ve given me. When I care for what you’ve entrusted to me, I gain discernment and understanding, even more than those older than I.

 I am small and despised, yet I do not forget my responsibility to you.  I am yours, save me, redeem me from oppression, for I have cared for what you gave to me.  The proud lie about me, and the wicked have tried to trap me, but I guard what you’ve put in my care. I long to do your work; give me life and health in your justice. I love doing your work; give me life and health out of your goodness, your kindness.  I will walk in freedom in a spacious landscape, for I care deeply about doing your work the way you expect.

Do not suppose that I am come to break apart the law and the prophets; I am come not to break them apart but to to carry them out, to make them real, to fill them up, to pervade them with my presence. … I advise each of you that unless you are as you ought to be, like a flower in full bloom, more abundant and of higher quality than the religious teachers and those who observe the law most conscientiously, you cannot possibly come into the life where God rules. My food is to carry out the commands of the one who sent me; my delight is to do what gives God pleasure, and to contribute to God’s enterprise in order to complete it.

I can’t help but think of all the parables about stewards—of those in whom the employer trusted, those he left in charge of all he had.  Lots of warnings in those stories for each of us.

My good friend George MacDonald says this: “instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because God said Do it or once abstained because God said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe or even want to believe in God if you do not do anything God tells you.” Fulfill the responsibility right in front of you; God will be sure you know what it is.

Your Word
There are a couple of words that are translated “word” in Psalm 119: dabar and ‘imrah.  Both of these have in them the idea of speech, speaking, uttering, promising, declaring, conversing.  This makes me just as happy as the Psalmist when I understand the psalm this way. 

How can a youngster keep clean on the journey? By listening to what you say and doing it. I find delight in your assignments; I have not forgotten what you said. Ripen me, so that I may live and treasure what you say to me.  Remember what you said to me that gave me hope.  What you say shines like sunlight through a doorway and gives discernment, insight and understanding to the open-minded.  What you say to me is a lamp in the darkness that shows me where to place my feet on my path.  What you say stands forever in the universe. What you say is reliable and true, and all your decisions are always good and just.  What you say is refined and tested like gold, and I love it.  Your words are smooth and sweet as honey. With your words direct my steps so that no trouble, sorrow, or idolatry dominates me.  Let your good kindness, your mercy comfort and console me, just as you promised. This comforts me in my misery; what you say to me restores me to life and health.

I’ll remind you that Jesus is the Word, as well as the Way, the Truth and the Life. 
Jesus said, Pray like this: Our Father who both fills and transcends the universe, entirely holy One, Give us this day what we need to live. Forgive us our offences even as we forgive those who offend us. Don’t lead us into temptation, but draw us nearer to you to avoid evil.   

Meditating on God’s Word

What do you think of when you hear the word “meditate”?  I think of emptying one’s mind of busy everyday thoughts in order to allow it to fill up with the awareness of God.  I think of sitting still, of keeping quiet. Yet the word used in Psalm 119 that is translated (NKJV) as “meditate” is siyach, and it has in it very active ideas.  When my Psalmist friend says, “I will meditate,” the meaning is more like, “I keep on turning this over in my mind; I sing it out; I talk about it; I talk to myself about it; I commune with it; I complain about it; I muse on it.”  In its heart, the word has the idea of germinating, putting forth shoots and buds, bringing forth, producing, daring, lifting up.  I am so taken with the interactive nature of the word “meditate” with the end result being life, growth, productiveness, adventure.  This is not what I expected.

I watch all night, wide awake, complaining about what you have said; singing about what you have said; pondering what you have said; talking with myself about what you have said.  I muse on it until it germinates, brings forth new life in me, and helps me to dare to be obedient. 

I keep on pondering, thinking about, talking through, musing on your assignments and charges, even complaining about them, and thus I keep my attention on your path, your way of living.

Leaders badmouthed me and threatened me, but I am your slave, and I keep on thinking about, singing about, complaining about, talking with myself about the limits and boundaries you have set.

Keep on disconcerting those who are puffed up, the presumptuous ones; they twisted me up for no reason; but I keep on focusing on what you’ve given me to do, thinking it through, talking with myself about it until it comes to life and I dare to stand up and obey. 

Help me discern the direction of what you have given me to do; so shall I keep on pondering, singing about, talking about your continual wonders, your strength, your mysteries, how you are different from everything and everyone else.

I keep on carrying your orders in my hands, orders I have loved to carry out, and I continue to think about and ponder and pray about what you tell me to do until it bursts into life in me, a life that stands up and dares to obey you.

These verses remind me so much of the life of Jesus. Jesus interacted with God’s words to him. His meditation is not passive, but passionate. He fought the devil in the desert in order to understand God’s word, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He discerned the kernel of falseness in the devil’s suggestions of how to be the son of God. Jesus’s life illustrates the fact that obedience to God includes standing up to presumptuousness, to arrogance, to power, daring to speak the truth, respecting the boundaries set up by God.

Jesus knew his calling was to live in direct obedience to every word of God. Everything God told him to do, he did, and he did nothing that was not directed by God. “If you want to enter into life, keep (attend carefully to) the commandments (the orders).” Do what God tells you to do.  (Matthew 19:17). “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in (live in, dwell in) my love, just as I keep my Father’s commandments and abide in my Father’s love.” This shows an emphasis on paying attention and obeying similar to that of the Psalmist of Psalm 119.   “If you continue in (abide in) my word (what I have said), you are my disciples indeed” (John 8:31). “As the Father loves me, so I love you; continue in my love” (John 15:9).

Jesus meditated on the command of God in the garden of Gethsemane; he talked to God about it; you could say that he complained a bit when he asked whether things had to be done this way; and he expressed his willingness to do what God wanted, but he wanted to be sure. “Is this really what you mean for me to do?” he asked his Father. “Is there any other way?” Then he dared to rise up and do what his Father told him to do.

Jesus said, I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly, beyond measure.  Our Psalmist says, “I will walk freely in a broad, spacious place, because I look carefully for what you are entrusting to my care, for the responsibility you are giving me.” Not rules, not shame, but relationship, a continual interaction and conversation with God. Come to me, says Jesus, all you who are carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke on you and learn from me, for I am strong, gentle, and humble in heart.  And you will find rest for your souls.