Trust in the Lord with All Your Heart

We are all in liminal time just now. The old markers are gone, and new ones have not yet arrived.

If you listen closely on a winter day, you may catch the sound of the gas heater coming on.  First the click, then the hissing of the gas, then that long moment of suspense when you wonder if the pilot light really will respond. Then whoosh as the flame connects to the heater’s waiting portals. 

In the spiritual world that moment of uncertainty is known as liminal time – a time when something has ended but whatever is coming next has not commenced. Metaphorically, it is often portrayed as a flying acrobat having let go of her swinging trapeze, suspended in nothingness, before she grasps the hands of her waiting partner. 

It is a time, says theologian Richard Rohr, “”When you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else . . . when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer” (from Everything Belongs). 

We are all in liminal time just now. The old markers are gone, and new ones have not yet arrived. It’s the morning after graduation, the day after the retirement party, the house after the funeral when everyone has left and you are alone.  It is the moment after the hospital called my mother to say my father had died, and Mom’s response was, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next.”  

We are the Israelites at the end of their desert journey before they enter the Promised Land. God’s faithful servant leader, Moses, has died and Joshua is in place to take the people forward. The message God has for his chosen people at that moment is this: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” In fact, the phrase “be strong and courageous” is repeated four times to the people assembled in the first chapter of Joshua.

Richard Rohr sums up our anxiety: “If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will do anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” 

We do not easily embrace or happily hold this foggy cloud. We have questions: Will we have a job next week, or has a 30-year career just ended? Will we ever again be comfortable eating in a restaurant or going to a movie or watching the Spurs play in person? Is school going to start in the fall, and what might that look like? Back in march we thought this virus would sideline us for a few weeks and then we would return to normal. Now we know that we can’t even define normal any more. 

We are adrift, and we seek the assurance of answers. The psalmist instead calls us to wait and hope and trust with Joshua-like courage and strength.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope
(130:5).

Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!
(27:14).

And the writer of proverbs adds:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding
(3:5-6).

Instead of focusing on despair and disillusionment, the psalmist recalls God’s past faithfulness and looks toward the future with hope.  While fully one-third of the psalms can be classified as laments, they most often end with a call to remember that God has promised to not desert his people forever.

Even the mournful Psalm 22, that Jesus called on from the cross, ends with the wide view. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” it begins. Then after a long lament, the psalmist reminds us it’s always too soon to give up on God.

All the ends of the earth shall remember
    and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
    shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
    and he rules over the nations.

All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
    even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
    it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
    that he has done it
(27-31).

This week, immerse yourself in the psalms of trust. Be strong and courageous, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Psalms of trust

11

16

23

62

63

91

121

131

For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here. 

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Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at marjorie.george@dwtx.org. Or leave a comment below.

The Wise and the Foolish

Israel’s sages insisted that wisdom does not come from observing human actions or rational reflection, as was taught by the traditional wisdom schools. For the Hebrews, wisdom came from faith in God.

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. -Proverbs 22:6

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. – Ecclesiastes 3 

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand. – God to Job 38:4

Don’t talk with your mouth full. – Your mother

The tradition of turning to sages for wisdom has its roots in the ancient Near East. In the Old Testament we encounter these wise sayings in the biblical wisdom literature – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. In Christianity it finds expression in the Mystics and the Desert Fathers and Mothers – those who separated themselves from society to draw closer to God and whose wise counsel was often sought.

The psalmist also sang of wisdom. We see it immediately in Psalm 1 where we are advised to meditate on the law of the Lord (vs 1). If we would seek wisdom, we must fear the Lord, we are told in Psalm 111, for such is “the beginning of wisdom” (10).

But, this law, this fear of the Lord, is not a legalism for which we will be snatched up and thrown into jail if we disobey; rather it connotes a reverence for God, an honoring of God’s ways, a commitment to God’s wise direction for our own good. The prudent course of action, we are assured, will result in our well-being:

That person will be like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers
(psalm 1:3).

Israel’s sages insisted that wisdom does not come from observing human actions or rational reflection, as was taught by the traditional wisdom schools. For the Hebrews, wisdom came from faith in God. We find this in the history psalms, which we discussed last week, in which younger generations are reminded of God’s saving ways in the past as guidelines for the future. 

The traditional mark of the wisdom psalms is a contrasting of the actions of the righteous with those of the wicked, assuring the righteous that they will “be kept safe forever” while “the children of the wicked shall be cut off” (Psalm 37:28).

Psalm 112 makes the grand promise that ‘those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments” will live in houses filled with wealth and riches (vss 1-3). And when the wicked see it they will be angry; they will gnash their teeth and melt away; and their desires will come to nothing (vs 10).

But we know from experience it doesn’t always turn out that way. Few among us have houses filled with wealth and riches, and most of us see the wicked frequently prospering undeservedly. 

Even the psalmist admits that the “prosperity gospel” doesn’t always hold.
    I envied the arrogant 
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 
For they have no pain;
    their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
    they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
    violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness;
    their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
    loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven,
    and their tongues range over the earth
(psalm 73:2-9)

Forlornly, the psalmist sees that the wicked appear to be free of care, always amassing wealth (vs 12). But when the psalmist puts himself in God’s presence, he finds clarity and determines to concentrate on what is right about God instead of what is wrong with people. 

Thinking about the whole thing, says the psalmist, makes him weary (vs 16).

But when I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I perceived their end
(16-17).

When my soul was embittered,
    when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
    I was like a brute beast toward you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
    you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will receive me with honor
(73:21-24).

In another of the classic wisdom psalms, while we are assured that eventually the wicked will perish and the righteous will be vindicated, we are encouraged to be faithful to God with some practical applications. Psalm 37 cautions us to cease from fretting about injustice and let God take care of vengeance.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
    do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
    and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
    so you will live in the land, and enjoy security
.

Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart
.

Commit your way to the Lord;
    trust in him, and he will act
.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
    do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
    over those who carry out evil devices
.

 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
    Do not fret—it leads only to evil
(vs 2-8).

The wisdom that is offered by the psalms depends upon the mercy of God, and also upon man’s understanding that man is not God.  The psalms remind us that the foolhardy forget this and trust themselves for their prosperity. But all of man’s achievements mean nothing next to God’s vigilance for those who put themselves into his care. The fool says, “there is no God” (Psalm 10:4), while the righteous long to be near to God and make Him their refuge (Psalm 73:28).

It’s easy for us twenty-first century sophisticated Westerners to scoff at the psalmist’s naïveté in declaring that all the foolish will perish and all the wise will prosper. When we read in Psalm 37
I was young and now I am old,
    yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
    or their children begging bread
(vs 25)
We are inclined to say, “Really? Have you seen the long lines at the food bank today? Do you know how many people are losing their jobs?”

And if we can do something about that, we should. But merely raging against the injustice of it all is not productive.

We must remember that as with much of the wisdom literature the psalms are poems and songs meant for meditation and contemplation.  They are not instruction booklets for putting together the perfect life. They are songs to a great and glorious God who chose a people to love and guide and nurture.  Of course, they are replete with hyperbole and uncensored allegiance. 

The take-away for the Israelites, and still for us today, is that those who remain faithful to God – even as God remains faithful to His people – will find more peace and joy than those who seek the fleeting satisfaction of worldly goods based on their own craftiness.

Centuries later Jesus brought the same message to the descendants of the psalmists, and we learned to sing as little children, “Oh the wise man built his house upon a rock . . .”

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 

And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matt 7:24-27).

For practice and study this week:

Read the wisdom psalms contemplatively this week, being grateful for the many ways God has blessed you. Consider how you can be a blessing to others.

Look again at the advice offered in Psalm 37, above. Determine how you might apply those suggestions to you life.

Psalms

1

37

49

73

112

119

127

128

133

For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here. 

________________

Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at marjorie.george@dwtx.org. Or leave a comment below.

Psalms of Storytelling

The history psalms recount the whole story of God’s saving acts.

Once upon a time a sower went out to sow . . .  Once upon a time, there was a man who had two sons . . .  Once upon a time ten bridesmaids were waiting for the bridegroom . . .

Jesus told stories; we call them parables – simple stories that illustrate a moral or spiritual truth.

Of course Jesus told stories;  he was raised with storytelling.  It was the stories the Hebrews told to their children, and their children’s children, by which they both remembered and celebrated the acts of God that made them a people: “Once upon a time we were slaves in Egypt,” the narrative went, “but our mighty God brought us out of oppression. He parted the waters of the Red Sea so we could walk across on dry land, then closed the waters over Pharaoh’s army. He threw the horse and rider into the sea” (told in the first 15 chapters of Exodus). 

The Exodus event shapes the very DNA of the Hebrew faith, and they told it and retold it in their psalms. Anderson and Bishop, in Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, suggest that in order to fully appreciate Israel’s understanding of  God’s actions in history, one should read Psalms 105, 106, 78, 135, and 136 in that order. These are the teaching psalms, an oral history book for a culture that had few opportunities to read. 

But the psalms do more than tell the story; they speak to the very nature of God.   

But the psalms do more than tell the story; they speak to the very nature of God.  What is God like? 

God is the one who called us to be His people: 
He remembers his covenant forever,
    the promise he made, for a thousand generations,
the covenant he made with Abraham,
    the oath he swore to Isaac
(psalm 105:8-9).

God is the one who rescued us:
He brought out his people with rejoicing,
    his chosen ones with shouts of joy;
he gave them the lands of the nations,
    and they fell heir to what others had toiled for
(psalm 105:43-44).

God made covenant with us:
that they might keep his precepts
    and observe his laws
(psalm 105:45).

God forgives and calls us back to Himself:
We have sinned, even as our ancestors did;
    we have done wrong and acted wickedly
(psalm 106:6).
Yet he took note of their distress
    when he heard their cry;
for their sake he remembered his covenant
    and out of his great love he relented
(psalm 106:44-45).

And, therefore, children, our God is to be praised: 
Praise the Lord. 
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever
(psalm 106:1).

When Christians ask, “What is God like?” we look at Jesus, at what he said and did. John reminds us that if we have seen Jesus, we have seen God (1:18).

That first revelation of God known by the Hebrews finds completion in the Christ story – God calls all people to Himself and opens the Kingdom to everyone through His grace.  We too can say, “This is what it was like; this is how God intervened; this is how it is in my life now.”

Our story is both universal and particular – it is the story of all of us and each of us. The Church tells the story, and we nod and say, “Yes, yes, that is my story too.” And we know it not merely by reading about it or learning about it but by living it. Experience is our coach and tutor.  

As we read and meditate on the psalms of Israel’s history, we are invited to recount our own stories – to ourselves, to our families, and to those who cross our paths seeking a way to make sense of the world.

In the retelling, perhaps we will come to say repeatedly with the Hebrew psalmists, “His steadfast love endures forever” (psalm 136). 

For study and practice this week

Read these psalms and consider how God has acted in parallel in your life:

105 

106 

78 

135 

136

As you read through other psalms, look for incidents of storytelling that recall God’s intervention in history. 

Write a psalm of your own history, reflecting on specific events in your timeline. Share it with someone.

For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here. 

__________________

Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at marjorie.george@dwtx.org. Or leave a comment below.

Let All the Earth Give Praise

In week 1 of God’s People Speak to God, we join the psalmist in praise of God’s acts in creation.

I was distracted for most of 1970.  That was the year the first baby came; and while he was welcome, I have to say that motherhood turned out to be quite demanding.

So I barely noticed on April 22 when millions of Americans formed marches and rallies across the nation to bring attention to the plight of Mother Earth. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring about the misuse of pesticides had been published eight years earlier, and Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin pushed environmental awareness further onto the national agenda by organizing that first Earth Day, 50 years ago.

But this “fragile earth, our island home,” as The Book of Common Prayer has it (pg 370), has owned the respect of the psalmists from deep time. The very heavens declare the glory of God, acknowledges Psalm 19. “The skies proclaim the work of his hands” (vs 1).

 

For the psalmist, God’s act of creation declares God’s wisdom  and power in bringing order out of chaos. 

Recalling Genesis chapters one and two, Psalm 104 describes and praises God’s proper dominion over all of nature. After expressing uncontainable praise for the Lord of heaven and earth, the psalmist addresses the Almighty himself. Then, as if turning to an audience, the psalmist reminds us of God’s power:

In verses 3 and 4 
God wraps himself in light;
He forms the heavens;
He rides on the wind and makes it his messenger;
Clouds are his chariot.

In verses 13-15, God
Waters the mountains;
Provides food from plants and grass;
Makes wine for our pleasure;
Creates nests for birds and mountains for goats.

Next, the psalmist recalls God’s acts of creation in the beginning: how he set the earth on an immovable foundation and commanded the waters to fall into order (vss 5-9). In verse 18, God gave the moon and the sun tasks for the ordering of each day. 

The linguistic movement back and forth in psalm 104, from second person to third person and present tense to past tense can be disarming if we dwell on it.  But we have to remember two things:  First, the psalms are poetry, and the writers often take great poetic license.  The psalms are not, after all, statements of dogma or doctrine; rather they are to be entered into and enjoyed for the sheer pleasure of it.

Secondly, we see that God acted in the beginning and continues to act in the present time.  What’s more, we can talk to God and we can talk about God. There are no limiting parameters to God’s story, just as there are none to our own stories.

Lest we forget, the psalmist reminds us that all creatures – that would be including you and me – are dependent upon God for breath and sustenance. If God would hide God’s face from us, we would return to dust. But when we open ourselves to God’s spirit, we are renewed (vss 27-30). 

What will be our response to this outpouring of God’s creative self? With the psalmist, we are invited to “sing to the Lord” as long as we live; to meditate on God’s goodness (vss 33-34). (Note: Unlike the wicked we see described in verse 35,  who will vanish.) 

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Praise the Lord.

For study and practice this week:

Read and meditate on Psalms 
8
19: 1-6
95: 1-7a
104
148

Get outside. Take a walk. Sit on the patio. Read Mary Oliver poetry. 

Order and Read Songs of the Heart by Joan Chittister. (Amazon is delivering.)

For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here.

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Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at marjorie.george@dwtx.org. Or leave a comment below.