“go and come”?

The choral anthem planned for tomorrow’s service at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, is a rendition of My Shepherd Will Supply My Need; the great Isaac Watts’[1] paraphrase[2] of Psalm 23.[3] Chosen by our fabulously gifted choir director, Randall Traynham, it is a lovely piece (though the highest note of the tenor part is F above middle C; not the easiest climb for my voice early in the day or at any time!).

This morning, as I continued to learn my part (Randy says “It’s easy!”, but that’s easy for him to say!), I found myself studying the text. It’s familiar. I’ve sung various versions of Watts’ wording many times. And that’s the thing. Over the years, I’ve learned that when I am faced with well-known lyrics set to a new tune I have a tendency to focus more on the notes and less on the words, thus potentially missing the essential mark of singing with meaning. So, again, I spent a quiet moment or two reflecting on Watts’ words and I noted something previously unseen by me that had been present all along. Or perhaps better said I thought for the first time about something I’d seen countless times…

Watts’ verse 3, his interpretation of Psalm 23, verse 6, bears words nowhere found or even hinted in the psalm: There (in God’s house) would I find a settled rest, while others go and come.

Psalm 23 is, for me, among many things, a song of confidence in the steadfast goodness and kindness of God, which attends the faithful pilgrim’s trek through, verily, in “the house of Lord”, that is, in God’s presence, both in this world and the next.

So, I wonder. Who are those to whom Watts refers as the “others (who) go and come”, who, as I construe his intent, depart and return or arrive and depart from God’s house, who, either way, are, perhaps, transient seekers of and dwellers in God’s presence?

I don’t know. Though I would hazard a guess that Watts was criticized in his day by detractors who could not have imagined, much less dared, and might have considered it blasphemous to add words to scriptural texts. I also think that Watts, the biblical scholar and theologian, knowing that the Psalms, as a part of the Hebrew scriptures, were not written with a Christian consciousness, felt free to amend psalmic texts, particularly for Christian worship, to reflect his belief in Jesus Christ.

When I think of it that way, then I behold something characteristic about me and God.

About me? I, as human, alway subject to flights (and fits!) of unfaithfulness, am one who goes and comes, in and out of God’s presence.

About God? God, who loves me unconditionally, allows me, in my freewill, to go and come, in and out, and, so far, akin to the blessed father figure in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, alway welcomes me home.

Believing, knowing that this is so, I will sing this anthem tomorrow as a prayer that I, with Watts, will find in God’s house my “settled (unwavering, everlasting) rest.”

 

Footnotes:

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

[1] Isaac Watts (1674-1748), English Christian minister, hymn writer, and theologian; recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody” and credited with over 750 hymns, among them, Joy to the World, O God our Help in Ages Past, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

[2] The full text of Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 23:

  1. My Shepherd will supply my need: Jehovah is His Name;

In pastures fresh He makes me feed, beside the living stream.

He brings my wandering spirit back when I forsake His ways,

And leads me, for His mercy’s sake, in paths of truth and grace.

  1. When I walk through the shades of death, Thy presence is my stay;

A word of Thy supporting breath drives all my fears away.

Thy hand, in sight of all my foes, doth still my table spread;

My cup with blessings overflows, Thine oil anoints my head.

  1. The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;

O may Thy house be my abode, and all my work be praise!

There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;

No more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.

[3] Psalm 23, King James Version:

  1. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
  3. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
  4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
  5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
  6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

stuff

This past Sunday, my dearest friend, Tim Veney died. Since then, my nearly hourly musings have been flooded with fondest remembrances of him and, far more than usual, ruminations about my mortality and death. (Around the time I turned 50, I gave up my childhood-long notion that I was immortal, and then began to contemplate daily, not morbidly, but rather honestly, my aging and its inevitable end.)

Today, I’m thinking about stuff. Things. Earthly treasure.

Though I don’t think I have an overabundance of stuff, I do confess I have less than I sometimes want and far more than I ever need.

And looking at the 2015 revenues of the five largest self-storage operators in the United States, totaling $4.184 billion, clearly a lot of us have more stuff than our homes can hold!

And I remember when my father died and later when we moved my mother from the home they had lived in since March 1952, one of our primary tasks was emptying the house of their veritable mountains of stuff, much of it time-worn and outdated or broken and inoperable.

And the words of Jesus come to mind:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[1]

and…

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”[2]

I suppose that Jesus counsels we not worry about our lives because he knows we do. As mortals who dwell in time and space, we necessarily are concerned about material matters of the flesh, like our health, and our creature comforts, our stuff. I also suspect that Jesus bids we not worry as a way of advising that we not cling to our things and surely that we not find our self-worth and much less our salvation in them. Even more, his imperative word, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,”[3] is his prescription for his diagnosis of our dis-ease of worry. The cure for care about many things is to care for one thing – God’s kingdom and right relationship with God.

Tim

Tim, like all of us, had stuff, things, earthly treasure. Yet he also possessed (or was possessed by!) a joyousness of heart and a blithe buoyancy of spirit. Traveling through this life lightly, his stuff never defined him. Therefore, for me, Tim was a model of kingdom-living and I want to be like him.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 6.19-21

[2] Matthew 6.25-31

[3] Matthew 6.33

God or god? (part 2 of 2)

David Hume, 18th century Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, staring unblinkingly into the face of evil, speculated about the nature of God (in my view, rearticulating the psalmist’s ardent plea: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”): “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence evil?”[1]

American poet and writer Archibald MacLeish breathed new life into this ancient and abiding protest, placing this tart riposte on the lips of a character in one of his plays, a modernist retelling of the Bible’s story of Job: “If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God.”[2]

I treasure these words of zealous uncertainty about the existence of God, and, if not that, then the benevolence of God. As a lifelong inveterate inquirer with a deep-seated streak of iconoclasm, I have faith in (I hasten to write, not disbelief or mistrust, but rather) doubt. Doubt is a companion of my faith, allowing, encouraging me to question and question again the validity of the truths of God I hold dear. And nothing, absolutely nothing stirs my impassioned, angst-ridden wonderment more or at all than evidences of incarnate evil; gazing steadily, like Hume, in the contorted face of which I join the sorrowing song of the psalmist: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[3]

In this, I am comforted by the psalmist’s rediscovery of faith; in the shadows of the ills of evil, sounding, singing a righteous “Nevertheless!”:

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you, our ancestors trusted.

They trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved.

In you they trusted and were not put to shame.[4]

For me and my faith, God’s deliverance is not, cannot be found in freedom from want and need, suffering and sorrow, no matter how earnestly, sometimes desperately we yearn for it; at least not in this life in this world where mortality is an ineluctable reality. Rather I see God’s salvation whenever I, in the words of the hymn, “survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.”[5] For me and my faith, Jesus’ crucifixion and death is both God’s response to my and the psalmist’s cry – “I am with you always and, in life and in death, in all ways” – and God’s rejoinder to evil – “You can kill me, but you cannot defeat me, for nothing can conquer unconditional love.”

Deo gratias.

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) by David Hume (1711-1776)

[2] The character Nickles in J.B.: A Play in Verse (1959) by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

[3] Psalm 22.1a

[4] Psalm 22.3-5

[5] Words (1707) by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

God or god? (part 1 of 2)

My daily starting, mid, and ending point: I am a Christian believer. I ascribe to a faith, a conviction about, a confidence in the existence of a God as revealed in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. As I read and reflect on Jesus’ story as recorded in the Bible’s gospel accounts, as I believe in Jesus, I behold in him the incarnation, the embodiment in space and time, the enfleshment in human life of divine love and justice, unconditional generosity and equality.

On most days, my faith holds together, makes sense to me and holds me together, allowing, encouraging me to act with love and justice toward all around me. (As human, I confess that I am limited by my perceptions and perspectives, my preferences and prejudices; how I view, understand, and respond to others and things. In this, my love and justice, even at my best, are provisional, falling short of the perfect impartiality of my God.)

By “on most days,” I mean that I can hold, sometimes in anguished tension, this world’s lights and shadows, joys and sorrows (or perhaps, truth to tell, I maintain this equilibrium largely less by conscious attention to life’s dichotomies and rather by focusing on whatever is before me, momentarily mindless of the ongoing cosmic clash between good and evil), so to remain upright and moving forward in seeking to do love and justice, in striving to be loving and just.

Then comes a day that disrupts, destroys my balance, painfully reminding me anew of life’s fragility and the friability of my equipose.

Sunday, June 12, was such a day in Orlando, Florida, and swiftly around the world. A person, driven by animus toward the LGBTQIA community and, perhaps as now speculated by some, psych-social/psycho-sexual maladjustments, and, doubtless, motivations unnamed and unknown, even to himself, murdered 49 people, wounding another 53.

There have been other days like this. Many. Too many.[1] More, it seems to me, as I age. Or maybe in my aging I am more aware of our inescapable mortality, thus more alert to the stages, especially when accelerated by vicious acts of human hands, along our inexorable human pilgrimage from birth to death.

In my grief, my hurt, my anger, my helplessness, I cry out, borrowing the psalmist’s words of eloquent despair:[2]

My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?

Why are you so far from helping us, from the words of our groaning?

O my God, we cry by day, but you do not answer and by night, but find no rest.

My God, is it because you do not hear or care or because you are not there? Are you God (more or less), the creator and judger and reconciler of all – good and evil – things? Or are you god (more or less), a creature of human invention, a figment of human imagination?

 

Footnotes:

[1] I am especially mindful of the approaching June 17 one-year anniversary of the murders of nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC, by a person acting out of a virulent, violent racism.

[2] Psalm 22.1-2

who’s God?/whose God?

On December 15, 2015, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, Associate Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College (Illinois), was placed on paid administrative leave. She had worn a hijab, an Islamic head scarf. Explaining her action, she wrote in a Facebook post: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book.[1] We worship the same God.”

That last statement led to her suspension. The college administration considered Dr. Hawkins’ position violated the school’s Statement of Faith, which, in part, reads: WE BELIEVE in one sovereign God…the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life…(God) has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ…(Who), conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was true God and true man, existing in one person and without sin…

The professor’s action and the school’s reaction provoked a variety of responses. A number of students protested, demanding that Dr. Hawkins be reinstated. Christians, well known and not, have expressed views supportive and critical of the professor and the college; some taking sides in the debate on the sameness or dissimilarity of the God of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim revelation and understanding. Discussions were held between Dr. Hawkins and the administration granting an opportunity for her to clarify her beliefs and for the school to examine further the inconsistencies of her stance with its tradition and doctrine. An impasse was reached, leading, earlier this month, to the presentation of a Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings, the initial step of the school’s process for employment actions regarding tenured faculty.

I am sympathetic to Dr. Hawkins. I believe that the love and justice of Jesus call me to be in solidarity with all people, believers and non-believers of every kind. I also am sympathetic to Wheaton College. I believe that an institution, by the very necessity of its existence, has the right and authority to establish and maintain a coherent set of principles. Therefore, I perceive, sadly, that this conflict will have no mutually agreeable solution.

Regarding the issue of whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God, I have three answers.

Yes, given that the three faiths claim Abraham as their common ancestor.

No, given that the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity (in one fashion, articulated in Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith) distinguish Christianity from Judaism and Islam.

And, given that the God in whom I believe is larger than my understanding (and that of any person or group, religion or faith tradition), only God knows.

Footnote:

[1] “People of the book” is a common, shared descriptor for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all who ground their religious comprehension and devotion in a sacred text, the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Koran, respectively.