Monday, April 6, 2009

Speak of Your Will Before Kings

As a child, I always disliked the psalms. They always seemed so boring and distant from my experience, and they didn't give me anything. At least, that's what I thought. As far as the OT was concerned, I loved Proverbs and, as I grew into my teens, Ecclesiastes. In fact, in my senior year yearbook, we were asked (this was an evangelical Protestant school) what our favorite Bible verse was (to be included in the book). I chose from Ecclesiastes. Wisdom has always beckoned to me, and I have always been ensnared by her.

But the rest of the OT was just like required reading, especially the psalms; they were, to me as a child, just some other person complaining to God about being in trouble--enemies always trying to kill this guy--or the source of, usually annoying, praise and worship songs. They didn't teach me anything, I thought, and good grief was Psalms a big "book."

It wasn't until I got turned down by this girl I asked out in college that I first found an appreciation for the psalms. I drew great comfort from reading them at that time of being down and distraught. It was a flicker of warmth towards them, but it didn't change my overall feeling. No, it wasn't really until I became a Dominican aspirant a few years ago and started praying the Office that my appreciation (and understanding) of the psalms started to flower.

Psalm 119, especially, has become dear to me, though many others have as well, and the repetition of them in the Office has been a welcome way to serendipitously begin to memorize and internalize them. The only thing I knew about Ps 119 growing up is that it was the longest chapter in the Bible (in the longest book)--the trivia you learn. :) I did not know it was a love song for God's law. In fact, I never thought that anyone could be in love with that thing that St. Paul seemed to always be dissing. For a contemporary evangelical (especially charismatic!) Protestant, the Law is the big bad thing that Jesus came to free us from.

Of course, Psalm 119 is not only speaking of the Mosaic Law (proper) but rather of the will of God--the revealed understanding of the way everything is meant to work. We love it because God makes himself known through it--through explicit commands as well as through his design in the nature of things themselves.

In Psalm 119, especially, but all throughout the psalms, I have found the praise of God infused, not just for his law, not just of his holiness and awesomeness, but of that as expressed in his creation. Today's proper daytime psalmody (the little hours) put it this way: "How many, O Lord my God, are the wonders and designs that you have worked for us; you have no equal. Should I proclaim and speak of them, they are more than I can tell!" (Ps 40).

And, back to Ps 119, "I will speak of your will before kings and not be ashamed." and then again in chapter 40:

Your justice I have proclaimed in the great assembly. My lips I have not sealed; you know it, O Lord.

I have not hidden your justice in my heart but declared your faithful help. I have not hidden your love and your truth from the great assembly.

O Lord, you will not withhold your compassion from me. Your merciful love and your truth will always guard me.

This hearkens back to a recent post, that was admittedly a tad aggressive and negative. I prefer to put it positively, as an encouragement to us and to our pastors. We should be able to sing the passages above express with verity. We should not be ashamed to speak of God's will before the powerful civil leaders and, indeed, the entire "great assembly" in the media. If we do, as the psalmist says, God's love and his truth--the truth we are proclaiming--will always guard us.

Isn't that an amazing thought? That the truth will guard us? I have often found this to be true. In a sense, the truth defends itself. Because it is true, we're not merely opining or sharing one perspective among many that only has the guarantee of our own rhetorical capability to make it stand. Even if we manage to muck it up a bit, the truth is the truth; it stands on its own and will remain true regardless of our imperfect expression of it. The truth will guard us from our own incompetence and speaks to people in their hearts, even as they attack and dismantle our arguments through rhetorical rationalizations.

Although the Psalms are not explicit pedagogy, they still instruct. In fact, they instruct us in a way that is more beautiful and primal than other more directly didactic methods. In our joining our voices with the psalmist, we find ourselves expressing, often in moving poetry, praise and love for God and, in so doing, we learn (as we may also learn from our own Catholic liturgy) more about God, more about our relationship to him, and more about our relationship to others. Lex orandi; lex credendi.

I'm now a big fan of the Psalms. There are still some difficult and odd bits here and there, but overall I regularly find them moving, instructing, and empowering me to better praise God and, at times, to better express my own fears, anxieties, and sorrows in an ancient way, joining my voice with the people of God throughout the epochs, bringing me closer to and instilling a deeper kenning of the communion of the saints.