Here instead is the final preached version:
In Friday Bible study we’ve been exploring the dynamics of the Psalms, and unpacking the poetic language and metaphor, to see the psalms as a resource for our prayers. Walter Brueggemann, author of Praying the Psalms- Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit., speaks of the world of the Psalms as evoking universal life experiences, often experiences that test our limits, and suggest that we can enter the world of the psalmist, and of all the voices who have since prayed these words in the midst of the same joys, fears and struggles we face in our prayer and relationship with God.
How fitting it that the psalm in our lectionary is Psalm 19. It is not simply a resource for prayer, but is in fact a prayer. A prayer about prayer, and about the relationship between creation, humanity and God. Like in Psalm 1 and 119, the psalmist is rejoicing and praising God’s order and work. But the psalmist also acknowledges the struggle to be faithful, hopes against fear that his imperfect-ness will be redeemed. This psalm moves from the very broad to the intensely personal- it is kind of like taking a zoom feature on a camera and moving from wide angle lens- engaging God in general terms, to a closer view of God as YHWH, or Lord, and finally to the up-close face to face shot of YHWH, a Lord who draws near as “My Rock and Redeemer.” A God who travels from the vast heavens to the place of the psalmist- to one on one intimacy where ultimately nothing can be hidden. In the immediacy of this experience we perceive not only the depth of relationship with God, but see God as Lord who desires just such a relationship with each of us and all of us. While we can be a people who shy away from “too much information,” this psalm proclaims God seeks to know us, to get personal and involved, in the midst of our shortcomings, known and unknown, as our rock and redeemer.
But how can we come to know even in part this God?
For starters, I submit we have to read the whole of Psalm 19 (our lectionary has selected only verses 7-14). To grasp the full picture we need it all, otherwise it’s like watching the TV when they announce they are experiencing “technical difficulties.” To attempt to grasp God’s image with only one half is like the picture without sound or the sound without picture. Verses 7-14 praise God’s law, or instruction. To contemplate only God’s instruction is meaningful, but incomplete. Likewise, if we were to only look at the first verses, we would see God as grand creator of nature but lack the ability to decipher what the voices of nature would lead us to grasp.
To illustrate this point, I want to move through the psalm from the opening verses, those voices of creation. I am reminded of a documentary series from the BBC entitled “Planet Earth.” Over many years and at a cost of 5 million dollars, filmmakers were able to capture exquisite footage of the many facets of our planet- the rainforests, the depths of the ocean, the polar regions, the deserts, and so on, going to the farthest corners of earth, sea and space. The images are breathtaking- far beyond the psalmist’s imagination. My favorite episode, entitled “The Shallow Seas,” depicts the watery regions just off the seven continents in their vibrancy, their diversity and their quirkiness. There are creatures with colors that are too intense and beautiful to fathom, and unusual creatures that have purposes which are clearly intended but whose function remains a mystery. Forces of nature and creatures whose migration and life cycles seem to make no sense on their own, but in the broader picture can be seen to be just as they should be for that much larger scope of the interconnected web of creation. In one example, there are 100,000 cormorants, a species of sea bird which migrates inland to breed, hatch and nurse their young- sea birds in the desert of Bahrain. They need food, but are in vast seemingly barren wasteland, of sand and the shallowest seas. But there are unimaginable events that occur- they are safe from predators, and they arrive at just as seasonal shamal winds begin to blow, whipping up the sands and picking up nutrients in their flow, which are then deposited in the Arabian Gulf to transform it into a feeding ground just for these birds at just that time. Seemingly burdensome and counter intuitive migration is in fact exactly what is needed. To watch the aerial photography demonstrating the winds in relation to the birds is mesmerizing and I’m moved to tears to fathom the God who has created this arrangement.
All of God’s handiwork is too vast to ever take in, but I sense I can join those ceaseless voices of creation bursting forth where the heavens are bursting, telling of God’s glory, day and night- their voice is everywhere. There are images are of joy- of a consummated marriage, strength, indescribable happiness and light in the farthest reaches. Yet, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “Nature never taught me that there is a God of glory and infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word “glory” a meaning for me- I still don’t know where else I would have found one.” As glorious as it is, even these photographers cannot capture the answers to “WHY”- as much as I can imagine the voices of creation singing ceaselessly their praise, using only this view, I cannot say that I would grasp that God existed if I did not believe, nor could I hope to fully perceive God. Voices everywhere but not heard- Pictures without sound.
We need to learn in other ways. This is the focus of the second section of this psalm. We again hear repeated praise, but this time, praise for God’s law, the torah- Actually more than just law, God’s life-giving instruction. Today, Jean was showing me a cartoon that I think illustrates what we think of when we hear “instruction.” It’s from Hagar the Horrible. In the first frame there is a knock at the door and one of the characters has answered it and is standing there to hear the man who has knocked say, “I have good news! I am hear with life changing instruction for the people of this house!” In the next frame, we see the character who has answered the door go back inside and tell the others, “There’s a man outside who can tell us how to get rich!” We often think of instruction as this- how to’s for making money, getting ahead, losing weight. But instead our checklist, we hear that this instruction that revives the soul; gives wisdom, that should cause hearts to rejoice, that brings enlightenment, and is righteous and enduring. It’s kind of hard to imagine “Rejoicing about the law” but the focus here is upon what is life-giving and life sustaining- this relationship with God. Just as we desire human relationships, we should desire this relationship with God even more- more than the best physical experience, the sweetest of honey, or the greatest riches.
This is when the psalmist shifts from using the Hebrew word El for God, which could be any god, to YHWH, the Lord of Israel- God as Lord who is in relationship with a chosen people-who is involved and desires relationship. We hear six different words that capture the way God provides and proscribes which will give and sustain life. Just as non-human creation has been ordered and arranged, torah is intended to point the way for humanity. Sometimes difficult to understand, or seemingly burdensome and counterintuitive to us, yet life giving and life sustaining.
We should desire to be in and to work at this relationship- to seek to learn God’s words and to go deeper. Engaging this relationship involves constant attention, study and prayer. In the world of the psalmist and in Jewish custom, one would pray three times a day in three separate prayer services- early in the morning, early afternoon, at sundown, with a fourth prayer service on major holidays, a fifth service on Yom Kippur, and many additional personal prayers and blessings throughout the day, for meals, and when going to bed. And one would regularly engage in study and wrestling with all of the meanings of God’s instruction to pursue a faithful understanding. To fully engage this would seem like unceasing speech. God’s word and God’s name always on one’s lips, in constant murmuring. This would also mean that God is constantly on a person’s mind, for to speak we must engage our brain. Yet in the midst of all of this speaking, one could argue that this is simply a one sided relationship. Just because someone speaks doesn’t engender hearing and listening from the other. Indeed some of the hurts in our lives come from feeling unheard. Without a purpose, all of this would be words without a picture.
The fuller picture comes when we put the two images together in dialogue and relationship, where we engage God as Lord, and creator, and we find God’s responses in our prayers, among community, in creation around us, and in the universal dialogue with the Scriptures. Then like the psalmist pray not only in the hope of being heard, but in the faith that we are heard. This is the core of the deepest level of the psalm, beyond words, to meditations of the heart.
We can rely upon this. God is not just God, but our Lord, and not just our Lord, but Lord with us- Rock and redeemer are not just hope, but reality. The psalmist endeavors to join in the ceaseless prayer and praise of creation and of others though he cannot grasp the whole, but only part of the power and glory of the creator. And the psalmist desires to perfect this relationship with God, but is aware that this perfection is beyond his grasp, just as his complete comprehension of God is beyond grasp. And it is in this moment that the psalmist prays about his prayer, his murmuring and his meditation- that he can go as deep as God, as faithfully as God.
To be faithful involves true prayer. In the Hebrew, the phrase kavanat ha lev, is considered essential. These words imply worship, concentration, and perhaps the hardest, singlemindedness. Prayer without this is said to be like a body without a soul- like that incomplete picture. This notion is behind the question of who can know all of their faults? We can ask ourselves- How often do we approach God in a hurry, or distractedly- in worship, in prayer, in study? For each of us, myself included, there are those times when we fail to truly engage the relationship, or we go through the motions. I know that while I should be deep in prayer and contemplation in worship, sometimes I am thinking about what to make for dinner, or something I forgot to do, or someone does something that distracts me- I think we all experience this.
The faith of the psalmist is that even when we fail to bring our full selves to a life of personal engagement with God, God’s faithfulness is not only to our instruction, but to our redemption- a relationship. The subtitle for the Bible Study, “Praying the Psalms” is- “Running Out of Words.” I initially chose this title thinking that when we cannot find the words for prayer, we can turn to the Psalms as a resource, and can join the psalmist in praying not only with words, but with ceaseless meditations of the heart, deep thoughts we cannot grasp or express. But Psalm 19 pushes deeper- we can join in the hope and faith that when we fail to fully engage, in spite of intentions, God will still find the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts acceptable. – God, our Lord, who is our rock and redeemer, continuing to seek us out, to get personal and to deepen a relationship that transcends just words. And “this is to be desired above all else.”