Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton

Having actively prayed and studied the Psalms regularly for more than fifteen year, I have been meaning to read Merton’s small book for much of that time. For some reason, his work has taken a long time to work its way to the top of my reading list. This is odd because this book has been mentioned to me positively on a number of occasions.

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) was an American Cistercian. Unusually for a twentieth century monk he become a household name in the late 1940 to late 1960s. This fame was in part because he was a prolific writer—author of more than fifty books. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain (1948), is said to have motivated many young Americans to turn to the monastic life. He was also a poet and social activist—his writings often reflected the latter. He was very active in dialogue with followers of Eastern religions with a strong meditative and mystical dynamic. In this respect he was a pioneer, as few Catholic monks had ever attempted such wide-ranging and open-ended interfaith discussions.

It will be clear as you pick this book up, from its diminutive size and mere 45 pages, that it is not going to be a thoroughgoing introduction to the Psalter. So, what do we find in these pages?

The book opens with the question, ‘Why has the Church always considered the Psalms her most perfect book of prayer?’ (p.7). His answer is a one of ressourcement. He argues that rather than being old they are young: ‘we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection’ (p.7). Because of this the psalms are the means to full participation in the liturgy and the deepening of the interior life (p.9).

The next section considers what it means that the Psalms teach us how to praise (p.10). He concludes that this requires us to be simple, that is to set aside our modern tastes and prejudices and to ‘be, to some extent, “Orientals”’ (p.12). He goes on to explain, following Augustine, that we are united with Christ as we pray the psalms contemplatively (p.14). He then develops this further, calling all Christians, clergy and lay, to use the Psalms daily (pp.15–19).

Merton claims that few really appreciate the psalms. This

small minority, consists of those who know by experience that the Psalms are a perfect prayer, a prayer in which Christ prays in the Christian soul uniting that soul to the Father in Himself. They have entered into the Psalms with faith. They have in a sense “lived” out the meaning of some of the Psalms in their own lives. They have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet. Or, indeed, they have been privileged to share with Him the chalice of His Passion (p.21).

The latter half of the book briefly examines some key psalms. Merton gives priority to Psalm 1 because he sees the call to delight in the law (Psalm 1:2) as a call to pray the Psalter. Other psalms are mentioned in groups which accord to their mood and approximate to form-critical groups.

Finally, we must ask, what value is there in reading this short book? For anyone already convinced of the spiritual value of the Psalms this book does little more than rehearse in eloquent outline what they already know. It will be valuable to those who have an interest in Merton or still need convincing of the spiritual value of the Psalms today.

The Voice of the Good Shepherd is Blowin’ in the Wind

‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
John 10:14–16, NIVUK

I have been working at home for around nine weeks now. I am missing all the chance conversations I used to have with my work colleagues. I miss the ongoing joke with the painter and decorator about my twin brother that no one else understands. I miss the encouragement of a friend very much on my wavelength. I miss the exchange of little snippets of life that connects my story to that of others.

There are a handful of colleagues whose conversation I do not miss so much—the handful of cynics who turn everything sour. These are the small number of people who turn anything good to dust. Being cynical is easy—I know I have tried it. Of course, sometimes being cynical is wise when we have seen how certain things operate, especially when they involve people and power. But being cynical is an unhappy state. It is a surrender to fate. It is a denial of new possibilities. It is contrary to the vitality and new life afforded by the gospel.

Our brokenness and frailty can give us a default setting to cynicism. We see this in casual ways. We make children embrace drawing, painting, stories, drama, and poetry, but often deny these things any role or influence over us as adults. These creative, imaginative, and reflective things all take time. And we have bought into the lie that we are time poor when we have more time at our disposal than at any previous time in history.

Being a Christian does not immunise us from the malaise. Often we have little time for stories about sheep, bad shepherds, the Good Shepherd, gates, and green pastures. We have been there and done that. The poetic seems too vague and idealistic—we do not have time in our schedule for these things.

But if we do not embrace story and imagery, we have little left of what God has given us in the Bible. The Bible is not a list of propositions for adults who have graduated from stories and poems. It tells us about God, about ourselves, and about how Jesus Christ makes a relationship with God possible. It does this in imagery, in stories, and in poetry. We live in the Information Age. We must not mistake information, for understanding, or wisdom, or the possibility of spiritual growth. We must not embrace the information deception, in which facts eclipse imagery and story. I was found by God when I heard the story of the crucifixion. I was saved when I understood a poetic parable about a vineyard.

The ‘facts’ of our faith are of course important, but rather short and to the point. You can catch them in a good creed. But these propositions are just the dry roots of our relationship with God, not its end. They require feeding if they are to enable our growth. We are changed and transformed on our pilgrimage to God by the richness of the biblical story and its intersection with our own. The Bible is full of stories, imagery, metaphor, and poetry.

Or, to switch images, we are sheep following a shepherd. We are journeying through mixed pasture with a shepherd to a final green pasture. The picture of God as the Good Shepherd is just one of a huge variety of images. But it is a biggie. We find it in Psalm 23, the book of Jeremiah, the book of Ezekiel, in Zechariah, in different ways in all four gospels, and in Peter’s First Letter. And as someone who I admire, called Jason Byassee, once said “We do well to listen when the Bible talks to itself.”

In Ezekiel we read a prophecy about Jesus:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
Ezekiel 34:23–24, NIVUK

This is God promising to send the messiah, the New David, to be the shepherd of his people. Just a few verses before this we hear God promising that he himself will be the shepherd:

I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.
Ezekiel 34:14–16a, NIVUK

These words from Ezekiel are the foundation of the familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000. Where we read:

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognised them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32–34, NIVUK

A few verses later, Jesus does what Ezekiel promised:

Then Jesus told them to make all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Mark 6:39–44, NIVUK

This is all ‘very nice’, but in all this talk of sheep, shepherds, and green grass, we are in danger of missing something. Because of our wet climate and experience of the English countryside and fluffy well-kempt sheep, all these stories and images becomes sickly sweet and as pointless as a poster of sheep in a field in Somerset with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ stuck on it.

Even in this serene story it is not all pastoral idyll and tenderness. The people with Jesus have walked many miles—there is nothing to eat. This is no miracle done only so Jesus can be the David Blaine of the first century. This is provision of their greatest need—a meal so they have the energy, having not eaten all day, to make their way back home across many miles.

In the wider accounts of the Good Shepherd we need to appreciate that a Good Shepherd is the difference between life and death. A Good Shepherd is the only chance the sheep have of surviving the night! In the first century there were no walls or fences keeping predators out – the shepherd is the only hope for being alive in the morning. This is why the Good Shepherd will go out looking for the one missing sheep.

Psalm 23 can also be misheard as a rural niceness:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

But the same first century Palestine realities lie on the background. As a sheep you would very quickly lack everything. You need a shepherd to protect you from predators to guide you to safe water and good pasture. You wouldn’t know the right path without this sure guide.

Martin Luther expressed it like this in 1536:

A sheep must live entirely by its shepherds help, protection and care. As soon as it loses him, it is surrounded by all kinds of dangers and must perish, for it is quite unable to help itself. The reason? It is a poor, weak, simple little beast that can neither feed nor rule itself, nor find the right way, nor protect itself against any kind of danger or misfortune. Moreover, it is by nature timid, shy and likely to go astray. When it does go a bit astray and leaves its shepherd, it is unable to find its way back to him; indeed, it merely runs farther away from him. Though it may find other shepherds and sheep, that does not help it, for it does not know the voices of strange shepherds. Therefore it flees them and strays about until the wolf seizes or it perishes some other way.

Of course, we know the Psalm is not an idyll:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

The Good Shepherd is not good because he hides us from trouble, hardship, and death. He is the Good Shepherd because he is our guide and our comfort in the midst of all life’s challenges. He is there leading on the path even when it goes places, we’d rather it didn’t. I sometimes feel that the cynical are those who have unknowingly chosen to make their home in the valley of the shadow of death.

Returning to the opening words from John:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

As Gentiles we have been let into the sheepfold that is home to all God’s people. We are called to listen to his voice. The voice of Jesus is not a one-off reality in our lives, though of course there is that first day when metaphorically we hear him.

How do you listen to his voice? What space and time do we make for this? There are so many competing voices. The needs of family and friends. Our own internal voice. The news that seems like Groundhog Day at the moment. The froth of Facebook. The insanity of Twitter. How many voices do we have to choose from?

For some of us the current situation means a possibility of more time to hear our Lord. It is a test in some ways. When asked what we did in an Age of Covid-19 what will our answer be. Will it be binge-watching TV? Or might it be the time we came before God to hear his voice—a time of quietness by still waters before our Shepherd? Might it be the time we ensured we were on the path looking ahead to follow our guide to put ourselves close enough to him to hear his voice?

Amidst so many voices clamouring for our waning attention it can be like being in a Bob Dylan song.

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

The true voice of the shepherd is blowin’ in the wind. The still small voice of the Spirit is there to be heard if we just turn off the other voices for a time.

 

Reference

The quote from Luther comes from his Exegesis of Psalm 23 at Table, Luther’s Works Volume 12, Muhlenberg Press, 1955.

On Kindness—Job 6:14

Introduction

Is kindness a high priority in our lives? It is not difficult to know what kindness is, but for many of us it is something we hope to experience, rather than something we prioritise doing. Kindness does not come naturally. It is a virtue. It needs to be taught. It needs to be nurtured. It needs to be given time.

I can remember being encouraged by my mother to be kind. My mother was always keen for me to befriend children who she thought needed my friendship. At Infant School there was Robert (not his real name like the others mentioned in this post), the only black boy in my class, and David who by today’s standards had a number of educational needs. At Junior School there was Graham whose parents were very religious. My kindness in the playground extended to being Robin as he wanted to be Batman. I’m not convinced we were a ‘dynamic duo’—we were both rather skinny—but we had fun.

For my all my efforts to be kind by befriending those my mother pointed out to me. The only times I ever got in trouble at Infant School was because of my association with them. But the lasting point is that I was taught, and hopefully learned, something about kindness. As I discovered there’s little reward in being kind and of course that’s not the point. Or perhaps this is exactly the point?

As Karen Swallow Prior, in her amazing book On Reading Well, points out no one envies the kind. She also notes that it is all too easy to muddle kindness with niceness. Confusing the two is a bad move because the agreeableness that comes with niceness shows no discernment. Niceness is a disposition not a virtue. Kindness, unlike niceness, is underpinned by a concern with the truth. Kindness knows nothing of the ‘white lie’ told so as to not hurt someone’s feelings, or the minor untruth to keep the peace.

Kindness has the same origin as the word kin. To be kind is to treat someone as though they are family. The kindness that treats people as family is more robust than niceness. Sometimes it can mean departing from being nice. According to Karen Swallow Prior:

To see and celebrate the good for others is to treat them as family. This is what it means to be kind.

But what does the Bible have to say about kindness? Both the First Testament and the Second Testament are at one as we shall see. Although we’ll also see that Jesus, as is so often the case, has the last and disturbingly challenging word.

On the Ropes with Job

 Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Care is needed with any one verse so let’s put it in context. The Book of Job starts with the famous wager between God and Satan over Job’s fear of God. Terrible things happen to Job as a consequence. In Chapter 1 we read:

13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were ploughing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the eldest brother’s house, 19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I shall depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.’

22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

A little later, of course, Job is additionally afflicted with a horrible disease.

As Job attempts to come to terms with what has happened and why, he debates with three friends. These debates take up around forty chapters of the Bible, with a fourth mysterious dialogue partner joining later in the book. Whatever the historical origin of Job’s story the debate he has with his friends appear to be highly crafted poems.

Our verse today (Job 6:14) mentions Fear of the Lord as does the second verse of the Book of Job where we find out that Job fears God. The Book of Job is a theological argument over what it means to fear God. It reveals that even those that fear God will know trial and hardship in the life of faith.

In Job 6:14, Job is warning his friends—he argues that there is a link between right behaviour and our relationship with God. Putting it more positively for us, as those that fear the Almighty and are in relationship with him through Christ, we should actively demonstrate kindness to our friends. We should treat our friends as well as we treat those who are related to us by blood.

In context Job is going further with a clear rebuke. More than, that there is a degree of menace. Could it be that withholding kindness when a friend is in acute need might really jeopardise our relationship with God? I think we know the truth of this in its broadest sense—continual actions that conflict with a relationship with God mean that someone walks step by step, mile by mile, away from the living God.

For us as faithful disciples of Jesus, walking with him will mean acting appropriately—yes, we make mistakes—but these are stumbles on the path not wholesale choices of a new direction.

Yet there is more to this verse than it first appears. The word translated as kindness in virtually all English translations has a more profound depth. In Hebrew the word has connotations of kindness in the context of a covenant relationship. Job and his friends are bound to each other by a promise or commitment, just as we are bound to each other through our fellowship in Christ Jesus.

This verse is also something of a foretaste of some of Jesus’ most remarkable teaching.

On the Rock Named Jesus

Jesus famously distils the Law of Moses to come to a fresh expression of Job 6:14. Let’s hear Mark’s account of this:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’

Mark 12:28–31, NIVUK

Here in Mark’s Gospel Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and Leviticus 19:18. This twofold summary mirrors Job 6:14, as a generalisation of Job’s specific point about the risk his friends are taking. Jesus, of course, goes further than Job and further than popular interpretations of the Law in his time. Famously in Luke’s gospel when Jesus summarises the law in the same way, on a different occasion, someone asks, “Who is my neighbour?”—surely there must be a legal limit to what can be expected? For Job showing kindness to friends in covenant with him was the necessary way of honouring commitment to God. The Law extended this to the community of faith as a whole nation. Then Jesus extends the call to the people of faith showing kindness to all of humanity through the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus goes to the extreme of treating as family even those that world would count as enemies.

On the Road with Bananarama

Being kind can be a struggle as it rarely seems a priority. Being kind can be challenging because we muddle it with niceness. Sometimes we struggle with knowing how to be kind. We can probably all remember a time when we tried to be kind, but this was not received well. We have that feeling that if only we knew how.

As Bananarama put it so well: Tain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. Trying to be kind only works when we do it in the right way. Sometimes we have to be careful to avoid offending. Sometimes we have to avoid being patronising. Sometimes we have to avoid creating dependency. Sometimes in the cause of being really kind we might have to risk offence or even run with it. Because at its best kindness is genuinely life changing and transformative.

Martin Scorsese most famous for some rather gritty films, directed a film that beautifully illustrates the transformative potential of kindness. In this film Hugo, the 12 year old Hugo Cabret, lives in a Paris train station—he has no choice after the death of his loving father. He has an abusive alcoholic uncle who teaches him how to keep the station’s clocks working. After his Uncle disappears Hugo continues to wind the various clocks and survives by stealing food. He is good at fixing things. He also has a hope of fixing people, as he explains:

“Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do… Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose… it’s like you’re broken”

Hugo observes numerous broken people around the railway station. There is the Station Inspector who is socially awkward thanks to a leg injured in the war. Hugo is afraid of him since he has seen him take other stray boys and send them away to an orphanage.

But the most formidable and broken person in the station is the mysterious Georges Melies who runs an old toy shop. When he catches Hugo and accuses him of stealing mechanical parts from him, the boy is terrified.

Hugo becomes friends with Isabelle, the goddaughter of Melies and his wife, Mama Jeanne. They eventually discover George Melies’ amazing past as a pioneering film maker. Through various means he forces George Melies to face all the pain of what went wrong in his past. He shows kindness at great personal risk and cost. Melies was a bitter and cynical man when Hugo first knew him, but he becomes reconciled with his past as a pioneering filmmaker.

That’s a fable of course. A beautiful one but a fable, nevertheless.

The two most common ways of understanding the life of faith are as pilgrimage and discipleship. Pilgrimage is the journey of life towards the heavenly city where God dwells. It’s not an individual journey. It’s a journey with others. Discipleship is the following of Jesus Christ day-by-day. It’s also not an individual thing. You can’t be a good disciple on your own. It’s a journey, a walk, with others.

Both our pilgrimage and our discipleship benefit from being seen in this corporate sense. Prioritising kindness on our journey challenges the worst excesses of misconstruing pilgrimage and discipleship as self-actualisation. Cultivating kindness enables the gospel-driven transformation of those around us and the by-product is our own sanctification.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as Midrash

Midrash is a complex type of Jewish exegesis that blossomed as Judaism become Rabbinic. One, and it is only one, of the tools of midrash is using diverse texts from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) to answer questions asked by hearers of the text. In this way a deep reverence for the text is combined with the poetic imagination—two things which in my view should unite to do justice to Scripture. I am personally convinced that Hallelujah in doing the latter echoes, either consciously or inadvertently, the former. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has become something of a key text in Western culture. Through its use in diverse cinematic contexts, covers by other artists and simply because of its innate qualities of profundity and yet ambiguity, it is known to many at some level. My fascination with it centres on my admiration of Cohen as a poet and the central role of the biblical psalms in the song. What follows here is not meant to be an analysis but only a meditation on this remarkable song. The very title of Cohen’s most famous song is a frequent refrain in the Biblical Psalms. The Psalter would be familiar to Cohen given his Jewish heritage. That this is the case is evident from any number of biographies about Cohen. The Psalter has two collections of psalms united by their use of the word Hallelujah, which means literally ‘Praise Jah’, the covenant God of Biblical Israel. One of these series of psalms, Psalms 146–150, have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah. They all end with the same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups-and-downs of individual and corporate experience. There is, in these five psalms, only cause for praise and its execution. In this way they are, therefore, all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the each of the parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter. This is echoed in Cohen’s Hallelujah which exclaims:

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Of course, for much of the song the singer has anything but the certainty and stability captured at the end. Psalms 111–118 are sometimes referred to as Hallel Psalms or the Hallelujah Psalms. As with concluding five psalms of the Psalter they make extensive use of the word Hallelujah. They do this in a less systematic way than the closing five psalms. Psalms 111, 112 and 113 all start with the word Hallelujah. Psalms 113, 115, 116 and 117 all close with this word. Thus only Psalm 113 has the inclusio device we saw above where the entire psalm is caught between to exhortations to ‘praise the Lord’. Psalms 114 and 118 do not contain Hallelujah. A subset of this series, Psalms, 113–118, are known as the Egyptian Hallel. They are known by this name partly because of their content and especially because they are used liturgically in the Passover meal which takes place on the eighth day of the Passover celebrations. The six psalms are used progressively through the meal: Psalms 113 and 114 are read before the meal. The other four are said at the end of the meal, during the drinking of the fourth cup of wine. So what question might Hallelujah be a midrash on? Perhaps its concern is how King David with all of his failings could be the author of the Psalter? The narrative of the Tanakh says very little about David’s musical ability. The most important thread being his playing of the lyre before Saul (1 Samuel 16:23ff. and 19:9ff.). David’s musicianship variously quietens a demon and angers Saul. Perhaps the former ability makes use of Cohen’s ‘secret chord’? Referring to David as a ‘baffled king’ seems appropriate because his life was full of the most momentous ups-and-downs just like the life of faith recorded in the Psalter—for every Hallelujah there is an opposing problem. Cohen’s song makes a direct mention of a key episode in referring to David’s voyeurism on seeing the bathing Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2). Cohen’s mention of moonlight might refer to the text ascribing the event to the ‘late afternoon’ (NRSV) or it might hint at the madness that was to follow—in biblical times the moon was thought to be a source of mental illness (cf. Psalm 121:6b). The initial result of David’s lust for Bathsheba is that she does indeed draw a Hallelujah from his lips and this results in the conception of a child that dies shortly after his birth. Later they have another son, Solomon. Whether his dalliance with Bathsheba broke his throne, or not, is speculation. The problems David has with his son Absalom might well stem from Absalom’s jealousy over Solomon’s status. Less ambiguous is that the domestic imagery of kitchens and the cutting of hair hints at another leader in Israel brought down by lust for a woman, see Judges 16. Hallelujah  speaks of a Holy Hallelujah and a Broken Hallelujah. These two descriptions are true of the biblical psalms in more than one sense. At one level we have the question of how David, in spite of his immense failings, was chosen by God and indeed favoured by God. How did a broken king write a holy book? Of course David’s identification as the Psalter’s author are idealistic. The psalms are the product of many psalmists. But many of the most poignant are those redolent with the sort of lament that David must have voiced when things went wrong, and in particular his battle, both physical and political, with so many enemies. Such psalms declare the brokenness which is so often the experience of the life of faith. All of the psalms, those from David’s pen and all the others, are of course the work of frail human beings. Yet the mystery is that their collection and canonisation has indeed made them holy to Jew and Christian because their experience is that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’. Anyone seeking an explanation or a theology of Scripture would do well to meditate on the midrash that is Hallelujah. Having said this, they might be better off looking to that which is signified rather than only a sign.

Reflecting on Tweeting the Psalms: Psalms 81-100

I have been tweeting the psalms for well over two years now. The idea is a simple one: I pray a psalm a day as a basic daily devotional activity. I have set it as the bare minimum of my daily engagement with Scripture. Most days it is a foundation to other reading and reflection. Posting a tweet provides a focus to the devotional reading and Twitter can be an aid to ongoing reflection on the ‘psalm of the day’.

Sometimes others join the psalmtweeting and this can be a great encouragement. Currently active psalmtweeters include:

@TermsofHeart
@gwpm
@mlaporte74
@OtisRobertson
@TerryThePeoples

The remarkable thing is seeing how different people psalmtweet. Over time I find I too, do it different ways. Here are just some of the options:

1. Tweeting a verse which captures the whole psalm.
2. Rephrasing a key verse to restate it differently, perhaps poetically.
3. Tweeting a verse that holds special significance; with or without a personal comment.
4. Tweeting a refrain which can be taken as a prayer with you for the day.
5. Creating a tweet that captures the whole psalm. Either as a proposition or better still, in my view given the genre, in poetic form.
6. Making a prayer for others; perhaps obvious world events for example.

Some of the above are visible to the reader, others are understood only by the author.

Why not give it a go and join @TermsofHeart @gwpm @mlaporte74 @OtisRobertson @TerryThePeoples and me – @PsalterMark – on what with God’s grace will be a transformative spiritual discipline. Below are twenty of my recent psalmtweets, which I hope illustrate the idea. One final point, please remember that psalmtweets are a dialogue with the Psalms not a replacement.

Psalm 81:
Individuals & nations all follow a path.
But what guides them on the journey?
Feeding on Yahweh makes a path into The Way.

Psalm 82:
Yahweh plays in 10,000 places;
Let the King of Glory in this Sunday.

Psalm 83:
Yahweh, why do so many hate your people? Why?
We look to you for justice and for shalom.

Psalm 84:
Hallelujah for the Psalter,
our A-Z of the highways to Zion.

Psalm 85:
Father, we praise you that righteousness proceeds your Son;
That we might follow his steps on The Way.

Psalm 86:
Frail and beleaguered, you, Yahweh, are my comfort.
At journey’s end I see the nations gathered in your name.

Psalm 87:
Zion permeates the Psalter:
Earthly city,
heavenly city,
throne,
God’s presence,
our goal,
Eden redux.

Psalm 88:
We can pray to Yahweh in despair when we have nothing left other than the knowledge of his existence.

Psalm 89:
The sad story of a failed throne becomes a lens of joy through which we see David Redux, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Psalm 90:
Lord we will worship you with gladness this day as we gather like so many before us.

Selah
The Psalter is a concept album;
But Western society has forgotten not only what the Psalms are but has no time to ‘listen’ to a whole album.

Psalm 91:
Dwelling & shelter.
A shade to abide under.
A fortress of refuge.
A shield from terror.
Yahweh our protector.

Psalm 92:
Gardener, I praise You.
Pruner, I proclaim Your deeds.
I photosynthesise Your Light.
I am rooted in Your word.

Psalm 93:
From eternity you have defined kingship.
Your decrees are everlasting.
The oceans reverently echo your might.

Psalm 94:
They band themselves together against the life of the righteous
And condemn the innocent to death.

Psalm 95:
Yahweh is the king who shaped mountains and seas.
If we do not harden our hearts he will shape our little lives too.

Psalm 96:
O Yahweh as we praise you today may we turn an old song or psalm into a New Song as you quicken our hearts & minds.

Psalm 97:
El Elyon, Lord most high, we look to you in your majesty and splendour.
May our worship this day honour you.

Psalm 98:
If seas will roar and mountains clap, how could we possibly refrain from singing a New Song?

Psalm 99:
We marvel at your revelation through pillar of cloud & holy statute.
Yahweh you surpass statues & awkward silence.

Psalm 100:
Lord you must laugh at the idea of self-made men and women.
Perhaps you weep?
Take our joy as trust; re-make us.

As I look back on these twenty psalmtweets I can see a snapshot of God’s grace in my life in late-August to early-September. I am sure that psalmtweeting is not for everyone but I hope some who read this post might try it or be inspired to do something fresh that will welcome the King of Glory in, with a fresh earnestness, on the journey to Zion.

The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture

Introduction
Human beings have, since prehistory, attempted to explain life as a journey. In a physical sense life is a journey from the helplessness we display at birth to the lifelessness of death. The physical nature of ‘the end’ is all too tangible. Science can probe it and concludes it is indeed journey’s end. Many world religions claim that this is not a final end, but there is something beyond our earthly voyage. The proposals vary from a hope of paradise to ideas of reincarnation. Orthodox Christianity testifies to an afterlife in terms of two poles: (i) bodily resurrection, and (ii) the New Heaven and New Earth.

The common experience of being frail beings together with diverse religious claims, contribute to a pervasive theme in culture, what I refer to here as the Journey Motif. It is found in a huge variety of cultural expressions such as novels, poems, cinema, everyday idioms and poetry. The examples I will use below will undoubtedly be culturally bound and limited by my experience and likes. Nevertheless, this will I trust be a helpful journey about journeys. Our destination is the Psalms and the blessing they are on the Life of Faith.

Everyday Idioms
There are numerous idioms and sayings in the English language which make use of a journey motif. I am not suggesting that these phrases are thoroughgoing metaphysical reflections or conscious nods to religious expectation. The point is simply that our language is riddled with such turns of phrase which collectively hint at the bigger picture of the journey of life. On a daily basis we understand such language without any effort. This is the case even when it relates to a context which is not a journey. For example:

  • “The business venture was going nowhere” means that the enterprise concerned is not successful, it is self-evident that it would not be expected to physically move.
  • “Her career was really going places” might be true even if the career was based in the same physical location. The same person might be said to have a successful career path.
  • “After years of study it was finally the home stretch”. Again the person concerned might have sat in lecture rooms, a library and their study but the idea of a journey ‘works’.
  • “Despite having it all he had itchy feet”. We know that this is not some fungal infection but that someone is thinking about changing their circumstances. This might, or might not, be an actual journey.
  • In times of crisis people often choose places to stay or new relationships that might otherwise be undesirable and we sagely note that they have settled for “any port in a storm”.
  • Someone making hasty life choices might soon discover that the “wheels fall off”.
  • Those who are more successful are often said to be ‘way ahead’ or ‘leading the way’.

Popular Music
George Harrsion’s Any Road, is a conscious reflection on the journey motif. In the song he has fun with the very idea that life as a journey is purposeful: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there’. Other popular songs portray relationships in the language of a journey. One example, among many, is Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time:

Sometimes you picture me –
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said –
Then you say – go slow –
I fall behind –
The second hand unwinds

Some popular music goes further with the journey motif by means of the concept album. In a concept album a narrative unfolds. Sometimes the story can be difficult to discern with the artist/s storytelling in a manner which leads the listener unsure of the details. In other examples the story is portrayed with sustained intentionality and clarity. Such a narrative is told in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There the entire life of the protagonist Pink is unfolded, from birth to death and then beyond. This work is a self-conscious reflection on the potential reality that lies behind the journey that is our lives. One of Pink Floyd’s latest works, The Endless River, reflects on the journey motif using mostly instrumental music. Rather poignantly the album which was released in 2014 uses work recorded prior to the death of band member Richard Wright in 2008, and it seems to consciously reflect on his absence. The album cover and the album title work to this end before the music is even encountered. It is almost as if they hope that there is an endless river but have little confidence in the possibility of life beyond death.

Literature
Many of the novels of the nineteenth century were also explorations of the journey of their hero or antihero through a large part of their life. The journey for Dickens is often one through social standing in Victorian society, such as Pip in Great Expectations and the eponymous and hapless hero of Oliver Twist. Such works typically see the end of the journey as settled existence in a place of social standing. Looking beyond life’s physical journey was the preserve of other types of art and later novels.

Some works of literature capture a journey motif very literally. The two best known works of J. R. R. Tolkien do this. The Hobbit which tells of the adventures of the Halfling Bilbo Baggins is even subtitled There and Back Again. Bilbo is fortunate enough to benefit from his adventurous journey and arrive home, changed for the better. In The Lord of the Rings Bilbo’s adopted nephew Frodo departs on his own dramatic adventures and eventually returns home. For Frodo, however, things are not better back home. Frodo has to leave his life in his homeland of The Shire and journey over the sea prematurely to the blessed lands.

Tolkien’s work is rich with the journey motif often with a poignant depth behind it, redolent with transcendent mystery. See my earlier post on Tolkien’s poem The Road Goes Ever On which is found in both of his Hobbit-centred works. The same motif, with the same haunting depth, is found in a poem, Bilbo’s Last Song, which Tolkien gave to his secretary, Joy Hill, in 1966. This is beautifully captured in the BBCs 1981 radio adaption of The Lord of the Rings, in which the now ancient Bilbo sings the song as he and Frodo depart Middle-Earth with a number of other key protagonists from the War of the Ring. Here is the middle of three verses:

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Such language undoubtedly echoes Tolkien’s Catholic faith. This is one of the reasons why his writing has a mythical authenticity so often absent from work of the same Fantasy genre. Much post-Tolkien Fantasy literature has a central story which is defined, like Tolkien’s famous works, around a journey motif. Very often these fail to live up to anything like Tolkien because there is no conscious depth behind the motif.

Poetry
Epic poetry from the ancient world was very often themed around journeys. In many cases reality was explored as gods enter the story or mysterious objects are collected from uncharted parts of the world. More modest modern poetry also makes significant use of the journey motif. Perhaps the most famous example is Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken. Here is just one verse:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
 
Interestingly Frost’s poem is often misunderstood with readers making more of it than Frost ever intended. Frost wrote the poem to suggest that indecision in life was undesirable. So ingrained, however, is the journey motif that this poem has been invested with religious and metaphysical freight by many readers.
 
Cinema
The journey motif has arguably proven even more dominant in cinema than in literature. There is a whole genre of film known as the Road Movie. There are numerous examples, Thelma and Louise is arguably one of the most well-known. A Road Movie of this type is typically one where the protagonists go on a journey which removes them from their ordinary life. There is an expectation that if they survive they will return to life as changed people.

There are other films in which the journey motif takes on greater scale because the journey is central to understanding something bigger than the protagonists’ lives. Such films have been produced for years but there has been a recent spate, for example: The Road (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), The Maze Runner (2014) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

All these examples are what can be termed post-apocalyptic in that we see the aftermath of a disaster which has destroyed the world and human society as we know it. The story generally revolves around understanding some aspect of the disaster or how humankind can respond in some new dynamic way.

The Way
The Bible is full of examples of what I have called the journey motif. The most important is the reference in both testaments to ‘the way’. Proverbs captures it so:

I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
Proverbs 4:11

There are other similar references in the Wisdom books and many Psalms (see below) which have a wisdom theme. In the New Testament ‘the Way’ takes on new depth of meaning. In the gospels, first as Jesus is anticipated to be part of its redefinition and then because he goes even further and redefines it around himself:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’
Mark 1:3

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 14:6

In the book of Acts we find that the Jewish renewal movement that became Christianity is frequently labelled as ‘the Way’. For example:

About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way.
Acts 19:23

The Bible takes the pervasive journey motif and makes some very clear claims as to how the idea coheres with the reality centred on the God of Israel and the Risen Christ. In short ‘the Way’ is what we call a faithful life lived before God. In the Hebrew Bible this way is followed in obedience to the Torah; a wise response to Yahweh’s instruction. In this manner those following the way are the righteousness. In the New Testament these ideas remain but are transfigured as a result of the self-revelation of Yahweh as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Psalms
The overall biblical testimony is that this life that we experience now is a journey; what is helpfully termed the Life of Faith. Its actual goal lies beyond what we can see, or test, here and now. The journey continues after death with the resurrection of God’s people. Those found in Christ will be given new bodies and made whole. Their dwelling will be with God in the New Heaven and the New Earth. The Psalms are no exception to this overarching metanarrative. As they are part way through the trajectory of understanding of the Way it is anachronistic to read the New Testament back into them to hastily. So, for example, Zion is the language of dwelling with God and the destination beyond physical death, but we should be slow to eclipse its broader significance and role as a key aspect of First Testament faith.

The importance of the language of journey is central to the Psalter. It is there at the very outset in a verse which rounds off a series of rich metaphors describing the ‘two ways’:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1:6

It is mentioned again in Psalm 2:12 as a reminder that at the outset of the Psalter following ‘the way’ is a key theme. The Way, and other journey language, occur frequently throughout the Psalter, so for example:

  1. The idea of a way, or the ways, is found in 5:8; 10:5; 17:4; 18:21,30,32; 25:4; 25:9,12; 27:11; 32:8; 35:6; 36:4; 37:5,7,23,34 and 39:1 in Book I alone.
  2. The idea of a journey along a path is seen in 1:1; 16:11; 17:5; 23:2; 25:4; 25:10 and 27:11 in Book I. It appears essentially as a synonym for the idea of a way or ways.

In some cases the idea seems to be part of intentional design of the Psalms. Psalm 25, for example, brings together a number of questions and themes raised earlier in the Psalms (see 15:1,2 and 24:3,4):

Who are they that fear the Lord?
    He will teach them the way that they should choose.
Psalm 25:12

Psalm 119, which occupies such a massive place in Book V and within the Book as a whole, makes frequent reference to the journey motif as can be seen by the frequency of some related words (in NRSV) in the Table below.

Way/s 1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
Path 35, 105
Walk 1, 3, 45
Astray/stray 10, 67, 176
Wander 21
Steps 128, 133
Feet 59, 101, 105
(journey’s) End 33, 87, 112

The Psalter also has a number of psalms that are best understood as psalms of pilgrimage. Most obviously psalm 84 and the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). They, along with others, are likely to have been used during pilgrimage to the Jerusalem during the various Jewish festivals. The Psalms of Ascents are explored in a couple of previous posts.

In the time of the Jewish diaspora, when the Psalms were finally edited to make the Psalter, pilgrimage was very often no longer an option. The Psalter was edited to take on some aspects of the dynamic of pilgrimage. In the same way, for us today, the Psalter can be seen to take on a special place in the Life of Faith. Through its incorporation of pilgrimage psalms, the prominence of the Psalms of Ascents, the on-going language incorporating the journey motif and its carefully crafted journey from, obedience and petition, to the final crescendo of praise, we have a book to carry with us on the Life of Faith. Over two millennia Christians have used the Psalter ‘on the road’ in diverse ways. I would not want to be prescriptive about exactly how we use it. The general point is, however, clear, we must ensure that we are intentional about our use of this gift that God has given us for the Way. As the psalmist knows from the outset of the journey we should be delighting in this instruction and meditating on these words (1:2). The result of this practice is that our life’s journey will crystallise into a remarkably static blessing:

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Psalm 1:3

Musing About ‘The Road Goes Ever On’

In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien presents a song, The Road Goes Ever On, which is said to have been written by Bilbo Baggins. It occurs once in The Hobbit and three times in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was an active churchgoing Roman Catholic and I suspect that there is something of the journey of faith lying behind this song. I have known the song since I was around eleven years old, firstly from reading Tolkien’s work and shortly after from hearing the song in the BBC’s 1981 adaption of The Lord of Rings. From that time onwards, I have found the words to be haunting and almost indefinably poignant; they seem to hint at something transcendent, mysterious and rather important. This is despite the simplicity of their literal claims. There is of course a very serious possibility that I am reading my own perspective into them. I have found this song helpful in reflecting on the Psalms and the Life of Faith.

Here is the first version of the The Road Goes Ever On, from The Lord of the Rings. It is sung by Bilbo as he leaves the Shire, right at the outset of the book. He is in an emotional state of new orientation, motivated by the potential for adventure:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

You, as reader, must make an initial judgement about how poignant, sentimental, or otherwise, you find this song. Interestingly the second time this song appears, this time uttered by Frodo who is setting out to dispose of the ring of power, one word is changed. Frodo’s reluctance, and I suspect disorientation, means he substitutes ‘eager feet’ for ‘weary feet’.

The third rendition of the song is spoken once again by Bilbo, as he is about to leave Middle-Earth. This final version has eschatological overtones as Bilbo anticipates the end of his days:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

The eschatological dynamic is made more concrete by the fact that Bilbo is joining the last of the elves to travel across the sea to Tol Eressëa. For Tolkien the lonely isle was ripe with heavenly blissful overtones. We have already encountered the idea that the Psalms essentially are companions on a journey, what we have termed the life of faith. Those familiar with the Psalms and/or this blog will know that the Psalter is a journey; it has a structure that tells a story. This connection, perhaps somewhat tenuous, is a reminder that the Psalms are themselves poetry and other poetry can help us imbibe them; they are meant to be nourishing.

To conclude here is my adaption of The Road Goes Ever On:

The Psalter cycles on and on
From the Hebrew Scriptures where it began.
The Life of Faith ahead extends,
And I must follow as best I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet,
I journey with my God, Yahweh.
Many challenges and trials I will meet,
But I am accompanied along the Way.

Lessons from The Wall and The Psalter

This short post was inspired by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. You might be wondering, at this point, if you are reading the right blog. Please trust me for just a little longer! The Wall is a concept album that was released in 1979. It is the story of a life, a sad narrative of decline. It deals with an experience of abandonment and loneliness, and in exploring these aspect of Western culture, it asks profound questions about:

1. Life after death. For example, in the song Vera a question is asked:

“Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn? Remember how she said that we would meet again some sunny day?”

The implication is that any hope for a satisfactory conclusion to the pains of life, perhaps more specifically any eschatological hope, is a naive fallacy.

2. Authority. The famous refrain from Another Brick in the Wall part 2: “We don’t need no education”, is just one line, of many, which questions where authority comes from. In this song the inference is that the protagonist, Pink, has experienced an education system in which the figures in authority had sinister motives of their own, that had little to do with the nurture and teaching of those in their charge.

3. The ethics of life. Much of the album questions: ‘Just where are we meant to find direction in this life?’. Various aspects of hedonism, including drug use and extra-marital sex, are explored, but all are found wanting.

4. Judgement. In the penultimate song, The Trial, Pink is subjected to a courtroom trial. It is perhaps meant as a parody of the Last Judgement. In a universe in which there is no God, Pink is charged with “showing feelings . . . of an almost human nature”.

The very title of the album summarises the disturbing premise of the album: some of us go through life, like Pink, in a way that experience after experience builds a barrier between us and others. For Pink these events include the death of his father in the Second World War, a stiflingly protective mother, a failed marriage and the sadistic attention of teachers.

When compared with the concept album that is The Psalter we see that The Wall presents an alternative Way, a rival eschatology and a denial of the possibility of a faithful God. What it gets broadly right is a negative anthropology – as it portrays a convincingly lucid picture of some people’s experience of the human condition.

Likes the Psalter, The Wall, is a holistic whole. It is a work written to be experienced from beginning to end. When The Wall is heard in a single sitting, the power of its claims build-up into a disturbing whole. The Psalter in contrast, in its journey from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, provides a vocabulary and a theology for dealing with the trials of life, such that their power over us is broken. This journey also provides the right vision with which to see the blessings of Yahweh, which abound in His Word, His actions in history and His glorious creation.

We live in an age in which the concept album and the Psalter have both been reduced to a 3 minute quick fix. Both The Wall and The Psalter, when heard/read/experienced add up to much more than their component parts. One of them portrays the dangers of building a wall, from behind which we cannot relate to others or our creator, the other is a lifelong companion of prayer which ensures we can build on the creator’s instruction and wisdom. Rather than building a wall we end up ‘rebuilding’ ourselves as a flourishing tree (Psalm 1:3).

The Wall concludes with Pink’s wall being torn down, though the significance of this is unclear. The faithful reader of the Psalms knows that the wall that separates us from God has been demolished by our Father through His Son, with no need for artistic poignant ambiguity. The Psalter, thus in stark contrast to The Wall, ends with emphatic praise, as will those who travel the Life of Faith with the living God named Yahweh.

In memory of the dearest of friends, Roy Jephson, who ended the Life of Faith 7th March 2014.