Meditation on Psalm 139

But Wait . . . There’s More!

If I say, “The dark will screen me,

Night will hide me in its curtains,”

Yet darkness is not dark to thee

The night is as clear as the daylight.

Psalm 139: 11-12 (Moffatt)

I’ve been writing about self-deception in my last few posts.  In sum, I’ve said that self-deception is pervasive and that it is often very deep and complicated.  We concoct deceptions to cover up for hurts and failures that we don’t want others to see and don’t particularly want to look at or admit ourselves.  Once a scheme of deception is put into play it can grow and become so established that we may not even recognize it for the lie that it is, even though we made it up ourselves.  It may even be part of our purpose to make ourselves believe it.  That might be handy for a while and it might allow us to cope temporarily, but in the long run such things are dangerous.  They can impede personal growth.  They can prevent us from entering onto deep and satisfying relationships.  I cited the example of Elizabeth Bennett’s self-deception about Mr. Darcy.  He snubbed her, at first, and her pride was hurt.  So, a part of her coping mechanism – self-protection – was to imagine, based on evidence from questionable sources, that Mr. Darcy was the worst of men and that any relationship with him was not to be desired.  So, she allowed herself to think, nothing lost.

If you know the story of the novel Pride and Prejudice, you of course will know that much was lost – or would have been lost – had not Elizabeth been shaken out of her delusions by a determined and articulate Mr. Darcy.  If Lizzy had been allowed to persist in her self-deception, she would have lost her destiny – her happy marriage to Mr. Darcy and her accordant share in his status and wealth.

I also said that a man or woman can concoct their own deceptions – their own false view of the world – but that same man or woman cannot, of their own power, undo the spell that they have cast over themselves.  I said that we are dependent on God for our own repentance – our change in thinking.  I said that God is the initiator and aggressor in His relationship with us and it is through His grace that we may come to see the errors of our ways.  This is at least part of what John Henry Newman had in mind when he wrote these lines from his famous hymn:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved

I quoted from Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”  That’s a pretty good source, but I missed a better one.  The very Psalm that had been the inspiration for the whole self-deception thread contains some verses that are right on point here.  This Psalm is famous for its opening and closing lines:

“Oh, Lord, thou hast searched me and known me. . .”

“Search me, O God, and know my heart

Try me and know my thoughts. . .”

So, there it is; the idea that it is God who brings us out of our web of deception.  What I had not seen though are the indications in the Psalm that the writer was perhaps engaged in his own self-deception.  He was deliberately hiding from God.  I’d read the Psalm in several traditional translations but only yesterday I read it again in James Moffatt’s translation.  Look at his rendering of verse eleven:

If I say, “The dark will screen me,

Night will hide me in its curtains,”

Yet darkness is not dark to thee,

The night is clear at daylight.

So rendered, this verse implies or suggests that the Psalmist is not merely praising God for His powers of perception – for His omniscience – but is reporting that he cannot hide from God, even though he tried.  I didn’t get that from the traditional translations.  This one verse, in Moffatt’s translation, gives a different color or flavor to much of the rest of the psalm.  The verses in wonder of God’s power to see are not abstract, general, or theoretical.  They are the result of personal experience.  The writer has tried to hide from God, but found it impossible.

What is the writer’s conclusion?  What does he say after being searched and found out by God?  His final prayer in the poem is for God to search him and know him again!  What God’s light has led to is freedom!  Freedom from one’s own delusion!

And this is the beginning of new life, full and free.

God As Initiator

Oh Lord, thou hast searched me and known me . . .

Psalm 139: 1

I’ve been posting lately about self-deception, how it obstructs our relationship with God, our knowledge of God.  And I have emphasized how deep and involved these deceptions often are and I have at last said that our way out of these prisons we make for ourselves does not lie in ourselves.  That is to say, once we make our own trap, we can’t get out of it by ourselves.

Then this morning, in my devotional reading, I ran across this old poem that says the same thing.  The poet, Francis Thompson, says it much better than I have.  But, it is comforting to me to see the same theme expressed by a great writer.  Makes me more confident that what I am saying is true.  Here is the quote from the poem “The Hound of Heaven:”

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him down the arches of the years;

I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

I hid from Him

Deception and Enslavement

In my early years I hid my tears

And passed my days alone
Adrift on an ocean of loneliness
My dreams like nets were thrown
To catch the love that I’d heard of
In books and films and songs
Now there’s a world of illusion and fantasy
In the place where the real world belongs

Jackson Browne, “Farther On”

 

Colossians 2:8

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

I’ve been writing for the past few posts about self-deception.  It’s a worthy subject and inexhaustible.  The dimensions and depths of the lies we tell ourselves and about ourselves have no limits.

My college roommate was, and remains, a great friend of mine.  He was and is a practical guy – smart, able, willing to help – and his career as an orthodontist has been a big success.  I gained a lot by being around him those four crazy years.  But he was no philosopher.  He did not deal in speculation or pontificate about the great existential questions.  I guess that’s why this little bit about him has stuck with me for so long.  It was, in a way, out of character for him, but it was one of the most perceptive, trenchant, and perfectly-stated observations I have ever witnessed.

He was arguing with his girlfriend.  This was not a rare thing.  She was a prim, sort of business-school type, who felt she had all things coming to her and rather kept book on my roommate to remind him, as often as necessary, that he was never really quite measuring up.  She was from Pennsylvania and had condescended to attend college in West Virginia, my own – and my roommate’s – home State.

People from Pennsylvania talk differently from people from West Virginia.  They say “you’uns,” we say “ya’ll.”  That kind of thing.    They call that NFL team in Pittsburgh the “Stillers.”

But on this occasion she was complaining to my roommate about his “hillbilly accent.”

“Well, you’ve got an accent, too.”  He replied.

“No, I don’t.  You’re the one with the accent.”

At this moment – this golden moment, in my book – my wise roommate said, without fanfare or ado:

“You’ve got it so bad that you don’t even know you’ve got it. . .”

And that is just it!   With regard to self-deception generally – we’ve got it so bad that we don’t know we’ve got it.  So, it is a very hard trap to get out of, even though we designed it ourselves.

But today I want to write a bit about how the deceptions that imprison us and keep us from being honest to God and thus enjoying a fuller communion with Him are fed and watered by the “powers and principalities” of this world.  If you’ve spent much time in the Bible, you’ll recognize that term.  If you haven’t, it will be a mystery to you.  In my case, both things were true, at least until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book Playing GodYou see, I had read that phrase about the “powers and principalities” time and again and was in that sense familiar with it, but had no real understanding of what it meant.  I guess I thought it was a reference to Satan and his minions.  That is true, I still believe, but look at what Andy Crouch has to say:

The first-century Mediterranean world did not know about zombies, but it did know about shadowy powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world.  The Greeks called them the stoicheia, a word that in our English Bibles is translated “elements” or “elementary principles.”  A handful of times in Paul’s letters we find references to them, as when Paul refers to “the stoicheia of the kosmos” (Colossians 2:8) that once kept his Colossian readers bound in ignorance.

**

In the early Christian’s view, then, there are powerful patterns of life, with more than merely earthly reality, that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.

That helps me.  And what I see in our modern world, for one thing, at least, is the spirit or powers that lurk behind advertising.

I am thinking in particular about the ads I see on television for pickup trucks.  They are all about image – all about cachet.  If you buy this $50,000 truck, you’ll be one of the boys.  You’ll be a tough guy.  A guy who can handle a shovel and a square and who can knock back a few with the boys when the ten-hour shift is over.

 

This is naked exploitation and the people who are doing it have to be aware of that.   I really wonder how many of these trucks are sold to guys who don’t make $50,000 a year, who don’t have construction jobs, who don’t know how to use a square, who don’t know the difference between a joist and a stud, and who couldn’t do a pull-up if their lives depended on it.  I really wonder how many of these $50,000 vehicles are never put into 4-wheel drive.  I really wonder how many of them have clean, unused beds three or four years after purchase.

And yet.  And yet.  These guys buy the big red truck and that’s what they spend their lives paying for.  As Tyler Durden put it in Fight Club:

“working jobs we hate so we can buy [stuff] we don’t need.”

This is deception.  And it is deception that exploits and enslaves.  Is it not the product of some elemental spirit.

What Are We Waiting For?

 

We talked this Sunday about what a big part of life waiting is.

 

We must wait for this and that, it’s inevitable and usually not enjoyable.  We wait, but we wait impatiently.  We also talked a bit about how central the idea of waiting is to our faith – the Christian faith.  We wait for the promised Second Coming, when all will be set to rights:  perfect justice, complete fulfillment, full adoption as sons of God, every tear wiped away.

Yep.  That’s what we are waiting for.  And we – the church – have been waiting for that for around 2000 years now.  But are we waiting for anything else?  Someone in class mentioned the idea that we’re waiting for death, so that we can enter heaven.  Well, yes.  I guess so.  Paul wrote that to him “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  But are we waiting for anything else?

 

Someone in class mentioned having inadvertently listened to a gospel-music radio program the other day and being impressed by how all the songs were about getting away to heaven.  You know, “this world is not my home” and all of that.  Undoubtedly, there is a sense in which that is true, but it seems to me that there is a possibility of an unchristian escapism here.  In many ways, this world is our home.  It’s where our living friends and relatives are and the place where all of those relationships unfold and flourish (or not).

Maybe when we say “the world” in the sense used here we don’t mean “the earth.”  Rather, we mean the mess that Satan and fallen humanity have made out of society and the conditions of the human race.  But the earth – this place where we, ahem, live, is a place of staggering beauty and wonder and we don’t honor God or really know His grace if we don’t appreciate the beauty of His creation.

 

Are those gospel songs the product of an unhealthy escapism?  Are they written maybe not so much by inspired saints as by those who have simply failed at their own duties to love, flourish, prosper, and to appreciate life here and now?  Are they written by those who may be jealous of the success and happiness of others – who may have flourished – and want to sing about the day when they will “get even?”

What are we waiting for?  The Second Coming?  Well, yes.  Heaven?  Well, yes.  But look at these verses from Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message) of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?”

Romans 8:  15

And:

3-5 There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Romans 5: 3-5

 

I don’t know about you, but I can’t read these verses – at least this translation of them – without concluding that we are right to wait expectantly not only for the Second Coming and not only for death, but for life, here and now, as God unfolds it before our eyes.  If that is the case, it occurs to me to ask of myself: am I waiting in the right way?  Am I waiting for the right things?  Do I even see God’s grace as it unfolds?  Do I thus frustrate His plans?  And fail to appreciate Him and this life He has given me?

Am I living in black and white when God has offered me life in color?

What Becomes of The Brokenhearted?

Scorn has broken my heart . . . Psalm 69:20

Jesus tells us that he came to “bind up the brokenhearted.”

This definition of His ministry is not limiting, but expansive, for the only hearts that have not been broken are those that never opened at all.   Heartbreak is not some esoteric experience known only by poets, artists and musicians, it is universal.

In Psalm 69, David laments: “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness:” The heartbreak David complains of here we might classify as vocational.  That is, he now laments his loss of authority and status and influence in his kingdom.  He was once a rock star – a famous warrior, a poet and singer of songs, “a man after God’s own heart.”    But now, he says, “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien to my mother’s children.”  He is “weary of crying.”  That is not to say that he is tired of it and would like to be doing something else, rather that the physical act of crying – its intensity and duration in this instance and experience – has exhausted him.

You and I may not have been rock stars, even in our best days.  But, if we have lived very long at all, we may well relate to what David is describing here.  Once we had the trust and confidence of our friends and co-workers.  We were sure of our own abilities and place in the world.  And then things fell apart.  We woke up to see that those we trusted, in whose friendship we rested, may have plotted against us.  Where we were once valued, we are now second-guessed.  “But now old friends are acting strange.  They shake their heads.  They say I’ve changed.”

***

We may also experience heartbreak in intimate relationships. 

We may experience a terrible break in a relationship with a child, a parent or a sibling.  David knew this pain, too.  There may be no more poignant human story in the Bible than the story of David and Absalom.

If David’s life on the battlefield is an example of how men should approach their careers – being brave and bold and strong and fast – then David’s family life is an example of how men should not approach their domestic lives.  Life in David’s household was marked by one tragedy after another.

The story of David and Absalom is a long and complicated, but for our present purposes we’ll just say that Absalom was David’s favorite son and that when David was old Absalom organized a rebellion against his father, King David, and worked to turn the people of Israel against him.  This rebellion escalated into open battle between those loyal to David and those who had joined Absalom’s rebellion.  In that conflict, Absalom was killed.  When David got word of Absalom’s death, this was his reaction:

II Samuel 18

31 And behold, the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, “Good news for my lord the king! For the Lord has delivered you this day from the hand of all who rose up against you.” 32 The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And the Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up against you for evil be like that young man.” 33 [d] And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

 

But the kind of heartbreak that is most often described in popular culture – in our songs and in our movies and television drama – is the heartbreak occasioned by disappointment in romantic love.  The heartbreak that results from unrequited love or a faithless lover.  In fact, this sort of heartbreak is so often the subject of poetry and song that it becomes a target for parody.  We think of the Mason Williams song, for example:  “You Done Stomped on My Heart and you mashed that sucker flat . . .”

Joni Mitchell had something to say about this kind of heartbreak – about how it is so common these days that we just ignore it – act like it never happened.

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels

A dizzy, dancing way you feel

As every fairy tale comes real

I’ve looked at love that way.

.

But now it’s just another show

You leave them laughing when you go

And if you care, don’t let them know

Don’t give yourself away.

Some will say that this is healthy.  You know – there’s nothing to be done.  “Just get over it and get on with it.  No big deal.  No great loss.  You should be glad.”   But sensibilities have not always been such.

In Jane Austen’s masterful novel, Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet confronts the man who has been responsible for separating her “most beloved sister” from the man she loved and hoped to marry.  Miss Bennet’s idea of romantic love is not so dismissive as Joni Mitchell’s:

“I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny, that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other — of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.”

Meditation on Psalm 77

Thou holdest mine eyes awake: I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times.

I call to remembrance my song in the night

I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search.

Psalm 77: 4-6

.

He sat on the hill where the old school had been

And wondered at all the sad tokens

The obstacles, failures, losses and then

Every dream he had had that was broken

.

He reached his hands toward the sky

In a questioning, wearied gesture

And gave up the ghost of his grasping pride

And tried his best to remember

.

The songs and the poems, the wonderful words

That his teachers had constantly spoken

The gospel of freedom, of power and love

The life in the clear and the open

.

Oh, where has it vanished, oh, how has it gone

The dream men have died to afford

And he looked to the ground where the school had once stood

And hoped once again in the Lord.

Meditation on Psalm 69

 

“Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness.”  Psalm 69: 20

“Some say the heart is just like a wheel: when you bend it, you can’t mend it. . .”

Anna McGarrigle, “Heart Like A Wheel”

Yes, there is value in reading the old translations of the Bible.   It is true that in many places the old translations are obscure.  The English language has changed so much in the time between the King James Version and now that sometimes the meaning is completely lost on a modern reader.  On another day I will argue for the poetic value of the old translations – how they sound and stick in the mind:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed . . .

Okay, that doesn’t really convey exactly what was going on.  It was not really a tax as we think of it today, it was more like a census.  But what a beautiful, direct sentence;  what cadence.
But all of that is a subject for another day.  Today I want to consider that the King James Version of the Bible is actually, in and of itself, a part of our history and culture.  So many of the words and phrases there have been plowed into our consciousness.
As I read Psalm 69 this morning I heard again the familiar themes of grief and trouble and cries for salvation and justice.  All quite dramatic and sincere, but in a sense, just more of the same.  Then I came to verse 20 and to this phrase: “Reproach hath broken my heart. . .”
“Broken my heart?”  What a cliché.   It almost sounds like the Psalmist has been listening to country music.  But, of course, it is actually the other way around.   Right here in this little Psalm is the only place in the Bible that this phrase is used.  I’m willing to bet that this is the birthplace of this idiom, this figure of speech, which has pervaded our culture for generations.  Point number one: that’s how important the Bible is – even from a secular point of view, it is impossible to have a deep understanding of our culture and, indeed, our language, without a familiarity with the Bible.
Point number two is deeper.  Let’s meditate for a moment on the meaning or poetic value of the phrase.  Forget for a moment the overuse and the cry-in-your-beer connotations that country, blues and rock music have given it and think anew what the words mean.
The Hebrew might also have been translated something like this:  “My inner life – the soul of me, my hopes and aspirations, my confidence – has been crushed, extinguished.”
Why has this little phrase so taken hold in our culture?  Let me venture a guess.  Because this is what actually happens to us.  All of us.  Yes.  Our inner lives, our inmost hopes and aspirations are crushed.  Not always – as in the country songs – by an unrequited love or an unfaithful lover.  Sometimes that; but there are a thousand ways hearts are broken, and all of us know intimately at least one of them.
And the phrase does not say “wounded” or even “deeply affected.”  It says “broken.”  That means that the thing is rendered useless.  It means that the thing doesn’t work any more.
How can you mend a broken heart?  Is Anna McGarrigle  right when she says that the heart is like a wheel – when you bend it, you can’t mend it?
If the heart is the inner strength, the inner life, and it for whatever reason is not merely injured but actually broken, that means it can no longer raise the will.  It cannot will itself back to health, back to where it actually operates to motivate us through life.  Some outside help is needed;  and that is the mission of Jesus Christ:

Luke 4:18

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted . . .