From “Doubting Thomas” through Luke’s post-resurrection appearances, we’ve looked at discipleship and doubt thus far in Eastertide.
Last week we talked about what it means for us to accept that doubt is probably a necessary ingredient in the experience of faith.
We talked about what it means when we refer to the gathering of the faithful; how “the faithful” may well be folks who are not necessarily always rock-solid in their faith, who are not static, but who are the folks that keep showing up, who keep trying to know God better. Not showing up here necessarily, but keep showing up to this trying-to-know-God-better — and who lose the thread of that effort but who also allow themselves to be moved at least to some extent by hope, hope that our lives might be changed if we behave differently in light of our genuine belief in the resurrection of Jesus and all of the attendant promises God has made.
Now is probably a good moment to remind you that in most cases preachers are not gushing expertise from the pulpit — from six feet above reproach, as they say. We’re not condescending to share with you a series of messages representing our mastery. I personally tend to bring into these opportunities the things I most need to hear, the questions and thoughts that I am hopeful will bring me closer to God: “How will your life be different this week, Father Ed?”
And while I’d love to be able to tell you that I slipped easily into a new me who’s perfectly equipped to always see God’s presence and to be God’s presence always in the world this past week, the truth is that I am still squarely among the faithful: often doubt-filled, frequently blind, and yet tenaciously hopeful.
“Hope.” There’s that word again; it must be important.
I’m thinking in fact that hope is at the very foundation of what it means to be in relationship with God. We can’t prove God exists, so we have faith in God — faith that includes doubt. Faith plus doubt equals hope.
And when I think of hope, believe it or not, I actually often think of the Hebrew Bible. The story of salvation in Jewish Scripture is incredibly rich and vibrant with bright colorful imagery and poetry with drama and intensity.
The stories themselves not only reflect God’s movement through vast oceanic expanses of feeling that undergird the behavior of individuals, tribes, and nations; these stories reach into our very core places. They have the capacity to do so millennia later and touch many similar forms of emotion in the form of nonverbal linguistic exchange with the ineffable — the undefinable — God.
And in surveying the arc of this rich library, we find that at the end of each of the dramas of the Hebrews, dramas that fall like spiritual dominoes, we find a return, a reconciliation with God and deeper knowledge of God, and how — in ever-expanding ways, the nature of God’s purpose in the lives of the characters in the stories, in the lives of the people in the world — how God’s presence is made clearer.
And this process stands on its own, over and above, apart from anything like messianic expectation.
Odd, in a way, to be speaking of the Hebrew Bible, long-known as the Old Testament, odd in Anglican Eastertide, because we eschew the usual lesson from Jewish Scripture in favor of a walk through the Acts of the Apostles. But the psalms remain: the psalms, the Psalter!
The psalms are old. They predate much of Jewish Scripture beginning, according to most scholars, even before the time of the history books: before the time of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. Psalms are indispensable to some of the greatest theologians. Martin Luther is said to have felt the psalms were a capsulized version of the story of salvation. And Athanasius, to whom an early iteration of our Creed is attributed, felt that, “The Book of Psalms has a certain persuasive precision of expression for those who devote themselves to it.” It’s like a garden, he says, containing things from the Law, from the histories, and from the prophets, set to music.
The unique element of the psalms is that they allow the reader to get inside the personalities and events of the Hebrew Bible as a participant. Or, better said, it allows these personalities and events to get inside the reader — as an emotive factor — and shape the reader’s life in accordance with the teachings that are found there.
Athanasius explains that in the Book of Psalms, we’re not only told what we should do, as we are in the Law, we’re also actually helped to do it. We’re not only instructed to repent, we’re also given the emotions and the words of repentance. We’re led by the psalms into praise and petition of God and offered the words to use. We’re invited to make the words of the psalms our own, something we could never do with the words of Moses and the prophets.
The psalms, declares Athanasius, are like a mirror in which one beholds oneself and the emotions of one’s own soul. Psalms, when prayed, when we feel a connection with one or another of the words or feelings, make our prayers rise up then from the bottoms of our hearts… make our prayers like the roots of great trees, roots that reach deep into the earth and hold the tree firm in the stormy blasts.
People who pray in this way, says John Chrysostom, profit in their souls even before their requests are granted, so do not look only to get what you ask but also to make the soul better from prayer itself. For this too is the result of prayer.
How will our lives be different this week? Perhaps our doubt-filled, frequently blind, and yet tenaciously hopeful week will be different as a result of a small internal shift — perhaps allowing the psalms to be an instruction book, teaching us how to lay bare our souls before God.
In that process our souls might be bettered from the prayer itself and we might then allow God’s promises to make more of an impact on behavior if consciousness is changed and uplifted, even just a little.
Psalm 23, a text so popular as to almost seem representative of the entire canon of Scripture: today this song meets God’s triumph in the resurrection as the significance of “Jesus, the good shepherd” is depicted as safety and acceptance.
How might the personalities and events of this lovely song get inside us as an emotive factor and shape our lives? Well, we might begin, ironically, by acknowledging that the opening verse, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want,” runs completely counter to a world culture that promises wholeness and satisfaction by way of one more impulse to buy. Psalm 23 is a living and signal counter-environment the draws our senses toward imagery that affirms a confidence in God and God’s presence with us in such a way as we would lack no good thing.
That sounds like Jesus. Jesus, who would’ve known much of the Psalter by heart — almost certainly this psalm. He refers to and quotes the psalms throughout the Gospels.
The references made by theologians, early and otherwise — we’ve mentioned Luther, Athanasius, and Chrysostom so far, who likened praying the psalms to praying in God’s own words — have captured Jesus’ message in a particular way, in a way that informs our praying by asserting that God is not so much an object of worship as much as a presence dwelling in us. God is spirit, Jesus says to the woman at the well, and with what we know of him, it is unlikely that he was giving a definition as much as giving a guide to direct our thoughts away from the finite, away from limited form and our innate desire to anthropomorphize God.
Jesus’ prayer guides our thoughts away from thinking of God as a superhuman. But our human nature makes for a tendency to direct prayer at God. And yet it seems, in Jesus’ concept, prayer is not for God’s sake but for ours. We pray not to change something in God’s mind but in our own.
Meister Eckhart famously said that “God expects only one thing from us, and that is that we stop thinking of ourselves as created beings and let God be God in us.” And I think that praying the psalms with this kind of insight may be a step in the right direction. Using the Twenty-third Psalm in this way then becomes an invitation to locate our lives and hearts in a more idyllic setting, a setting that is sustained and shepherded by God — but a God whose concerns infuse the details of our lives.
When we accept such an invitation, like the psalmist, we are more disposed toward fearing no evil — which begins the process of gently opening our hearts to the understanding that life itself is more wisely understood to be a gift rather than an acquisition. That this life is more permanently enduring — “my cup runneth over” — than the world would ever have us believe.
And in that safe and gentle interior space we’re guided to the knowledge that our continued peace and flourishing will not come through acts of will, but through acceptance of God’s acceptance of us, as together we sing, “You are with me.”
“I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me.” And so like every other Christian, we pray this prayer. We have the opportunity to pray it, this psalm, through Jesus and in Jesus’ name. Because this song is true for him and true in him, it becomes true for us; we sing it in his key. And with enough hope in our hearts to quiet our doubts and fears, because a certain persuasive precision of expression gets inside us as an emotive factor, shaping our lives in ways by which gratitude and good shepherding not only flow into us, they flow through us, and into the world.