Tuesday, July 07, 2009

“Minding” God

Psalm 19[1]

Words have a strange and fleeting existence. Do you remember what life was like before the words “online” and “internet” became everyday words? What ever happened to the mimeograph machine, or the typewriter ribbon? Can you imagine “developing” the “film” that you take out after you “wind” the camera! Among the words we have stopped using I would like to call your attention to the word “minding.” When I was a kid, you were supposed to “mind” your parents—which meant do what they said. But there were other uses of the word that we’ve left behind as well—do you remember what it meant to “mind” your manners? In that respect, “minding” is more like “remember” or “pay attention to”; it’s a matter of “keeping it in mind.”

That’s the kind of “minding” I think of when I look at Psalm 19. The Psalmist opens this expansive hymn by portraying the whole created order as a great declaration of God’s glory. But the strange thing about it is that the Psalmist also insists there are no words! How does that happen—speech without words? It would seem that the Psalmist recognizes two aspects of creation’s witness to God—it is clearly unmistakeable and it is completely inaudible! In effect, the Psalmist views all creation as an extensive visual aid to help us keep God in mind.

The same thing is true for torah. You might wonder what do creation and law have to do with one another? Yes, we can recognize that the music of the spheres is a beautiful song of praise to God. But we’ve been schooled to view the “law” as something restrictive, something oppressive, something that really doesn’t express or embody God’s gracious and merciful will. But I doubt that the Psalmist would allow any distinction to be made between the torah of the Hebrew Bible and Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life,” in the New Testament.

Psalm 19 is one of the more elaborate celebrations of torah in the Bible.[2] This psalm describes torah in as many ways as possible, and describes the benefits of torah for all humankind in as many ways as possible. I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “The revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together. The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road. The life-maps of God are right, showing the way to joy. The directions of God are plain and easy on the eyes. … The decisions of God are accurate down to the nth degree” (Ps. 19:7-9, Message).

Here torah includes instructions, testimonies, precepts, and judgments. Torah consists of directions that were intended make it possible for us to return to a way of life in which we all can thrive; it contains principles or parameters that undergird living in covenant with God.[3]Torah also consists of the ways of God’s saving justice, as well as the stories about how God’s demonstrated saving justice to the covenant people.

The way the Hebrew Bible speaks about “observing” God’s ways is with the language of keeping the commandments. To “keep” the commands, however, is not at all like six-year-old children who “following the rules” because they’re just learning about rules and can in fact be obsessed with rules. That’s where some people seem to get stuck—in a childish legalism that’s obsessed with the rules. Jesus’ interactions with the Jewish religious leaders are a case in point. They faulted him for “breaking” the Sabbath commandment in order to restore life to a man who was suffering, while they are oblivious to the fact that in their keeping of all the Sabbath “rules” they were indeed violating the spirit of the Sabbath by using it to plot the death of a man they saw as a threat—Jesus himself![4] That’s where that kind of obsessive rule-keeping usually gets us.[5]

In the Psalms, “keeping” the commands resembles more the way the whole of creation obeys God’s will—it’s simply a matter doing what we’re meant to do by instinct. In the same way, the torah of God teaches us the way to live in harmony with God’s will—with God’s justice and mercy and love. It is a matter of keeping the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.[6] The Psalmists see that not as something burdensome, but as a gift—keeping God’s torah effects restoration, grants wisdom, rejoices the heart, enlightens the eyes. Those are words for salvation[7]—which the Psalmist sees coming through written word, but we would say ultimately comes through the Living Word![8]

The bottom line is that torah, like creation, is a means for helping us to “mind” God—i.e., keep in mind the things of God, the ways of God, God’s truth and God’s justice, God’s love and God’s mercy.[9] This kind of receptive internalizing of scripture is one of the frames of mind and action that help us learn God’s ways. It reminds me of a line from one of Paul’s letters: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/15/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Of course, everything else pales in comparison to Psalm 119 with its 176 verses! In fact, Psalm 119 is actually longer than more than half the “books” of the NT!

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms, 99: Torah is “the wisdom by which Israel is to live and find life”; he says further that torah “bestows life, wisdom, and joy.”

[4] Cf. Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on his Apology for the Cross, 150-51. See also John D. Caputo, On Religion, 107-8, where he says that the violence endemic to this kind of fiercely literal fundamentalism is the result of their attempt to keep the passion for God contained in “boxes” of their own making.

[5] Cf. also David E. Garland, Mark, 114: “The Sabbath controversies show how God’s purposes for humankind are frustrated when circumscribed by a bunch of rules from pettifogging [def: nitpicking] religionists”!

[6] Cf. Greg C. Earwood, “Two Languages,” Christian Reflection: Moral Landscape of Creation (2001), 34.

[7] See the David J. A Clines, “The Tree of Knowledge and the Law of Yahweh (Psalm XIX),” Vetus Tesamentum 24 (1974): 8-14, where he compares the language of Psalm 19 regarding the torah to the language of Genesis regarding the benefits our original parents (mistakenly) assumed would derive from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge; cf. also Heidelberg Catechism 4.090-091, which defines eternal life as “Complete joy in God through Christ and a strong desire to live according to the will of God in all good works” and good works as “those which are done out of true faith, in accordance with the Law of God, and for his glory.”

[8] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 100: “it is only by the salvation of God that joy in the creation and observance of torah are possible.” Cf. also Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 141-42, “to live within [God’s law] is to live the life that is eternal. To be sure, law is not the source of rightness, but it is forever the course of rightness.”

[9] See the Study Catechism (1998), which says that the law “teaches me how to live a life which bears witness to the gospel, and spurs me on to do so.”

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