Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Postures of Faith

Psalm 22[1]

As I mentioned last week, I decided to make this prayer the theme of our Lenten observance this year: Teach us Your Ways, O Lord. At first glance, it may seem like an impossible task. How can we ever aspire to emulate God’s ways? The Psalmists give us some help with how to approach this problem. The Psalms for Lent encourage us to adopt certain frames of mind and action in order to help us learn God’s ways—we might call them postures that place us in a position where God can work to produce in us the fruit of righteousness, faithfulness, and steadfast love.

One of the surprising observations from a careful reading of the Psalms is that they are not just art for art’s sake. They do much more than put religion into pretty words. A careful look at the Psalms shows us that they are a book of torah, a serious collection of instruction. The Psalms teach us about God and about ourselves; the Psalms teach about God’s kingdom and the justice that makes for life. But the Psalms also teach us about faith and prayer and worship. [2] In fact, one could easily say that the Psalms have been the church’s primary textbook for learning faith and prayer and the worship of God. The Psalms have been the church’s prayer book and song book for centuries.

One of the most important lessons the Psalms have to teach us is about faith, And the perspective on faith in the Psalms is that it is not something straightforward. It is not easy. The path of faith is a difficult road. In our Psalm for the day, Psalm 22, the experience of faith includes both a painful cry of desolation and a joyous praise for God’s deliverance. One scholar describes the life of faith in terms of living “on the road.” It is unpredictable and inconsistent. Living the life of faith means “constantly wondering whether you’re getting anywhere, never sure you’re where you ought to be.” Even that is part of the journey. [3]

The language of faith in the Psalms reflects both this difficulty, and the richness that comes from putting forth the effort to make the journey. One of the chief words for faith is “wait.” In Hebrew Bible, “waiting” is a word of faith. It refers to a posture of trust, not one of anxiety or helplessness. To “wait” for the Lord is a matter of trusting God’s steadfast and faithful love no matter what. [4] In the Psalms, “waiting” for God as an act of faith involves some or all of the following:
• Trusting in/entrusting oneself to God; [5]
• Hoping in God; [6]
• Seeking/taking refuge in God; [7] and
• Committing your way/cause to God. [8]

From that point of view, I think we’d have to say that waiting is the very definition of our relationship with God. [9] I’m just not so sure we like it that way.

While we might think of this kind of trustful waiting as a matter of silent contemplation, or quietly accepting whatever may come, in fact the Psalmists may surprise you. In fact, the Psalmists carry out their “waiting” for God in many cases by calling upon or crying out to God—often quite insistently![10] Sometimes the psalmists cry out so bitterly you cannot help but conclude that what they are doing should be called “complaining” rather than waiting. Sometimes their “waiting” is so adamant that it seems to cross a line over into blasphemy! [11] We might not think of it this way, but from this perspective the opening cry of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” can be an expression of profound trust in God!

Of course, sometimes, when all we hear is ourselves complaining, we may actually only intensify our fears and undermine our ability to wait trustfully. And in the Psalms as well there is a time for “waiting” rather loudly, and there is also a time for waiting quietly and patiently. Waiting trustfully from this perspective can also mean that we stop complaining to God and start learning to listen to God “in the spaces of quiet we leave for God”; it means “cultivating an open heart” to listen to the Spirit of God in a way that changes our lives. [12]

A combination of these two postures—crying out to God in such an insistent way that it can only be called “complaining” and silently accepting what comes one’s way—can actually be found in the prime example of faith in the Hebrew Bible: Job.[13] All the speaking and debating and protesting and complaining in the book of Job ultimately direct our attention “back to the person of God.”[14] It seems to me that’s where trustful waiting brings us—to the presence of the God who never leaves us nor forsakes us, who loves us with a love that will never let us go, who always continues to do the work of grace and mercy in our lives, no matter what our circumstances. As the Psalmist puts it, “To him, indeed, shall all who prosper in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him” (Psalm 22:29). If we want to learn to open ourselves to the ways of God, the place to start is to learn to trust God.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/8/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] James L. Mays, Psalms, 16.

[3] Renita Weems, Listening for God, 118.

[4] Psalm 25:3,5; 27:14; 31:24; 33:20; 37:7,9,34; 38:15; 39:7; 40:1; 62:1; 130:5; cf, Mays, Psalms, 407 (on Ps. 130).

[5] Psalm 9:10; 25:2; 28:7; 3 1:14; 33:21; 37:3; 52:8; 56:2-4; 62:8; 71:5.

[6] Psalm 33:22; 39:7; 42:5; 62:5; 71:5.

[7] Psalm 17:7; 18:30; 31:1; 34:4, 8, 22; 37:40; 57:1; 62:2, 7, 8; 7l:3.

[8] Psalm 22:8; 31:5, 15; 37:5; 62:7.

[9] Paul Tillich, “Waiting,” The Shaking of the Foundations, 149-152.

[10] Psalm 18:6; 22:2, 24; 30:2, 8-9; 31:17; 55:16-17; 57:2; 61:2; 62:8.

[11] Mays, Psalms, ?

[12] Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 41-43.

[13] David J. A. Clines, Job 1-20, xxxvii: “all the speaking moves toward silence:
Job, who has done most of the talking, in the end lays his hand on his mouth (40:4-

[14] Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 539-40.

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