Monday, June 27, 2016

Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision
Psalm 42[1]
One of the great pitfalls in any spiritual practice is that it can narrow our focus. If we’re not aware of this potential problem, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking and praying primarily about our own concerns. When we do not find a way to check this tendency, our “spirituality” can actually become an extension of our self-interest, if not a kind of self-absorption.[2] I think one test we can apply is to pay attention how often we find ourselves praying with words like I, me, my, and mine. I would imagine most of us probably use those words in our prayers more that we realize, or would be comfortable admitting.
To some extent, I would have to say that when we use the Psalms as a source for our spiritual practice, they can actually contribute to this problem. So often the Psalms express the prayers of individuals, many times pouring out their hearts in fear or anguish or grief or even anger to God. We can learn a great deal from the way the psalmists pray—namely that we can bring all of our concerns and thoughts and feelings to God, and God is not offended by them. But if we’re not careful, we can also fall into a pattern of praying mainly for ourselves. We can develop a kind of spiritual tunnel vision.
Our Psalm for today is a beautiful prayer. It is actually one of my favorites. The psalmist pours out his heart to God in prayer, expressing a deep longing for God’s presence. The words are beautiful: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42:1-2). This prayer conveys the psalmists longing for God’s presence in his life.[3] In fact, the psalmist is asking for God to restore him.[4] We don’t know what has happened, but apparently he is no longer able to take part in the procession to worship God. He has encountered some kind of significant loss.[5] And for that reason, he says “my soul is cast down within me” (Ps. 42:6).
It is a natural and healthy thing to turn to God in that kind of situation. Many of us have found ourselves in precisely that position, and may have voiced our prayer to God using the words of this very Psalm. And the hope in this Psalm is expressed in the refrain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God” (Ps. 42:5-6). It offers a reassurance we all find ourselves in need of from time to time—the promise that God has not abandoned us, and that at some point in the future we will indeed find our lives healed, restored, and renewed.
It is precisely because the Psalms express these sentiments in such beautiful ways that many throughout the ages have used them as a basis for pouring out their own prayers to God. And that is a good thing as well. But I’m afraid the fact that the language of the Psalms can at times take on an individual perspective—using words like I, me, my, and mine—is a factor that we have to be aware of if we’re going to use the Psalms in our prayers. If do not use them thoughtfully, we can find ourselves falling into a kind of self-absorption that is indeed one of the pitfalls of any faith.
In our lesson from the Hebrew Bible for today, we see precisely that kind of self-interest reflected in no less than the prophet Elijah! The ministry of Elijah marked one of the times in which the word of the LORD was most effective in the life of Israel. Among the prophets, he stands with Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. And yet, after his dramatic stand-off with the prophets of Baal, he finds himself running for his life from Queen Jezebel. He flees into the wilderness, where he collapses from exhaustion. After being fed by an angel, he goes on to the mountain of God, and when God appears he asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?”
Elijah’s answer reflects the kind of tunnel vision we’re talking about today: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10). This is one of the most common tendencies with spiritual tunnel vision: thinking that “I alone am left”! The LORD God reminds Elijah dramatically that in fact he had seven thousand faithful followers in Israel—Elijah was far from the only one![6] But after all the conflict and struggle he had been through, it was easy for him to think that he was alone.
When we go through hard times, we can feel like the Psalmist—we’re thirsty for God’s presence like one who is wandering in the desert. And in those times, it’s a good thing to turn to the words of the Psalms to give voice to our prayers. In fact, they have been a “school of prayer” for countless faithful believers throughout the ages.[7] But as we use the words of the Psalms to voice our prayers, we have to be aware that while they are the words of Scripture, they are also very human prayers. The benefit in the humanity of the Psalms is that we learn we can pour out our hearts to God, no matter what we’re feeling or thinking. The problem is that we can develop the kind of spiritual tunnel vision that Elijah displayed in his complaint to God. I think part of the answer to this problem is that we keep our focus on the God who is our hope and our help. God’s purposes in this world are much larger than our personal lives, and keeping our focus on that larger purpose can help us avoid the tendency we can all have to fall into tunnel vision.[8]

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/19/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Frederick W. Schmidt, What God Wants for Your Life, 3, where he laments that we live in “an increasingly first-person-singular world” and says (ibid., 4-5), “That is why the lives of some otherwise very sincere people often appear self-serving or self-absorbed—in spite of their interest in the will of God. They may focus energy on spiritual concerns in a way that they never have in the past, but the first-person-singular is still there, deeply at work in their spiritual DNA. The result is dissonance: spiritualized conversation about self-seeking goals, self-actualization disguised as service, lives that lack everything except the appearance of piety.” Cf. similarly, John D. Caputo, On Religion, 2-3, “a lot of supposedly religious people love nothing more than getting their own way and bending others to their own will (‘in the name of God’).”
[3] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 1–59, 439, where he says the image of an animal yearning for water is “an effective picture of the torment and the consuming desire with which the petitioner stretches out toward Yahweh.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 173: “The prayer is about the need of human life for the life that the living God bestows, revives, and preserves. Here it is understood and said very clearly that life depends on God.”
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 174, where he points out that the question “Where is your God?” indicates “a situation in which those who trust in the LORD are put to shame in the presence of others because of some trouble that calls their faith into question. … The social, personal, and theological experience of the absence of God is the soul’s thirst.” Cf. also Peter S. Hawkins, “A Howl of Despair,” The Christian Century (June 6, 2001): 12, where he says, “The psalmist recalls times when his sense of the divine presence was so immediate and full that he felt as if he were beholding nothing less than the face of God. But that was then. Now all that he hears is the sound of his own dereliction—‘Why have you forgotten me?’— coming back to him in the relentless taunts of others: ‘Where is your God?’” Cf. further Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 439, where he mentions the common suggestion that the affliction involves some kind of physical illness.
[6] In the text of 1 Kings 19, Elijah experiences a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but “God was not in” any of them. Finally, he experiences a “gentle whisper” (1 Kg. 19:13, NIV) or “a hushed sound” (cf. Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” New Interpreters Bible III:142). Cf. Volkmar Fritz, A Continental Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 198: “Elijah recognizes the presence of Yahweh only in the hardly audible murmur. This statement is influenced by a reflection on the event of the presence of Yahweh and thus mediates a new image of God that moves beyond traditional views. One can experience God only in the silence that focuses the individual on himself or herself and on the act of listening; this silence is appropriate to the nature of God and to the experience of God through his word. God reveals himself mysteriously.”
[7] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 47: “The Psalter is the great school of prayer.” Cf. Mays, Psalms, 126: “The life of prayer is incomplete unless there are supplications that say, ‘Teach me, instruct me, guide me, let me know.’” Cf. further Lawrence S. Cunningham, “Praying the Psalms,” Theology Today 46 (April 1989): 42, where he says that we are “members of a believing community who have inherited [the Psalms] as the prayerbook of the church. They are part of our lives because they were the prayers with which Jesus was familiar. They are part of our worship because they form an essential part of the church's fabric of prayer.
[8] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 641, where he recounts the story of how after Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1961, they recovered among his personal effects a copy of the New Testament, a copy of the Psalms, and a copy of the United Nations Charter. He says, “Hammarskjöld apparently understood—quite correctly—that the book of Psalms presents nothing short of God’s claim upon the whole world and that it articulates God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all peoples and all nations.” Cf. also Schmidt, What God Wants, 10-11: “Both the best and the worst of every culture and religious tradition either enlarge or constrict our ability to discern the presence of God in the world.” Cf. also ibid, 27, where he says that when we don’t focus on God’s larger purpose in this world by seeking to give the kind of love that meets others needs, “Our prayer life and our spiritual life becomes little more than the quest to find a life that we can find gratifying.”

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