Sunday, February 27, 2011

Psalm 131

O LORD, my heart is not proud; nor my look haughty.
I do not aspire to great things or to what is beyond me.
But I have taught myself to be contented
like a weaned child with its mother
like a weaned child am I in my mind.
O Israel, wait for the LORD, now and forever.
                                                   (Jewish Publication Society Translation)

The scholars tell us that this is a song of ascent. In Hebrew, the verb is ma’alot: “to go up.” These songs were sung by pilgrims making their way up to Jerusalem.  And you literally do go “up” to Jerusalem. So as you travelled along toward the holy city, to the temple which housed the “holy of holies,” you sang these ascent psalms, which are all fairly short and therefore easily memorized.  There are actually fifteen of them in a row, from Psalm 120 to Psalm 134.  Probably the best known is 121:
I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help? 
My help cometh even from the Lord who hath made heaven and earth.

In Psalm 131, it’s impossible to miss this image of mother and child. Some argue that the poet here is a woman—not only because of this image but because from the very beginning of the psalm one can almost hear a female voice in a patriarchal society. The tone is almost apologetic: the tone, perhaps, of someone who has been accused of over stepping her bounds and who wishes to make it clear that she is not too proud or haughty and does not aspire to too much greatness. But that doesn’t mean she does not know something about God and faith and prayer. Whoever wrote it, female or male, it is not a stretch to imagine a mother and child making their way to the Temple together as she quietly sings this song as a lullaby.

Perhaps we can even imagine that Jewish mother, Mary, and her holy child, making their way "up to Jerusalem" for the Feast of the Presentation, and maybe she even sang this song to her son.

I think of Jesus, all grown up, when he tells that story of the two men who went up to Jerusalem to pray in the Temple: one was haughty and proud and took the opportunity to “thank God that I’m not like that tax collector over there.”  While the tax collector, humbled and on his knees, simply asks for God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. It seems to me that parable grows out of a deep understanding of what this Psalm 131 is all about.

It’s not a complicated prayer. Sometimes our faith, and our prayers, and our theology need to wrestle with ambiguity and complex questions, because we no doubt live in a complicated world and no doubt the life of faith sometimes raises hard questions. But there is also wisdom in true simplicity. As the old Shaker hymn puts it: ‘tis a gift to be simple. The ones who sing this song, male or female, know that God is trustworthy and that we glimpse this simple, yet profound, truth in the most ordinary moments of life.

When my children were very young, my most favorite thing in the world was come home on a Sunday afternoon to lie on the couch and watch a baseball game or a football game on TV with Graham or James resting on my chest.  It wouldn’t take long for both of us to be asleep. Even thinking now of it, years later, brings a sense of peace and joy that passes understanding, and a glimpse into what I yearn for as I wait for the Lord.
We are called to put our trust in the Lord, and to wait patiently. I think there is a lot of fear and anxiety in this world, and unfortunately, even in the name of Christ there are a lot of people who fan those flames. When we contemplate the end of human history, do we wait as anxious chickens with our heads cut off, or do we wait like the psalmist, “contented, like a weaned child with its mother?”

In this poem, we find true serenity and an acceptance of life on God’s own terms. To wait like such a child is to be invited to let go of our need to control and our need to fix things. It is to simply be, by embracing the invitation to be God’s beloved, without obsessing about what will happen next.

Psalm 131 invites us to rest in God’s motherly care, and to wait for the Lord now and forever. That is not the whole story of the Christian life and faith. There are other psalms, for other days. But that’s a pretty good place to start: a reminder to let God be God. For Christians and Jews (and for that matter for Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus as well) humility is where the spiritual life begins. So do not be too proud, or too haughty, or too worried about understanding that which is beyond your comprehension. Rest, in the presence of God, like a child with her mother. Breath in and breathe out. Let go and let God.  

Or as Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel reading: try to take life one day at a time. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

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