Gateway to the Psalms

November 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

Come. Let us enter into the Psalms. (I’ve been pondering them of late – with Bob. And now I have some thoughts to share.)

Psalms. What a lovely word. All the consonants are soft. The single vowel is the very one babies first make – in words like papa and mama. Psalm. A sound like “solemn” – a word you could say over and over. That’s exactly what the psalms are: Words to say over and over.

Come. Let us enter.

Some of the psalms will literally bid us enter. But right now we stand at the entryway itself. An entryway that asks for choices and presents them and their consequences in very stark terms. The book of psalms summarizes all the majesty and the plight of being human. No matter the circumstances or one’s inner state, you can find in the psalms an answering echo – words of comfort, of joy, of sorrow. Fear. Awe. Every emotion, every uplifting or depressing thought or feeling or circumstance. Words that speak to your heart or words that voice what is in your heart, that speak for you – when your own words fail.

Come. Let us begin…

Like a gateway – requiring two posts, one on either side, the collection of psalms begins with two introductory statements – between which we must pass. Two psalms, which set the stage, place us in a position of choices and lay out the consequences for us – the world as we find it already, ourselves as important players in a drama, already ongoing.

Imagine yourself standing at a gateway. On your right and your left are the gateposts, marking the entryway. These are the first two psalms. Once you pass through the gateway you will discover psalms that feel more personal, expressing yearning, remorse, conflict, joy, sorrow, exaltation, even despair. But these gateway psalms are placed here almost as warnings – asking you to pause. To ponder. To reflect. On your life. On its meaning. Its direction. On the state of the world. The forces that impinge upon our lives. What is transitory? What is ultimate? For whom and for what do I stand?

So we pause at the gate. We look left. We look right. And we either ponder psalms 1 and 2 or note them, intending to return at some later point – for we may see ahead of us more pressing concerns. Perhaps a need to run for cover in Psalm 3. Or wrap Psalm 4 around us like a prayer shawl. But if you haven’t really paused at these gateposts before, I invite you to wait with me at the Gate. To consider Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 as linked icons, placed there there to guard your passing, to be heeded – even reverenced – prior to entering the Psalm Garden within. Just as Orthodox priests reverence tiny icons on doorposts as they enter the sanctuary. Or as Jews post the Shema on doorways and gates, reverencing it in their going out and coming in.  In accord with its command to do so.

If you are familiar with the sweep of Genesis and Exodus (the first two books of the Bible) you will recall that the story of humanity begins with singularity. One person. One couple. Still later a family, generation by generation. From which come 12 tribes. A nation. These people constitute not a nameless, faceless mob. But are called and formed and led into relationship. Given names. Even renamed to signify their connection to this Divine destiny. People on a journey, gradually drawn deeper – as we will be drawn into this garden, the garden we see and sense beyond this gate.

Just as Genesis begins with separating light from darkness, Psalms 1 and 2 also remind us of “separation” – in terms of good from evil. As in Genesis morality enters along with the awareness of being a single self – in the company of other selves. We emerge into a world where choices have been made long before us. Choices we must contend with, whether we like it or not. Choices we ourselves must make. Consequences we must face. We are given advice. We can choose which advice to follow, which company to keep. Psalms 1 and 2 deal with the separation of good and evil – the discernment that morality requires: individually; socially; the anguish of one’s need to choose; the question of one’s relationship with Ultimate Mystery, with one’s inner self, with the mysteries of evil and suffering.

So before we enter the garden, we stand at the gate. Pondering our inner compass. Pondering our potential for good and evil. Pondering the state of the world as well as our own inner state. These gateway psalms pose questions: Who are you? By what values do you live your life? And how does one confront a world where people must choose and some already have chosen badly and we are stuck with their choices too?

Just as Genesis quickly presents us with bad choices and their consequences, so these gateposts sketch out choices and consequences, both good and bad. Choices made before this moment. Consequences we’re left with from generations past. Choices we can make anew as we ponder this moment – as solitary individuals bidden entry. Even the way we confront evil or suffering is a choice. (And if we choose the way of YHWH, the way of wisdom, the psalms within provide food for the journey, guidance, even voicing our every inner thought or feeling along the way.)

One gatepost (Psalm 1) speaks to our personal condition – the need to choose, even in the face of potential ridicule, conscription to bad advice, and the lure of mocking companions, evil guides. Psalm 1 opens with the rejection of these ways of walking, talking, standing, sitting by a single, solitary one – who could be any of us. This Psalm’s first word tells us a beatitude. Happy (in the sense of filled with integrity, “blessed”) is the one who stands against the many-wicked – the evil mob that mocks and lures and jeers. The mob within our own hearts, tearing at our good intentions, causing us to wrestle at best or give in at worst. This one is firmly rooted – like a tree planted by streams of water (living water / wisdom), enabling the bearing of good fruit, of leaves green and alive, which do not wither. Enabling the solitary just one to withstand all the difficulties laid out in Genesis and Exodus where promises are made, wrong turns taken, where lie retribution, suffering, idolatry, repentance, reunion, as well as solidarity, tenderness, salvation.

The other gatepost (Psalm 2) looks on and speaks to the world stage, even a cosmic struggle, where princes and the powerful contend, wage war, assert privilege, conspire together, believing themselves invincible. Yet, this psalm asserts, all the while these are under the scrutiny (even laughter) of ONE they refuse to acknowledge (at their peril), one viewed as responsible for toppling the mighty and powerful, should they incur divine wrath. A sonship is decreed – by ONE who anoints. A personal fatherhood stated by this ONE, known by all who listen in stillness, as the psalmist later confides to those who enter. But standing at the gates a warning is issued in Psalm 2. The powerful in particular (but we too) are advised to be mindful, to worship, reverence, tremble – yet we are also assured of refuge if we make our choice aright: Happy (again, in the sense of blessed, filled with integrity) are all who accept this sacred refuge: Enter in!

Psalms 1 and 2 mark choices and dire consequences that await – not just the wrong choices, but even the right ones! For the just face suffering, evil, and death. Genesis has meditated on this too.

This blog is all about meditating on this. For Psalm 2 not only warns, it announces. It invites. It offers a special relationship. A family relationship – involving an anointing. A movement from the heavenly realm which can be read for each of us as an offer, even a guarantee, of divine adoption. An entry into royalty, a promise of inheritance, of a better earth. So Psalm 2 has a prophetic quality to it – within the tender promises of adoption and protection – for all those who accept the sovereignty, the ever-present kindly guidance of a mysterious and loving Holy Presence, even as we face evil, suffering, worldly powers, unjust rulers, and certain death. And thus these psalms relate to the topic I’ve been pursuing here – the Priesthood of our Baptism.

These gatepost psalms are framed between blessings (the initial word of Psalm 1 linking with the last line of Psalm 2). Like Moses in Deuteronomy, we are addressed with choices between life and death, blessing or curse. “Choose life,” Moses calls to us, in the Name of YHWH, across the ages. And these psalms echo that message, urging us (Psalm 1) to drink from still-living streams of ancient wisdom, to become Trees of Life, admonishing us (Psalm 2) while holding out a promise of kinship with YHWH: Enter in! Choose life! Yet without flinching the psalmist lays out how difficult these choices are. For even as the wicked are painted as having no substance, as rulers mocked by God, these wicked sit and mock us – playing gods “in the company of scoffers” – urging us down wrong paths, causing havoc on the world stage, their siren songs entering into our very hearts where good and bad contend.

Psalm 1 begins with praise of the just one:

Happy is the one

who does not take the counsel

of the wicked for a guide

Psalm 2 picks up where Psalm 1 ends (the theme of the wicked) but now on a worldwide scale:

Why are the nations in turmoil?

Why do the peoples hatch

their futile plots?

Both psalms quickly move (each in its second verse) from moral concerns to a consideration of Holy Mystery – YHWH – the sacred name revealed to Moses: Psalm 1 describing the just one’s delights in the teaching of YHWH; Psalm 2 pondering how the counsel of the wicked (from psalm 1) has now grown into international conspiracy and tribal rebellion against the Holy One and his anointed.

Moving forward, into the New Testament, we find this anointing on Jesus, the Christ (which means anointed). And Jesus, teaching us about his Father – the Lord of Life and Love, calls us to share his son-ship, even his royal and prophetic priesthood. To commune with Him and thus with the Father and the Spirit. To enter into Divine Life. To allow that Divine Life to enter into us, transforming us, transfiguring us in the process. Psalm 2 leads us into this through its prophetic verses. And Psalm 1, in the image of the Tree of Life, is like the house built on rock, an image of this spiritual priesthood itself.

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