Sunday, January 16, 2011

Incline and Hear (Psalm 40:1-11)

It can be easy for us to forget that the Psalms were first intended for worship settings. Since we don't have kings, for example, we might overlook that some psalms are intended for crowning ceremonies. And since we have our own liturgies for celebrating the New Year, we may miss that some psalms were used in the worship services for a new year in the Hebrew calendar.

And sometimes, because we focus so much on worship being uplifting or upbeat, we miss that some of the psalms that express sadness, misery or even feelings of abandonment were not just devotional poems but songs that the people sang in worship. They would remind themselves of their down times as a people and how God rescued them, and they also might reassure people who were in some down times of their own that God would not desert them.

This passage from Psalm 40 hints at some of those kinds of feelings -- verses 12 through 17 give them in more detail -- as well as the response of the singer. A lot of the words and phrases would bring images to the minds of the people of Israel, just as a modern songwriter would include phrases from Scripture to call different Biblical stories to our minds.

When the Psalmist says that the Lord "inclined to me and heard my cry," it would be a dense ancient Israelite indeed who wasn't reminded of God's actions at the beginning of the book of Exodus. The people cried out in their slavery, and God heard their cry. In fact, that was the beginning of the message he wanted Moses to bring to the people: "I have heard their cries."

The "miry bog," or "clay" in some translations, would also remind them of their labor in the brick pits, as they stepped up and down endlessly to churn the straw into the clay mud that would be dried to make bricks that built Pharaoh's cities. The first steps would be hard, but not impossible. The thousandth step would be tiring. The ten thousandth step would be exhausting, if for no other reason than you knew that even when you finished for the day, you would be on the same stairmaster to nowhere from sunup to sundown tomorrow.

I think the kind of weariness that comes from endless small burdens is probably more common in life than the huge burdens that may come from tragedies. Many of us haven't suffered a lot of single smashing blows in our lives, or we may have found that if we have, after time the burden is not as great as it was right after the hit happened. But we all know what it's like to have the steady drip drip drip of one more thing getin' laid on the pile. Something not so bad by itself, but when combined with the forty others that we're already handling it's another push towards exhaustion -- maybe not physically, but certainly spiritually or emotionally.

Maybe it's another task at work that you're supposed to figure out how to fix while trying to fix the others that somebody else handed off to you. Maybe it's inconsiderate treatment by family members or friends that don't mean any harm but who don't think much past themselves this time, for whatever reason. Maybe it's something else entirely or a combination, or maybe it's something going on in the world around you that weighs on your spirit even though it's happening somewhere else.

Do I wait patiently on the Lord then? Well, if by that I mean that I wait quietly or peacefully, probably not, at least not all the time. But the Hebrew word there is qavah, and it translates more closely as waiting expectantly or hopefully, as though I am waiting for something I know will happen even if I don't know when.

What exactly will happen at the end of my waiting? Well, the Lord will incline and hear my cry, lift me up from this clay and set me on rock so my steps could be firm and my journey could have a destination and a purpose.

The same way an adult kneels or stoops to hear a child's voice at their level, the Lord inclines to hear the cries of his children, and then answer their needs -- not because the Lord is somehow hard of hearing, but because when he inclines down to us we can know he is listening and what weighs upon us concerns him. And what do I do when this happens? I sing. I sing a new song.

I think about this idea in light of the holiday we Americans observe tomorrow, Martin Luther King Day. The majority of African-Americans in our country during the first half of the 20th century may not have faced racism in its ugliest and most deadly forms on a daily basis, but they did face it in the smaller forms that added up over time. Can't drink at the same water fountain. Have to sit in the balcony at the theater. Have to stand up at the back of the bus while other people sit. Have to go however many extra blocks it was to find a diner that would seat and serve you. Have to watch how you greet someone or speak to them in case they find you're being "uppity."

And yet, in the midst of that mire, Rev. King spoke of a dream of equality and respect for everyone, based on who they were instead of what they looked like. He said he believed the day of that dream was coming, whether he would see it himself or not. He waited upon the Lord, expectantly if not exactly quietly, and did so believing the Lord would come and his dream would come true, and then all of God's people would join together in singing. An old song, perhaps, but new in the fulfillment of its promise. Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.

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