Shafts of Light – Psalms of Orientation 2

In this second article, Canon John Udris looks at obedience as the highest form of trust in God and the importance of listening to the Spirit to guide us in the right direction.

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Surrender to God

Preserve me, God, I take refuge in you
I say to the Lord ‘you are my God.
My happiness lies in you alone.’…

O Lord, it is you who are my portion and cup
It is you yourself who are my prize
The lot marked out for me is my delight
Welcome indeed the heritage that falls to me.
Psalm 16:1-2; 5-6.

Those lines are from my favourite psalm which we recite at Compline on Thursday nights. In another translation it says: ‘Preserve me, O God, for in you do I put my trust.’ It’s a psalm of surrender, of trust, and of what is perhaps the most beautiful embodiment of that trust, obedience. As a refugee in Egypt St Joseph would have prayed those lines with particular intensity ‘preserve me God I take refuge in you… you are my portion… the lot marked out for me in my delight’. Living as he did each day in the lap of God’s providence.

For most of my life I’ve been a bit mystified by ‘O Lord, it is you who are my portion.’ (The only portion that kept popping into my head was a portion of chips!) But now I know that it refers to the priestly tribe of Levi, who were the only tribe not to have a particular portion of the Promised Land specifically allocated to them. So they couldn’t claim as their own any specific inheritance or security. As priests they were to find security in the Lord alone. Joseph’s obedience demanded the embracing in trust of a certain inescapable insecurity, but the corollary of which was an incomparable joy: 

‘You will show me the path of life.
The fulness of your joy in your presence.’
Psalm 16:11.

Acceptance of the God-given order

One of the characteristics of the Psalms of Orientation is order or equilibrium. Everything has its place. Everyone has their portion, even if it is to have no piece of land to call their own. And that orderliness implies and requires ‘obedience.’ ‘The lot marked out for me is my delight.’

Ultimately this is obedience to God’s word, the law which Psalm 1 says the just ponder day and night; the Law which underpins fruitful life and blessedness.

The psalm that celebrates all this in a graphic way is the longest one in the whole Psalter – Psalm 119. It begins by picking up both the vocabulary and the imagery of Psalm 1: 
‘Blessed (ashrei) are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the Law of the Lord.’ Obedience is this sure-footedness in following of the Lord. And the promise held out to the obedient is that if you keep the Law, the Law will keep you. Ordering your life by its precepts means you will have an ordered and orderly life. As Brueggemann puts it, ‘A Torah ordered life is safe, predictable, and complete as is the order of the psalm.’ 

The psalm celebrates divinely intended order in its deliberate structure and pattern. It has 22 sections each one containing the word ‘torah’ and each one beginning with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in sequence. So it’s an acrostic. There are other psalms that also follow this pattern. But the effect is to create this sense that obedience is the way to bring order into our lives. Walking in the law of the Lord which is to say walking in his will (which is what the Torah describes and defines) leads to blessedness. It’s as simple as that: obedience equals blessedness. But let’s drill down a bit further lest we think simple means easy. 

To obey is to listen

I love words and the archaeology of words. And you may already know that in Latin, Greek and Hebrew the word ‘obey’ means to listen. The word is ‘shema’ – as in ‘Hear O Israel the Lord our God is One…’ in Deuteronomy 6:4. 
In Hebrew hear and obey mean the same thing. To hear is to obey. And not to listen is to be disobedient. There are a couple of biblical images that best express this disobedience. One is stiff-neckedness. Another is hard-heartedness. Psalm 95 has both notions of obedience and disobedience in these famous verses: ‘O that today you would listen to his voice. Harden not your hearts!’ Psalm 95: 7-8.

So not hearkening and hardening one’s heart go hand in hand. Another Biblical manifestation of this disobedience includes ‘murmuring’, grumbling, moping and grouching. Grumbling is what suffering from a stiff neck and a hard heart sounds like. Whenever we grumble we grind to a halt on our exodus like the Israelites did in the wilderness. But of what exactly is murmuring a manifestation? Mistrust. During the exodus it was trust that was at stake and was being put to the test in the wilderness of Sinai. That’s why disobedience is essentially mistrust. And why obedience is fundamentally the exact opposite, perhaps the most beautiful embodiment and powerful expression of trust.

Isaiah’s warnings

Let’s take some famous characters from the House of David, descendants of the King who traditionally composed the psalms, to illustrate this. There’s that beautiful message the prophet Isaiah brings to King Hezekiah in Isaiah 30:15: ‘Thus says the Lord: by waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quietness and trust shall be your strength.’ The context here is Hezekiah’s decision to revolt against the Assyrian invader. No, no, no, says Isaiah. Don’t take things into your own hands. Dare to leave them in the Lord’s. Don’t meddle or try to fix things. Don’t make alliances that will only compound the problem. This willingness to wait, stay calm and keep quiet, is perhaps the most eloquent expression and evidence of trust.

That’s essentially the same advice Isaiah had previously given to Hezekiah’s father King Ahaz. He was the king of Judah under threat from neighbouring Syria and Israel, who eventually enlists the help from Assyria into the rule from which later, his son Hezekiah wants to revolt. This “help” becomes oppressive and his son Hesekiah rebels. Isaiah advises “remain tranquil and do not fear” (Isaiah 7:4). Neither king can trust and remain tranquil and both preside over political disaster.

Now contrast Ahaz and Hezekiah with Joseph of Nazareth, a later member of the House of David. Joseph is in a double-bind. (The double-binds we find ourselves in are often the making of us, because they are the testing of us, and in particular, the proving of our trust). Joseph is about to take the situation he finds himself in and fix it by divorcing Mary informally. This is until an angel in a dream brings him the very same message Isaiah had brought to his ancestor Ahaz seven centuries before: ‘Behold a virgin will conceive and bear a son!’ and ‘remain tranquil, do not fear, trust.’ Which is just what Joseph does. When he wakes, he unmakes his mind. And in so doing plays his crucial part in the story of salvation. He is the one who listened and proved the prophet true: ‘in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ Psalm 46 rephrases this beautifully as ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ That words ‘be still’ can mean ‘be weak’ ‘relax’ or ‘let go.’ My favourite translation of that verse is ‘let go and know that I am God.’

We experience similar episodes in our own lives. They warn of the destructive mistrust that always opts for self-preservation, of saving oneself that is at the root of all temptation and that stalls our progress towards blessedness. Such episodes promise the breakthrough that beckons whenever we manage to muster the trust to take God at his word and wait upon him. ‘Some trust in chariots or horses but we in the name of the Lord,’ says Psalm 20. Or Psalm 146 puts the same truth from God’s perspective ‘His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the warrior’s strength’ (the literal translation there is ‘in men’s legs’!) but the Lord takes pleasure in those who hope in his love.’ Joseph is such a beautiful example of what we might call this strong weakness which waits upon the Lord in trust and hope. He, like Abraham, embraces precarious existence and discovers that ‘weak strength’ which is obedience.

Am I a good listener?

I find challenges here to our own obedience and to the quality of our listening. Just how good a listener am I? And ‘am I getting better at it?’ How awestruck are my ears becoming? How inclined are the ears of my heart? I wonder if in our shared reflections within the church we might risk that mutual obedience which is the hallmark of mature religious communities. The kind of obedience in which we are much more likely to hear the voice of God, especially in the youngest, or the poor and those on the margins. And I wonder if the Lectio Divina which has promoted a particular way of letting God speak might in fact inspire the kind of conversations we might begin to experience here? The kind of conversations in which we’re not afraid to let the silence speak. The kinds of conversations that wait expectantly on God’s word willing to change as a result of what we hear. And a word that takes you there. A word that works, that conveys what it says. A word which we are consciously not wanting to get in the way of. 

It’s good to be aware of what words in the psalms have power for us. What is your favourite psalm? Have you ever wondered why? Some psalms never lose their power to hold us. That’s no accident. It means my name is on that psalm somehow. The Holy Spirit is speaking to my spirit in a particular way in that psalm. And in the reciting of that psalm we notice ourselves being brought to life by those words. We should expect that, of course, because the Spirit inspired the composer of the psalms and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised by their pentecostal quality and effect at times.  But we can expect and should look out for something similar in our conversations too. The Spirit is the one brooding over these conversations and making them different from our usual discussions or debates. It is the One whose whole purpose has been and continues to be to inspire, to create, to renew. And it is that energy which often sets us in motion as we were saying in the last reflection. It can result in the quickening of our steps. 

Think of those Spirit-inspired people the prophets. How many times in Elijah’s story did he hear the words ‘Arise and go’? ‘Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, ‘Arise and go to Zarephath…’ (1 Kings 17) So he arose and went. But it occurs again later in Elijah’s story, ‘Arise and go down to Ahab who is in Naboth’s vineyard…’ (1 Kings 21:17-19) and later again ‘Arise and go to the messengers of the king of Samaria…and so Elijah went.‘ (2 Kings 1:3) But we can think of other prophets too. Jeremiah hears, ‘Arise and go down to the potter’s house.’ (Jeremiah 18). In Jonah 1:2: ‘Arise and go to Nineveh’. Although the first time Jonah heard it he famously refused that inspiration and hot foots it in exactly the opposite direction!

But St Joseph too is someone who heard those words ‘arise and go’. ‘Arise and go’ to Egypt in the first place (Matthew 2:13). And then ‘arise and go back to the land of Israel’ when it was now safe to return (Matthew 2:20). Joseph is a beautiful icon of this responsiveness to inspiration as the angel prods him into action! How sensitive are we to such daily divine nudges? I’ve often wondered about Joseph’s own experience of the Holy Spirit. What was that like? He seems to have been super sensitive to where the wind of the Spirit was blowing like a weather vane. In Egypt he hears the invitation to arise and go back to the land of Israel. And it seems he’s heading for Jerusalem, but then he is prevented by another dream and heads for Galilee. It tells me he was someone on high alert for the signs of where the Spirit was prompting and where the Spirit was preventing him. 

But Joseph also teaches us that inspiration isn’t a sort of spark that leaves us once we’ve got to our feet. It’s the strength that when we say yes to it, it actually lifts us to our feet, energising us and giving us the strength to carry through all the Lord is calling us to do. When the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness he didn’t just lead him there and then leave him there. St Luke says literally ‘Jesus was led in the Spirit into the wilderness.’ I’m sure that was Joseph’s experience of the Spirit too, being led into and out of Egypt, every step of the way.

So here we are back where we began with this blessedness of being set in motion by God’s word and made a wayfarer like Joseph by God’s Spirit. 

Further Reading:

The Psalms.
Psalms, Walter Brueggemann, William H. Bellinger Jr. New Cambridge Bible Commentary, CUP, 2014.