Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The words between a man and his God

Michaelangelo's version

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 51:1-10

I have kept a journal almost since I could write.  The early ones are sporadic, satin covered or beaded, pretty and impractical – age 8 on vacation with my family, complaining about my sister, age 11 an a visit to my far away best friend Christy, who was showing signs of puberty earlier than I was. 

Then in junior high, at just about the most awkward time in a person’s life, the journaling became a bit more regular.  I taught myself the Greek alphabet from a textbook in my father’s office, and a friend and I became prolific in writing in pseudo-Greek.  Notes passed in school, whole swatches of journals written in code, as though so intensely private I needed to hide these thoughts even from myself if I was going to get them out into the light of day. I could write it my “Greek” as fast as in English.

By high school journaling became a coping mechanism, and in college, a journal was a constant carry-on. If I didn’t have a journal, I would write on a napkin, the back of a flyer, a receipt.  Sometimes the urge to write something was so strong I would bum a pen off a total stranger.

For a good 15 years, they were all prayers. Every single thing going on in my life – every crush, every worry, every mundane conversation, if I thought it important enough to write down – and I didn’t have qualms about considering most things just that important – it became part of the prayer. The ongoing, long-term, never-ending prayer.  The top of every page began with the date and the greeting: “God,…”

For a long time, journaling was what made things real; I could feel something had actually happened when I had record it, told it to God, put it into ink. 
After a time it became less that, and more where I would vent terrible sadness or work out new ideas, questions or struggles.  I would find that I’d have no idea what I would say when I cracked open the book, (many start with “I’m sitting at Starbucks…”) and then by the time I had finished, I had reached a new perspective on the issue, I had come to some clarity or relief.  When Andy and I were newly married, we added a $20 a month coffee shop journaling line item to our shoestring student budget for the maintenance of my sanity.

My journaling waned and became more sporadic over the years.
Then kids. And the need to write about them crashed against the lack of time and space to do so, and my journaling changed. Now I keep three journals. My own, and one for each of them.  Only a handful of entries a year, these days, but letters to them, about them – who they are, how I experience them in these moments.  My own journal barely gets touched anymore.  Instead I’m working it’s sermon fragments, files of thoughts, wrestling with text, or pondering an experience, or I work it out in a blog entry or facebook quip – one line life summaries.

I’ve looked back at my journals from time to time. Some of the entries are really insightful, and a line here or there is beautiful. But mostly, they are really, really embarrassing.  Context-less raving, whining or pining.  And sometimes, they’re heartwrenching. Rereading them is like reliving the losses, deaths, hard lessons.  But I have also found compassion stir in me- for how hard things felt when they don’t seem hard looking back.  Or great humor at little moments I captured without meaning to, or the drama I made of something so hysterically human.

But looking back is hard, because it also makes me aware just how fleeting it all is. Just how fast it all goes.  It’s only a handful of pages between my son’s birth and his first day of kindergarten. 
A whole entire lifetime fits in the dash between dates on a tombstone. 
And I feel longing. 
To stop the clock.  
Pause, read it slower, relish it more. 
Write it all down. 

David was a journaler.  
He worked out his inner life in words, songs, poems.  He sorted his feelings, vented and raged, burst out in praise or celebration.  He put down random snippets, that apart from context, are sometimes beautiful, sometimes boring, sometimes completely relatable and sometimes utterly foreign.

Yesterday I found a timeline of King David’s life, and it reads like the outline of the plot for an HBO series.  I found myself craving the chance to see it on the screen, in color and action with a soundtrack. It’s epic, his life. It’s definitely the stuff movies are made of. The person who assembled the timeline prefaced it with these words:
 “ Of all the lives in Scripture, David’s is the only one that is exhaustively examined from the time of his childhood to his death. It is an open book like no other. Even his state of mind is revealed in the Psalms, like a diary open to our review. How would our own lives look if subjected to this type of scrutiny? I am humiliated to consider that the day is coming when all the hidden things of my life will be revealed. For that reason alone, we should be kind to the memory of David, recognizing in him many of our own failings and weaknesses, but also admiring his strengths.” (William H. Gross)

Looking through the vast swath of the Old Testament dedicated to David’s story, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 1 Chronicles, you can easily see that he would be the ideal on-screen hero: handsome and talented, winsome and strong, and also deeply flawed, arrogant and punishing, then equally benevolent and ruthless in the wisdom of his old age. 
And he’s got the perfect villain, King Saul – predecessor to the throne, the former army general, star of the show, powerful and immensely kingly then increasingly mad, jealous of David and hungry to hang onto his power.  Headstrong, and dangerous, prone to fly into terrible rages, calmed only by the gentle harp playing of his nemesis, which must make him all the more mad.

This story’s got the wise Yoda figure, Samuel, who first anointed Saul to be Israel’s very first king chosen by God, and then later secretly anointed David by God’s command when he was only a boy. Samuel, the prophet who advises both Saul and David, and to whom God tells the plans God has for the kingdom.  Samuel to whom David runs for advice and comfort, but Saul does too – so reliant on his direction that Saul even hires a witch against his own laws of Israel prohibiting magic, to summon Samuel from the dead to ask his advice, only to find out from the passed-on prophet that he would die the next day. 

Then there’s the bond of a soulmate, a deep, abiding friendship, a close and intimate confidant, Jonathan, who as a boy watches the boy David slay Goliath and then introduces himself, and who loves our hero as he loves his own heart. 
He also happens to be the mad king’s son, and he stands between the two to protect David’s life on several occasions. They meet in fields and caves when David is in hiding from Saul’s fury, amassing a pirate crew of renegades and living off the land, Jonathon trying relentlessly to make peace and bring David back into the King’s good graces, and finally, in grief and sorrow, letting him go when he sees Saul will never relent.
 
Jonathan and David promise forever to stand by one another no matter what, and years later, well after Jonathan and Saul’s deaths, which David grieves horribly, David searches far and wide and discovers there is a son remaining to Jonathon, a man whose legs are crippled.  And he finds him and brings him to eat at the King’s table for all his remaining days, giving him servants and land and caring for him as his own, in honor of his bond with Jonathon, and despite the fact that most of the rest of Saul’s family is wiped out by David’s side in the ongoing battles for power.

There is the love of a princess, who becomes wife, and later is deeply mortified by David’s public display of emotions, then another woman who saves her own husband from David’s wrath, deeply impressing him and then marrying him when her husband dies, and more women who become wives as well.

And there’s the poignant brokenness and public fall of a great man, his weakness and failure, obsessing over the married Bethsheba and impregnating her, then sending her husband to the front lines of battle commanding the rest to retreat so he would be killed and David could take his wife as his own and cover up his shame.  His foolish and arrogant blindness to his own greed and gluttony are exposed in the humiliating confrontation with Nathan, the new prophet, whom God sends to David to set him straight.  And in terrible sorrow and dismay David breaks down and repents.  And even though that baby does not live, they remain married and other children follow.

This tale has family drama to beat the band, horror between siblings, killing and redeeming honor and grieving the loss of loved ones who were enemies and adversaries as much as they were sons or brothers.  It’s got Bathsheba, the rooftop bather, then wife of David, then mother of Solomon, rising to some power herself, advising her own son once he assumes the throne. 

And it’s got a little kid killing a giant in front of two mighty, fear-paralyzed armies, for pete’s sake.

David begins a humble shepherd boy, the youngest and least important in a large family, who becomes a battle hero, about whom women sing in the streets.  He’s a poet and musician, friend, husband, and lover, a friend of God and wise ruler of the people, builder of Jerusalem, and he ends his life passing on drawings and plans for the construction of the temple like a mantle and blessing to Solomon.

 But in his life he also experiences betrayal and the pervasive threat of death, terror and staggering loss, a torn-apart family and being constantly at the center of the drama of a whole nation in war and peace, the building of a city, establishing of a nation.  He steals and cheats and lies and sacrifices those he loves for his own power and well-being, and he also rules in wisdom and love, generosity and care, and shows deep and abiding loyalty and trustworthiness.

So I’m thinking this baby needs a full orchestra and a thousand extras, sweeping vistas of land, pounding horses and clanging swords, lavish feasts and secret rendezvous, bloodcurdling grief, and quiet moments of sheer beauty and stillness, queens and slaves and naked prophets whirling around bonfires in ecstasy and enchantment.  It could fill out several seasons in surround-sound, high-def, absolutely satisfying cinema.  I’m telling you, it’s an epic story.

But when all that is said, what I’m most struck by in all of it, are the journals. 
The lyrics set to music. The poems. The litanies of complaints.  The unabashed celebration.  The words between a man and his God. 
Behind all the armor and underneath the bravado is shame. grief. joy. rage. peace. longing.  
The words that come when awakening in the sharp bite of morning air next to warm sheep.  Or hiding out in damp caves for fear of your life.  Or breaking down in utter dismay over something you’ve done that can never be undone. 

Words of trust and a bond between God and this man.  
Who, in the end, was really just a person. Like every person. But whose story was recorded and writ large by onlookers and historians, and whose journals gave words to centuries of longing, and ashamed, and overjoyed hearts seeking a way to say it outloud to God, with God.
Prayers lifted in Cathedrals and concentration camps alike, shaping the faith of generations, giving voice to the inner prayers of all persons.  And they came from his life. From his heart.


From Psalm 3
A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.

O Lord, how many are my foes!
   
Many are rising against me; 

many are saying to me,
   
‘There is no help for you in God.’
  
        

But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,
   
my glory, and the one who lifts up my head. 

I cry aloud to the Lord,
   
and he answers me from his holy hill.
  
        

I lie down and sleep;
   
I wake again, for the Lord sustains me. 

I am not afraid of tens of thousands of people
   
who have set themselves against me all around.


From Psalm 6
Prayer for Recovery from Grave Illness
To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
   
or discipline me in your wrath. 

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
   
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. 


My soul also is struck with terror,
   
while you, O Lord—how long?

Turn, O Lord, save my life;
   
deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. 

For in death there is no remembrance of you;
   
in Sheol who can give you praise?


I am weary with my moaning;
   
every night I flood my bed with tears;
   
I drench my couch with my weeping. 

My eyes waste away because of grief;
   
they grow weak because of all my foes.


From Psalm 8
Divine Majesty and Human Dignity
To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
   
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
….

When I look at your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
   
the moon and the stars that you have established; 

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   
mortals that you care for them?


From Psalm 30
Thanksgiving for Recovery from Grave Illness
A Psalm. Of David. Then sung as A Song at the dedication of the temple.
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
   
you have taken off my sackcloth
   
and clothed me with joy, 

so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
   
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever.

From Psalm 18
Royal Thanksgiving for Victory
To the leader. A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.
He said:
I love you, O Lord, my strength. 

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
   
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
   
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 



In my distress I called upon the Lord;
   
to my God I cried for help.

From his temple he heard my voice,
   
and my cry to him reached his ears.


Then the earth reeled and rocked;
   
the foundations also of the mountains trembled
   
and quaked, because he was angry. 

Smoke went up from his nostrils,
   
and devouring fire from his mouth;
   
glowing coals flamed forth from him. 

He bowed the heavens, and came down;
   
thick darkness was under his feet. 


   …
The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
   
and the Most High uttered his voice. 

Then the channels of the sea were seen,
   
and the foundations of the world were laid bare

at your rebuke, O Lord,
   
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.


He reached down from on high, he took me;
   
he drew me out of mighty waters. 

He delivered me from my strong enemy,
   
and from those who hated me;
   
for they were too mighty for me. 


They confronted me in the day of my calamity;
   
but the Lord was my support. 

He brought me out into a broad place;
   
he delivered me, because he delighted in me.


From Psalm 63
Comfort and Assurance in God’s Presence
A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
   
my soul thirsts for you;

my flesh faints for you,
   
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 


So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
   
beholding your power and glory. 

Because your steadfast love is better than life,
   
my lips will praise you. 

So I will bless you as long as I live;
   
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.


From Psalm 22
To the leader: according to [the tune] The Deer of the Dawn.
A Psalm of David.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning? 

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
   
and by night, but find no rest.


From Psalm 122
Song of Praise and Prayer for Jerusalem, which David built.
A Song of Ascents. Of David.

I was glad when they said to me,
   
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ 


Our feet are standing
   
within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem—built as a city
   
that is bound firmly together. 


...


Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
   
‘May they prosper who love you. 

Peace be within your walls,
   
and security within your towers.’ 


For the sake of my relatives and friends
   
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’ 

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
   
I will seek your good.


Psalm 127
God’s Blessings in the Home
A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.
(David’s blessing of Solomon).
Unless the Lord builds the house,
   
those who build it labor in vain.

Unless the Lord guards the city,
   
the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
   
and go late to rest,

eating the bread of anxious toil;
   
for he gives sleep to his beloved.


Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
   
the fruit of the womb a reward. 

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
   
are the sons of one’s youth. 

Happy is the man who has
   
his quiver full of them.

He shall not be put to shame
   
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.


Psalm 131
Song of Quiet Trust
A Song of Ascents. Of David.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
   
my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things
   
too great and too marvelous for me. 

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
   
like a weaned child with its mother;
   
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
   
from this time on and for evermore.


I wonder how it feels to God to hear these words again in different times and places and languages, here in our mouths, with our own thoughts and struggles before us, our own joys finding expression within their cadence?
Is God reminded of the time when they were first uttered? 
Or the millions of times after that – each one holding up a life before it, like a gift to the Creator, an invitation to come near?

Monarchs and majesty notwithstanding, shepherd kid aside: no life is insignificant. No moment unseen. No heart-longing unheard.  Nobody is all saint or all sinner, neither deserving nor denied.  In all our own drama and shame, glory and grief, we are invited to draw near.  
So come into the presence of God with singing.  
Lift up your voice in prayer.  
And let your heart find in God a home.

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