The Jews of biblical times internalized their faith in a way that is less common for our Presbyterian tradition today. They knew their history intimately and connected it to their beliefs. The effort this requires began at an early age. This week, Faith in Real Life discussed Psalm 111, which sings praise to God and recounts the ways in which God has been present for them. The Psalm is written as an acrostic poem, with each segment beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In this week’s blog, Vernon writes about how this enabled the Jews to learn their faith, live their faith, and share their faith. He also provides questions to help us begin to explore big questions for ourselves.
1 Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. 2 Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. 3 Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. 4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. 5 He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. 6 He has shown his people the power of his works,in giving them the heritage of the nations. 7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. 8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. 9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. 10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.
The Jews saw God present in every aspect of their history. No matter what their circumstance, God was with them. This is a remarkable faith and it gave them their identity. Their collective memory was and is vital to their survival. Hence, Psalms like Psalm 111. This Psalm was specifically designed as a memory aid. Called an acrostic, each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet begin the 22 lines of this Psalm. Much as today’s alphabet song helps children learn their ABC’s, the acrostic form was used as way to help worshipers remember the mighty acts of God.
The story of God’s chosen people included the unlikely choice of a small group of nomads to be God’s people; their enslavement in Egypt; their subsequent rescue in the Exodus; their survival in the wilderness; and the divine delivery of a ‘rule of life’ (The Torah and ten commandments) to direct every aspect of their life and worship. Each of these events transformed the Jewish people and none of them were remotely predictable. (The Hebrew captures the incomprehensible aspect of God’s mighty works far better than the English. The words ‘wonderful deeds’ are translated from the Hebrew ‘niphla’oth’—meaning “something different, striking, remarkable; something transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination.”) After enumerating these might works, the psalmist concludes:
“…Holy and awesome is his name. 10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.”
The retelling of their collective history evoked awe, wonder and praise.
Jews maintained their identity for thousands of years because each generation learned their ABC’s. As Christians, we share these stories but more often than not, we read about them more than enter them. Entering them means finding a way to connect the story of our historical faith with our own lives. It is the difference between reading about travel and actually travelling. It is the difference between understanding scripture and being transformed by it.
Getting inside the story is the only way to experience the awe. And without awe, there will be neither faith nor praise. The Jews were particularly good at telling their story. In general, they have a much clearer idea about their corporate beliefs than most main line Presbyterians. In spite of a history of confessional statements, I think many of us are are pretty fuzzy about the ABC’s of our own faith.
We could ask how every line of the Psalm might apply to us but we focused on just a few. Answering such questions require us to articulate our own ABC’s. This is a lot harder than it seems. (In all fairness, about the only time we are asked to come up with personal words of faith is when we are confirmands or perhaps at an elder training group.) In our actual discussion, a repeating difficulty was picking formative stories and finding words to describe our faith experiences. The psalmist came up with 22 but we had trouble finding words for four. Talking about theology is a whole lot easier than talking about the ways we live and experience our faith in real life.
Every generation and every person must find words that give personal meaning to the ritual confessions of the centuries. Literally learning our ABC’s allows us to read— and reading will open our hearts and minds to wonders we could not imagine. But that process takes years and it never truly ends. So it is with the Word of God.
We have to start somewhere. The beginning is the struggling to put words to our common faith. We did a lot of that in our FIRL group. But, once again, it is not having the ‘right’ words that matters so much as our willingness to search for them. We can learn to read words only after we have been willing sound them out and mispronounce them.
The end of the process is humility and praise. We discover new life, new meaning and new hope. As one group member put it, we come to believe the impossible is possible. We come to believe that God is always with us. We come to believe that love can prevail in a world of injustice and suffering. All of these statements are rooted in the Christian story. We just have to learn the basics and connect them to our lives. When that happens, his praise endures forever.
Help us to find the words to make your story our story. Teach us the ABC’s so that we can learn to read. Let it be so.
As promised, here are the four questions we discussed in FIRL and my first personal responses to them. There is nothing particularly ‘right’ about them but they reflect my own journey and my attempt to take ancient truths and put them into my own words. Spend some time with the questions. Find your own words.
1. What are the great works of the Lord that we study and remember?
Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Though I do not have an image of ongoing consciousness, I do have the belief that my life matters and that life has meaning beyond any physical experience—including death. There is no place God is not present.
2. How has his righteousness endured—how has he been gracious and merciful?
Jesus’ sense of ‘rightness’ was that no person was excluded or outside of his care. Jesus reached out to the least of these. No matter how the world saw them, Jesus reached out to all of his children. His life calls me into account, calls me to be like him and offers me hope. He does not hold my failures and selfishness against me.
3. What precepts do you look to and recall?
The great commandment to rely upon God in all circumstances and to treat myself and all people as children of God. This is the most basic guidepost of our faith.
4. How is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom?
I think of this as ‘awe of the Lord’—which can be frightening in the same moment it can be inspiring. When I am in awe, my sense of place and self- importance are dramatically changed. I am simultaneously a speck of dust and a child of God. My measure is not secular achievement or importance. For me, that means that no matter how tiny, every act of love matters. I belong to something greater.