Thursday, June 13, 2013

A discomfiting Psalm

Psalm 26:1-11 (NIV)

Vindicate me, Lord,
   for I have led a blameless life;
I have trusted in the Lord
   and have not faltered.
Test me, Lord, and try me,
   examine my heart and my mind;
for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love
   and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness.

I do not sit with the deceitful,
   nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
   and refuse to sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
   and go about your altar, Lord,
proclaiming aloud your praise
   and telling of all your wonderful deeds.
Lord, I love the house where you live,
   the place where your glory dwells.

Do not take away my soul along with sinners,
   my life with those who are bloodthirsty,
in whose hands are wicked schemes,
   whose right hands are full of bribes.
I lead a blameless life;
   deliver me and be merciful to me.
Who does this guy think he’s kidding? That’s the first and only thing I can think of when I read the first 11 verses of this Psalm. Unless the author — said to be David — is channeling Jesus, nearly every word here conflicts with my perception of myself and every other human. That it’s David writing is especially vexing given how he’s defined historically by his shortcomings. Every great leader is Israel has at least one flaw, one transgression. None can escape sin, which is why everyone, no matter how great or small, needs Jesus to serve as redeemer.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Psalms like this just make me feel uncomfortable as a Christian. I can just imagine some nonbeliever or disgruntled ex-churchgoer coming along these verses, then looking at me as someone who will “not sit with the deceitful” or “associate with the hypocrites.” I’ve got news for everyone: I can be deceitful. I can be a hypocrite. I don’t like the fact these things are true, but I cannot escape reality.

Perhaps someone who has studied the Old Testament in greater depth can offer a more nuance interpretation. (It would not be hard to find such a person.) Perhaps there is comfort in not feeling I am a bloodthirsty, scheming briber. But I am a sinner of my own accord, and that alone compels me to approach god seeking forgiveness.

When I see where some well-known person is discussing their childhood faith and why they moved away, they almost always tell of how some key adult — a parent, teacher or religious leader — presented to them a God of punishment and vindictiveness. In these scenarios, the children lived in fear of making any mistakes, usually until the point of choosing a life of rebellion and doing everything they’d been instructed to avoid for years and years.

I don’t exactly want my kids to have that sort of view of God or faith either. Somewhere between lies a happy medium, and it’s where I tried to plant myself. I don’t get anywhere in life by considering myself blameless. That actually sets me behind. But neither is there anything to be gained by constantly abusing myself for my shortcomings. I think God can make me perfect, but it’s not going to happen on my schedule, nor on account of anything I do aside from remaining faithful.

These are hard things to teach because they’re hard for me to fully understand. I assume I’ll be wrestling with the deeper issues of faith, doubt, hope, reason and so on all the days of my life, and there’s a good chance my kids will as well. But I’d much rather be honest about that reality than try to pretend everything is perfect.

A prayer for June 13:

Lord, deliver me and be merciful to me. Do not let my heart swell with pride for the things I have done, because everything I have, everything I can be, is made possible through you. I am trying to be humble before you, trying to be honest about my shortcomings, my mistakes, my many sins. I need your forgiveness, and I ask you to continue to find ways to lead me in your ways, that your will can be my will. Amen.

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