A Lesson in Political Discourse from Psalm 19

A Lesson in Politics from Psalm 19_1

The house is squeaky, shiny, eerily clean.  All the clothes are washed (even the scarves that required hand-washing and line-drying).  The floors are swept and the bathrooms scrubbed (even the stubborn stone in the shower).  Everything for the dog is washed and brushed (even the dog’s bed, the dog’s blanket, and, of course, the dog).    

As is to be expected these days, I blame President Trump.  

No, no, I kid.  Well, sort of.  Let me explain.  

Some of my loved ones voted for Clinton; some of my loved ones voted for Trump; some of my loved ones abstained from voting.  In the months leading up to the election, I had lots of difficult conversations.  Then, in the months following the election, I had even more difficult conversations.  Unsurprisingly, the events including and surrounding the Inauguration have filled me with a wild nervous energy.  Surprisingly, that energy has erupted into a mad cleaning frenzy.  Armed with those classic chemical weapons known as Windex, Scrubbing Bubbles, and Bona, I’ve spent full days attacking the dust, the dirt, and, of course, the dog hair.  

As I wage my war, I fret frantically about the future of our country, the future of the church, the future of my relationships, and the future of this blog.  How should I respond personally?  How should I respond professionally?  These questions ran round in my mind a few afternoons ago, as I attacked some stubborn soap scum in the shower.  Then new words wandered, unbidden, unexpected, into my mind: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

A Lesson in Politics from Psalm 19_3

I imagine I heard this concluding verse of Psalm 19 throughout my childhood.  Not until seminary, however, did it work its way deep into my memory.  Some of my peers and professors prayed the verse before every sermon, and I suppose, over time, it started to stick.  And then, on that afternoon a few days ago, as I inhaled the noxious fumes of Scrubbing Bubbles, the verse surfaced again.

Its reappearance seemed timely.  I was anxiously wondering what to feel, what to think, what to say about recent political events.  Could there be a more important time to pray that my words and thoughts and emotions “be acceptable to you, O Lord?”

When I consider this verse, I linger on that vague word “acceptable.”  Surely, it cannot mean only saying nice things in a sweet voice.  Nor can it mean only saying disruptive things in a loud voice.  It must mean saying certain words in a certain tone at a certain time.  It must mean crafting all our words with care, prayer, and charity.  It is a simple verse, but a complicated task.

Fortunately, Psalm 19 offers us more than this singular verse.  It describes how God communicates to us through creation: “Day unto day pours forth speech/ Night unto night whispers knowledge.”  It describes what God communicates to us, emphasizing the beauty and benefits of His will: “The law of the Lord is perfect,/ refreshing the soul.”  The Psalmist asks for assistance in listening to and adhering to God’s law.  The Psalmist asks for pardon when we fail to follow God’s will.  And only then does the Psalmist offer that beautiful prayer that “the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable.”  This lovely prayer, which I heard during the introduction of so many sermons, is actually a conclusion.  Only after reflecting on how and what God has communicated with us can we hope to acceptably communicate with others.

A Lesson in Politics from Psalm 19_4

There are more difficult conversations ahead.  There will be more words, more thoughts, more feelings.  Some moments will call for compromise and compassion.  Some for righteous anger and resolution.  Some for silence.  

To discern between those moments, I pray the words of the psalmist, of my peers, and of my professors.  I pray that both the content and the delivery of my words bring us closer to wisdom and peace, rather than dissension and fear.  

There are, of course, moments when I know that my words, my thoughts, and my feelings are unacceptable.  I reflect on the Republicans or Democrats or executive orders or Cabinet nominations, and I fill with bitterness, pettiness, and spite.  In those moments, my reactions and responses do not embody the radical love and law of God.  So, I grab my cleaning supplies and pull on my rubber gloves.  I scrub the shower tiles and I repeat again and again, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of heart be acceptable to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

What Christina Aguilera Taught Me About Prayer

People flipping through my middle school yearbook would likely say that seventh grade was a rough year for me.  There was a pair of pink, round glasses, a brief stint in the Ecology Club, and an unexplained commitment to following the voluntary school uniform. Fortunately for seventh-grade me, however, I was relatively clueless about my social standing.  I knew I wasn’t in the cool kids’ club, but I was happy enough.  I had friends to go to Ecology Club with.

What Christina Aguilera Taught Me About Prayer

Overall, my unpopularity was my own doing, but my parents did not help matters much. They took seriously Proverbs 22’s command to “train the young in the way they should go,” and in the 1990’s, that meant prayer before dinner, no short shorts, and regulated music intake.  My parents allowed pop music, but only after a thorough inspection of the lyrics.  At some point during seventh grade, I purchased Christina Aguilera’s first c.d., and I still recall my mom leaning against the kitchen sink, carefully reading over the timeless poetry of Genie in a Bottle.  I watched on anxiously, and I think the words that ultimately did me in were “you gotta rub me the right way.”  

Thus began the lecture I had heard a thousand times before: music sticks with you. Without your noticing, it slips into your skin, your bones, your mind, your heart.  You don’t even have to listen to the lyrics consciously; the words can still shape the way you see yourself and the way you see the world.  Unsurprisingly, then, my parents stuffed Christina Aguilera back into the bottle and hid the c.d. somewhere in their bedroom for the next few years.

What Christina Aguilera Taught Me About Prayer

***

We all have those moments later in life when we realize our mothers were right.  This particular realization came to me during my graduate school class on Psalms.  My mom’s anti-Christina argument, it turns out, drew on both ancient and current theologians.  The old adage, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi holds that what we pray is what we believe is what we live.  The words we repeatedly hear and say eventually make their way past our ears and into our being.  Or, as Holly Taylor Coolman writes, scripture “does not simply express the passions but works at the same time to mold them and change them.”

Given this formative power of words, scriptural memorization and recitation are beautiful and helpful forms of prayer.  Even in this Golden Age of spontaneous prayer, there is still value in – and a place for – memorizing and reciting scripture.  While it may seem monotonous or mindless, recitation, like music, reaches beyond the cognitive mind and touches the emotional and spiritual core.

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What Christina Aguilera Taught Me About PrayerI learned a lot in seventh grade, like the importance of reducing your ecological footprint. Some things took until my teen years to sink in, like the link between fashion and popularity.  Even now, I’m still learning other things, like how and why to pray.  With age, however, I also realize just how much I learned as a child from saying the Lord’s Prayer at church while wedged between my mother and my brother, from praying the Rosary at Religious Ed Class while kneeling in a circle with my friends, from whispering bits of the Psalms while staring sleepless at the ceiling.  Looking back, I am wildly grateful that I spent my childhood soaking in the Word of God, rather than in the words of Christina Aguilera.

Just as my mom said, all those words were shaping my spirit.  I did not create the faith I hold now; I inherited it.  I memorized it until I learned it until I internalized it.  To this day, then, I continue to memorize and recite and pray new passages, hoping to continue shaping my spirit and forming my faith.  I recall, then, not the words of Christina but those of Proverbs 22:6: “train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it.”

Finding Real Hope After A False Start

 

Finding Real Hope After A False StartAs it does every year, the New Year begins with an ending.  Later tonight, just a few miles away from our house in Tampa, Clemson and Alabama will conclude the college football season with the National Championship. College football is a tradition (religion?) in the South; and, on each Saturday throughout the fall, Sean and I routinely (faithfully?) woke up with ESPN, carefully followed the midday games, and fell asleep to the West Coast match-up.  

During one such weekend, as I sorted laundry in front of the TV, I heard an announcer bemoan a false start penalty.  “Oh geez,” he said in that smooth, southern voice, “we’ve got another false start here.”  As any football fan knows, the all-too-common false start takes place in the few seconds after the players line up on the field but before they start moving the ball.  According to the NCAA’s Rule 7, improperly flexing your elbows, dipping your buttocks, or twitching your thumbs can earn you a false start flag.  When I half-heard that announcer call the false start, however, what came to my mind had nothing to do with dipping buttocks.  Instead, I imagined that deep drawl commentating not on a football game but on my life.  

Finding Real Hope After A False Start

 

All of us, I imagine, have committed false starts.  In relationships.  At work.  With health and finances.  This blog is perhaps my most notable false start.  When I started it last summer, I had such good intentions and grand plans.  My reasons for not continuing with it are many, but, for now, I’ll just say that, while I knew the play, I lacked the skill and the stamina to carry it out. Before long, I felt like I had failed too greatly to begin again.  That announcer’s misplaced commentary, however, broke through the failure I felt, and something finally, mercifully, clicked.  

You don’t lose a game because of a false start.  The guilty player doesn’t get thrown off the field.  The team loses five yards.  Only five – out of one hundred – yards!  They don’t even lose the chance to make the play again; they just make the same play five yards away.  Football fans, don’t hate me.  I’m not belittling the potential damage of multiple false starts.  I’m just saying: don’t confuse a false start with a full stop.  It’s not the end of the game.  It’s just the beginning of the play.

So, I’m going to give it another go.  I am five yards (and about a year) farther from the goal line, but I have a renewed sense of humility and hope.  

Here’s the good news: last year, the University of Alabama made 6.5 penalties, including false starts, PER game and they STILL won the National Championship.  Our lives may be full of false starts, but they are also full of grace.  

And, here’s more good news: after losing to Alabama 40 to 45 in last year’s National Championship, Clemson will play Alabama again in tonight’s Championship.  They earned a second chance.  

Finding Real Hope After A False Start

 

At first glance, the New Year appears like an appropriate time to look back on our false starts. Upon further reflection, however, the New Year seems more like an appropriate time to consider that moment after the false start.  The players jog back onto the field, find their place in the formation and dig in their cleats.  They hunch their backs, clench their thighs, bow their heads, touch their fingertips to the turf, and then hold perfectly, breathlessly still for those few sacred seconds.  Only then do they snap the ball and begin again.  After all, the false start is just the penalty.  The second chance is the prize.

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