April 25, 2014

The Simple Texts

shepherd-leading-sheep-featured

Yesterday I officiated a funeral. When I met with the wife of the deceased a few days ago to discuss the service, she told me that her husband insisted that Psalm 23 be read at his funeral. When his mother had died, the minister leading the service apparently did not read it — whether out of simple choice or disregard of the family’s wishes I don’t know — and he never forgot that. It was the one Scripture he was expecting, hoping to hear for comfort that day. And so he wanted to make sure that his dear wife and family didn’t have the same disappointing experience. He demanded inclusion of the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

sheep-with-shepherdSo I told her I would most certainly read it, and in fact, would design the entire service around it. And I did. In my opening greeting, I read Jesus’ words from John 10 about the Good Shepherd. I based my message of comfort to the family on a simple exposition of Psalm 23. For the prayer of commendation, I used the following petition:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, _________. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

At the graveside, I reminded those gathered of the following: (1) Throughout the Bible, God has promised to be our Shepherd; (2) David said, “The Lord IS my shepherd” — present tense and available to each of us right now; (3) Jacob looked back over his life and said, “God has been my shepherd all my days” — he will be with us in every season and circumstance of life; and (4) Even after death, in God’s presence we will still have a divine Shepherd, for Revelation 7:17 says, “the Lamb in the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and will guide [us] to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.”

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Robert J. Morgan bemoans our culture’s relative unfamiliarity with great, simple poems like Psalm 23:

Shepherd Morgan bookThe forfeiture of Psalm 23 and the Bible’s other classic passages represents a tragic loss of grasslands. When we plow up green meadows, we squander spiritual nourishment. Relinquishing still waters brings moral drought. Without restored souls, we’re destined to despair. By veering off paths of righteousness, we’re lost in the thicket. When we abandon the Shepherd, we’re sheep going astray. Without Psalm 23, there are no overflowing cups, spacious tablelands, or goodness and mercy following us all the days of life. And as for dwelling in the house of the Lord forever? Well, good luck with that.

On the other hand if you memorize the hundred or so words of Psalm 23, you’ll never regret it. No one ever has. From the moment we learn it, our moods improve, our personalities brighten, and our thoughts have sweeter fodder for meditation. From the instant our children learn it, they’ll never forget it. It’s not just poetry, it’s the greatest poem ever penned in the greatest book ever published, divine in origin, powerful in imagery, and soul-calming in effect.

One of the reasons I am coming to appreciate a liturgical tradition more and more is its constant repetition of fundamental, central statements of faith like Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer, and so on. In addition, the use of carefully crafted prayers and liturgical rubrics that were written out of meditation on such texts and have been repeated for generations help me feel that I stand on firm and level ground in the shifting circumstances of life.

After the service, later in the day, I visited a lady who has been growing more and more confused as her health is declining. She has also had several incidents where she has felt a sense of panic, believing she was about to die. As we talked, we discussed how hard it can be, knowing that dying is not something we get to practice first. Though we have wonderful assurances in Scripture about the blessedness of those who die in the faith, we’ve still never experienced it, and the prospect of actually going through it can cause us deep anxiety.

apostles-creed3One of the questions she had was about whether she would get to see her loved ones who had gone before her. She hoped so, but was worried death might somehow bring an even greater separation. This woman has worshiped in traditional, liturgical churches her entire life, so I asked her if she remembered the Creed, especially the lines that say:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins:
The resurrection of the body:
And the life everlasting. Amen.

She remembered, and as I began to quote them, she joined in and said them with me. We talked about “the communion of saints,” and how we can’t even imagine how much more wonderful our relationships with our loved ones will be in the ages to come. I encouraged her to remember that she’s been saying these words for decades, confessing her faith in Christ and the blessings he brings us. I urged her to keep repeating them.

The older I get, and the more I talk with people about the real issues of life and death and faith, hope, and love that we all face, the more I come back to the simple texts that seem to say it all. They serve as summaries and affirmations of what is most central to the faith and to what we hold most dear.

They truly form us. They help us focus on Jesus and what is most important.

Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Chaplain Mike.

    These words (the Word) burned into our minds and hearts, will DO their work on us. They are like the fireplace tools that help to keep the flame burning.

    Thanks.

  2. Ali Griffiths says:

    I have noticed that those from a non liturgical tradition who would not have used formal liturgy in a service, often recall the great hymns of their early years as they navigate old age – they seem to use them in the place of formal liturgy. Whatever our church tradition we all seem to need the central truths to be reaffirmed in familiar words in some form.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      We all need the Old, Old Stories.

      We all remember the Old, Old Stories.

  3. On a lighter note, I read once (cannot verify if this is fact or fiction) that a woman who was both Christian and light-hearted named her ever-presnt three Golden Retriever dogs Mercy, Goodness, and Shirley.

    ….so Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy would follow her all of her days.

    :-)

    • I heard that from Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion, years ago. Those were the names of the three little sheep in the Lake Wobegon Christmas play.

      Agreement with Chaplain Mike on Psalm 23 and other liturgical treasures.

    • Adrienne says:

      Pattie ~ there was an entire line of Shirley Goodness and Mercy stationery, coffee mugs, bookmarks etc. etc. that we carried in the store. I despised them and felt sick every time I looked at them. For some reason they just spoke so clearly at how shallow the “christian” companies had become and worse yet how well these items sold. God’s word and one of the most treasured Psalms – just made me feel so sad.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Sounds like it started out as a bit of whimsy but got seriously out-of-hand.

      • A-did not mean to probe a sensitive subject….just amused me when I first saw it. I did NOT know it had been exploited that way….I just love good puns!

    • Josh in FW says:

      :-)

  4. Richard Hershberger says:

    I would like to emphasize the “constant repetition” aspect. I think that those from non-liturgical traditions find the repetition of the liturgy to be off-putting: cold and sterile. I find it just the opposite. These are texts which I have been hearing and speaking my entire life. Yes, this can be mere rote recitation. But these are texts which are so ingrained that they are always available. I might be midway through that rote recitation when I suddenly realize these are just the words I need to hear and to speak and to ponder. The improvisational imperative can’t provide that.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Yeah. Non-liturgical traditions trot out the “Vain Repetitions” proof-text from the Sermon on the Mount at any hint of liturgy. They must have it on speed-dial or something.

      Not everyone can pray “improv”, but among a lot of Prots that’s become THE only way to pray (op cit “Vain Repetitons like the Goyim”). And since spontaneous improv is a rare talent, their spontaneous prayers themselves soon work into a repeating pattern of “LORD Weejus” ending with “In Jesus Name, Amen”.

      I’m not even going to get into the “reinventing the wheel” aspect of always going improv re liturgy and breviary that has an established track record and staying power. Liturgy and Breviary wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has if it wasn’t doing SOMETHING right.

    • I grew up in a congregational church, and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, as well as sang the Doxology and the Gloria Patri. Still do when I visit, and I haven’t grown tired of any of them.

      Now at a baptist church (ABC) for the past 21 years and we don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer even once a year. Nobody has ever said why; no outright ban on vain repetition, but it’s painfully absent.

      Question: when does a consistent absence of liturgy become a liturgy in itself?

      And HUG’s comment about “spontaneous” prayer hits the nail on the head.

  5. Great thoughts, CM. During this Lenten season, I have been under great conviction about my own use of social media, and how my relationships are often broken down into soundbites that lack depth and true meaning. The same goes for my spiritual life….As I’ve “played on the internet” less, prayed more, and did more spiritual reading,, I realize that I’ve missed the presence of spiritual discipline in my life.

    I’ve begun reading Mike Aquilina’s “Praying the Psalms”, and one point he makes is that Bishops were once required to memorize the Psalter. The Psalms would become an integral part of their being through discipline. We lack that in our culture today…in our Christian culture, and in Western culture, in general…a commitment to long-haul ideas that enrich our lives more than we can imagine.

    Now, excuse me while I slip out of the office to go buy my Powerball ticket…

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

      For the last year or so (when I first became a postulant for Orders in the Anglican tradition), I’ve been praying through the Psalter over the course of each month… somewhat faithfully, as per our traditional Daily Office disciplines. I’m getting to the point where they’re becoming more and more part of my “inner text.” I’m better at keeping it up in the mornings and at the beginning of the month, so the earlier Psalms assigned for Morning Prayer are those with which I’m most familiar. It’s been a very good thing for me, spiritually, linguistically, etc.

  6. Adrienne says:

    As our society gets more bizarre and the church sometimes follows the “trend” it seems we are content to debate and experiment and criticize etc. etc. But when tragedy comes such as 911 or tornadoes that destroy neighborhoods or gunmen enter a school and massacre our children it seems we run back to the familiar, the shelters which God has provided for us. In the end the Master knew exactly what He was doing when He was about to leave His followers when He told them He was gifting them with one thing. A Comforter.

    When the store in which I worked was first open the owner asked me to write down any books I thought we should carry. One of them was “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23″ by Philip Keller. When this tiny paperback came in he gave me a skeptical look. But I said, just wait. We were located within blocks of a large hospital and I knew this book was “a must.” Much later he came to me and said, “you know that little book on the 23rd Psalm you recommended? I have to re-order that almost every week.” When people are sick, scared and hurting it is still the classic.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      But when tragedy comes such as 911 or tornadoes that destroy neighborhoods or gunmen enter a school and massacre our children it seems we run back to the familiar, the shelters which God has provided for us.

      Or if we’re Truly Reformed, we pontificate Predestination and Election while others suffer.

  7. Dan Crawford says:

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike. We need to be reminded often why the Word is far more important than our words.

  8. Think how many of us, whether pastors or not, are able to recite, “On the night he was betrayed, Our Lord Jesus Christ took bread … .” Many of us have more texts memorized than we think. And, as Ali rightly pointed out, it is not merely texts, but also great hymns that we have memorized, and prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer. They were not memorized through effort, but through constant repetition and familiarity.

    Anyone who has ministered to the elderly or dying knows that among the last things to go are memories of family and memories of the great texts and hymns. It is possible to consistently get a response from a person with Alzheimer’s by simply starting one of the favorite hymns or prayers of that person. The repetition sinks the prayer, text, or hymn so deeply into the brain that it does not get eradicated.

    “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the House of the Lord, forever,” — Psalm 23.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      When I was a kid, Psalm 23 was general knowledge. Even those who had never cracked open a Bible had SOME familiarity with it — especially the two opening lines.

    • Exactly,Fr. Ernesto. And I am sad to see my community college students who identify themselves as devout Christians not know any of the Bible or works of Christian literature. Many times I ask these students to identify a quotation or allusion that an author uses and they can’t — not even Psalm 23 or the Prodigal Son. They say they’ve read the Bible, and I’m willing to accept that they have, but it has not entered into their bones and blood through repetition. The liturgy, Handel’s Messiah, and family readings are essential elements of re-forming us as citizens of the Kingdom.

      • The liturgy, Handel’s Messiah, and family readings are essential elements of re-forming us as citizens of the Kingdom.

        • ooops, forgot my comment: which is “Woo Hoo…. I have ;my quote for the day……thanks Damaris

  9. When I was pregnant with my first child some 12 years ago, I, an evangelical at the time, wandered into a Catholic bookstore and bought a simple, laminated prayer card with a picture of Christ as the Good Shepherd on one side and the 23rd Psalm on the back. I put it in my wallet, and eventually memorized it. I had a particularly difficult labor with my son, and truly feel that those memorized words carried me and comforted me in the darkest places of that time. I found myself unable to talk or even formulate thoughts during the experience, but I could recite those words to myself. That prayer card lives in my wallet to this day.
    Now, some 12 years later, as a new member of liturgical church, (funny in retrospect that even in my Baptist days I was so drawn to the liturgical tradition) I take so much comfort in the repetitions of the liturgy, and find myself returning to those words in times doubt, sickness, etc.
    And this post has just inspired me to make sure my children memorize this Psalm as well. Such a treasure.

  10. Chaplain Jeff Hill says:

    Excellent article Chaplain Mike!!

  11. Thanks for this reminder. I’m not facing death or any other difficult situation but know some that have and are. I guess you could say I’m a weenie. But the slog of mundane life can weigh heavily sometimes. I struggle with doubts about God and wonder why He seems to be so silent and distant sometimes. I have anxiety about what could possibly happen, just waiting for my number to be called and a pile of life’s crap to land on me, my wife or kids.. In a Christian culture that seems to focus more on the “excitement” of what God is doing, I fail to see it sometimes and get sad, worried, and depressed. So this reminder is encouraging. So are Jeff’s posts and Spencer’s posts about doubt. I guess we just have to keep focusing on the simple texts and keep going rolling along having faith that God is there amidst the tragedy that is and to come.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Remember St Therese of Lisieux and her “Little Way” of finding God and holiness in everyday routine?

      A Christianese culture that focuses on the “EXCITEMENT” of What God Is Doing would have thrown St Threrese under the bus as they sped off to the Next Big Movement Of God.

      Along with all the unknown and unremembered saints celebrated on All Saints Day.

      • I’ve never heard of her. This is why I come here daily. Thanks HUG. Time to look up St Therese of Lisieux…..and start focusing on the simple texts.

        • Josh in FW says:

          Joel,
          I’ve learned so much about “the rest” of Christianity here at internetmonk. I actually have a word file on my desktop that I save books, prayers, and other resources that I discovered here at imonk. The posts are great, but I’d say almost have of the things I save are found in the comments.

          • I’m with you Josh. I have many posts bookmarked and revisit them often. I plead ignorance to much of “the rest” of Christianity and, like you, come here to learn.

        • Christiane says:

          St. Therese of Lisieux of ‘the little way’

          . . . when people who don’t know about her hear that she is a ‘Doctor of the Church’, they expect for her to have been of great intellect
          . . . but the paradox of Therese is that she was able to help the ‘great intellects’ of our Church understand some of the things of God that had been kept apart for far more simple souls
          . . . I think that may be why she is one of the most beloved of our saints
          . . . Therese understood and expressed something of the mystery of Christ’s love more clearly than had been done by the great theologians and, for this, the Church keeps her close to its heart.

          • Thanks Christiane. This reminds me of Matthew 11:25. Looking forward to reading more about her.

          • Oops. I mean Matthew 11:25

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            St Therese (AKA “The Little Flower”) was an obscure French nun who died of tuberculosis at 24, leaving behind her journal of “the Little Way” of everyday routine and everyday life. If not for her journal, she would have been just another of the obscure unknown Christians celebrated on All Saint’s Day. Nothing Radical and On-Fire about her, just Holiness in everyday routine.

  12. Thanks for this post Mike, I can relate to your statement, “One of the reasons I am coming to appreciate a liturgical tradition more and more is its constant repetition of fundamental, central statements of faith like Psalm 23…”

    I grew up in the Presbyterian denomination, but I am not part of a Pentecostal one. I love it and I know it is where God has called me, but as I grow older, I miss the responsive readings and regularly reciting the creeds. I hope to find ways to merge the good of both traditions.

  13. Well said. Thanks for the post.

  14. Randy Thompson says:

    Thanks for this great piece, Chaplain Mike.

    Since the start of the year, I’ve been committed to using the “Morning Prayer” and the “Night Prayer” from the Liturgy of the Hours for my morning and before-going-to-bed quiet times. I wondered, at the end of the first week, how I would do with beginning Morning Prayer every morning with Psalm 95. Would it get old? Would I get bored? Ditto for the other, repeated passages. I have been delighted to find that I look forward to my daily time with Psalm 95. Each time I read it, something new strikes me and gives me new things to praise God for or to pray about. To read something daily is like looking at a diamond daily. Each day the diamond looks a little bit different, with light sparking off it uniquely each time you hold it up to look at it. The same is true of reading something over and over again. Gradually, you learn what it means to meditate on Scripture and to deeply know what you think you already know.

  15. I have long agreed on the desirability of memorizing scripture but something that has stopped me all along the way has been deciding which translation to use. I don’t use any one translation even the majority of the time and really have no favorite. I find it helps keep my mind open to use different ones, helps pull out the spirit of the message from the words.

    That said, more and more I am inclining toward Old King James for purposes of memorization. It really is easier to memorize in my experience, whatever the reason, and for your own use the archaic language is a non-issue since you know what it means. If quoting aloud for someone else, you could modernize it on the fly, altho in a group response you still need the common denominator. And as the rabid KJV Onlyers die off, it becomes less of a problem to risk association with them.

    • Randy Thompson says:

      Memorizing the Bible in the King James Version makes sense to me, if for no other reason than for the poetry of it. The archaic language serves a good purpose, if you’re literate enough to use it, and that is, it makes you stop and mull over the archaic words that have dropped of the English language since the days of the Stuart kings. Since I still pray the Lord’s Prayer in the King James version, I always find myself mentally pausing over the phrase “Hallowed be thy Name. . .” and reflecting on what it means that God’s name be “hallowed.” In other words, the archaic language can slow up your reading and make it easier to meditate on the passages. r

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

        Yeah, the poetry of KJV makes it the best for memorizing, though the Coverdale translation of the Psalms is one that has been classically used for centuries for English psalm stuff, mostly because it’s the BCP’s Psalter, and so many English-speaking folks over the years had used it for such purposes. They’re pretty dang close, though.

    • JoanieD says:

      I know what you mean about using the KJV for memorization purposes, Charles, I, too, have a number of translations of the BIble in my home and that has prevented me from deciding on which to focus on in terms of memorization. I was part of an evangelical independment church many years ago and they (and therefore I) used the KJV and I still find myself thinking of various passages as written in the KJV. I like reading some of the other translations for clarification purposes, but the KJV is very poetical. Go to biblegateway to read Psalm 23 in a number of translations. Some of them lose the poetry almost completely.

      Being Catholic, I have the Our Father, Hail Mary, Act of Contrition, Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed and the prayers of the Mass. So, maybe it’s not quite as important that I memorize sections of the Bible as it would be if I did not have those prayers written on my heart. But I still think it is good to have maybe a dozen or do very important passages of the BIble written on our hearts and minds.

    • Damaris says:

      I agree, Charles, sort of by default. I find that no matter how I try, I can’t memorize Bible passages unless they are in the King James. It was what I heard and loved as a little child 50 years ago, and it is what has stuck.

  16. Had a slightly scary few days last week (a health diagnosis- all turned out well, praise God) – but the anxiety of waiting and not knowing were terrible. During that time I had to lead a service – and the last hymn of the evening was, unaccountably, my all time favorite (My Hope is Built on Nothing Less). I sang the last line all the way home (“On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand”).
    I cannot tell you how much that hymn helped me. From that moment on I felt so, so much stronger. If only our young people could understand the value of hymnody – how much one needs to remember those words over the course of a lifetime!

    • Thanks Rita. Need to learn this.

      “When darkness seems to hide His face, I rest on His unchanging grace.”

  17. Every Wednesday I lead an old-fashioned hymn sing with the folks in our dementia care unit. These are folks who can’t find the hymn # and can’t read the lyrics ( we help them of course!) but when we sing a familiar hymn, recite Psalm 23 or say the Lord’s Prayer, everyone is on board and they beat me in reciting it! What a blessing that these treasures are written on their hearts!

    • Randy Thompson says:

      I’ve had similar experiences.

      For some of us, at least, it will be a great blessing when we’re very old and our minds are gone, that the hymns and Scripture passages we’ve heard over and over again will be on automatic pilot in our pilotless brains!

  18. Orville says:

    Off-topic, but what the hell. A new movie about the rapture!

    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/61298

  19. Robert F says:

    I’m unable to feel at home in churches with minimalist liturgies. They usually seem to be dominated by those with the strongest surface emotions, and I find myself unable to connect either with God or my fellow Christians.

  20. Some very good thoughts Chaplain Mike though you did lose me at “beseech”. :P Just goes to show you that not only contemporary evangelicals have problems with Christianese.