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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Retreat Address on the Psalms 4 - Prayer and the Memory of Failure (Psalm 106)

This psalm is the last of a sequence of long psalms which concludes Book IV of the Psalter. Psalm 102 is one of the penitential psalms which is answered by 103, a joyful song of forgiveness. 104 is a glowing hymn that celebrates the marvels of creation as God’s handiwork. Psalm 105 continues the theme of telling the story of God’s ‘wonderful works’ (105.2) by recalling how the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt, kept safe through the years of wilderness wandering and finally installed in their own land. Together, these four big Psalms encompass the whole of Hebrew faith in a God who has created the world and loves his people, who has redeemed Israel as his chosen and looks for a covenant relationship with them.  
Psalm 106 tells the same story as 105, but from a quite different perspective.  Its first few verses are deceptive.  The invitation to praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever’(1) is very like the start of 105.  We imagine that this joyful note of celebration will be continued through 106 as well.  But it is not to be. There are soon hints of a minor key: remember me, O Lord, when you show favour to your people; help me when you deliver them (4-5).  The sun may have risen in a clear sky, but it is not long before clouds begin to obscure it.  
The hues become rapidly more sombre.  Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, we have done wickedly (6).  This is not simply some general acknowledgment of human frailty but the psalmist’s recognition of a specific strain of rebelliousness on the part of the people.  What made their unbelief particularly culpable was that it went right back to the founding events of their story, and this in the face of the clear evidence of all that God was doing for his people.  Our ancestors, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea (7).  And this becomes the depressing theme of this long recital of Israel’s waywardness.  She had been redeemed from slavery, and set on the long march to freedom.  Yet inwardly there was no redemption and therefore no true liberation.  The message of the Psalm is that this people were as enslaved as ever in their hearts.  Freedom still lies in the future.  And the psalmist himself is part of this carefully crafted confession. both we and our ancestors have sinned.  
God however constantly acts in spite of the people’s unbelief and ingratitude. The “gets” and the “buts” of this psalm are striking. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, so that he might make known his mighty power (8).  Faced with the signs and wonders of the Exodus, there is, to be sure, a period of obedience: Then they believed his words; they sang his praise (12).  But it doesn’t last long. They soon forgot his works (13).  Forgetfulness, or rather, the more blameworthy “not remembering” is the fundamental issue of this Psalm for which the people are both culpable and to be pitied.  To the psalmist this spiritual amnesia is not only hard to forgive but hard to understand, in stark contrast to how God himself does not forget his covenant but ‘remembers’ it, as the psalm goes on to say (45).  
This interplay of divine memory and human forgetting follows the way the stories are told in the Books of Exodus and Numbers.  The central section (13-33) is an indictment of the Hebrews for their failure of memory and their lack of faith in the desert.  A long sequence of episodes reinforces this bleak message.  No sooner have they crossed the sea than they ‘test’ God by demanding to be fed (14-15). Then envy sets in, represented by the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram (16-18) whose grumbling against Moses led to a spectacular display of judgment. I said yesterday when we looked at the wisdom psalm 49 that envy is so often the root cause of wrongdoing. So it is here. What follows is the episode of the golden calf (19-23) made by Aaron at the insistence of the people, an act of defiance not only of Moses’ leadership but of the covenant itself.  All this was tantamount to ‘despising’ what was promised (24) while they grumbled in their tents and did not obey the voice of the Lord (25). And then the wholesale collapse into idolatry, which is to give to a created thing the honour that is due only to God. 
However, God hesitates to treat the people as contemptuously as they have treated him.  Just as he saved them from the enemy despite their rebellion (8), so twice he restrains himself from executing the judgment that their behaviour merits.  On both occasions, this is at the behest of a human intercessor.  The first time it is Moses who after the incident of the golden calf stays God’s act of execution. Therefore he said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach (23).  The prayer attributed to Moses in Exodus 32.1-14 movingly asks God to ‘remember’ his promises of old, and not to bring himself into disrepute by appearing to be fickle in his treatment of the Hebrews.  The second occasion (24-31) occurs when the Hebrews have fallen into idolatry by engaging in the worship of ‘Baal of Peor’ and in illicit sexual activity. Thousands of Hebrews perish in the plague that follows.  However Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron demonstrates such zeal in acting against one of the transgressors that he earns for himself an everlasting memory as God’s favoured priest: and that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever (31).  
We would like all these events to be simply episodes in an otherwise blameless history.  We would understand it if the difficulties and challenges of extreme circumstances in the desert brought out the worst in the people. Surely things will get better when they arrive in a generous and fertile land!  Yet the final part of the story relentlessly drives home the lesson that nothing has changed when they cross the Jordan. Their desires remain as disordered as they always were.  When they should have purified the land of its pagan cults, instead they merely make its religious practices their own (34-39), its depravity symbolised by the practice of child-sacrifice (37-38), always in the Hebrew scriptures a mark of people who have sold out to the most corrupting behaviour imaginable.  In this way, he says, they not only pollute the land but themselves (38-39) in acts of apostasy that the psalmist, in common with prophets like Hosea, unsparingly calls acts of shameless ‘prostitution’.  
This is why the Israel finds herself in her current predicament.  Up to now, the psalmist has not mentioned the historical situation in which Israel finds herself.  But at the Psalm’s climax it becomes clear what this long recital is for.  It’s to assert that in a decisive act of history, God has finally done what he had intended to do all along: to punish the people for their unfaithfulness.  His prayer at the very end makes clear what this refers to: Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations (47).  The people are overrun and in exile.  And this time there is no-one to intercede for them.  They are on their own before God.  Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people… he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them (40-41).  We are in the 6th century BCE when Israel is in the alien land of Babylon and crying out in despair, in the words of a more famous psalm, ‘how shall we sing the Lord’ song in a strange land?’ (Psalm 137:4).
Bleak though this landscape is, the psalmist is not without hope.  In a final act of remembering, he recalls how Yahweh heard his people when they were oppressed and saved them (43-46).  The cry for deliverance with which the Psalm ends is almost no more than a simple coda.  But how much poignancy and pain is compressed into the single verse in which the psalmist, taking up the mantle of Moses and Phineas on behalf of the people, beseeches the Lord to save his people (47).  There is no pretence that the story is other than it is, no pitiful excuses or self-justification.  There is simply the hope, reminiscent of Moses’ prayer, that a restored and grateful people will demonstrate God’s faithfulness to the world: gather us from among the nations, so that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise’. The last verse, a doxology of praise to mark the end of Book IV of the Psalter, also stands as the anticipated thanksgiving of a restored people who can once again say ‘amen’ to a final act of deliverance.

This long catalogue of perversity and its punishment does not exactly lift the spirits. So what should we do with texts like this? 
Here are three reflections. First, the psalm reminds us that while there are times, many of them, when we need to tell our story in order to celebrate it, at other times we need to tell the same story as an act of contrition and lament.  I don’t think we are good at doing this, either as nations and communities, or as individual men and women. What this psalm makes us face up to is our propensity to deceive ourselves as to our true state before God and one another. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So it comes down to spiritual candour, making sure that when we hold up the mirror to ourselves, it tells us the truth. “Faking it”, as we might say, “play acting” as Jesus calls it in the Sermon on the Mount, inevitably leads in the end to disclosure and downfall. What we are in ourselves will always become plain to see in time, like the picture of Dorian Grey. Our desires always give us away in the end because they make it plain what we truly value. 
And, says the story, it all happens because of our neglect of God. St Augustine says that sin is to be “bent back into yourself”, that is, giving way to desire that is misshapen, distorted because its focus is on yourself, not on God. He says that it's therefore a failure of love, not so much a lack of love but applying love in a self-serving way.  This psalm gives us an anatomy of disordered desire, how we can and do give ourselves up to the wrong things which can never be ends in themselves. In the opening chapters of the Letter to the Romans St Paul takes up words and images from this Psalm and universalises them. He says in effect, this story of Psalm 106, of forgetfulness, envy and idolatry is us, all of us, at least in terms of our unreserved propensity. ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.20). St John urges us to keep ourselves from idols. You could say that “good” religion comes down to this, freeing ourselves from idolatry and acknowledging and worshipping the one true God. And this is the possibility held out to us in the gospel.
And that brings us on to my next reflection, which is about transformation. There lies in this psalm a profound impetus for change, for a new direction in the future. In one of his essays Thomas Merton says that “the Christian’s vision of the world ought, by its very nature, to have in it something of poetic inspiration”. He means by this seeing “beyond the surface of things and events”, glimpsing “something of the inner and ‘sacred’ meaning of the cosmos which, in all its movements and all its aspects, sings the praises of its Creator and Redeemer. And if this is true of how we contemplate the created world, it's also true of how we tell the story of God’s mighty works. In that story, we need to learn like the psalmist how to discern not only our human frailty but the sacred and redemptive too, not only nature but grace.
This sacramental vision of life may sound altogether too rarified for the cut and thrust of life. But for Merton, it’s precisely in “ordinary time” that we most need to cultivate this contemplative, poetic attitude that glimpses possibilities in the banal, the dispiriting, the tragic stories of human life. He goes on: “There is no revolution without a voice. The passion of the oppressed must first of all make itself heard at least among themselves, in spite of the insistence of the privileged oppressor that such needs cannot be real, or just, or urgent. The more the cry of the oppressed is ignored, the more it strengthens itself with a mysterious power that is to be gained from myth, symbol and prophecy. There is no revolution without poets who are also seers. There is no revolution without prophetic songs.” Merton is thinking about human oppressors, but in the psalm it is corruption and vice that are the oppressing enemy from whose iron fist we cry out to be saved. St Paul describes this conflicted experience in Romans chapter 7 where he agonises about the good he wants to do but can't, and the evil he wants to shun but instead finds himself committing. Merton and St Paul tell me that the oppressor does not have the last word. And believing this is the motivation I need to act for change, or at least to pray for it. 
Finally we should notice the key role in this psalm that belongs to Moses and Phinehas. To “stand in the breach” and make intercession for others is one of the greatest gifts we can offer anybody in their times of testing and trial. The nation’s ordeals did not in the end get the better of them, though it looked as though they would. The psalm rightly credits these two men with performing nothing less than a rescue through acting as brave intercessors. It was an act of love on their part: intercession always is. So here is a direct message to you as a religious community. Among the many things you offer to the world and the church is your intercession. Maybe we secular Christians don’t recognise enough the contribution you make through your faithful prayers day in, day out, standing in the breach on behalf of so many people both within the church and beyond it. So I want to thank you for this “work” that you do as part of your celebration of the opus dei, for the love you show to the human race by your constant involvement in the prayer of the church. It's a reflection of how our Great High Priest bears humanity before the Father, interceding for us in our brokenness and exile and pain. 
Our hope, our conviction, must always be that the covenant has not failed. The psalm reassures us that it hasn't. Its concluding words turn this long text back from lament to praise and gratitude. Nevertheless he regarded their distress when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant and showed compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love. God’s wish, God’s only purpose is to mend humanity, put us back together again, apply balm to heal the grievous wounds that afflict our race, rescue us from the distorted desires that drive us into idolatry and remake us in his image as people of grace and mercy, truth and peace. This is how we prodigals find our way home again and are welcomed back by a loving Father. We are forgiven, reconciled, embraced. At the end of this psalm’s long and gloomy day, the sun comes out once more.  

For reflection today, we may want to imitate this psalm and look back over the story of our lives. When and why have our desires become misshapen, when and why have we fallen prey to envy and idolatry? Are there patterns we can discern? And then, having faced the truth about that story, how can we retell it as a story of grace, mercy and forgiveness so that we end up where the psalm ends up, on a note of thankfulness? As part of this, can we identify and give thanks for those who stood in the breach and interceded for us? How does that memory help us in our own intercession for other people today?

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