Daily Office Scriptures (April 28, 2016)

Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face to shine upon us,Selah
that your way may be known upon earth,
    your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth.Selah
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
    God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
    let all the ends of the earth revere him

In this psalm, the poet begins with the request for blessing, which is fairly common. The request is then seen to be granted  already in v. 6, and a request for continued blessing ends the meditation (v. 7). The psalmist’s view moves from asking for blessing to accepting that the community had already been blessed. There’s no time passage here, or anticipation of future blessings. It is almost as if the poet, in reflecting on how God needs to bless them comes to realize that they have already been blessed. “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us,” (v. 6). They already possess blessing, in the harvest season.

The psalmist also has an agenda for requesting blessings from YAHWEH: “that your way may be known upon the earth, your saving power among all nations,” (v. 2). This is not entirely, or not really, a call for blessings as the relief of need. This is a call for blessing that the nations will notice. There is a selfless orientation to the request. God, they hope, will show forth his blessings in such a way that the nations will desire those blessings too. Later this is connected to justice. The nations should be “glad and sing for joy” because YAHWEH evaluates communities in “equity.” Equity here is mishor, which means “fairness” or “equality.” God is fair, but he is also interested in equality. This means he doesn’t play favorites (how? Doesn’t he play favorites with Israel?), but it also speaks to the Old Testament’s vision of justice as solidarity, redistribution, and activism on behalf of those forgotten or left behind. God will not merely deal equally, but will make all nations equal.

Proverbs 2:1-5

My child, if you accept my words
    and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
    and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
    and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
    and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
    and find the knowledge of God.

Proverbs, as a book of aphorisms and wisdom sayings, is meant to shape the hearer in certain ways. Its purpose is to cultivate wisdom, so for all those who want to treat it as a list of things that are absolutely true in the world, or as a collection of natural laws, are not merely reading it incorrectly, they are not letting the text mess with them. Here the author advises the reader/hearer, as a father would to a child, to approach the book with an open mind and an open spirit. The meaning is not simple, but must be sought carefully and deliberately, over time. The one who yearns for wisdom must “seek it like silver” and “search for it as for hidden treasures,” (v. 4). In such pursuits there are many attempts and false starts where no silver or treasures are to be found. Only those who really want it will persist long enough to “strike gold,” as it were. This should be our approach to all of Scripture in any case, open and receptive, though not passive. God wishes us to wrestle with the text and with the Spirit, not limply accept whatever a leader or charismatic person says it means on the basis of authoritarian fiat alone.

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The Psychology of Evangelicalism

Philip Greven is a respected historian, and his book Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse addresses the issue of corporal punishment against children in its historical context and what light this can lend to the consequences of hitting, striking, and spanking children today.

In one particularly illuminating passage, he describes the psychological temperament of evangelicals, Calvinists, and fundamentalists, all of whom teach the suppression of self-will and spank their children form an early age as part of their religious framework.

Melancholy and depression have been persistent themes in the family history, religious experience, and emotional lives of Puritans, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals for centuries. Assaults on the self and self-will are the central obsession of vast numbers of men and women from the early seventeenth century to the present. Suicidal impulses frequently appear in these Protestants’ self-portraits as well, although those who write memoirs and autobiographies are usually survivors, not suicides. They may have successfully thwarted their inner impulses toward self-destruction, but the experience of conversion and the new birth rarely relieved them fully of their depressive symptoms. Michael Wigglesworth, whose apocalyptic “Day of Doom” was one of the best-selling publications in early New England, suffered from profound melancholy from his early twenties through at least his early fifties. Punishment was central to both his psyche and his theology. Many evangelicals, generation after generation, voiced their anxiety and depression in their diaries, letters, and autobiographies. In some families, such as the Mathers, melancholy afflicted fathers and sons for at least three successive generations. The persistence and, indeed, the centrality of menacholy and depression for an understanding of religious and secular experience in America, from early-seventeenth-century Puritans to lat-nineteenth-century Victorians, has been explored brilliantly by John Owen King in his illuminating book, The Iron of Melancholy. Some of the most compelling historical evidence we possess concerning the nature and history of depression comes from the religious tradition associated most directly with Calvinism and evangelical Protestantism over the last four centuries.

Closely linked to the recurrent depression evident in so many individuals is the theme of buried and smoldering anger–more often suppressed and denied, disguised and obscured, than openly acknowledged and expressed–visible in many of the most subtle studies of the life histories of Puritan, Calvinist, and evangelical individuals. The depression that manifests itself consistently throughout their lives is nearly always associated with the suppression of anger throughout their adulthood. Cotton Mather, for example, was one of the angriest men living in New England during the colonial period. His words and actions betrayed his inner rage however much he sought to deny it and obscure it from himself and others. Kenneth Silverman has noted that the preacher’s early stuttering was rooted in anger; Silverman observes the continuous impact of the “muffled rage” that Mather simultaneously vented and denied. Throughout his life, this rage underpinned his apocalyptic fantasies of the end of time. Mather “projected personal anger into visions of a world consumed, and hopes for personal vindication into sights of Christ returned to punish the wicked and avenge the virtuous.” The violence suffusing his language and his religious experience, including his intense apocalypticism, is exceptionally clear. (pp. 132-133)

What Justice Means

I am a fan of Walter Bruggemann, and I recently read his little book, Journey to the Common Good. This is an amazing primer on the central themes of the Bible. Along the way in this book, Bruggemann defines what the Hebrew words for “justice” are, and the definition might be the best I’ve ever read.

So here is YHWH’s triad, which we first might state in Hebrew: hesed, mispat, sedeqah.

Steadfast love (hesed) is to stand in solidarity, to honor commitments, to be reliable toward all the partners.

Justice (mispat) in the Old Testament concerns distribution in order to make sure that all members of the community have access to resources and goods for the sake of a viable life of dignity. In covenantal tradition the particular subject of YHWH’s justice is the triad “widow, orphan, immigrant,” those without leverage or muscle to sustain their own legitimate place in society.

Righteousness (sedeqah) concerns active intervention in social affairs, taking an initiative to intervene effectively in order to rehabilitate society, to respond to social grievance, and to correct every humanity-diminishing activity (pp. 62-63).

So the Old Testament’s words for justice mean solidarity, redistribution, and activism.