Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Psalmody Psunday: 92

I mean, all three of us are behind, so at least I fit right in...

Psalm 92--which tonight I particularly liked in The Voice translation. You can read it here.

Church has been an enigmatic thing for me lately--not bad, just different. Shifted, and shifting still. Over the last couple years God has challenged and changed my views, feelings, and behaviors surrounding the Sabbath and the place and people I spend my Sabbath with. This is good, even as it's been hard: too often I have walked into a church because it is Sunday morning--a Sabbath set out of habit or duty, rather than passion, commitment, need. And our God is so faithful as to bring us to that, even if it means pain.

The Voice's note before this psalm informs me that the direction to sing this song for the Sabbath is the psalms' only mention of that word. And so it's not unreasonable to stretch that a bit--to say that at the end of the day, this is what a Sabbath is:
   - giving thanks to God (v. 1)
   - praising God with song (v. 1)
   - speaking of God's unfailing love--"rehearse Your faithfulness" (v. 2)
   - lasting all day "in the morning... and as night begins to fall" (v. 2)
   - acknowledging that it is good to praise God (v. 3)
   - listening to, singing along with, or playing musical instruments (v. 3)
   - being thrilled and joyful (v. 4) 
   - recalling what God has done, in corporate and personal history (v. 4)
And that's just the first four verses. The psalm goes on to reference confidently keeping perspective in the face of fear and struggle, trusting in an overwhelming plan of God, and more.

And in this psalm--as in so many other places lately--I see what I crave for my Sabbath: simplicity. Not production, not pomp. Intimacy. Community. Celebration. Honesty. Nowhere in these verses do I see neatness and perfection--instead, it seems inevitable that such shouting and noisemaking and surges of confidence would be cacophonous, disorganized, deafening. The microphones might squeak. Tears would blubber words to intelligibility. Laughter would break out sporadically. It would be unpolished and full of hiccups, but it would be thunderous in its integrity and utter realness. So much of our world is fake, and I find playing pretend less and less tolerable in a place built to celebrate the Sabbath, among the people who agree that this ritual is the first way we echo our Creator. If we cannot be our real, messy selves here--not occasionally but constantly--than we have completely missed the purpose. On the seventh day, I see no indication that God used hair product, made sure the deer were behaving, and pasted on a smile to convince everyone else He wasn't tired. The world wears us out. If we cannot admit that to one another as we smile and hug over pew backs, we might as well rest at home.

The contingency on the final promise of the psalm tugs at me, reminding me that there is a side of this bargain that I pay: who will "flourish," "grow strong and tall," "thrive," "bear fruit into old age, even in winter"? Not everyone. Not even everyone who comes to the Temple. "Those who are devoted to God... Those who are planted in the house of the Eternal..." Commitment. Full ownership. Total buy-in. If I pretend at church, I will get pretend rest. Only those who are willfully shoving their roots into this soil, only those who fight and strive--and frequently, messily lose but fall freely on the grace of Jesus--will see such a divine payout. This isn't health-and-wealth gospel, this is biblical truth, everywhere from this psalm to the very words of Jesus:
Abide in Me, and I will abide in you. A branch cannot bear fruit if it is disconnected from the vine, and neither will you if you are not connected to Me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you abide in Me and I in you, you will bear great fruit. Without Me, you will accomplish nothing.                - John 15:4-6*
And why, when all is said and done? Why will those who are devoted and planted stay full of life in winter? "To display that the Eternal is righteous. He is my Rock, and there is no shadow of evil in Him" (Psalm 92:15, The Voice).

So what will I bring to this Sabbath? And what will I leave behind?

* More love for The Voice! I loved this note on John 15 when I went to pull those verses:
"At a time when all of His disciples are feeling as if they are about to be uprooted, Jesus sketches a picture of this new life as a flourishing vineyard—a labyrinth of vines and strong branches steeped in rich soil, abundant grapes hanging from their vines ripening in the sun. Jesus sculpts a new garden of Eden in their imaginations—one that is bustling with fruit, sustenance, and satisfying aromas. This is the Kingdom life. It is all about connection, sustenance, and beauty. But within this promise of life is the warning that people must be in Christ or they will not experience these blessings."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Psalmody Psunday: 143

I've frequently said that God uses my procrastination, amidst everything else--I could not hope to count the times when I've done Bible study homework last-minute, had to restart a reading plan, or otherwise read or heard teaching after I was "supposed to" only to find that the timing, in the end, was perfect. As I turn to Psalm 143 to catch up on last week's PsPs (a week behind my cousin and my brother), my knee-jerk reaction is the opposite: Man, I really needed this a week ago.

But the jerk barely releases when I realize no, I need this now. I need this when perspective allows a slightly better view, when the emotions are running a little less over the banks. I think, had I read this psalm last Sunday, it would have been too fresh, too hard.

"The enemy pursues me,
   he crushes me to the ground;
He makes me dwell in the darkness
   like those long dead.
So my spirit grows faint within me..."     (vv. 3-4)

If ever there were some words to describe it, these would be it. How I would LOVE to make enemies out of the individual frustrations and cruelties of life, but when I give it real thought I know better. With every recent blow, every sucker punch life has dealt lately, this is the song that echoes: pursued, crushed, like the dead, and growing weak and faint--and somewhere an enemy smirking.

This isn't to play the victim card--even in the midst of recent struggles, others are dealing with worse--but the whole idea of PsPs is to dig into the psalm and into self, to expose what's easily masked. So this is where we are.

The image that's kept coming to me lately is that of a frayed cord--the place that's rubbed against an abrasive for so long that all the protective covering has come away, leaving the wire open to the elements, easily sparked, disastrous. Except there's that word in the psalm--"faint"--and that echoes more: open to the elements for so long, even the spark has diminished, losing its current. (This probably isn't how electricity works, but the metaphor holds so play along for me.)

But in all things, God is utterly faithful--even to frayed, exhausted cords. He provides, encourages, insists upon rests and pauses in my life so I stop running to every other thing I can find, and seek Him alone.

"Show me the way I should go,
   for to You I entrust my life.
Recuse me from my enemies, LORD;
   for I hide myself in you."    (vv. 8-9)

When I sleep, the sheet is what my relatives would call "catty-wampus" across me: diagonal across my shoulders, bunched at my calves, feet out in the air. This is not the image that this psalm gives: like a girl who gets cold, this is burrowed, this is triple-wrapped, this is enshrouded and covered and barely room for breath. This is how deep I want to sit, alone in the quiet with just me and Him.

I want this to be physically true, and there have been times in the last few months of struggle when it has been. When I have felt--felt--Him sit with me, buried beneath the raging winds and waves. He is unmistakable in that cool quiet because He is the only one who can take me there.

And, thank God, He doesn't take me there due to my accomplishments or worth. A smile crosses my face as I read the ending--this echoed thought from Isaiah that follows me like a shadow these days:

"For your name's sake, LORD, preserve my life;
   in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble."     (v. 11)

In the end--when He has shown me what He's meant to, pared away from me what was burdening my soul, spoken truth into the hard cracks in my heart--He will bring me out and "lead me on level ground" (v. 10) not because of me, but because of Him.

Scenes from the National Gallery I: Ordinary Names

Drafter's Note: This series marks the second time that the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. has driven me to write. (I had to go back to read the first one just to make sure I wouldn't be repetitive--and I'm sure your recall on 3-year-old blogposts is as god as mine.) If I stick with my plan and quick notes, this will be post one of three.

I've rolled my eyes any number of times at the titles I see on placards in galleries. "Woman with Fan." "Portrait of Young Man #3." C'MON, says Chandra's Sass. Where are the deep, intriguing, sexy titles--those I'm used to seeing on everything from TV episodes to nail polish bottles.

I don't know that it ever occurred to me before today, though now it seems painfully obvious. And maybe I'm way off base, but--assuming that being a visual artist overlaps more than a little with being a word crafter--what artist knows what pieces will be "good," remembered, treasured?

I have a pristinely clear memory of meeting with a college professor after I (once again) failed to win the annual poetry award. "Your poems are good enough to win," she told me. "You're just giving us the wrong ones." The criticism was crushing to me--yeah, yeah, yeah, I could have won the contest but you're missing the point: I didn't know what made my writing good. (I asked her which ones might have won--she looked at me like I was asking the meaning of life, and I think answered with something to the tune of, "See that for yourself, you must.") But I remember her pointing out that sometimes--maybe often, maybe always--the work that we love the most, feel most attached to, is not what anyone else would say is our best. Frequently I've seen pieces of mine that I really didn't love so well get more praise and attention than I thought they were due. And those I'm closest to--the ones that make me smile or choke me up--will never be seen but through the gleam of a computer screen.

And so I imagine Mary Cassatt documenting "Mother with Child XI," not knowing how it would survive, and never dreaming that a century after the paint had dried it would hang in a marble hall as tourists speaking a dozen languages passed it, studied it, bought it on a postcard. I wonder which of the eleven (or more?) she loved most. If I had to guess, I'd say 2--so similar, but less finished, less pristine, more capturing of a moment.

And I give due props to Vincent for distinguishing: "Weaver Facing Right," "Weaver Facing Right (Half Figure)," "Weaver Facing Left with Spinning Wheel," "Weaver Seen from the Front." A man after my own heart. And to Pierre-Auguste for not giving a damn, with his 19 efforts of "Landscape" and 6 "Roses in a Vase" (not to be confused with the 2 "Still Life with Roses," 5 "Flowers in a Vase," and 3 "Bouquet of Roses").

We don't know what will matter in the end, what we'll be remembered for, and I find myself--in writing and in life--being over-focused on the presentation, the title, how it will look. I fuss over the signature while the paint dries on the palette.

Dear me: The eleventh effort is as important as the first--maybe more. Stop preparing and just get some color on the canvas.

"Mother with Child 2," Mary Cassatt

"Mother with Child XI," Mary Cassatt