Sunday, June 26, 2022

Psalm 119: Word Cloud

Continuing with a contemplation of Psalm 119, here is a word cloud of it: 

created at

I like a word cloud for an objective double-check of the main focus. Since the text I used was King James "Authorized Version" text, I excluded the old-era equivalent of words that would normally have been excluded automatically in modern English (art hast hath mine thee thou thy unto). Since Psalm 119 is well-known for focusing on various aspects of the Word of God, it's no surprise that the word cloud shows a focus on the ways in which we refer to the Word of God: commandments, judgments, law, precepts, statutes, testimonies. We also begin to see the connection to the author: concern with shame, or seeking understanding, with an emphasis on "heart" and "hope", "love" and "mercies", "meditate" and "teach". 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Psalm 119: First encounter

On my first read through the Bible, when I came to Psalm 119 I winced at a quick scan of its length. Then I started reading it and was so caught by the author's passion and reverence that I was finished before I gave another thought to its length. It remains to this day one of my favorite Psalms. (My first read-through was before I learned about some of the artistry that didn't survive translation: it's an acrostic poem in the original Hebrew. I remain impressed that the urgency and pace and devotion did survive the translation.)

Like the Sermon on the Mount, this Psalm begins with a focus on God as the God who blesses: The opening line "Blessed are the undefiled" is much like "Blessed are the pure in heart" from the Sermon on the Mount. And the Psalmist doubles down on beginning with blessings, as the second verse underlines the theme again: "Blessed are they who keep his testimonies." (It's not only this Psalm and the Sermon on the Mount that begin with blessings. God's first words to people, as recorded in Genesis 1:28, are likewise a blessing, as it says "God blessed them and said to them", etc.)

From the start, the Psalmist sees the blessings that come to us through God's word: being undefiled, being unashamed, and gaining an upright heart. Freedom from shame and fault come from respecting and delighting in God's commandments (mitzvah). Since the author uses the word mitzvah at that point (v 6), there's a nod also to delighting in God's righteous works. 

There's is more depth in this Psalm that I hope to explore. While the Psalmist may have been an engaging enough author to write such a lengthy work without trying peoples' patience, for my own part I think I'll pause here.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Why we trust the beauty of nature -- and where it leads me

Some things approach being a human universal: one is an awareness of the beauty of nature. When we perceive it we experience joy or wonder, sometimes awe and reverence. And it brings a deep sense that underlies many spiritual traditions: the certainty that the original order of the universe is good, wholesome, beautiful, and holy. In a similar vein, the Psalmist wrote, "The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows the work of his hands. ... There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard." (Psalm 19:1, 3). Meditation is respected in most spiritual traditions though it can be seen as either a chore or an acquired skill. But the times when we are overtaken by beauty has led many people to unplanned moments of meditation, where duty and skill are irrelevant and we are carried by the realization alone. I have tried sketches of some of those moments, where an experience of wonder can be caught partially in art. The imitation -- or commemoration -- is worthwhile but I have never quite captured the whole feel of the original moment. (I am not quite sure that it can be done, though it can be close enough to validate the effort.)

For me, one of the deeper draws of Christianity -- of the teachings of Christ -- is that I find the same resonance, the same beauty, the same voice in his teachings as I find in those moments in nature. Every now and then another voice in Scripture will also attain that height and depth and feel: some passages in the Psalms or the prophets or in Paul's writings, Mary's Magnificat, Solomon's dream. And some places in Scripture will draw me especially for the insight into the character of God. But nothing draws me so consistently as the words of Jesus. The unplanned meditation overtakes me again with the same sense of peace and connection, the same certainty about the reality that gives rise to our world. That would be enough to ensure my attention, but he keeps going to address the aching gap between that primal good and lived human experience. He brings words and matching actions that the underlying goodness behind the world is deeper than the problems that we see (and cause). And in the words of Jesus, he speaks of healing to come, and justice to come, and mercy to come, and the treasure that is mercy in this world, for this world. I may not have quite captured the whole feel of the unity between the unfiltered beauty of the world and that of the Word of God, but for me it is enough to trust they come from the same source. 

Sunday, June 05, 2022

At Pentecost, remembering Peter

"Laying aside all malice, and treachery/guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and slander, as newborns desire the pure milk of the Word, that you may grow from it: if you have tasted that the Lord is gracious." (1 Peter 2:1-3)

Sometimes I have a tendency to think of Peter as the Apostle who was a little too eager to talk, and ended up with his foot in his mouth. I see his journey -- and his public mistakes -- and tend to forget that he spent three years learning from Christ himself. Who could come away from that unchanged? 

Somewhere there is a line between staying humble about our human leaders who all have human faults, and refusing them respect. Even the high priest had to offer sacrifices for his own sins; who among us is without faults? And so it is with some late-remembered humility of my own that I think twice about the layers of depth of what Peter wrote. 

The evils that he mentions are evils that come into the world mostly through words: malice, treachery/guile, hypocrisy, envy, slander. He contrasts the with the Word, and quickly draws a contrast that God's word is logical, healthy, pure, growth-promoting, and gracious. He leaves the listener to work out that the opposite is true of our sinful words: unreasonable, unhealthy, impure, corrupting, and ungracious. And we know the difference by the taste they leave in our mouths. He doesn't focus so much on whether we are consuming words or speaking words or pondering words; he focuses on whether they are words of purity and God's grace. If there is a source of pollution which we can address by our smallest actions, here it is: the words we hear, the words we amplify, the words we use to grow our souls in the direction they grow. 

Thank God for the words of Peter.