Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Psalms: The story of a place between two worlds

I cried in my Hebrew class.

It was my first semester at Trinity, almost nine years ago. Dr. Magary was explaining grammar and syntax in the book of Ruth. He loved every jot and every tittle of God's Word. Every letter, every stroke was precious and full of meaning in his eyes. Not one word was empty.

During that same semester, I was taking another a class on the Psalms. Dr. VanGemeren took us up into the air, and showed us the world of the Psalms. See! The wilderness, the green pastures, the hills. Behold! The trees of the forest, the battlefields, the valley of the shadow of death. Look! That was the willow tree where they hung up their lyres. Here, this is where we hid under the shadow of the Almighty.

These two men offered me cups of cold water, and only then I realized that I had been thirsty my whole life. Some days, my heart would burn and ache just listening to their teachings. I cried in my Hebrew class because in and through his reading of the Word, I heard the voice of my God.

Here are some lessons I learned from them about how to read the Psalms:

1. The Psalms is a story.

It has a beginning and an end. The first two chapters set the stage for the rest of the book. Dr. VanGemeren would say that all the themes in all the other 148 chapters are introduced here, in the beginning. The story has an ending. The last five chapters are called the Hallelujah psalms. They are the grand finale to the story.

The book of Psalms contains five books, the same number as the books of the law — the Pentateuch. Each book has its own characteristics, its dominant writers, its dominant themes.
Book I: 1-41
Book II: 42-72
Book III: 73-89
Book IV: 90-106
Book V: 107-150

For example, Book IV begins with the prayer of Moses. The person of Moses evokes the stories of creation, the great Exodus, and forty years of wandering in the wilderness. These are the very themes that dominate Book IV. Each book end with a similar doxology: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen" (Psalm 41:13, the doxology of Book I).

Because the Psalter is a story, the place of every song, every line, every word is meaningful. The 150 psalms are not randomly arranged. Whenever we read and interpret a psalm, it is crucial that we read what precedes it and what comes after it. One psalm is one scene in a bigger story. In order to understand this particular scene, it is helpful to know its context, its location, the questions and concerns of the person uttering this prayer.

So, for example, Psalm 111 and 112 should be read together. They begin with the same words: "Praise the Lord!" Psalm 111 tells us about Yahweh, and Psalm 112 tells us about the blessed person. Right in between these two psalms, we see that the blessed person is bound to Yahweh by "the fear of the Lord" which is the beginning of wisdom (111:10). The fear of the Lord is the meat that brings this sandwich together.

Because the Psalter is a story, the 150 psalms moves forward, and its movement follows certain patterns. From a bird's-eye view, the psalms move from lament to praise, chaos to order, conflict to resolution, shame to glory — orientation, disorientation, reorientation. Sometimes, the movements are small, from one verse to the next, or from one chapter to the next. Other times, the movements can span across a few chapters. The themes flow from one to another much like how the scenery changes on the highway. A mountain might first be at the horizon; it then becomes nearer; and soon, it is behind us.

Therefore, Psalm 23 is comforting because of Psalm 22. "The Lord is my shepherd" is the answer to David's question "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" These two psalms are embedded in a greater body of psalms about kingship, and the shepherd is a symbol of the king in the Old Testament. In Psalm 20, David prayed "O Lord, save the king!" In Psalm 24, David declares, "Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!" The theme changed from an earthly king to the heavenly King.

Photo credit: my sister Catherine

2. The Psalms is a place.

Christians live in a place between two worlds. We left our old lives behind, and we set our feet on a pilgrimage towards the Celestial City. The Psalms is that place, that path, between these two worlds.

David, Moses, Asaph, the Sons of Korah were the people who once walked on this narrow path. They knew the terrains of this wilderness. They showed us that there are two ways: We could either walk towards to City of Life on the Path of Wisdom, or we could turn back to the City of Death on the Path of Folly. Every day, in every decisions, we are talking steps in either direction. We could either fix our eyes on Life or on Death.

The psalmists did not leave us with mere breadcrumbs. No, they carved out mountains with their bare hands. They dug deep wells of never-ending springs. They established ancient rocks that conquered the test of time. They paved the road with their prayers, their tears, their joy, their blood, their strength, their songs. They showed us the path that leads to Zion.

But, they failed. And they died. The path was unfinished.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came and walked along the path of the Psalms. He went into the wilderness. He spoke and the mountains moved. His steps were sure and steadfast; he never looked back. He paved the way to the Father with his tears, his sweat, his blood, all the way to Golgotha where he gave his life and said, "It is finished."

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the Story; he is the Place. In him, we hide.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Come, and do ordinary things

Revival meetings were in vogue among the churches in Malaysia during the 1990s. The charismatic movement swept through the land and there was much talk about prophecies and visions and tongues. My friends attended many of these revival meetings, and I wanted to go as well.

But my parents said no.

My parents felt it was unsafe to send their naive teenage daughter to sit under the teachings of strangers. I obeyed them, though I recall there were some tears. My friends spoke enthusiastically about their mystical experiences, and some even received "words of prophecy" about their futures. I told my parents that I, too, wanted to know God's will for my life. My parents told me to read my Bible.

They were so, so wise.

Twenty years later, the questions that used to trouble me as a teen are no longer so weighty: will I continue my education, where will the money come from, will I marry, will I be a missionary doctor, etc. The Lord faithfully answered. There were some yeses, and they were some nos. But all things worked together for my good.

New questions came, new concerns for the future. My prayers now include questions about our children, our sisters and parents, our friends, our church. The list is long. My parents' words still ring true: Read your Bible.

So, Pa and Ma, I am reading my Bible. And I see that God's guidance came in two ways:

1. God's guidance came to people when they cast themselves at his feet.
God came to people who were seeking after him, blind beggars who called out to him, a man who climbed up the sycamore tree, a barren woman who wept at the temple, a sick woman who touched Jesus' cloak. These people knew they were desperate and in need, so they came to him.

God wants us to come to him. He is constantly calling us to return, repent, and come. He has given us the way, the truth, and the life through Jesus Christ. He has equipped us with prayer, communion, baptism, fellowship, and his Word. In order to received grace, we must come. We must cast ourselves in the way of grace.

2. God's guidance came to people when they were doing their ordinary, everyday duties.
God called people who were doing what they were supposed to be doing, a farmer who was farming, fishermen who were fishing, a shepherd boy who was shepherding. When we faithfully carry out the small duties that are set before us, we are preparing ourselves to know and accept the will of God.

You might be thinking that you are just doing the dishes or your homework, just going to bed early, just waking up when the alarm rings, just going out for a jog, just typing the Power Point presentation for the worship service, just disciplining your children for the sixth time in one hour, just making food for friends who are sick — you are not. These thousands of decisions, thousands of tiny moments are chiseling away at our souls, shaping and teaching us to obey, and to sacrifice.

In words of Amy Carmichael, "A little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness in little things is a very great thing."

Between writing this post and making a birthday breakfast for Hans, the toilet overflowed. Perfect timing. Because there is no duty more ordinary than toilet duty.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bend your neck, bow your head

Khesed calls sheep "baa-baa." For some reason, I think of baa-baas whenever I hear the words, "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

I think of the green pasture in Psalm 23. Jesus takes me and lays me by the still waters. I am his little sheep and he is my shepherd. I would then play all day with other sheep, happy and free of my burdens.

Wrong. Wrong animal.

When Jesus calls us to come and rest, he also says, "Take my yoke upon you."

A yoke. As in that thing farmers attach on their oxen. Not exactly the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of rest.

It has been another Elisabeth Elliot week for me. For two days, I have her sermon about meekness on replay on my desktop. She opened my eyes to see my opposite-of-meek ways. Yesterday, as I was folding laundry, the Holy Spirit performed several open-heart surgeries on me. There was no anesthetic for the pain. With utmost precision and care, the Lord cut into my soul and placed his fingers on the sickest, most vile places of my heart.

Right between those piles of laundry, the Lord broke me.
I needed to be broken. And brokenness was a good place to be.

In order to take the yoke of Christ, I must first bend my neck, and bow my head. I must submit my will to his, and go wherever he leads me. But, this yoke—with its weight and constraints on my shoulder—I do not like it. I want to stretch my neck and look around. I want to evaluate all my options and decide for myself, where I want to go, who I want to be. I want to run and be free.

But running wild, I should know by now, is no freedom at all.

Imagine a frail animal in the wild. In the cold, in the rain, in the ditch. Thirsty, starving, hurting. A prey for fiercer beasts. Lost and alone. It could fall off a cliff, or worse, it could be captured for chains and slaughter.

This yoke doesn't seem so bad now, does it? Jesus calls it "easy" because the yoke is his steadfast love. He bound himself to us because of his faithfulness. All I have to do is bend my neck and bow my head, and receive it with a grateful heart.

In his grace and mercy, God bound his fate with ours. To be under his yoke is to be one with Christ — the One who bent his neck and bowed his head under the weight of the cross. To be under his yoke is to belong to God, to be in God's field, to work God's soil, to bear fruit for God's glory. The yoke is heavy and constraining only when I am fighting and pulling away.

Soul, bend your neck,
Soul, bow your head,
Take his yoke upon you,
this is his steadfast love and faithfulness.
His yoke is easy,
and his burden is light.
Learn from him,
for he is gentle and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest, Oh my soul.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.