25 September 2010

A Hart that Pants for Worship: A Meditation on Psalm 42

The primary sense of worship is sound.

Don't get me wrong, I have been in churches that dazzled my eyes with stained-glass windows, engaging backdrops, or brightly costumed characters. I have smelled incense and tasted the warm, bitter ordinances of communion. I have felt the prayer rail and the wrinkled leather binding of my Bible.

Worship is truly a sensory experience, but sound is the sense that takes my spirit into God's presence.

I have spent the last five months of private study in the temple of Jerusalem. (And yes, there are many years' more worth of studies to pursue.) Recently, I was led into the Psalms, longing to experience true temple-worship through their insights. I had several weeks of study built up, a list of facts--a table, even (if you have read my histories of the Judaic kings, you know what I'm referring to).

But it wasn't until I was in church last weekend, that I could "hear" the Psalmic temple-worship and finally begin to feel this understanding ennobling my spirit and enlightening me.

We read Psalm 42 as the responsive reading. Psalm 42: it's one of the most popular psalms, and I'm sure I've read it dozens of times. It reminds me of the song we used to sing at Moor Close vespers at Newbold College, "As the deer pants for living water, so my soul longs after you."

But this reading transported me back in time. For a moment, I was standing in the temple courts. Solomon's Temple towered over me, and the bronze pillars, Jakin and Boaz shone. I could hear the sounds of worship, and I naturally took my part.

Worship in the First-Temple Period
It is best to begin with a look a diagram of the temple and its courts.

The temple building was surrounded on three sides by a courtyard. While the temple building was a place for a few priests, the courtyard was much busier, with a giant altar and a giant pool or "sea" as well as many movable altars used during busy times of festival. The Levites had access to the courtyard, along with Jewish men wealthy enough to sacrifice animals.

Outside the inner courtyard was a vast area known in Jesus' day as the "courts." It featured terraces, pools, other offering places (for modest offerings like grain and doves), and there was a colonnade along the outer rim of the courtyard where sellers sold religious wares and teachers set up shop. Women could enter this courtyard, and even--in a narrow, clearly defined section--so could gentiles. These outer courts--by my estimate--could have held over 10,000 worshipers (standing room only) on the busiest festival days. That doesn't include the animals which would have been there for sacrifice and/or sale.

To get the full effect of worship as it would have been celebrated in any given psalm, one must keep these features in mind: the temple, the courtyard, and the courts.

What was worship like in the temple? It was loud, very loud. There are many psalms that record the call to worship from trumpets and cymbals that echoed throughout the City of David. The best source for my imagination is 2 Chronicles 5, which describes the dedication service of the First Temple.
The priests then withdrew from the Holy Place. All the priests who were there had consecrated themselves, regardless of their divisions. All the Levites who were musicians--Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives--stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord.
Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang:

"He is good; his love endures forever."

Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God (verses 11-14).

When I read this, I imagine the three places of worship: the temple building, filled with light as priests stumble out covering their eyes; the courtyard, filled with trumpeters, singers, Levites and members of the king's court; and the courts, packed with people from throughout Israel who had come to worship, to experience God's awesome power.

Psalm 42: The Performance
There are three characters in this worship experience--characters we would probably recognize from worship services today: the speaker, the choir and the people.
  • The speaker shares the lesson with the choir and the people. He speaks in the first person, sharing his own personal struggles.
  • The choir amplifies the speaker's message, often building upon observations made by the speaker.
  • The people have been given one verse to chant in response. They will wait for direction from the "director of music," whom I imagine stands atop the gate between the courtyard (where the singers and musicians are) and the courts (where the people are).

You will notice that there are two "sermons" or "testimonies" in the psalm, presented by the speaker.

The speaker begins:
"As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God" (1)
(Note the rhythm of the line, even in English translation, you can't miss it. I would love to hear it in Hebrew.)
The choir responds, building on the speaker's words
"My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?" (2)
(This is the most beautiful verse in the psalm to me. I want to hear it repeated again and again. I imagine that music follows this response. If I were one of the singers, I would want to repeat it three times.
It's like a call to worship. People in the courts are taking their places at this time, and as they hear "When can I go and meet with God?" followed by trumpets, they grow very still.)
Sermon 1: the speaker
"My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me all day long, "Where is your God?"
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng" (3-4)
(While this sermon is a meditation on a specific trial of faith, I can't help but see the i
mage in verse three: the worship leader, dancing through the streets, just after the trumpets and cymbals have called from the temple, leading a "multitude" who are dancing and singing all the way to worship.
And what would that singing look like? The famous Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon bring to life a similar worship procession from ancient Athens, capturing the excitement of man and beast, the well-dressed worship-goers, the various offerings. Granted the Elgin Marbles feature a time 600 years after Solomon, but they capture a key facet of ancient worship: the arrival to the temple was every bit as meaningful as the worship around it.
But now the speaker is down-hearted, lost in his struggle with faith. He calls upon memories of worship to sustain him, just as we can call on worship to sustain us today.)
The choir responds:
"Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why are you so disturbed within me?
And the people chime in with their prepared chant:
"Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my savior and my God" (5b)
(I wonder how this chant would have been taught to the people in the courts. I think it might have been a password that was whispered through the streets, which a worshiper uttered to gain admittance to the temple courts. Perhaps Levites filtered throughout the crowd, instructing the people. Perhaps it was part of a local psalter: a given week would be the "put your hope in God" celebration, and worshipers would be prepped ahead of time.)

The first sermon finished, there is a natural break in the psalm for music, for noise, for clapping, for praise.

The speaker continues:
"My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you" (6a)
The choir rejoinders:
"from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon--from Mount Mizar" (6b)
(The response amplifies the memory of the speaker, giving setting to the splendid promises of the psalm. From the temple courts, people could look out across the Kidron Valley and see geographical features in the distance.
The 'land of the Jordan' lay east and below the temple complex, Mount Hermon towered to the north. I'm sure that this stanza took on even greater significance when it was sung in exile as Jews remembered their homeland.)

The speaker returns:
"Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;" (7a)
(I love the word, "roar," is it is used here. Again I hear the sound of worship, the chants outside the temple would have sounded like the roaring of a crowd in a sports stadium today. "Deep calls to deep" echoes the call, song and response of the worshipers in the courtyard and the temple courts.)

The choir answers:
"All your waves and breakers
have swept over me" (7b)

Sermon 2: the speaker calls,
"By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me--
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God my Rock,
"Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?"
My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
"Where is your God?" (8-10)
(One thing that strikes me about this second sermon is how much of a confession it seems. The speaker is troubled, and he wonders if he has been forgotten by God. It is the people who announce, "Put your hope in God," not the speaker.
It is almost the complete opposite of the way many Christians and ministers wage worship today. The people are considered feckless, faithless, we look to our pastors for answers and encouragement. In the temple worship of Psalm 42, the speaker took on the role of teacher: asking questions, developing problems that the people, through worship, will answer.
It's an interesting angle on worship, one that might prove fruitful in the modern day.)

With the 2nd Sermon finished, the choir and the people move into the closing song:
The choir:
"Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?" (11a)
The people:
"Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God." (11b)
(Music plays from the inner courtyard. The people dismiss. I can imagine that they continue the chant as they exit the courts and move into the street.)

What a sonic vision this is. I still have some questions, that further study may reveal:
  • How long was the worship service described in Psalm 42? One can read it in a matter of a few minutes, after all.
  • Was the psalm the full worship service, or was there more to it? Presumably there would have been sacrifices. There was plenty to do in the temple courts once the chants and songs had subsided, such as the smaller groups of teachers/students that the young Jesus found.
  • What was worship music like? My church in Bethpage uses the lyre (guitar) and cymbal (drums) every Sunday. Is that more "biblical" than a place that uses a keyboard or pipe organ?

A Moby Dick Breakthrough

I just finished "Whaling Week" with my 11th-graders. We voyaged with Moby Dick for two days, sang whaling songs, and engaged with three years' worth of resources I have collected on this amazing work of literature.

By my estimates, these students are now part of a select group: I would venture that fewer than 10% of American literature classes in land-locked Tennessee even attempt this work, much less spend a week on it.

I always end the week with a fun activity--a harpoon-throwing contest. "You have just read from Moby Dick," I told my standard-level juniors, "and you get it. Not even the kids in AP English can say that." We went out to the football field, where, in the end zone of the football stadium we would throw a rake handle (a.k.a. harpoon) at a plastic box (a.k.a. whale).

One student, Dee, was the last to leave the room. Dee is a challenge to teach. I have a lot of these 4th-block kids turned on to learning at this point of the semester. Quite a few come in asking "what are we doing today?" or "this is Slavery Week, right?" (When kids ask questions like these, they are ready to learn anything.)

Dee usually asks, "We're not doing anything today, are we?" He is usually the last to take out pen and paper. He just doesn't seem to care; he just doesn't seem to 'get it.'

I handed Dee the "harpoon" as we left. "I'm really tired," he told me. He had gotten his driver's license this week, maybe that explained it.

"It's OK, we're going to do something fun now," I answered. Then he said something that shocked me.

"With my last breath...."

I caught the reference immediately, "With my last breath, I stab at thee, though damned whale!" They are the last words of Captain Ahab. We had read them the day before. And Dee had been listening.

Later, on the football field, Dee threw a pretty straight harpoon, but he didn't win the competition. The boys blamed the wind at first for their bad aim. Then cheerleaders started practicing their dance routine at midfield. The boys couldn't have been more distracted!

(I asked them what would be harder, throwing a harpoon from a whaleboat bobbing on the ocean waves, or throwing a harpoon on a level football field with cheerleaders practicing nearby. We had trouble reaching consensus on that one.)

Another student, Matt, won the competition. I touched him on the shoulder three times with my model harpoon, and with every touch we shouted, "O Captain, my Captain!"

It was a great end to whaling week, but Dee's memory was probably the highlight for me.

19 September 2010

Evolving Faith: a Reflection and a Book Review

I grew up fundamentalist in the South.

That's a simple sentence that tells a lot more about me that I would like to admit. It implies the type of education I received, the way I spent much of my time as a youth, my hopes, my fears, even the age I lost my virginity.

It is also a simple sentence that appalls me. It implies many things that I'm not: intolerant, obese, gun-owning and Republican. Sure, I grew up fundamentalist in the South, but I didn't have to stay that way.

This weekend Jenny and I listened to Rachel Held Evans's memoir Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions. We loved it because it described a faith journey similar to ours, but also because Evans is such a vibrant writer, a woman who is able to condense tough ideas into clever phrases like, "If someone says that they follow the gospels to the letter, they're either lying or homeless."

Evans's biography reads so much like mine: her father was a preacher (check) who sent her to Christian schools (check) and on to a Christian college (check) where she majored in writing (check) and began to ask questions that would challenge the pillars of fundamentalism she had grown up with (check).

But Evans's story differs from mine in many ways, too. I find in it many of the same questions, many thoughtful answers, and insights into a culture both different from and similar to the Seventh-day Adventist culture of my youth.

Evans grew up trying to "prove" her faith in a society that was hell-bent on rejecting it. Even in high school, she was obsessed with Christian apologetics and soul-winning. I really related to the intellectual hunger that drives a lot of young fundamentalists into this branch of Christianity.

Most happy fundamentalists see "Truth" as a tank that reads "full." They load up on doctrines and master the proof texts for these doctrines. Then they have two options: (a) fill others up with texts and doctrines, or (b) man the barricades and take down anyone who might challenge the texts or question whether the tank is big enough. After all, the Truth that fills a one-gallon jug looks awfully small in a 100-gallon drum.

Evans's world needed a bigger drum once she saw the recorded execution of an Afghan woman in the weeks leading up to war in late 2001. She had grown up with the understanding that only Christians--the "right kind of Christians" at that--were saved. Everyone else would go to hell. She couldn't understand how a woman so victimized by injustice in this life could also be sentenced to eternal suffering because she was Muslim; she didn't know Christ. This leads Evans to use the phrase "genetic lottery" to describe why she was a Christian (born in the South, Christian parents) and others were not.

Her experience in a hell-believing church was quite a contrast to mine. Adventists are so heaven-focused that they rarely talk about hell (there is no eternally burning hell in their understanding, but an eternal separation from God). Still, I grew up wondering, "Am I going to heaven? Is that person going to heaven?" I have to say that I'm glad I didn't grow up with these horrors.

I always assumed that I grew up in the most strict, Bible-focused church in Christendom. There was the whole worship on Saturday thing, including no "worldly" activities from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. I was vegetarian. I didn't drink caffeine. I had to sneak to the next county if I wanted to watch a movie like Star Wars. And I was lucky. I got to read novels. I could eat cheese and drink milk, unlike some of my more restricted fundamentalist friends.

But now I look at kids who grew up Missionary Baptist, Church of Christ, or other fundamentalist denominations/non-denominations, and I think, wow, I got off lucky. I didn't have politics shoved down my throat from the pulpit (until the Clinton Administration, Adventist services were thankfully apolitical). I wasn't forced to imagine hell in all its fury. I wasn't spoon-fed backwards views about women. I am so grateful for that.

Evans finds solace in two surprising thoughts:
  • First, she spent a summer rooting her faith in the gospels. She returned to Jesus, and she made him the center of her resurgent faith. Battles over evolution, climate change, Republican vs. Democrat, culture wars, etc. may yield short-term gains for some Christians, but they take us further and further from the Author and Finisher of our Faith. Christians are called to act like Christ, not act like Levites, Corinthians or Pharisees.
  • Second, she seizes on the idea of 'evolving faith.' It's obvious that Christianity has evolved over time, adjusting to times of oppression, then rule; war then peace. Christians who have adapted to revelations in science and polity have survived; Christians who have refused to adapt have disappeared. Compared to other religions that were focused primarily on race or ruling families, Christianity has also endured.
Five years ago Jenny and I found a faith home in a mainline denomination. It was a huge change for us at the time, but looking back, it was the step we needed to grow in faith and put Christ's teachings at the center of our lives. There is very little to miss about fundamentalism--other than the wonderful friends we have who remain in that denomination.

I don't know that I have 'evolved' in the way that Evans describes. I was always a Christian, not a denominationalist. I see the sea change in my church attendance as an affirmation, not an evolution, of the faith into which both Jenny and I had grown. The idea of 'evolving' in faith brings me to one word that seemed to hang over this book, but one which Evans never mentioned: post modernism.

I want to close with a note about Evans's home town, Dayton, Tennessee. Dayton's claim to fame is the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, the high water mark of 20th-century Christian fundamentalism. In a trial outside the courthouse there, lawyer Clarence Darrow of the American Civil Liberties Union eviscerated the testimony of William Jennings Bryan, who had tried to defend literalistic interpretations of the Bible and prosecute John T. Scopes for teaching evolution.

I traveled to Dayton with my dad in 2000 to write an article on the 75th Anniversary of the Scopes Trial for Adventist Review. Dayton is an amazing place--especially for anyone who has a background in the culture wars. It is a battlefield, and a visit there raises many of the same questions and allegiances that a visit to Gettysburg or Normandy might do. I remember touring the museum in the bottom of the courthouse and visiting the campus of Bryan College (where Evans would have been a freshman at that time).

Although I spent a mere two days in the town, the questions that Dayton and Scopes raised about the fundamentals of my own faith really stayed with me. I diligently researched both sides of the evolution issue, and my hard word paid off with a cover story for the Review. I can understand what living on this battlefield has done for someone like Evans. "Monkey Town" looms over her book--and it looms over the beliefs of ever Christian fundamentalist today.