The Peace Core
March 6, 2016
I included the text of Psalm 34 in your bulletin this morning for a reason! Not because I didn’t think Kris could read it correctly, but because Psalm 34 is a puzzle, an acrostic puzzle. Every other verse of this psalm starts with a successive letter of the alphabet. And just hearing the words doesn’t help you to catch that. But when you see it, you notice.
The original, of course, wasn’t written in English; it was written in Hebrew. And most translations of this psalm – like the one in our pews, the NRSV - don’t maintain that alphabetic structure. Hebrew and English are VERY different!
So Calvin Seerveld, who came up with this translation, really had to work to keep the alphabetic format in English. But he had one advantage - there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and there are 26 in English. So he got to skip a few of the hard ones like Q and X and Z.
I am a big fan of puzzles – puzzles of all kinds: acrostics, crosswords, jigsaw puzzles. I can blame my addiction to online jigsaw puzzles on Jim Doyle, who introduced me to them. “It’s so satisfying,” he said, “to hear that ‘click’ when you put a piece in the right place.”
He was right! Puzzles are satisfying because they have solutions. They’re like mystery novels, of which I’m also a big fan. In the end all the pieces come together.
Puzzles and mysteries stand in contrast with real life, where the pieces almost never fit neatly together: there’s almost always something missing or something left over. Puzzles have neat borders, and when you’ve filled them in, you’re finished; you’ve accomplished something! But life’s puzzles don’t have boundaries – one thing just leads to another and then another. The mystery never ends.
You travel along life’s path, dealing with the obstacles and the forks in the road as they come along, making the best decisions you can, and then you turn around and look at what you’ve put together so far. It doesn’t look anything like what you had planned or what you had expected!
Eventually – it takes longer for some of us than for others – you realize that the picture on the front of the box – the image you had of life as a younger person – bears almost no resemblance to your life. Your life-puzzle will never actually be completed, and you certainly can’t predict what it might turn out to look like. So you might as well learn to enjoy the process, appreciating each piece as it connects to the one before it. Click.
Psalm 34 is not the only puzzle psalm in the Bible; there are several others that are also acrostics. That alphabetic technique was probably an aid to learning and memorizing the psalm. It’s also possible that their purpose of the acrostic was to create a psalm that summed up all that could be said about God. One cannot actually use all of the words in any language that might be used to speak of God. But by using the whole alphabet one can symbolically point to all the potential words of descriptive praise. The psalm has covered it all, from alif to tav in the Hebrew alphabet, from A to Z…or in our translation, from A to Y.
But as neat as that sounds, I find that puzzles remain within this psalm. Not all the ends are neatly finished off. For instance, verse 19: the NRSV reads “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.” In the translation you have, the verse starts with the letter “U.” “Untold evil sufferings do afflict whoever does what is right, but the Lord God shall snatch that man or woman out of it all.”
Really? Does the Lord rescue the righteous from every affliction?
Verse 20 says “He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.”
No one with any sensitivity to what happens in our world could say that this is how things work out in life. This is going to require some more puzzling out….
One of the keys to understanding Psalm 34 is actually in a part of the psalm that I left out from the bulletin insert. “Don’t bother,” I told Kim as she got ready to print it, “I won’t need it.”
It’s called the superscription. It’s usually printed in smaller italics and not all the psalms have one, or have much of one. But some psalms, like the 34th, have a lengthy superscription that relates the psalm to a particular time in King David’s life.
This one reads “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” It’s referring to a time in David’s life when he fled for his life from King Saul and sought protection with another king, only to find that he’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire. This second king was after him, too, and as part of his escape David pretended to be insane.
The phrase in the superscription translated as “he feigned madness” is literally “he changed his taste.” (I didn’t know that when I told Kim we didn’t need it!) It’s meant to connect with – and serve as a contrast to - verse 8 of the psalm. From the NRSV: “taste and see that the Lord is good.” In the same way, David’s fear in verse 4 – the fear of enemies and danger [everything I dreaded]– is meant to contrast with the “fear of the Lord” in verses 7 and 9.
Inside this puzzle psalm is another sort of puzzle: a play on words. The fear of dangerous people and circumstances vs. the fear of the Lord, which is worship and awe. The first one, destructive of human life, is overcome by the second, which gives life.
And “changing one’s taste” as David did to escape what he feared is contrasted with “tasting the goodness of the Lord.” The word translated as "taste," means "to try something by experiencing it." The psalm urges us to try God's goodness for ourselves, to experience it as one would taste a new food. It encourages us to see, to open our eyes to the goodness of God that is all around us, even in the midst of danger and fear. [Click]
And isn’t there where peace begins? Not by some supernatural act of rescue, but by finding God’s peace at the center of our existence: the peace core. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” The psalm paints a picture of a small child wrapped up in her parent's arms--protected, warm, loved. We can be at peace, even as danger and fear continue to affect our lives.
Taking refuge in God—to know that one is protected, warm, and loved--can result in a deep, inner sense of contentment, a feeling in the very depth of your being that all is well. At peace, indeed, are those who allow themselves to be wrapped up in the arms of God.
For our Lenten prayer practice, then, let us take a few minutes to imagine ourselves in just such a place. It seems like a good time – there’s a lot of change and turmoil in the air these days:
- wars producing thousands of refugees,
- poisoned water,
- the changing status of the church in America,
- a pastoral change in this congregation.
- It seems like a good time to find our peace core.
We have been trying out different ways of praying in our Sunday services this season. Today’s practice is a guided meditation.
- I invite you to sit quietly, stilling both your body and your mind.
- With each exhale, pay attention to the muscles of your face and allow them to relax.
- Rest the area around your eyes.
- Relax your forehead muscles.
- Lift the corners of your mouth slightly to a smile.
- Now see yourself as a child again, held with love by your Divine Parent.
- Feel the quiet and relaxing energy that radiates from God.
- With each inhale, absorb God’s peaceful and calm.
- With each exhale, you find yourself calmer, more at peace.
- Just sit and enjoy this sense of complete safety and comfort.
Move to table
Let us pray:
Most Radiant One, O Magnificent God,
Your compassionate light delivers me
From the darkness of fear and anxiety.
I look at your face, beaming like the sun,
And joy and gladness fill my heart.
Your voice of truth and goodness
Casts away deceit and corruption.
May all seek and know your peace. Amen.
Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Commentary on Psalm 34:1-8 August 09, 2009. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=361
Howard Wallace, Year B: Pentecost 21 - Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22). October 25, 2009. http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/OrdinaryB/Pentecost21Psalm.html
Roy DeLeon. Praying with the Body: Bringing the Psalms to Life. Paraclete Press, 2009.
Calvin Seerveld. Voicing God’s Psalms. Eerdmanns Publishing, 2005.