Last month, while driving through Western Maryland, I was flipping through radio stations, trying to find something that wouldn’t disappear as soon as I turned the next mountain bend. I happened to stumble across the local broadcast of a nationally syndicated Christian radio station.[i] And I happened to land on this station just as they were offering me something called “The 30 Day Challenge.” Listen to nothing but Christian music for 30 days straight, and they promised that my life would be changed.
Also I might win an iPad mini.
“Nothing but Christian music for 30 days!” I thought to myself. “That sounds terrible!”
So I did it. From January 20th through February 20th, with a few necessary exceptions so that my friends wouldn’t kill me, I listened to nothing but Contemporary Christian Music.
I know what you’re asking. And no, I didn’t win the iPad.
Now, if you like Contemporary Christian Music, I don’t mean any of this to sound judgmental. After the sermon you can feel free to make fun of my pretentious love of NPR. But I just don’t like it. It all sounds the same to me, like all the guitar players have the same effects pedals and all the vocalists learned to sing from one of two of the same overly sincere white men. I don’t like it, I don’t like the sound of it, I don’t like a lot of the theology of it. I don’t like how so many of the songs could be easily confused with pop love songs, because if our theology can’t be distinguished from Taylor Swift than our devotion probably isn’t very reliable. And to be honest I have trouble believing the sincerity of a lot of it.
But after 30 days of listening to Christian music, I’m wondering if there’s something else going in my reactions to the genre. I’m actually wondering—and this is confessional time—I’m actually wondering if I feel a bit…jealous of it all.
I mean, it’s not that I’m going to switch all of my radio pre-sets to Christian music. But I’m wondering if I am just a bit jealous of the sort of devotion, the sort of emotion, that CCM artists and listeners seem to have. I’m wondering if my suspicion of their sincerity is actually a suspicion of my own sincerity. I’m wondering if part of me, maybe a big part of me, wishes I felt like that.
See, when I came to seminary, I figured that it would be a sort of spiritual mountaintop experience, a kind of pilgrimage to theology geek Mecca where my spiritual practices would flourish and where I would be upheld and inspired by a deeply devoted Christian community. And then I got here, and I ended up feeling...well, a bit dry. Maybe more than a bit cynical. In the frenzy of paper writing and sermon preparation and living situation stress and classmate conflict and mental health challenges, I sometimes found myself asking: do I feel God anymore? Or even more simply: do I even remember how to pray? And I know, from many conversations with fellow seminarians past and present, that I am not alone in this experience. Maybe we’re all just doing seminary wrong. I don’t know. But it makes me, and I know it’s made others, wonder: how can I lead people to a place that I’ve forgotten how to get to?
I bring all this up because I think if the poet of Psalm 119 was alive today, they would listen to Contemporary Christian Music. I mean, this Psalm is not just a love song to God. That would be one thing. This Psalm is a love song to the Torah. An impassioned ode about just how great the Bible is. Talk about overly sincere devotion—this thing drips with it. One of the songs that plays over and over again on the local Christian music station (“WGTS, 91.9!!”) is MercyMe’s chorus, “Word of God speak/Would you pour down like rain,” and Psalm 119 makes that song of devotion to the Bible seem restrained by comparison.[ii]
Psalm 119 is 176 verses long. I’ve never written a 176 verse poem in my life. Wait. There’s more. It’s an acrostic poem, which means that each of the 22 stanzas begins with consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Wait. There’s more. Within every single one of the 22 stanzas, each line begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet that the first line of the stanza started with. So in stanza 1, every line begins with the Hebrew letter aleph, and in stanza 2 every line begins with the Hebrew letter bet, and so on. Wait. There’s more. The psalm uses 8 different words to refer to God’s word, words like Torah and commandments and ordinances, and with the exception of 3 verses in the whole psalm, every single line of the poem contains one of those 8 words.[iii]
I get exhausted just thinking about writing something like that. I thought about writing this whole sermon as an acrostic poem but I figured I couldn’t pull it off.
It takes a whole lotta love to write a poem like that. And the psalmist loves scripture. I mean, is really in love with it. This is a poet, a singer, who claims to “delight” in God’s commandments. Delight. I mean, I do love the Bible, but I don’t exactly get giddy about it.
Eminent Hebrew Bible scholars Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson try to come to the psalm’s rescue, writing that “The sheer existence of this extraordinary meditation on God’s Torah is a telling reminder that Israel’s Law was no heavy burden laid upon a people, constricting its life and energies. Rather, God’s law is presented as the best of gifts of a good God.”[iv]
But I tend to feel a bit more like Russell Rathbun, founder of the House of Mercy church in St. Paul, MN, who says of this psalm: “Unless it is a euphemism for something else, it’s difficult for me to see how longing and ordinances ever make it into the same sentence. An ordinance is something issued by the parks department to keep people from dumping their garbage in the woods. It is not an object of desire.”[v]
In verse 55, the poet sings that they “remember your name in the night, O Lord, and keep your instruction.” Not that there’s anything wrong with lying in bed and thinking about scripture, exactly. It’s just not really what tends to keep me up at night. Is there something wrong with me? Can a poor, dried up, cynical seminarian like me get anything out of this psalm other than the vague feeling that maybe seminary has burned me out instead of building me up?
The Bible nerd in me was fascinated to find out that the stanza I read earlier is the Hey stanza, with each line in Hebrew beginning with an “H” sound. And in Hebrew, words beginning with the letter Hey are often imperative verbs.[vi] If it’s been awhile since grammar lessons, just listen to the first word of each line in English:
Confirm to me.
Each of these lines is directed toward God. It’s asking God for something. Or, more accurately, it’s telling God to do something.
This is important, I think, because Psalm 119 is often classified as a wisdom psalm, a psalm in which good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. I don’t like wisdom psalms. They’re too neat, too black and white. Give me a good lament psalm any day. Yet this stanza, at least, seems to me to be an inversion of the usual wisdom formula. It’s God that’s good here, not the psalmist. It’s God that needs to act. In fact, the psalmist admits to being stuck in addiction to selfish gain and vanities. You know, the stuff it’s easy to get stuck on: Money. Fame. Success. The sort of things that I get stuck on: wanting the affirmation and admiration of elders and peers. Wanting to be cool and relevant. Wanting you to like this sermon.
The poet struggles with these same things, and they know they need God in order to be transformed. Verse 38 reads, “confirm to your servant your promise.” In other words, “God, you promised! God, you’ve made some promises here. Keep them!” And there’s that powerful last line of the stanza: “In your righteousness, give me life.” That word “righteousness” could also be translated “justice.” God, if you are a just God, if you are a faithful God, if you are who you say you are—give me life!
I wonder if the poet of Psalm 119 actually felt kind of like I do when I listen to Christian rock. I wonder if they were looking around at a whole temple full of seemingly devout, pious, impassioned worshipers, and saying to God, “God, why don’t I feel like that? God, why do I feel distracted by money and jealousy and insecurity? God, why do I feel so…well, dry? You promised, God! You promised.”
This time, I think Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson are right when they claim that “One who pleads for God’s help with such earnestness and who asserts that it is time, indeed, for God to act, is by no means satisfied with the existing state of affairs.”[vii] If that’s the case, then this psalm is less of a CCM ode to the Bible as it is a U2 song, a bit easier for me to sing along to: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”[viii] Because God doesn’t really satisfy our desires.
God changes how we desire.
Knowing God leaves us with a feeling of dissatisfaction about the world, because the world isn’t yet the Kingdom. Knowing God leaves us looking at the world and imagining that a different world, a redeemed world, is possible. In the words of theologian Peter Rollins, “Desire is not satisfied in God. Desire is born in God.”[ix] In other words, God isn’t the object of devotion, another topic for a Taylor Swift song. God is the subject that acts to transform us and to transform the world.
The poet of Psalm 119 is longing to know God, and that gives them a real, deep longing for a transformed life. In fact, the Hebrew word that is translated as “give me life” or “preserve my life”—what the old King James Version translated as “quicken me”—appears 10 times in this Psalm. I don’t think they’re asking for a “I listened to Christian music for 30 days” transformed life, though if that works for you then that’s awesome. Not a life without worries and problems. Not a 100% satisfying life with all desires fulfilled. But maybe a life that is abundant and real and full. Messy, in-flux life. Life with its traumas and turmoil, but also life with its celebrations and successes.
Life in which I’m learning to stumble through prayers again. Life in which I can stumble up to the table of grace, to the bread and the wine I need to sustain me on the rest of my stumbling way. Life in which I might just stumble into signs of God’s kingdom, God’s new, abundant community.
And that is something I can wake up in the morning and really, sincerely ask for. Even on the dry days. That’s something that I can pray when my feet, by some miracle, hit the floor in the morning. “God, give me life today. Don’t give me numbness or distraction today, God. Don’t give me riches or affirmations of my vanities. Give me life today, God. Give me life today.”
And that’s something, I think, that we all need to be asking for, whatever we are feeling or not feeling, believing or doubting. Because, in one form or another, we are all in ministry. And ministry, in the words of that great excommunicated Southern Baptist preacher, Clarence Jordan, isn’t a job. It’s a commitment. Of life. To life. For life.
I think, as present and future ministers of the gospel, we can do worse than starting each morning by praying this prayer:
God, if you are a just God. If you are a faithful God. If You are who You say You are, a God who keeps promises: then give me life. So that I can commit my life. To life. For life. Amen.
[ii] MercyMe, “Word of God Speak,” Spoken For (Columbia Records, 2005).
[iii] See Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40, Working Preacher, available online at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1025.
[iv] Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson, “The Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 864.
[v] Russell Rathbun, “It’s a Long Way to the Punch Line,” THQ: The Hardest Question, available online: http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary29psalm/#more-666.
[vi] Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 119:33-40, Working Preacher.
[vii] Craven and Harrelson, “The Psalms,” New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 864.
[viii] U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Joshua Tree Remastered (Universal-Island Records Ltd., 2007).
[ix] Peter Rollins, “200 Dollar Conversions,” The Work of the People, available online: http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/200-dollar-conversions.