In the local paper this morning the publisher’s column made the suggestion that we not think of New Year’s resolutions this year. Instead, we might think about a theme for our year or a word we want to have define our lives over the next twelve months. Here is a Psalm with a theme that would make a good example. This is a great Psalm for beginning the year. In fact, it’s a great Psalm for life and one I recommend for anyone starting out. As well, it is the Psalm I read at my father’s memorial service. It’s something to live into with our lives.
1. “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord.”
Instead of some morbid kind of fear or the constant fear of punishment, it would be better to use the phrase “profound respect” instead. This is not the same as the feeling we have about celebrities or famous people but what we have for a very few people in our lives. For whom do you have profound respect – enough respect that it makes you want to model yourself after them? I’ve told you about Dad’s seven pictures he put on his wall. Each person portrayed a particular character trait that Dad wanted to be true over time in his life. It was not hero worship. It was profound respect.
So much of our own success in life is being exposed to people we respect. Think of the people in your own life for whom you have had that kind of regard. In fact, our own being respectable is a gift we give to our children. Teaching them what the basis of true respect should be.
Profound respect for God over time shapes our lives.
2. There is no delight to be found in fear or even slavish obligation. But respect for God produces the desire to live by His commands.
The word “delight” has two meanings. First, it means to be pleased by or attracted to. Something is a delight to the eye or the ear or the smell.
But it also can mean in Scripture the ability to rest, to remain, to stay and to settle. In this sense, to delight in his commands is to settle on some core values in life. The word for commands is “mitzvoth” which is more than dictates or laws. It means shared standards, a way of seeing things that defines who we are. For the Jew, the Law was not just a compilation of rules and restrictions. It was a mark of his unique relationship with his neighbor and with God.
A “bar mitzvah” means “son of the command”. You now belong to a community with a way of defining right and wrong, good and bad, wise and unwise, a way of understanding who you are and what is expected of you. It is an order that is intended to allow us the best kind of freedom. It is like the banks of a river. Without the banks it is merely a flood.
I’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton the last few weeks and he writes about finding his way to orthodoxy and the need for settling some basic questions and perspectives in our minds.
“The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.”
We could say that delight is on the other side of discipline. It is not entertainment. It is not simple or easy or even particularly what we would call emotional. It is the result of practice and attention. It is the delight of having settled and at rest – not out of laziness or inertia – but from having a clear way of seeing things, a set of values, a sense of expectations about yourself and others.
3. What does such a person look like over time who has profound respect for God and is part of a community that expects certain things.
Let’s look briefly at four general characteristics:
First, his righteousness endures forever. Three times in this Psalm we see the word “forever”. It describes righteousness and the fact that a righteous man will be remembered forever. Forever is a long time, isn’t it? David uses it in Psalm 23 to say that he will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. That’s beyond our lifetime. I think we can read that in a couple of ways.
Children have a fascination with family albums. One of their first questions is always, “Who is that?” They can spend hours leafing through pictures of family – living or dead. In that way our lives are remembered by those who come after us. Or, we leave things behind that remind people of us. They are more than heirlooms. They carry our stories.
There was a study years ago at Harvard to determine what terminal patients’ greatest desires were at death. They found three constants: that they wanted to not be in pain; to not be alone; and to be remembered.
Carol and I were cleaning out one of the closets in the garage this week and came across a couple of things that were such powerful reminders of my father that we put them together in a shadow box yesterday. One was a small plaque that says, “Think” and the other is his read carpenter’s pencil that he used for as long as I can remember. “Measure twice and cut once.” is what he used to say. They are more than old items and for anyone else they would have no value at all but they are a powerful way for me to remember his character.
Jews have a wonderful tradition called “Kaddish”. It is a prayer to be recited on the anniversary every year of the death of a loved one. It is a way to remember their life. It is not a prayer for the dead. It is a prayer for the Messiah to come. It is a time to both remember and look forward.
“Exalted and hallowed be His great Name. Throughout the world which He has created according to His Will. May He establish His kingship, bring forth His redemption and hasten the coming of His Moshiach. In your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon, and say, Amen.”
Or I think about our daughter Haley when she was five writing her name on a brick with chalk outside the garage. It is still there 25 years later. She inscribed her name on something lasting. But while it may last for the life of the house it is still not forever.
Only God can remember things forever and that may be the deeper meaning in this. In Isaiah 49:15 God says, “I will never forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” I can think of no better illustration than that. We are permanently and forever unforgotten by God. We are remembered long after we have ceased to live.
Second, there is a steadiness, courage, trust and unshakable quality to your life. He does not live in fear of life or in fear of bad news. Even in the dark times we can see beyond them. It’s not denial or bravado. It’s not fatalism or resignation. It’s trust.
If you follow the story of Psalm 55 you will see this. It begins in terror. The worst kind of terror in that his life is in danger due to betrayal by people he should have been able to trust – his own son (Absalom) and is closest friend of confidant (Ahithophel). But instead of deciding he can never trust again, he fights against a life defined and limited by mistrust and becoming closed off to people. He struggles until he gets to trust. Trust in God’s love and constancy. “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you…but as for me, I trust in you.”
Third, it is a life of generosity, graciousness and compassion. He is not describing a person who has to be convinced or incentivized to give through manipulation or guilt. I’ve read enough reports on how to motivate people to give that describe those perfectly. They have to get something back. It’s an exchange and a transaction and there is a science for deciding what those incentives are for every kind of giver – except the one who gives freely. It’s almost as if the assumption there is no such person. Everyone has a hidden motive. Everyone needs something for themselves to convince them to give. That is not the person described here. The righteous person is gracious, compassionate and generous – with no need to manipulate them into being so.
It is more difficult than most people think to be rich and also to be compassionate and gracious. It’s hard work to keep both in balance. I read a study this week about that very thing. “What Wealth Does To Your Soul” by Michael Lewis – the author of Moneyball and Liar’s Poker. It describes a series of studies done by various research labs and their conclusions.
“The researchers invited a cross section of the population into their lab and marched them through a series of tasks. Upon leaving the laboratory testing room, the subjects passed a big jar of candy. The richer the person, the more likely he was to reach in and take candy from the jar — and ignore the big sign on the jar that said the candy was for the children who passed through the department.
A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: If you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people’s brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich.”
But there is a particular kind of generosity described here – in addition to one who lends freely and does business with justice. It is one who scatters freely. That’s becoming increasingly rare today. It’s not investing. It’s not done after serious research and evaluation. It is simply scattered from our hand – like one sowing seed. It is almost the ultimate in letting go. It’s not the only way of giving. It does not mean it is the best way of giving. It simply means there should be some giving that is more akin to scattering than planting.
Fourth, a life of righteousness will be honored. We’ve talked about this before but honor does not mean fame or even recognition in the way we normally think of it. It means “weight” or “substance”. A life of trust, open handedness, giving, compassion and graciousness over time accumulates substance.
David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, speaks about the distinction between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”
As Brooks sees it, resume virtues and eulogy virtues represent two sides of human nature – Adam 1 and Adam II.
“Adam I is the external Adam, it’s the resume Adam,” Brooks explained. “Adam I wants to build, create, use, start things. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities, to have a serene inner character, not only to do good but to be good. To live and be is to transcend the truth and have an inner coherence of soul. Adam I, the resume Adam, wants to conquer the world…. Adam II wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist and what ultimately we’re here for.”
“We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I,” Brooks said. “We’re taught to be assertive and master skills, to broadcast our brains. To get likes. To get followers.”
So how do we nourish Adam II—the deep Adam? For that matter, what does it even mean to be deep?
“I think we mean that that person is capable of experiencing large and sonorous emotions, they have a profound spiritual presence,” Brooks said. “In the realm of emotion they have a web of unconditional love. In the realm of intellect, they have a set, permanent philosophy about how life is. In the realm of action, they have commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime. In the realm of morality, they have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.”
Deep people also tend to be old.
“The things that lead you astray, those things are fast: lust, fear, vanity, gluttony,” Brooks observed, in religiously inflected language. “The things that we admire most—honesty, humility, self-control, courage—those things take some time and they accumulate slowly.”
What qualities spur us to plumb the depths of our being? Brooks outlined five:
The love Brooks has in mind is of the transformational, unconditional variety. “It could be love for a cause, usually it’s love for a person, it could be love for God,” he said. Love issues the humbling reminder that “we’re not in control of ourselves,” and also “de-centers the self”—a “person in love finds the center of himself is outside himself.” It “complicates the distinction between giving and receiving, because two selves are so intermingled in love that the person giving is giving to him or herself.” Brooks cited the French writer Michel de Montaigne, who, when asked why he had such strong affection for a friend, replied, simply, “because I was I, and he was he.”
“When people look forward, when they plan their lives, they say, ‘How can I plan … [to] make me happy?'” Brooks noted. “But when people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.” Like love, suffering exposes our lack of control over our lives. But it also encourages deep introspection and equips people with a moral calling. “They’re not masters of their pain, they can’t control their pain, but you do have a responsibility to respond to your pain,” Brooks explained. He gave the example of Franklin Roosevelt, whose character was forged through his battle with polio.
3. Internal struggle
“Here, I don’t mean the struggle involved in winning a championship, starting a company, or making a lot of money,” Brooks cautioned. Those who have depth are “aware that while they have great strength, great dignity, they also have great weakness. And they are engaged in an internal struggle with themselves.” Consider Dwight Eisenhower, who constantly tangled with his bad temper. “Internal struggles are the logic by which we build character,” Brooks said.
Brooks took aim at the common message in commencement speeches that students should turn inward to discover their passion and vocation. “If you look at the people who are deep, often they don’t look inside themselves. Something calls to them from outside themselves,” he said. They obey a cause. Brooks mentioned Frances Perkins, who watched in horror as people leaped to their deaths during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, and then devoted her life to workers’ safety (she eventually became FDR’s labor secretary).
Brooks also calls this “admittance,” seeking to shake the word’s association with exclusivity (think a nightclub or college). He likens the concept to the religious notion of “grace.” It is “unmerited, unearned admittance”—belonging to “some sort of human transcendent community.” Whereas Adam I wants to “work” and “sweat,” Adam II “simply accepts the fact that he’s accepted. Adam II, the spiritual side of our nature, stands against the whole ethos of self-cultivation, which is the resume side of our world. The ethos of scrambling, working, climbing.” Just as the journalist and activist Dorothy Day brimmed with gratefulness after the birth of her child, acceptance energizes the accepted. “They want to honor the people who gave them that gift and they want to pass on the gift that they didn’t deserve,” Brooks said.
Finally, the Psalmist describes a life of righteousness compared to the wicked. It’s short, isn’t it? It’s as if there are, unlike the righteous, only a very few qualities of such a life. Instead of courage and trust there is anger. Instead of settledness and substance there is wasting away and all their desires ending in nothing. It’s a stark contrast. It doesn’t happen quickly but it is inevitable and permanent. It is forever in the worst sense of the word. They are lifeless long before they are dead. Their souls are shrunk.
C.S. Lewis puts it this way in “The Great Divorce”:
“And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies, and itchings that (Hell) contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. A damned soul is nearly nothing; it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.”
I cannot think of a better image for this year. Do we want to be people of trust, substance, graciousness, compassion and generosity? Are we working on our resume or our eulogy? Do we want our hands to be open to others or clenched tightly in a fist? Do we want to face life with open eyes – unafraid of bad news – or eyes fast shut in resignation, denial or fear? Do we want to live closed up in ourselves – nearly impossible to be pried open – or live in the delight of a life that has profound respect for God and others?