One of the things I try to do in order to maintain some discipline in my spiritual journey is to follow the lectionary of the church. The lectionary is a set of daily readings. I choose to follow the lectionary that I know the Benedictine monks follow. This is a group to which I have some affiliation, so I enjoy knowing that I am doing what they are doing. Of course, I know they are much more diligent in their discipline. So I figure there are times their diligence is covering for my lack of diligence!
In fact, they are so disciplined, they set aside a number of different periods during the day when they stop whatever they are doing and join together in community for worship. I cannot do all these, so I try to pay attention to the morning and evening sessions that they do. I like the fact that every one of these gatherings include some readings from the Psalms. I never had much to do with the Psalms as I was growing up. I suppose that is because Quakers I knew did not pay special attention to the Psalms.
It was only when I took an Old Testament class in college that I became aware how important the Psalms were in Jewish history and spirituality. The Psalms were the praise book of the Jewish people. I try to remember and appreciate that when I am working with the Psalms. For example, last evening when I turned to the lectionary reading, the first Psalm used was Psalm 86. I would like to focus on the first two verses of that Psalm.
Let’s look at these verses and then I will offer a commentary. “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you.” The first thing to observe is this Psalm actually is a petition to God. The Psalmist asks God to turn an ear to the words of the Psalmist. In fact, the Psalmist is explicit: answer me! The Psalmist is asking the Lord to pay attention to him and give him an answer.
The Psalmist is detailed in his request. Answer me because I am poor and needy he says. Another translation says the Psalmist is destitute. This suggests to me more than simply a lack of money. To be destitute means I have no resources---financial or emotional. I am at my wits end. In this situation only God can answer in a way that makes any difference. The Psalmist is needy. To be needy often borders being desperate. I certainly have had needs. But I am not sure I ever have been so needy I was desperate. I can learn from the Psalmist.
The Psalmist moves to the real request. He asks God to preserve his life. This is a much bigger request than for money. His life is at stake. No wonder only God can intervene in action. The Psalmist offers his reason for God to save him. The Psalmist says that he has been devoted to the Lord. This is both honorable and laudable. Devotion is a matter of loyalty. It is grounded in faith. I think everyone is devoted to someone or something. Devotion is how we live out commitment.
Finally, the Psalmist asks God to save God’s servant. That is an interesting way to portray the Psalmist’s relationship to God: a servant. It is to this end---salvation---then, the Psalmist asks God to act. Save me is the request. And the basis for the request is the trust or faith the Psalmist has had in God. In effect, I hear the Psalmist saying he wants God to save him because he has trusted God.
Having covered in some detail these two verses, we can step back and appreciate how the Psalmist models the faith journey. It begins in faith. Faith is trust in action. Faith is a verb, although in English we need to switch to “trust” for the verb. Faith establishes commitment. It is our commitment that we live out our fiduciary relationship. This commitment lived out over time is nothing more than devotion. Devotion is disciplined commitment. It is more than theology or a set of beliefs. Devotion is action---it is life poured out to someone else. This is nothing less than the life of a servant. The servant is faithful, devoted and dedicated to service.
I appreciate seeing how the Psalmist models this journey. When I see it laid out this way, I understand more how idols work in life. Idolatry is the displacement of God with something else. It can be another person or some thing---like money, ego, etc. We see the same sequence in idolatry: faith, commitment, devotion and action. As the Jews learned long ago, idolatry, however, is not worthy of your faith and devotion. While my idolatry may be satisfying in the short run, in the long run, there will be no salvation. There will be no ultimate healing and wellbeing.
I appreciate this lesson. But I also know a lesson does not mean I have learned it. And for sure, it does not mean I can live it. That is up to me and up to you. But if I have not learned it and begin to live it, I can never legitimately ask what the Psalmist asked in this Psalm 86. That is now my goal. Goals are actualized when we begin to act. Now is the time.