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Monday, February 6, 2017

Path of Justice

I try to build some spiritual discipline in my life by following the daily lectionary---the readings provided by an organized planner.  In my case I use the lectionary of the Benedictine monastic community.  I like knowing that the readings I do are being done by my brother monks around the world.  I am certainly not as faithful as they are.  But I figure when my zeal flags, somehow they are covering for me.  And I am sure they do it non-judgmentally.  I appreciate that.  I think that’s the nature of spiritual community.         

A specific thing I like about following this Benedictine lectionary is the copious use of the Psalms.  I know the Benedictines move through the entire 150 Psalms every two weeks.  For some people that would be awful.  How can they keep using the same body of literature over and over?  I am sure one of their answers is they do so in order to be joined to the body of believers stretching back over five centuries.  The Psalms, we know, are not just in the Christian Bible.  Originally and to this day, they are the heart of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament in Christian terms.  Our brothers and sister Jews have been reciting and prayer the Psalter for centuries.     

It is not normally true that Protestants do know and don’t use Psalms like the Catholics and Jews have done.  That certainly was the case for me as a Quaker.  Rather than lament this, I simply make use of the lectionary and that always includes readings from the Psalms.  I am making up for lost time.  I have found a treasure and I gladly use it and let it form my heart.         

The lectionary reading for today is pulled from a portion of Psalm 5.  In that Psalm the Psalmist asks God to lend an ear.  Of course, I don’t think God has real, literal ears.  But in some metaphorical way God does hear us.  In fact, God listens carefully to the desires of the heart.  I do not think for a moment that God grants me whatever I might ask.  And I do think God grants me things I would never have dreamed of asking.  God provides for me and for each of us.  From that conviction comes my theological understanding of a providential God.  That does not mean God predestines every minute detail of my life.  But God does provide.         

I see in Psalm 5 the Psalmist affirming the providential character of God.  In spite of the craziness of being human, the Psalmist affirms, “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house…” (5:7)  In a more contemporary way I might say something like, “by God’s grace I am included in the circle of God’s friends.”  It is not by my own doing.  That does not take me off the hook for trying to live a good life.  But it does not depend solely on my actions.  God cares and will take care.          

The Old Testament idea of “steadfast love” uses a deeply loaded Hebrew word to characterize the zealous love God has for the ones God utterly cares for.  This is the kind of love that suggests to me the deepest kind of maternal love---the love of the mother for her young child.  It is difficult to imagine anything the little creature could do that would alienate the loving mother.  And so it is with God’s “steadfast love.”         

As I read a little further in this Psalm 5, I watch the Psalmist move from the theme of “steadfast love” to the theme of “justice.”  Again we see this in the petition of the Psalmist to the Lord.  The writer of the Psalm asks, “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness…make your way straight before me.” (5:8)  Another translation uses my term, “justice,” instead of “righteousness,” which sounds like an old-fashioned word that none of my students would really know what it means.  So I prefer justice language.          

In this petition the Psalmist asks for two things.  In the first place the petition is that God would lead the Psalmist in justice.  And secondly, the Psalmist asks that God’s way be straight.  Let’s look at each one of these.  To be led in to the just path of God is to have life shaped in a way that we will grow in spiritual maturity.  To be just is to be willing to treat people equally.  And sometimes when equality is not possible, at least we can always be fair.  Justice is the baseline of true community.  In fact, there never will be community without justice.  For example, justice demands that we treat everyone with respect and dignity.  And justice particularly harbors concerns for the poor, sick and downtrodden.  How we treat the least of these is how God will see our life and actions.          

Secondly, we ask that God make the divine way straight.  It is not obvious how we should understand this.  But let me make an educated guess that having the divine path of justice made straight means we can see where to go and how to act.  Life has its ups and downs and does seem to pave our way with curves and corners to negotiate.  That probably won’t change.  But if the path of divine justice is straight, then we can manage all the tricky parts of life with a sense of doing it with justice.          

If we can learn to live with justice---treating every other human being with the baseline justice they deserve, then we will be freed to move on to love.  I am sure it is not possible to be loving if we have failed to be just.  First things first, the old saying goes.  That is why it is worth asking God to make the path of justice straight. 

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