Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ordinary Time - Dark Sayings

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)

Every family has a bit of scandal in its history—a cousin abandoned her family and ran off with the milk man, an uncle took up counterfeiting and did time in Joliet, a great-great-grandfather stole horses for a living and got hanged in Tucson, and so on. Some folks in the lineage just seemed bound and determined to besmirch the family name, not caring what it would do to future generations.

But they’re probably not the first characters that come to mind when your kids want you to tell them a story. You wouldn’t start out with, “Well, did I ever tell you about your great-great-great-aunt Alice, who ran a whorehouse in Pittsburgh?” No, probably not.

However, that’s exactly what the psalmist does here. He warns everyone that he’s about to speak dark sayings, and that the intention is that these stories (or songs, in this case) will be passed on from generation to generation. It’s a scandalous family history of a people who had experienced the faithfulness and goodness of God, only to turn away from him over and over, suffering the consequences of their unfaithfulness, running back in sorrow, then doing it all over again. It’s a mess, really. And the psalmist wants the kids and the grandkids to hear it straight.

If I had been around when this Psalm was written, I probably would have suggested editing out the long list of national failures (maybe replacing them with the simple phrase, “Sure, there were mistakes along the way, but . . .”) and focusing on the deeds of derring-do, the grand successes, the amazing discoveries, and the profiles of piety. Now, that’s how you write a résumé.

The stories, however, were passed on, and they remain in our Scriptures. They aren’t just stories of an unfortunate past; they are stories that include us and speak to all of our possibilities. I can find myself in the ancient accounts of a people forgetting about God. I am confronted with my own amnesia when it comes to God’s goodness and provision in my life. I have way too many times where I have taken matters into my own hands and ordered God to the margins so that I could show him how things are done. I have dark sayings of my own.

It’s a good thing to recall where we’ve been and where we have the potential to go. When our confidence rests in ourselves, humility is usually abandoned, and we edit our memories. When our confidence rests in God, humility comes to life and we recognize who we really are and appreciate our potential for disaster. We have a shared family history that reminds us of that possibility.

I am comforted as I read the dark sayings of Psalm 78, because the story is not without redemption. There is faithfulness to be found, but it doesn’t come from our ancestors of the faith. It comes from God:

Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again. (38-39)

It might be difficult for us to remember who we are, but God remembers. I’m glad for that, but it should still cause us to tremble just a bit.

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