Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sweet Words

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. (Psalm 119.103-105)

New Tastes

One of the earliest lessons pastors’ kids learn is proper behavior when dining in parishioners’ homes. As it was, good table manners were drilled into my brother and me from the day we left our high chairs. But a home-cooked meal with church people raised my parents' expectations several notches. They impressed on us that we were honored guests and our hosts—many less fortunate than we—deserved our utmost gratitude for their hospitality. Dinners they served us represented their finest efforts, which called for our most gracious behavior however unappetizing or irregular the fare might be. (I could tell you stories…)

Before we went, we reviewed the standard protocol. Take some of everything that’s offered; our hosts must never feel they prepared a dish we don’t care for. Don’t ask what anything is; if you don’t recognize it, we’ll tell you what it was later. If you don’t like how something tastes, move it around to seem as though you ate more than you did. But—and this was imperative—try it first; you may find it’s much tastier than it looks. On this my parents couldn’t have been more right. I owe my adventurous palate to those days of learning to appreciate new tastes no matter how off-putting food sometimes appears.

Unfortunately, it’s taken a lot longer to learn the same rule applies to Scripture. For years, if I came on passages that looked hard to swallow, seemed half-baked, or smelled funky, I’d either skip them entirely or push them around a bit to pretend I did more with them than I had. Hearing believers rave about relishing the tougher portions of God’s Word, I’d think, “If that’s what you like, knock yourself out. But some of that stuff is just nasty and indigestible.” To be sure, parts are nasty and indigestible. Written to primitive cultures in situations that no longer exist, they’re rotten and deadly, and believing we must choke them down because they’re in the Bible risks scriptural food poisoning. (Indeed, most nausea in today’s Church can be traced to texts that have outlasted their expiration dates.) Yet as I mature, I’m amazed how much of what I avoided is truly delicious. Psalm 119’s poet exclaims, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v103) and I get it. The Word is sweet.

The Vibrant Force

To say the psalmist loves Scripture would be like saying fish love to swim. It goes beyond love. God’s Word is his natural habitat. It permeates his every thought. He hides it in his heart. He knows it better than all his teachers. He keeps it top of mind, present in memory, never to be forgotten. He relies on the Word to strengthen him when he fears he’ll faint. He loves the sweetness of its taste. He looks to it to light his path. He doesn’t depart from its direction. He can’t exhaust its boundless truth. He takes solace in its permanence. His understanding of the world is rooted in God’s precepts. He goes on and on, waxing rhapsodic about Scripture until he ends up composing the Bible’s lengthiest chapter—176 verses in all, running longer than nearly half (30/66) of the Bible’s books in their entirety.

Without exploring the psalm, the obvious question is, “Why does he love the Bible so passionately?” The answer is his poem’s raison d’être. Verse upon verse, line upon line, he exults in the wealth of God’s Word and how it enriches his life. A more fascinating question, perhaps, is, “How did he come to love Scripture with such fervor?” The psalm is abundantly clear he’s been obsessed with the Bible most, if not all, of his life. By not providing details about where his passion originated and its development over time, however, he whets our curiosity about his leaps from casual reader to devoted student to besotted lover of God’s laws, precepts, and commands. “Oh, how I love your law!” he exclaims in verse 97—and we want to grab him by the lapels and ask, “How did you do it?” His ecstasy is contagious. By the time we’re this far into the poem, we sense tinges of jealousy creeping into our response. Whatever he found that made Scripture the vibrant force it is in his life we want it, too.

Wonderful Things

So how did he do it? The riddle’s solution hides in plain sight in verse 18: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” The psalmist has stopped reading God’s Word and started discovering it. He no longer listens to it; he expects it to speak. In other words, he makes himself available to the text. For him, the Bible isn’t an objective, impersonal library of knowledge and wisdom. It's God’s channel to communicate directly, specifically to him. The more he learns about it the more clearly he finds his place in it. When he turns to a page, he uncovers wonderful things that immediately resonate with who he is, where he’s at, and what he needs at this precise moment in his life. Thus he prays for open eyes to see what God wants him to know. It may the first time he’s explored a certain passage. It may the hundredth. Either way, he eagerly anticipates seeing what God desires to show him now.

I love the way Hebrews 4.12 captures this phenomenon: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The Bible is a living thing. It’s actively engaged in our lives. When we open it with open eyes, we discover wonderful things that God wants us to see now. It’s the medium through which God speaks—to you, others, and me, collectively and personally. It penetrates gray areas between our soul’s emotions and our spirit’s longings. It takes us apart and puts us back together. It pierces the marrow of our beings and assesses our thoughts and opinions. If we read it passively—passing on the tougher portions and moving what doesn’t appeal to us around our plates—we miss much of its sweetness. We’ll never fully tap into its incandescence. Our paths will remain dim. But if we approach it, passionately and eagerly expecting to find what we need at this point in our lives, we discover wonderful things. The more frequently that happens, the more like the psalmist we’ll be. God’s Word will become our natural habitat. As we undertake our Lenten journey, I pray we’ll make ourselves available to God’s Word in new and wonderful ways, finding many new and wonderful things.

The Bible is God’s channel to communicate directly, specifically to us now. We pray for open eyes to discover new and wonderful things each time we open it.

Postscript: “Open My Eyes”

My church closed our Ash Wednesday service with this hymn—albeit at a more meditative pace. A longtime personal favorite, it distills the essence of praying for discovery and expecting God’s Word to speak. I trust the song will speak to you as well.

Open My Eyes, That I May See

Open my eyes, that I may see

Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me

Place in my hands the wonderful key

That shall unclasp and set me free

Silently now I wait for Thee

Ready my God, Thy will to see

Open my eyes, illumine me

Spirit divine!

Open my ears, that I may hear

Voices of truth Thou sendest clear

And while the wave notes fall on my ear

Everything false will disappear

Silently now I wait for Thee

Ready my God, Thy will to see

Open my ears, illumine me

Spirit divine!

Open my mouth, and let me bear

Gladly the warm truth everywhere

Open my heart and let me prepare

Love with Thy children thus to share

Silently now I wait for Thee

Ready my God, Thy will to see

Open my heart, illumine me

Spirit divine!


Sherry said...

Oh you captured this so well Tim. God uses the imperfect words and thoughts of man in describing things holy, and to the mind that is willing to listen, opens us to new possibilities. It is the wonder of scripture that we can return to the same passages again and again, and never exhaust the wisdom offered, for each time, God meets us again, and says, "today this is what I would show you." Thanks for a lovely explanation.

Tim said...

God uses the imperfect words and thoughts of man in describing things holy, and to the mind that is willing to listen, opens us to new possibilities.

Dearest Sherry, once again you masterfully summarize the post. Thank you for that. When I read your comment, I thought with a smile, "Maybe we should team up. I'll send my ramblings to Sherry, she'll condense them beautifully, and the readers will thank her no end!!" ;-)

Re the post's content. As I put it to bed in the wee hours this morning, I realized that this text was indeed one I've read over and over through the years--and, once again, it felt as though I was looking at it for the first time. My pastor once said, "God's Spirit breathes through the Word. It's how Scripture moves from our heads to our hearts." I had experienced that very thing (for the nth time) without consciously realizing it!

Thanks again, my friend! It's always such a joy to hear from you!