05 July 2010

The Heat of the Lonely Muddle

Yesterday was very hot.
Today it's much hotter.
And it looks like much of the week will unfold in this way.
I searched the weather maps this morning for signs of rain and wind.  Not yet.
So the heat is inescapable.

In the Tahanun prayers for forgiveness that one recites most days, Psalm 6 is a favorite:

"Eternal do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.  Have mercy on me Eternal, for I languish; heal me Eternal for my bones shake with terror.  My whole being is stricken with terror, while Eternal--oh, how long!  Turn!  Rescue me!  Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness.  For there is no praise for You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?"

Most liberal Jews I know and encounter just can't get with this program.  They reject a relationship with a God who is at times angry at our behavior.  They say it's ancient, outmoded, primitive.  If that's all it is, then sure, I agree.  But anger is just one expression on the range of emotions that we ascribe to our relationship with *that which is beyond us*.  And as an expression it can be a very useful tool at times to imagine that our own behavior has merited anger.  Not abuse, mind you; but anger.  When  it's misused, it's a dangerous weapon.  But strategically rendered, it can be a great motivator for changing one's behavior. 

The ritual with Tahanun is to supplicate onself.  To sit humbly, to lean one's forehead into one's arm, to minimize one's ego in the face something greater.  This is an exceedingly useful tool--especially in our age--where the *I* of ego reigns supreme.  As a religious leader, I always feel it's vitally important to remain focused on who and what I serve rather than my own needs and desires.  And this prayer reminds me continually, daily, that I often fall short in that aspiration.  How frustrating!  How humiliating!  I can't believe I can't just get it together once and for all!

"Eternal--oh, how long!  Turn!  Rescue me!  Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness."

I know the point isn't that this heat *kills me* but that I turn and find some shade.  And in the shade, some light:  "For there is no praise for You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?"

To gain life, one needs to imagine that at any given moment one can lose life.  And what the writer of this Psalm seems to say is that when the loss of life is attributed to behavior for which we ourselves are responsible, the need and desire to change one's behavior is all the more critical.

Let's say you're crossing the street and you almost get hit by a car.  You see your life flash before your eyes.  You even pledge--in that moment of imagined death--to change your ways.  How many really do?  Don't most eventually revert to their more familiar patterns of living, moving along the path, muddling through?  How many, however, see the hand of God in having their life *restored*?  Probably very few.  I'll admit that I too would see a chance encounter with death as exactly that--a chance encounter.  I refuse to believe in a God who plays with our lives in that way.

And yet.

And yet, deep in the recesses of my stubborn mind; in the darkness of my troubled soul, my conscience speaks to God about all my choices, all the ways I live up to and fail to live up to my highest ideals and aspirations.  No chance encounters there.  Only the lonely muddle.  The incessant pull out of the muck of our failings and into the life we were meant to live.  We know where we succeed; and we know where we fail.  It's here where God meets us.

The writer of this Psalm ends with the words, "The Eternal hears my plea, the Eternal accepts my prayer.  My enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated." 

We have control over our lot.  It's hard work to get there.  But even after the greatest heat, we know that cool winds and restoring rain will come.


Old First said...

As Melody says, Everyone has a right to their anger nowadays, except God.

Andy Bachman said...

Yeah, SR Hirsch suggests that it's not the anger in God (that's a pagan concept, argues he) but it's the anger we imagine as a goad toward our own repentance. An interesting read of the Biblical text.