There is a lot to work with in the readings for Friday in the season of Pentecost, Proper 5. Not the least because it is interesting to look at the difference and similarities in translation between the Book of Common Prayer and Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms.
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me,
Lord God of hosts;
let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me,
O God of Israel.
The afflicted shall see and be glad;
you who seek God, your heart shall live.
~Psalm 69:7, 34 Book of Common Prayer
Let not those who hope for You be shamed through me,
Master, O Lord of armies;
Let those who seek You be not disgraced through me me,
God of Israel.
The lowly have seen and rejoiced,
those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.
~Psalm 69:7, 33 The Book of Psalms by Robert Alter*
The words that arrested my attention are similar in both texts. The psalmist is suffering from many afflictions in this psalm and is calling out to God to save them while also naming all of the suffering and uncertainly they are experiencing.
However in the midst of their own suffering, they take a moment to hope that their shame does not reflect badly on other people who wish to follow God. They express the hope that their visible suffering will not dissuade others from finding a relationship with God.
I think of this in relation to my own private theology and in a modern context. For example, I don’t believe in prayer as a vending machine: put prayer in, get results out. I believe that prayer is a way to talk to God about what is going and, in the process, to bring my thoughts and desires into line with what I believe. Prayer doesn’t change God, or make God act. Prayer changes me.
I also don’t believe that God saves people from harm. If I believed that, it would mean everyone who dies or is hurt does so because God chose for it to happen. To me, that negates the entire concept of free will. If God is doing the choosing then nothing we can do has any meaning.
That does not mean that our will can override our circumstances or the randomness of the universe. If I die from getting run over by bus, or get cancer, or live to be 99, none of that is in my direct control, but neither is is God’s choice for me. I think that God hopes I will make good decisions with my life, but in order for it to be my life, God can’t step in and ‘save me’ from myself or from just plain bad luck. I am tiny, the universe is unfathomably large and will affect me in strange and unpredictable ways– it the same way that a breeze blows a dust mote around. I can’t choose actions of the breeze, but I can choose to remain in relationship with God while being blow along.
Going back the psalmist: if people know that I worship God and try to live by the rules God gave me, and I still visibly suffer, how can I hope to be a helpful representative of God to others?
I think the psalmist answers their own question in verse 34: The lowly have seen and rejoiced, those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.
The path to God is not easy. Life itself, with God or without, is hard. It is full of ‘the slime of the deep’, ‘the water depths’, and ‘[our] folly.’
But God, while respecting the boundaries of our free will, can still be a companion in our distress. The psalmist calls on God’s kindness, clear sightedness, steadfastness, and compassion. God’s attention to our prayers can help us rescue ourselves, not from death and destruction as that comes to everyone in time, but from losing our faith in God’s abiding love for us.
One day we will all return to God. But while we are here on Earth, God lets us all find our own way, painful though that process might be. God always “listens to the needy” (Psalm 69:35a) and makes space for us inhabit as we offer ourselves in prayer.
…and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.
*Mr Alter uses a different numbering system on this psalm than is used in the Book of Common Prayer.
All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway or the Book of Common Prayer. A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf
Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.