“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” ~ Psalm 63:8
False dichotomies – they’re everywhere.
In this political season I am already weary of Presidential candidates staking out their positions on the pressing issues of the day in strict either/or sorts of ways. Why can’t I want our national borders to be secure and for immigrants who have fled oppression and poverty to be treated compassionately and find safe refuge and some real opportunity here? Why can’t I be concerned about the threat of global terrorism and the plight of Syrian refugees at the same time? And do I really have to choose between wanting to “Back the Blue” and truly believing that “Black lives matter”?
Theologically I have never been content with a single “system.” I am captivated by the Bible’s “furious opposites” – God being three in one, Jesus Christ being fully God and fully man, being saved by grace and faith, spiritually knowing that I am secure and that I must persevere, reading Scripture as a Word from God and the words of men. I helpfully engage with as many Calvinist thinkers as I do from my own Arminian wing of the Faith. I want my knowledge of God to be informed by the very best Baptist, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Neo-Orthodox and Progressive thinkers available. I want them all in my head and my heart.
And in my spirituality I find that one of the things that I really need to hold together is both the primacy of the initiative of God and the necessity of my own obedient response. I have long thought that the popular contrast between “monkey religions” – those where the offspring have to actively cling (“synergistic”), and “cat religions” – those where the offspring are passively carried (“monergistic”), both miss half the truth I am so much more convinced by and comfortable with Richard Foster’s description of the spiritual life as “the path of disciplined grace – it is ‘grace’ because it is free; it is ‘disciplined’ because there is something for us to do.” This came home to me with particular force while I was recently getting ready to preach on Psalm 63.
Psalm 63 has been described as a stream with three bends in it. Each one of those bends gets introduced with the two words: “My soul.” This is a very specific literary form. It’s called “soliloquy,” and a “soliloquy” has been described as someone preaching a sermon to themselves. It’s what happens when you take something that the Bible says and then try to apply it directly and honesty to yourself. In a soliloquy you ask yourself, “How does what the Bible says here fit in my life?” “What does this truth tell me about what’s going on in my heart?” It’s like holding up a mirror to yourself to see what’s really there. The soliloquies of Psalm 63 allow us to eavesdrop on the three conversations that the Psalmist had with himself about himself.
The first soliloquy is in in verse 1. That’s where the Psalmist prayed: “My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” The editorial preface to this prayer tells us that it’s a Psalm of David that he wrote when he was in the wilderness of Judah. That’s a barren place where it’s real easy to die of thirst. Spiritually, I’ve been there.
I’ve read about an unusual plant in a display case at the New York City Botanical Garden. It sits on a shelf without soil or water, and every spring it sends out some little exploratory roots looking for sustenance. And every year, finding nothing in that display case in which to root itself or with which to nourish itself, that plant pulls its roots back into itself and it shrivels up again into a lifeless ball, resolved to hang on for another year when it will try again. Spiritually, I have been that plant. There have been seasons when my soul has been stuck; when I have been stalled; when I have been parched; when I have been barren. Psalm 63:1 is part of my own spiritual repertoire.
The second “soliloquy” of Psalm 63 shows up in verse 5. This is where the Psalmist told himself – “My soul is satisfied as with a feast of fat and rich food.” Clearly this is the polar opposite of what the Psalmist said about himself in verse 1. There he was starving, here he is sated. There he was parched, here he is quenched. And spiritually, this is familiar terrain to me as well. My soul has known seasons of fullness. My life is rich with days when I have been abundantly blessed, long stretches when I have been extravagantly supplied. The question that Psalm 63 raises in me is – “how?” How does this dizzying reversal happen? What moved the Psalmist from his emptiness in verse 1 to his fullness in verse 5? In my own spiritual experience, I’ve gone looking for what is it that has brought me through the “dry and weary stretches where there is no water” to that “feast of fat and rich food”?
“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me,” is what the Psalmist said in his third soliloquy in verse 8. This is the destination of the journey that Psalm 63 maps out for us spiritually. The way that we get from the spiritual wasteland of verse 1 to the spiritual banquet of verse 5 is by the experience of simultaneously “clinging” and being “upheld” that gets named in verse 8. Now, some would argue that these two postures are incompatible opposites. We’re either cats or monkeys. We’re either carried or we cling. But here in Psalm 63 that dichotomy is shown to be false. Psalm 63 is a hymn from the way of disciplined grace, and the urgency for getting a good handle on this is underscored for us by the research that’s being done on the spiritual well-being of church folks – people like me. George Barna and his team has found out that –
Fewer than two out of 10 churchgoers feel close to God on even a monthly basis (20%). Additionally, while almost two-thirds of those who value church attendance go to learn more about God, fewer than one in 10 (6%) who have ever been to church say they learned something about God or Jesus the last time they attended. In fact, the majority of people (61%) say they did not gain any significant or new insights regarding faith when they last attended.
When Willow Creek Community Church up in Chicago, one of America’s numerically largest and spiritually most dynamic congregations, surveyed 6000 of their members they discovered that 25% of them – a staggering 1 out of every 4 – said that they were “stalled” and spiritually “dissatisfied.” Now, Willow Creek is a church that most of us who are in ministry envy for their creativity and vitality, not to mention for their quantifiable success, and if 1 out of every 4 people who sit on the pews of that church that’s doing everything “right” feels like they are spiritually withering on the vine, then what chance do the rest of us have?
Maybe the most important thing that the Willow Creek survey of the spiritual well-being of its membership found out was that the big mistake that those who said that they were spiritually stuck and dissatisfied were making was looking to the church alone to fuel their spiritual growth. They admitted to thinking that the believed that if they just showed up and got involved in the church’s activities that they would then just automatically and invariably thrive spiritually. But it doesn’t work like that. It never has. As the Reformer Martin Luther once pointed out, Christians are not “gluttonous bellies” who can sit on the church’s pews thinking that God will drop the spiritual equivalent of “roasted geese” into our upturned and open mouths.
And so these days Willow Creek is being very clear with their people that they are going to have to do more than just attend the weekend services a couple of time each month if they expect to have spiritually dynamic lives. They tell their guests and members alike that “much of the responsibility for their spiritual growth belongs to them.” Willow Creek tells people that the only way to personal spiritual vitality is for them to learn how to “self-feed” through their own personal spiritual practices. In fact, this is the very thing that the Psalmist said moved him from the spiritual desert of verse 1 to the spiritual banquet of verse 5.
The Psalmist said that he was in the habit of mediating on the things of God late at night (63:6-7), and recounting all the help that God had provided for him in this way, his remembrance of how God’s wings had overshadowed him, the Psalmist said that he responded with prayers of trust and songs of praise. He also said that he “looked for God in the sanctuary” where he beheld God’s “power and glory” (63:2), prompting him to bless the Lord and lift his hands in praise (63:4). What’s being described here is a pattern of spiritual practice, personal and private, corporate and public. This is the life of “disciplined grace.”
So, where are you? Verse 1 or verse 5? Are you in the dry and weary wasteland, or at the feast of fat and rich food? Both are part of the journey of our souls, but one is surely preferable to the other. And if you agree, then learning how to cling and letting yourself be held is the real key.
Emilie Griffin is a spiritual writer whose books have long helped me grow. In 1983 she wrote a beautiful book on prayer that she called Clinging. She said that she liked that word “clinging” because it was an image of “attachment to God” that conveyed our “dependency on him” (xi). She said that found the concept of “clinging” in the writings of some of the great Christian Spiritual Masters – Karl Rahner – “Love is a complete pouring out of oneself, a total clinging from the last depths of one’s being,” that results in the discovery that we don’t “grasp” god so much as God “seizes” us (xiii); Thomas Aquinas: “The will of one who sees God’s essence must cling to God” (xiv); and Augustine: “When at last I cling to you with all my being…then I shall be alive with true life, for my life will be wholly filled by you” (xiv).
Emilie’s book Clinging is an invitation for us to “hold on and trust.” She writes: “We must depend on God. We must rely on Him, embrace Him. We must cling. We must cling to the one reality that does not crumple, the one rock that will not be washed loose in the tide and onslaught of anything. We must cling to the one reality that will hold firm, though the earth be destroyed and the mountains are flung into the sea and the sun put out… We must flee into Him, hide in Him…” (83). And when we do, just like Psalm 63:8 tells us, when we “cling” we will find that we have been “upheld” by God all along! You see, our “clinging” doesn’t cause God to “uphold” us. No, our “clinging” only allows us to recognize the way that God has been “upholding” all along.
The more we cling, the more we experience strength not as what we do, but as what God does in us…By this clinging we become aware of a closeness to God that can hardly be spoken of… Ours is not a helpless tagging onto a powerful Other, but instead it is an embrace that is completely and unreservedly mutual… Not only do we cling to God, but God clings to us… it is a mutual embrace. We are not flirting with God, trying to gain His attention, trying to win His favor. He is the One who loved us first. He began this relationship…. When we cling, then, we are responding, we are returning the embrace in which He holds us. (84-86)
To force a choice between the monkey spirituality of “clinging” and the cat spirituality of being “upheld” is a false dichotomy. Biblical spirituality is rooted in both the initiative of God (“Grace”) and the necessity of our response (“Faith”). We would not be asking “what must we do?” (Acts 2:37), if what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ wasn’t absolutely clear and already on the table (Acts 2:22-36). DBS+
“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” ~ Psalm 63:8