Photo by Aleksandr Eremin on Unsplash
…light for the journey
July 23, 2017
This past Wednesday at music practice I thanked Walter for his music selection following the message which was taken directly from last Sunday’s responsive psalm, Psalm 119 verse 105. The verse reads, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path”. And as we spoke I asked Walter if I had ever told him the story behind that passage to which he said I had not. And so, I shared that story with the whole music team and we continued on with our practice.
And somewhere over the next day or so I realized that the same story might be a good one for a service at which we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism together. You see, the bible is a collection of stories that were told and retold for centuries before the advent of writing them all down in a more codified and formal format. They are stories rich in imagery and illustration from the culture and times in which they were first created and then shared. As such there is much that modern translations set within modern western culture lose in the sharing as we do not have the same cultural legends or understandings underlying the words or turns of phrase that ancient Hebrew culture had.
Like the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, these idioms or common, shared cultural understandings within which the passages were framed gave a richness and color to the biblical account that is not always easy for us to grasp. Some of them have been collected and made available and do indeed open up the stories of the Hebrew people’s world view.
And it is one of those stories that I shared at practice on Wednesday night that takes a fairly common verse which is quite capable of standing on its own in the English translation and opens it up much more fully. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path”, comes from a tradition in ancient Jerusalem in the time of Israel’s heyday as the center of civilization during the reign of King David and his son King Solomon following after.
During this time Jerusalem was the epicenter of Hebrew culture and attention and the people who lived there enjoyed a time of relative peace and prosperity. People of means would spend time visiting neighbors and holding festive occasions that could go far into the night. This gave rise to an opportunity for young Hebrew boys who would hang out outside of a party and seek to hire themselves and their oil lamps out to individuals who may have had too much to drink or simply needed a light by which to return to their homes.
And as you can imagine, there was keen competition between these young entrepreneurs to earn some money that would go far in supporting them and their families. And so, they sought to impress their potential clientele as they emerged from the party by performing an elaborate dance with their lanterns, hoping that they would be the one selected to guide the party individual home. And as they danced they would first sweep low to the ground with their lamp in order to show the path immediately in front of their customer in order that they might not trip or fall. They then would swing the lamp high in an arc in order to see where they were going as they picked out their route in the total darkness surrounding them. This dance would allow the customer to return home safely and most directly. And it was this story behind the words that our psalmist drew on to illustrate how deeply and fully the Israelites needed to rely on, and to follow after the word of God in guiding them along the pathway of faithfulness.
And as I reflected on this story I realized it can still carry a richness and depth of instruction for us today. But not perhaps in the narrow sense that it would seem many might immediately go to. As Christians we tend to hear the ‘Word of God’ and think only of Jesus, much as John’s gospel describes in detail that ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was God’, and then on to the explanation that the ‘word’ became flesh and so forth. And even more so over the history of the Christian church, the notion of the ‘Word of God’ has also become synonymous with the bible itself, with whole denominations deifying every word of their version of the scriptures and thereby holding them to be infallible and inerrant due to their ‘holy nature’.
Which is not to say that such views are not valid or important in the faith understanding of many, however I think we let go of the richness of the psalm too easily if we refuse to hear it as well in more common vernacular terms and as applied to literal practical understanding much as in our story of the Hebrew boys and their lamps. Both as individuals and as a community of faith we would do well to occasionally bring the scriptures down to the level of allowing that the word of God might be less complicated and easier to grasp onto than some of the usual more complex theological explanations.
When I was young I was hired for a job by a Christian man who over the years became a close friend and mentor. And from the very beginning we shared our faith understandings which were quite similar other than he was fairly Baptist and I was fairly not! Meaning that he had a more traditional view of the bible and its need for literal translation interpretation than I did.
And early on he decided I should meet his pastor who was young and had just recently answered a call to a local parish, and so we met for breakfast one day at a local diner. And before we even placed our orders, this young Baptist minister looked over at me and asked simply, “What is your authority?”. And I had no idea what he meant whatsoever. And it wasn’t until my friend explained the question that I realized he was going to the heart of his concerns and the heart of his belief that the bible as written was the only valid source of information regarding faith, God, and godly issues.
And looking back at him across the table I pondered for a minute what I should say knowing somehow that I was most likely going to disappoint him with my answer. And so, trying to be as honest as possible I looked at him and told him, “The Holy Spirit is my guide and authority”. And he said nothing in return but only shook his head back and forth from side to side in profound disagreement. And so, the breakfast had a somewhat rocky start but over time we came to love and respect one another deeply.
But my answer had very particular reasons, for I had lived a life of knowing, believing in, trusting in, and being broken and profoundly disappointed by God. I always loved God but I struggled with answers that seemed limited or insufficient that I had gleaned from the scriptures. I cried out to God so many times for deeper understanding or clarity…and slowly, and over time those answers came to me through the inner sense and voice of the Holy Spirit. I was so blessed that God dealt with my stubborn refusal to accept faith dictums at face value and by grace allowed me to see behind the words and to hear anew the stories within my heart that met my need and gave me peace.
And so for me, the ‘word’ of God came with a translator, and very often that word dealt with everyday ordinary things, bringing God to me, right where I was, right to the center of my persistent questions and wondering. And I found myself latching on to particular verses I came across, verses that prompted me to continue seeking to hear the voice of the Spirit directly and clearly rather than trying to decipher long scriptural passages in my search for understanding.
One of those passages was from Jeremiah and then later quoted in the book of Hebrews where I probably first found it. The Prophet Jeremiah writes in chapter 31, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. (And) this is the covenant that I will make…says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…”.
And I took great comfort in that passage for it resonated so deeply with my own experience of finding and hearing the voice of the Spirit within the center of my soul. I believed Jeremiah when he said that God himself promised to write his law, his ways, and his loving commands within the hearts of those who loved him…that we would know it…and that we could therefore follow after it.
So when the psalmist writes, Thy word is a lamp and a light, what I heard was that my particular dancing lamp carrier was the Spirit of God’s love. I came to trust that the Spirit would guide me into understanding of the scriptures, as well as bring them into relevance for me and my situation apart from merely their historical meaning or setting. I learned that I could trust in that inner voice to illumine the pathway before me so that my steps would be sure and my footing secure…except of course when the lamp was then swung high to show the greater way and I tried to continue walking forward in the darkness causing me to stumble now and then.
But I also learned that it is necessary not only to keep an eye on the path before you…that only looking down so as not to make a miss step…was not enough to guide you in the ways of our Lord. I learned that it was important as well to be willing to stop every once in a while, to take a moment away from the momentum of the journey and to lift up your eyes in order to see where the path you are on seems to be leading you…to look around for familiar markers to be sure that the way you are following is in fact leading you home.
And it was there in that ‘looking around’ that I found out just how much of a blessing others walking along beside of you could be…it was there that I was able to counter the concerns of other more literal-minded Christians who felt there were no controls over just who I might be listening to at any given time…those who feared that trusting in a voice within your heart might result in listening to the wrong voice or following after some ‘one’ or some ‘thing’ that was not God and therefore not holy. It was only in stopping and looking to the left and to the right that I was able to share with others and hear of their experience on the path and to ‘test’ whether or not the words I was following after…the particular dancing lamp carrier I was following behind…was in fact the Spirit of God’s love and grace. And on occasion I would get off to one side of the path or the other, however the Spirit would always be there either in the words or the questions of fellow travelers to make me pause and to consider or reconsider if necessary the road that I was traveling.
And so, somewhere this simple line from the 105th verse of a psalm is able to speak volumes to us…telling us that God’s loving word…God’s instruction and direction, however we come to hear and to know it, is capable of both showing us where our next step should be…as well as give us some sense of where it is that the pathway of faith is leading us. And not only so as individuals, each seeking out the life and journey God has in mind for us…but also as the family of faith altogether, helping one another to hear more clearly as we insist that we each learn to listen more closely to the voice of God’s Spirit within…that same lamp that swings low and then high in its dance of holiness and grace before us.
…thy word Oh Lord truly is a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto the path you have called us all to travel…