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Psalm 16

“How then shall we pray?” Even if we might not readily admit it, this is a question that haunts many Christians in our day-to-day lives. I describe this question’s presence in our lives as a haunting presence because we are, more often than not, given the impression that prayer should come to us naturally— that prayer is as simple as talking across the table to a friend. While this may be the experience for some, I am not sure it is the case for the majority of our congregants. The hidden curriculum that people receive in churches is that prayer either flows out of an overflow of the heart or it doesn’t flow at all. This approach to prayer is both fueled by and feeds the individualism that so plagues the church today. Rather than existing as a gift given by God for communion with God, prayer can so easily become a form of competition, a measure of our presumed worthiness over against other people, a means by which we seek to justify ourselves before God at the expense of others.

For much of the church’s history, the question of how we are to pray has been understood as a reasonable and appropriate question. The church’s answer to this question is liturgy— prayers from the tradition of God’s people that have sustained their communion with God for millennia. And the mother of liturgy for God’s people is the Book of Psalms. In and through the psalms, we are taught the language of prayer, language that is deposited inside of us, planted like seeds poised to emerge when the time is right, small pockets of resistance against the forces of anxiety and fear that drive so many of the decisions and actions we make every day. They are reminders of the truth of who God is and to whom we belong when everything would have us believe the opposite. Hanging on the cross, Jesus himself relies on the psalms for prayer in his darkest and loneliest hour, when words for prayer would have been difficult to come by, praying the 22nd and 31st psalms. Perhaps there is no better time than the present to turn to the psalms.


The psalm for the second Sunday of the Easter season this year is Psalm 16. The theme of Psalm 16 is trust in uncertain times— as appropriate a selection as one might hope for the current situation we face as a global society. Those preaching the psalm this week are provided an opportunity to both proclaim God’s faithfulness in the midst of uncertain times and to nurture an awareness in our people of how the anxiety and fear we experience in the face of uncertainty drives us towards the worship of false gods.


The prayer of the psalmist implies a perilous situation, but it does not provide any description of what that situation might be. There are no words of complaint or lament and only a few words of petition. It would seem as though the psalmist has accepted the reality of the situation she faces and, rather than wrestling intellectually with God’s role and responsibility in the way events have played out, she is determined to remind herself of the faithfulness of God to act even when it appears that all hope is lost. What is Easter about if it is not about a God who can still act when all hope seems lost, when all hope lies dead in a tomb?


The psalmist’s self-reminders of God’s faithfulness to act and preserve her well-being (to secure her future) in the face of uncertainty serve to aide her resistance to participating in the worship of idols in which so many of God’s people participate, even the leaders of God’s people she has admired. The worship of false gods is something to which we in the modern world have become numb. We think about false gods and their cults primarily in terms of wooden or stone statues, bloody animal or human sacrifices, and things that humanity (at least in the West) have outgrown. Sadly, the reality is not that we have outgrown the worship of false gods; rather, we have just learned to practice such worship in more subtle and insidious ways.


At the heart of the worship of false gods is the struggle with uncertainty and the anxiety it generates within us. Israel’s worship of Ba’al and Asherah was an attempt to secure fertility, be it of their fields or their families. If any of you have ever farmed or tried to have children, you will have some understanding of how the success of those endeavors depends on a great deal that is beyond any individual’s control. Our lives are filled with such anxiety-inducing concerns and most of our attempts to resolve the anxiety we experience result in nothing less than the worship of false gods. Attempts we make to secure our future for ourselves that involve trampling others underfoot are the equivalent to human sacrifice. Much of this has become built into the day-to-day workings of our world— clothing or gadgets or groceries or anything else that can be sold and bought cheaply because of low wages for the person making or harvesting them in dangerous conditions. If you need an example of what the worship of false gods looks like in the midst of this current pandemic, the recent willingness to sacrifice the elderly on the altar of the global economy is as glaring of an example for which one could hope.[1]


The worship of false gods is no less real today than it was in the psalmist’s day. Once you have eyes to see it, the sense that participation in the idolatrous practices and transactions of our world is inescapable can be overwhelming. The point of such an observation is not to generate despair or guilt, but to make ourselves aware so that we, as God’s people, might be able to resist and witness in word and deed, in our individual lives and our life together, that this world of death is not how God would have it be. We would do well to help our congregants to see this truth and arm them with the assurance that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is still at work today, calling us to the work of cultivating the new creation that is birthed in Christ’s resurrection in the midst of the old.

 

[1] The uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 pandemic serves to reveal the religious underpinnings of the global economy and the practice of human sacrifice does not end with the elderly. For example, minorities and the working-class will also suffer unduly on account of a poverty of options when it comes to childcare, sick pay, working from home, or pre-existing financial instability. Families of migrant workers (documented or not) who are dependent on monies sent home from their family members working in wealthier countries will see many of those monies stop with the cessation of operations for many hospitality industries and a cut back in some agricultural sectors. While these necessary cutbacks should necessarily be seen in-and-of-themselves as an instance of human sacrifice, many of the economic practices employed up to this point can be defined as idolatrous and have laid the foundation for the situation many now face.

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