Reflections by Jerry Webber

Friday, March 30, 2012

Standing Apart or Engaging the Mess?

When I read Psalm 26 this week for prayer, I immediately labeled it as a psalm of separation. In my mind, that was the first thing that came to me.

It was prayed by someone who felt they lived in connection to God. They felt themselves to have integrity, living a life that trusted God, and "not faltering." In their self-description, they have "walked faithfully" with God.

Yet, most of the psalm is filled with the language of separation and division. Read it for yourself.

Vindicate me, LORD,
for I have led a blameless life;
I have trusted in the LORD
and have not faltered.
Test me, LORD, and try me,
examine my heart and my mind;
for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love
and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness.

I do not sit with the deceitful,
nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
and refuse to sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
and go about your altar, LORD,
proclaiming aloud your praise
and telling of all your wonderful deeds.

LORD, I love the house where you live,
the place where your glory dwells.
Do not take away my soul along with sinners,
my life with those who are bloodthirsty,
in whose hands are wicked schemes,
whose right hands are full of bribes.
I lead a blameless life;
redeem me and be merciful to me.

My feet stand on level ground;
in the great congregation I will praise the LORD.

I know where the impulse for separation comes from. The Hebrew word for holiness is kadosh, and the root meanings of kadosh imply to be set apart or to be different. In my Old Testament seminary class, I researched and wrote a lengthy term paper on the Hebrew notion of holiness (kadosh). I found this idea of separation all through the Hebrew Scriptures . . . Holiness Codes and admonitions/instructions for how to live a holy life. Most all of them had to do with keeping separate from others who were deemed "unclean" or "evil." Many of them were about separation from "foreigners" or those who worshiped other gods. The message was, "Stay away from anyone except those who worship Yahweh."

Psalm 26 comes to us out of that tradition.

"I do not sit with the deceitful, nor do I associate with hypocrites."

"I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked."

What God wants, according to this view of holiness, is that we separate ourselves from "the deceitful and the hypocrites" . . . from the "evildoers and the wicked" . . . from the "sinners and the bloodthirsty."

[It's amazing to me that in the many references to this kind of separation in the Old Testament, there is never a hint that the pray-er considers that he/she might also have deceitfulness or hypocrisy, sinfulness or scheming within his/her heart. Apparently it never occurs to them that it could be "in here;" rather, the evil and wickedness is always "out there."]

For many years I carried around this idea of holiness. I thought this is what God wanted from people, that we be separated from the world, that we "stand apart" from the "real world," that a holy life was a life that was pure and clean and completely unassociated with anything impure.

To be sure, there was a significant period of my life when I needed to have this view of life. There was a season when, for my own spiritual, mental and emotional health, I had to stop going into certain situations and I had to stop spending time with the people I had been spending time with. I was not strong enough to say my, "No!" to self-destruction and to the ways I would then destroy others. And that season lasted quite a long time for me.

So I cannot say that this view of holiness is completely misguided. There are times when we must be separate or set apart, or else we'll get eaten alive by all the destructive forces that live within us and in the world. Psalm 26 has its place.

BUT . . . but this is not the final stopping place of spirituality and life with God. Ultimately, holiness is not determined by how clean and morally pure and separate you remain from the world. The goal of the spiritual life is not separation from the world (as I once believed), but engaging the world from a new Center, with a heart that is being shaped by God's Spirit.

It may be one part of the path to stand apart from that which keeps us blind, that which keeps us mired in self-deceit. The movement of the spiritual life, though, does not necessarily lead us to cloister ourselves away from the world. It leads us to be in the world, living from a God-center, pouring into the world the healing, mercy and redeeming work with which God is shaping us.

In an introductory class on spiritual formation, I've offered this basic definition of spirituality: a deepening connection with God that makes a difference in our relationships with God, self, others, and the world. We make a difference by engagement, not separation.

After all, the goal of life with God is union, the coming together of the human person and the entire human family with God . . . and in the process, the coming together of all people and all of creation.

1 comment:

Kathryn Kelley said...

off center from your post but it is what it brought to mind.  in my life, it has been the cloistered, the held a part, those who most rigorously have their hearts set on god, who have been the most cruel, causing the most soul damage from which i still limp.  instead it has been the sinners, the ones who question things including god, those who engage the mess, who have held out a drink of water to me with compassion and mercy.