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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 81

Sing aloud to God our strength;
   shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
   the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
   at the full moon, on our festal day.
For it is a statute for Israel,
   an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph,
   when he went out over the land of Egypt.

I hear a voice I had not known:
“I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
   your hands were freed from the basket.
In distress you called, and I rescued you;
   I answered you in the secret place of thunder;
   I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
Hear, O my people, while I admonish you;
   O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
There shall be no strange god among you;
   you shall not bow down to a foreign god.
I am the Lord your God,
   who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
   Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.

“But my people did not listen to my voice;
 Israel would not submit to me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
   to follow their own counsels.
O that my people would listen to me,
   that Israel would walk in my ways!
Then I would quickly subdue their enemies,
   and turn my hand against their foes.
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him,
   and their doom would last forever.
I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
   and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” (NRSV)

Old Testament Israel had a memory problem. Time and again the stories recorded tell of a people who were divinely chosen and often miraculously saved. But over time they would forget God’s saving power and promises, turn to false gods, or just give up on God altogether and find themselves in trouble and alone. Returning to God through repentance would restore relationship, but it was only a matter of time before the cycle would repeat. Early rituals were set in the calendar to remind them of God’s previous faithfulness, trying to prevent future rebellion by formalizing corporate memory, with mixed success.

Psalm 81 highlights this dichotomy between ritualized remembrance and active rebellion. The song begins by praising God with voices and instruments to memorialize past rescue, statute-prescribed praise to never forget their liberation from Egyptian rule. Yet it’s clear they’ve ceased taking this memory to heart and stopped listening. God frustratedly pleads for purposeful memorializing—not just ritual devoid of meaning.

In a recent interview, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie recounted a similar process at a memorial for his father. Family members insisted upon chanting psalm after psalm, “recycling old words,” as he put it, “chanting all the psalms so we don’t talk.” He called for a more meaningful remembrance, choosing words and rituals that are still vibrant and consequential while releasing those that have become meaningless or avoid the heart of the matter.

How often do we do the same? How quickly do we forget our own, personal stories of saving grace and turn to the next “quick fix” or numbing behavior? We may repeat a familiar prayer but lose the heart behind it. How can we listen anew?

God, as I repeat ancient words in humble hopefulness, give me fresh insight and understanding. Refresh my memory and renew my relationship with you. Amen.

Written by Sarah van der Ploeg, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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