A Scoffer’s Confession

I don’t like being told what to do.  I guess nobody really does. But the second someone even hints at what direction is best, I immediately turn tail and run. I think I’ve always been this way.  I remember a time when I was in high school and I went shoe shopping with my mom.  I tried on 2 pairs of shoes and pair A was the clear winner.  Just my style and exactly what I wanted.  Pair B was a little too flashy for me. The heel was chunky and it had a gaudy flower stitched across the top.  It was really no contest.  But my mom just HAD to go and tell me what to do.  She told me to buy pair A.  She was right, of course, but I just couldn’t stand it.  I bought pair B and stubbornly wore those ugly shoes to church every single week just to show her  who was boss.

High school rebellion aside (wasn’t I  the wild one? — buying ugly shoes to spite my mother!), I find that I feel this way in particular at church.  Pastor Gail announced last week that we are going to go through the book of Psalms together.  One psalm per day for the next 150 days.  And she encouraged us to share our reflections (blog, instagram, Facebook, whatever) so that we could journey together, so to speak.  I liked the idea, in theory, but I felt that old urge to run the other direction.  I’ll  decide what I’m going to read, thankyouverymuch.  I think part of me feels like I’m cooler if I’m not following the crowd.  Like I’m too good for it.  I’ll scrutinize your reflections, sure, but I’m not about to post any of my own.  I’ll be more aloof and mysterious that way.

But as the reflections on Psalm 1 started rolling across my feeds this morning, I felt strangely drawn in by those all those #QuestOnPsalms hashtags and I realized that I kinda sorta maybe wanted to take part?  I held out, though.  You know, cause I’m cool like that.  Until about 4:30pm when I finally decided I would fight my instincts to do things my way, relinquish my cool-ness, and have a look at that Psalm myself.

I was convicted by the very first stanza.  “Convicted” is church-speak for feeling like God is speaking directly to YOU.   A touché.  A sucker-punch, if you will.  And the first section of Psalm 1 felt that way to me.  Here’s what it says:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers

That’s the NIV translation.  Here’s the CEV translation of the same stanza…

The truly happy person
doesn’t follow wicked advice,
doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful

And finally, the NRSV…

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;

I decided to do Lectio Divina to read the passage.  It’s reading a passage in four steps: read, meditate, pray and contemplate.  When I’ve done this with my community group, we usually start by reading the passage out loud a couple times and seeing if a word or a phrase bubbles to the surface.   For me today, the section that kept bubbling to the surface was that last line of the first stanza.  That’s what felt like a sucker-punch.  I had been scoffing at the church’s efforts to journey together through this book and as I moved into the contemplation part of my reading, I realized that this tendency to scoff and disrespect under the guise of independence manifests itself in other ways as well.

It brought to mind one of my most favorite quotes from my undergrad years.  I first heard it in my rhetoric class and then revisited it last year when I read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly.  It’s part of Theodore Roosevelt’s Citizen in a Republic speech, known as The Man in the Arena.

It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I’ve alway fancied myself the man in the arena.  Of course I have.  I’ve used this quote to inspire myself to dare greatly and to put myself out there, despite what others may think or say or do about it.  To be fearless.  But reading the Psalm this afternoon felt like a punch to the gut because I realized that perhaps more often I’m not the man in the area. I’m one of the scoffers.  One of the critics.   Rather than cheering others on and enthusiastically joining in their efforts, I’m standing to the side with the cold and timid souls, afraid that someone else’s victory will surely mean my own defeat.

In her memoir, The Middle Place Kelly Corrigan describes her dad as someone whose “default mode is open delight.  He’s prepared to be wowed—by your humor, your smarts, your white smile, even your handshake…People walk away from him feeling like they’re on their game.”    What if my default mode when I heard about the church’s plan to read the book of Psalms had been one of open delight instead of cynicism?  What if I wasn’t trying so hard to be cool?  What if, instead of preparing myself to be indifferent, I had prepared myself to be wowed by it all?   And isn’t that the amazing part?  That even though I was playing the part of the prideful critic, even though I was putting on airs of mystery and inscrutability, the church managed to wow me anyway.  What a gift.

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Another part that stood out:

They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
which bears fruit at just the right time
and whose leaves don’t fade.

This part was much more fun to reflect on.

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