This past Sunday, my wife and I were commissioned as Lay Readers in the (Episcopal) Diocese of Fort Worth. This means we can read the New Testament reading during the Eucharist, and more significantly, are authorized to lead services of the Daily Office (Morning and Evening prayer).
Our training for this work included training on how to use the Lectionary. For those of you unfamiliar with this resource, the Lectionary is a long table (in book form) that lays out Scripture readings for services every day of the year. You can see an online version here. For virtually every day of the year, at least four passages of Scripture are provided: readings from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, and Gospels. Over the course of a two year cycle (for weekdays) and a three year cycle (for Sundays), churches that use the Lectionary read and study most of the Bible. The exciting thing about the Lectionary is its widespread use, including Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, and even some Baptist churches. Thus, when an individual congregation hears the readings of the day, they are hearing and reflecting on the same passages of Scripture as fellow Christians all over the world that day.
Of course, the Bible is a sizable tome, and thus my wording above: “. . . read and study most of the Bible.” Just because of the sheer volume of Scripture, the Lectionary editors have chosen to make a few edits: I & II Chronicles are omitted, as are parts of Leviticus and Numbers, for example. This is not to say these Scriptures are unimportant, but only to say that when creating a usable table of passages for public services, some choices had to be made.
Most interesting to me, though, are the parenthetical passages (Lectionary users, you know exactly what I mean). On any given day, a Scripture listing, usually in the Psalms, might be followed by a few more verses listed in parentheses. For example, here is the Psalm for Morning Prayer, Daily Office Year Two, Sunday of Advent 3: Psalm 63:1-8(9-11). If you read those parenthetical verses, it’s easy to understand why they might be optional for a Morning Prayer service. Here they are in the Common English Bible:
9 But what about those people
who want to destroy me?
Let them go into the bowels
of the earth!
10 Let their blood flow by the sword!
Let them be food for wild jackals!
11 But the king should rejoice in God;
everyone who swears by God
should give praise
when the mouths of liars
are shut for good.
It’s not exactly good 21st century churchy language, is it? All that talk about blood flowing and enemies becoming food for jackals isn’t very nice, certainly not what the average person in the pew want to hear first thing in the morning.
Here’s another example, again from the Common English Bible. It’s the Daily Office, Year Two, Morning Prayer, Jan. 10 (following Epiphany): Psalm 139:1-17(18-23). Here are the parenthetical verses:
18 If I tried to count them—
they outnumber grains of sand!
If I came to the very end—
I’d still be with you.
19 If only, God, you would kill the wicked!
If only murderers
would get away from me—
20 the people who talk about you,
but only for wicked schemes;
the people who are your enemies,
who use your name as if
it were of no significance.
21 Don’t I hate everyone who hates you?
Don’t I despise those who attack you?
22 Yes, I hate them—
through and through!
They’ve become my enemies too.
23 Examine me, God! Look at my heart!
Put me to the test!
Know my anxious thoughts!
Hating our enemies? Asking God to kill people? That’s not very Christian, is it? And so we make these verses optional for church services.
There’s some good reason for doing so. These pericopes of the Psalter are very much Old Testament-ish, and the life of Christ has changed how we look at everything. The New Testament is new for a reason. Our ethics have changed. Thus, these verses do take some explaining, especially for those not familiar with biblical history. Especially for visitors to a church service, verses like these might only confirm some horrible stereotypes of Christianity, or simply confuse the message.
And yet. . . I think these verses are part of Scripture for a reason. It’s not simply that these verses are Old Testament and so no longer apply; that’s too simplistic. Yes, verses such as these are not the way we want to think or behave as followers of Jesus. Yet, if we are honest, they do represent how we really do think and behave sometimes in real life. I’ve written elsewhere of the necessity of keeping our spirituality grounded in real life. The fact of the matter is that we don’t live in a blissful paradise, floating on clouds, or wandering through meadows picking flowers. Anyone who thinks spirituality is about constant peace and carefree spacing-out has never experienced true spirituality. To be sure, growing spirituality can gradually make us more peaceful, more able to weather the storms and trials of life, but it doesn’t make us any less human, or evil any less real. Sometimes, we are attacked by enemies, and sometimes, in the animal sides of our human nature, we feel like attacking back—if not with weapons than at least with words, which might be all the more dangerous. Sometimes we are just tired of lies and attacks, and we want to fight back; we want to destroy. That’s part of being human.
Growing spiritually can help us transcend those feelings and respond more like Christ would respond, but it does us no good to deny those feelings in the first place. Scripture, if anything, should show us the truth about ourselves. When we leave off verses like those above, we avoid reflecting on a significant (if shadow/evil) part of human existence. We can try to be nice and genteel all we want, but trying too long to maintain that facade will just get us Christians branded as hypocrites, and rightfully so. At some point, we have to deal with who we are human beings.
The Psalms are a good place for that. The Psalter presents us with the full range of human life, all its highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies—the good, the bad, and the ugly—everything that it means to be human. Rather than try to edit Scripture, we should let Scripture speak for itself, and tell us exactly who we are . . . and who we can be.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the Common English Bible, copyright 2011. Used by permission. All rights reserved.