#7 of a Series on Psalm 50
Well we’ve just scratched the surface of Psalm 50 and Great Lent is half over! There will be other times to fill in the important backstory and context of the Psalm not only from its biblical context but our experience of it.
So reviewing the first verse of the psalm we hear,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Psalm 50 is about mercy, God’s abundant mercy offered to all. In the world today we have a sense of this in what I call ‘Global’ mercy – and the awareness that we should ourselves show mercy to people in need as a duty, and now especially it’s popular to be extra kind to animals! In Orthodoxy we have organizations that raise our awareness of the needs of others, like IOCC, FOCUS or OCMC. The secular world has a global outlook in bringing global health care, community development, emergency relief, and an umbrella of ‘caring’ organizations and NGOs (non-government organizations) to take care of everything and everybody. Of course, they don’t and they can’t.
Solving the problems of others is all well and good. And through a donation or something it’s possible to participate in this ‘global’ mercy work. But, the process of mercy must begin with you and me.
Cares Around Me
As a priest – I find myself often concerned about the issues and struggles of others. Parents share their concern about their children. Health care workers wonder about the pandemic. People watch the elderly grow older and face increasing struggles with health, living standards and even the basics of life. And we know a little and perhaps feel the needs of the hidden populations like the homeless, the mentally ill, prisoners and others who are marginalized in our culture and community.
There’s a danger though – that an exterior mental focus blinds us to our inner personal need. The whole focus of Great Lent is to shatter this illusion and to come to the realization that I am really in desperate need of God’s mercy. Like David.
So the question is, who am I – and how do I need God’s mercy? This is a very personal and intimate question for each person. No one shares the same wounds and sins of their lives. No one even knows that you think a certain way – and maybe behave because of it – because of the emotional and psychological wounds of your life decades ago as a child or youth. They may not know of your hidden practices, addictions or other passions. If you are like me, you may have experienced that quizzical look on someone’s face when you actually start to speak about such things, and their immediate desire is to change the subject. Maybe because it hits too close to home for them too. So for many of us, we tend to live alone in self-isolation carrying in silence all of our problems, wounds and sins, but desperately needing mercy, from somewhere.
An Act of Faith
To cry out, “Have mercy on me O God”– is an act of faith. It is an act that is often made standing on very wobbly ground. Almost immediately on saying these words, we are challenged. Do I have (any) real faith?
I recall perhaps the most terrifying moment for me was one dark night when I was in college, and very sick, and I cried out to God. And realized how little faith I had. When there was seemingly no response.
So I find the Gospel we read on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent very unsettling – when the man rushes up to Jesus, seeking help for his demon-possessed little boy, which causes Jesus to cry out not, ‘Be healed’, but ‘O unbelieving generation”, a title which included this man, and the apostles (not to mention the scribes persent) who could not cast out the demon. The man is forced to cry in a paradox, “I do believe, help my unbelief.” Mk. 9:17ff
As a Christian and perhaps especially as a priest, sometimes it’s easy to speak words of ‘faith’ to other people going through their trials. But when we have to confront our own weaknesses, failings and ultimately our unbelief, as for this man, it is crushing. Words of faith come hard.
Do I believe that there is a compassionate and loving God who can help me? If I call out, “O God” will I be heard?
This is the heart of the matter for so many people in our world today – who have never been taught at an early age to ‘call upon the Name of the Lord” (Rom.10:13), but rather that there is some other ‘solution’ to our problem, be it government, science, medicine, money or some self-chosen path like Eastern religion or ‘meditation’ that still relies on me, and not Him.
What Does it Take?
So in simple terms, what does it take to pray the first verse of this psalm in truth? A few things:
– Honest Recognition of our need – This happens when our pride and self-sufficiency is crushed. Sickness, weakness, opposition in the world (i.e. imprisonment), will do that for us.
– A perspective that God is near to us – He can and will hear. This is the loving and personal God, who Christians learn to call upon as Father, who ‘unfortunately’ is in ‘heaven’ so He is hard to see, but can still be present. Part of our spiritual heritage in America is ‘deistic’. Deists are people who believe in God all right – but their God is very distant, and unengaged in any aspect of human life. I suspect many agnostics are actually deists believing in a great power of some sort perhaps – but it really doesn’t matter in real life. He is nowhere to be found.
– God’s love for me – God is my Helper, for sure. But to say ‘God loves us’ is to go much further. The Helper God is one who will be our ‘Go To’ god when we need help. Like the student cramming for an exam the night before and needing an A to graduate. But once deliverance comes, that god is cast aside as unnecessary, until of course he (it) is needed again. The breakthrough moments of life are often those where our limiting view of the god we believe in is exploded by the Real God who gives us a glimpse of what His love is all about.
I would say that if any of these elements is missing, we will come up short and our prayer, “Have mercy on me O God” will not be fruitful.
God’s mercy pours forth
Now when we are able to say these words with personal meaning, we experience a ‘bottoming” upon which a real (spiritual) life can be built. This is like the Prodigal Son (Lk. 11:15ff) who ‘hit bottom’ when he was desperately hungry and found himself literally among the swine of the field and still unable to find relief. In turning back, he found restoration. Mercy flowed from His Father, as it does from our Heavenly Father when we seek Him in this way. The bottoming out becomes a change of heart, and movement in a new life direction, to a place where we can actually receive the Father’s love and embrace. This restoration leads to a compassion to others who are in similar situations – suffering, alone, desperate and in need of forgiveness and healing. And to know the Father.
The Church and Mercy
If we experience mercy in this way, then we can understand why the Church prays ‘Lord have mercy’ so much!. We are the people who have received God’s mercy. God’s mercy is available to all – but not all receive it. We have been touched by the compassion and forgiveness of God as poured out as mercy upon us – through the Paschal Mystery – the Suffering, Cross, Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. We know what mercy is because we’ve tasted it – and ‘drunk from the chalice’ of God’s mercy.[i]
This compels us to do the work of the Church[ii] – in prayer, ‘Lord have mercy’. Having received mercy, and moved in the heart by Christ’s love for ‘mankind’[iii], the Church is sensitized to the way of mercy. This is how the Church is the ‘priesthood of believers[iv]’ (1Pt 2:5) because we then long to bring mercy to the world – personally first, and then as a body. In our litany prayers, compassion drives us to lift up the people in need in our personal world (friends, family, co-workers, etc.) as well as all in need to God, trusting in His mercy for them – all in the context of our communal, liturgical intercessory prayer.
The words, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy;” are heard every week at the beginning of the Litany after the Gospel. God’s mercy is Great! We approach the throne of God in grace and trust in His mercy, as we lift up all the subsequent petitions – for the people of God, our spiritual fathers, our civil authorities, the sick and suffering, those who lie asleep in the Lord, all who bring offerings, etc. as the deacon leads the prayer petitions for these things in the subsequent petitions. The response of the faithful, “Lord have mercy “– 3 times, is reiterative, and ‘rivets’ our personal intention to the prayer of the entire church.[v]
This intercessory prayer makes us all priests – for this is what priests do, serve as intercessors for others and our world, lifting them and their needs to the God of all mercy.[vi] Our ‘global’ intercession and ministry is founded in a personal faith in God’s mercy.
Lent is the Season of God’s Mercy
Perhaps you can see how Psalm 50 brings us to so much potential richness in the Faith, discovering His mercy for me and us that we can return to him (like the Prodigal Son) as a slave, but more so in receiving His mercy, forgiveness and restoration, and ultimately discovering the greatest gift – that He is Father.
[i] I’m convinced that the misunderstanding and misapplication of the metaphorical juridical language of some biblical texts by St. Paul, describing the state of man and the judgment of God and ‘justification’, has driven many Protestant sects to miss this essential grounding of Christian faith in the mercy of God, which is seminal to how the Orthodox Church experiences grace and salvation, as witnessed in the apostolic tradition in the Scriptures and Tradition. Their forebears in Roman Catholicism at the time may have been in part responsible because of the construct of their faith at the time, so emphasizing personal salvation as a juridical process through personal works, that there was no need for a merciful God. He could be appeased by what we do. People could effectively save themselves just by racking up enough positive points to balance out the negative ones on the scales of divine justice. In many of these juridical constructs, where a God from a distance pronounces a judgment of Jesus and somehow forgives the world of its sin, is quite different from how God saves us in fact – intimately, through His mercy – into whose very Body we are baptized.
[ii] The ‘work of the Church’ is called ‘leitourgia’ in Greek, or ‘liturgy’. So can it be said that those who have no interest in the Church’s liturgy perhaps don’t understand this work or their role in it, or maybe haven’t experienced the mercy of God in this way, or have forgotten? Great Lent is here to remind us who we are who we are and what we are to be doing.
[iii] Orthodoxy frequently uses the title for Christ, ‘Philanthropos’, in Greek meaning the ‘Lover of Humankind’
[iv] For the Orthodox, this term can be used but is not understood in quite the same way as Luther and later Protestantism.
[v] Perhaps this raises a big issue which cannot be addressed here but needs to be addressed somewhere. Is this ‘Lord, have mercy’ response really the participatory response of all of the people in the church? Or is it just a response sung by a chanter or a handful of participants in a choir – but not enjoined by all or even a majority of those present, who are justpassive observers. Participatory singing by all goes a long way to addressing this in a basic way, but there are other issues – for liturgists and spiritual fathers to resolve.
[vi] In Catholicism, I find that the Divine Mercy devotion of recent years has been something of a remedy to the juridical template of the past. It bears many of the elements of the prayers of the ancient Church – trust in God, seeking forgiveness, mercy and healing for self and for mankind.