Interpreting the Shadows

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.--Psalm 91.1

"This was your great-grandmother Sophie's favorite Psalm.  She had it memorized.  Your grandfather had it memorized. I have it memorized and now you both are going to memorize it."  My mother had my sister and me dutifully commit to memorizing the 91st Psalm.   I think it took us a couple of months, I cannot remember how old we were, it seems like we were still in the single digit stage.

Through the years the final verses of that chapter have faded like cheap ink from memory.  But the first 5 are chiseled in stone.  I suppose that has something to do with the rote memorization technique.   We started by memorizing verse 1, then verse 2, then we would go back to verse 1 so we didn't forget it.  It looked something like this:  1; 1,2; 1,2,3; 1,2,3,4; 1,2,3,4,5; 1,2,3,4,5,6; 1,2,3,4,5,6,7; and so on until we completed verse 16.  That means that we really, really knew verse 1 and we only kind of knew verse 16.   I am sure there was some kind of incentive for all of this, but for the life of me I cannot remember what we were incentivized with, I just know the Scripture.  Thank you, mom.   The 91st Psalm has been a real gift and treasure to me through the years, especially vs. 1 and vs. 14.

I did go through a brief moment in Jr. High, however, when I tried to distance myself from the Psalm.   A Sunday School teacher taking us through Jesus's temptation at the Temple in Jerusalem pointed out how Satan used Psalm 91.  I was kind of upset about that.  Like why did Satan use the one I had memorized.  My black-and-white mind wondered if there was some kind of shadowy darkness to this Psalm since Satan knew it and used it?  

Somewhere in my college years I picked the Psalm back up and found comfort in its first few lines, I even remember praying and asking God if he would grant me access to"abide" my whole life in that "secret place" and "shadow" of God.   My roommates, Kevin and Mark and Darrin (all pastors now) were exceptionally gifted.  Kevin preached like no one I knew, Darrin was the student body president and an exceptional leader and gregarious personality, Mark was a creative genius (he could play any instrument, write, sing, and teach).  I didn't feel confident in any of those capacities at that time, so I searched out the "secret place of the Most High" hid out in that shadow;  I discovered when I was in that space nothing else mattered.  In that space, I was ok with not having a clearly defined role or recognized place in the college.  I volunteered as asistant to the youth pastor, I was like Dwight K. Shrute, wasn't the assistant youth pastor, just assistant to the youth pastor.  :) 

The secret place, that mystical abode tucked in the shadow of God from the notice of others, but aware of his eyes doting and countenance assuring the path.   The paradox of a soul shrouded in sanctuary, vulnerable yet invincible, a reality that eclipses the games that people play and the illusions the ego creates. 

The context of the 91st Division of the Psalter concerns the contemplative and humble frame, the life tucked in the shadows, free from the hustle-for-applause.  The thrust of the Psalm is about living in the shadow, finding life and purpose, identity and meaning in the secret place of the Most High.  The Psalmist then takes the remaining 15 verses to unpack the blessing of Shadow-dwellers.

So when the devil says, "It is written, he will give his angels charge concerning you and they will bear you up...."  He is removing the promise from its context of living in the Shadow.   The Devil contorts the promise into being about people who live in their own light and in the light of the applause around them.  The hermeneutical grid that Satan uses is ego-centrical, and suggest the individual and not God is the center of the universe.  Satan uses the props of Jerusalem, Temple and pinnacle and the act of grandstanding to confront human-shame, and even provides Scriptural justification for this very selfish act.  

There is something very, very transformational teetering from the walls of Jerusalem's Temple.  The exchange between Satan and Jesus, the dialogue and rhetoric require a certain kind of 'hermeneutical,' skill, which basically is a wit and craft in the art of interpretation.  One of the most significant transformations happening in the wilderness is we get put in touch with the spirit of the Voice, not just cold words, black ink on white paper, formulaic hacks to a lifeless existence, not just letters jumbled together forming words and sentences, but in the wilderness we come to know the difference between the Voice and an echo, the Divine meaning and deceitful spin.  We are able to discern what the words mean, how they are interpreted in life-giving ways, and how God speaks through them.   This ability to interpret is not just limited to Scripture; it also includes reality, life, people, and situations.  

We do this all the time with people we know:

Julie says, "You don't need to get me anything special this year for Christmas."
Interpretation:  Get her something special.

Jeru texts: dad, call me ASAP!
Jeru 2nd text, 1 minute later: ?!?!?!?!
Jeru 3rd text, 2 minutes later:  OMG, dad, what's taking so long.
Interpretation:  She needs some $, I can talk with her tonight its fine. 

Jed:  Hey dad, what do you think about capital punishment?
Interpretation: don't answer.  Just listen to everything he says, he has really thought this out and has more to say about it than you do.

Because I know these three people intimately I know what they mean, I don't just listen to their words, but their voice and their meaning, the context and body language.   The wilderness will give us this skill, this hermeneutic for life, a way of seeing and interpreting the world and Scripture, and significant moments.  The wilderness puts us in touch with an interpretive grid, giving us a sense of what is really, really, real versus what is illusory.  Because here is the deal, it's not just about seeing it, it's about how we see it.  The wilderness will transform how we see it, how we interpret it, how we derive meaning from it.

Jesus puts it like this in Luke 11:

Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your way of seeing is enlightened your whole life also is full of light. But when your way of seeing is dysfunctional your whole life also is full of darkness.  See to it, then, that the way you see comes from an enlighted place and not from a darkened place. 

Jesus is saying, how you see things is really who you are.   I've noticed this when leading people through lectio divina, there is a kind of self-disclosure that happens as we share what we are reading in the text.

What does this test reveal to us about Jesus, and hence about ourselves?   This test reveals to us that the kind of transformation and power the Spirit brings into our life allows us to stand in the presence of what matters most to our contemporaries, peers, and world and find that what matters to them just doesn't matter to us.  A sneak-peek at the wilderness-walk-out and we see a unique kind of power on Jesus, the Spirit's power; this is not political power, not intellectual power, monetary power, religious power, but the Spirit's power.  

How's Jesus gain this?  He interprets everything through the lens of the Voice that spoke the Father's love and delight (at the baptism) and through the lens of the Spirit (at the baptism).  

I cannot stress this enough, if Jesus would have interpreted Scriptures through the lens of nationalism, nationalism would have been his power.  He would have seen the State of Israel as the solution to the world's problems.  He would have come out seeking to overthrow Rome, topple Hellenism, oppress the Gentile nations and make Israel the leader of the Free World.  

If Jesus had interpreted Scriptures through the lens of his shame, his illegitimate birth, his uncredentialed rabbinical status, his backwoods, village-thinking upbringing he would have used Scripture and influence to bolster his sense of worth in the world, comparing and contrasting how he was better than other teachers, competing and vying for larger crowds, shaming the sinners and distancing himself from the prostitutes, avoiding being seen with charlatans and tax collectors.   But because he interpreted everything,
absolutely everything through the lens that he was the Father's Beloved,
he served rather than lorded,
he shared rather than hoarded,
he spoke about who he was in God rather than who he was in the world.  

How you interpret reveals the power by which you live.

Because here's the thing, if deep in your heart the stuff that matters to the world, matters to you; if what is most real to you is the beasts of scarcity, the monsters of power, and the wild hordes of applause -you will find a Scripture to justify feeding these forces, you will find a trace of God's voice written down somewhere that you can mis-take and misappropriate.   You will use something, Scripture or philosophy, to justify your self-loathing (as a means of dealing with shame), your discrimination and resentment of others (as a means of dealing with your guilt), and your greed and hoarding, consumerism and addictions (as a means of dealing with your fears). 

Holy and God-breathed Scriptures have been used to start wars, oppress the marginalized, justify slavery and perpetuate racism and gender inequalities.  Constantine turned the sign of the cross into a sword, changing Christianity from God's victory through powerlessness to religious victory through overpowering your enemies.   The Crusaders used Scripture to pillage, rape, murder and kill Jews and Muslims.  Hitler used Scripture to validate the Holocaust.   Business leaders have used Scripture to justify oppressive business tactics for the marginalized.   Priests, pastors, and religious leaders have used Scriptures to strike fear in their people, abuse their followers, and protect their coffers.  People have used Scripture justify their discrimination, to legitimize their spiritual abuses, to claim their hatred of people from other religions is merited.   Satan has no problem using Scripture to achieve his ends.  

The wilderness is about getting a hermeneutic from within the Shadow of the Almighty and not one outside of the Shadow.    What does that mean?  It's a hermeneutical lens that sees everything through God's love, that doesn't see everything in Scripture and life as needing some kind of proof of love, proof of grace.  Because here's the deal, if I know, deep down that you love me, you can say something critical and even negative and I will see it through the lens of love.  I will trust and thank you.   And if I think you don't love me, that you have something against me, I will read every kind deed and good word you say as an evil, conniving and manipulative.



Read Devotional.  
Reflection.   What stuck out to you in th reading?  
Prayer.  Ask God for wisdom in interpretation.  
Conversation.  Have a conversation with Cleopas about all of this.