The Psalms on Where We Stand

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We come to the second-to-last line of our Psalm:

“My foot stands on a straight path.”

It’s a fitting place for a prayer to end.  In the course of Psalm 26 (as in many Psalms) we have considered our eyes, our mouth, our heart, and our kidneys.  Each of these body parts points to a different aspect of how we relate to the world around us.  But our feet, and where they stand, points to givenness.

At the end of our prayer, we say, “here I am, in this spot – this career, this house, this vocation, this family, these friends, this culture,” and, by thinking about our feet, we say, “given that I’m here, where will I go?”

The basic dynamic is simple: on the one hand, it’s up to me to walk, to head off in the right direction.  On the other hand, an awful lot of my life isn’t up to me.  I stand in a particular place.

***

There’s a modern philosophy called existentialism which focuses on radical freedom.  Every moment is separated from every other moment.  Every moment is a moment of decision!  (We have the expression “existential angst” to talk about how it’s scary for everything to be up to us, “in our hands.”)

Existentialism is beloved of both Christians and non-Christians.  And of course there’s something true about it.  Ultimately, what matters is the state of our heart, and that really is all about our decisions.

But there’s something really false about this, too.  Everything is not up to us.  Or rather, what’s up to us is how we deal with the particular place where we find ourselves.  We do no favors to ourselves – to our responsibility, our dignity – by pretending there’s not a situation given to us.  St. John Paul liked to call it our “task”; we could also call it a “call,” or vocation: we have a reality to deal with.

***

There’s a strange theme in the Bible, of children being punished for their parents’ sins.  The Bible is aware this is strange.  For example: “the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex 34:6-7).  Forgiving, but punishing children?

Modern Christians are tempted to solve everything by saying the Old Testament God is evil and unfair.  But that strategy fails on a lot of levels.  The most important problem with it is that the Old Testament is God’s Word, and full of wisdom!

Here’s the simple fact: we do suffer for the sins of our parents, even our grandparents, to the third and fourth generation.  This is a big part of “where our feet stand.”  My feet stand in the good things and the bad things my parents and grandparents, and their whole generation, have bequeathed to me.

Just as existentialism does me no favors when it pretends everything is up to me, it does me no favors to pretend that the sins of my fathers don’t affect me.  Oh, I suffer for them!

But even more important, they are the place where I stand, the ground I have to walk across.  This is where I live my faith: in the place my parents and grandparents – and, in another way, their whole generation – gave to me.

***

But in our Psalm, the line is, “my foot stands in a straight path.”  So here are three ways I can look at my situation, the place I stand: I can see the way I bear the consequences of my grandparents’ actions, especially of their sins; I can see the way I simply must live wherever I am; but finally, I can give thanks for where I stand.

My foot stands in a straight path.  The place where I stand, where I find myself, is a good place, a path leading right up to the heavenly Jerusalem.

This means, first, giving thanks for all the good things in life.  That I know Christ, above all, and everything else about my life: these are gifts.  I don’t claim responsibility for where I stand: I give thanks.

But, too, I give thanks for all the bad things in my life.  I recognize that God’s Providence has put me here, and God’s Providence will bring me home.  This is a good place to be, a straight path to heaven, if I receive it from his hand.

What parts of your life do you have the hardest time recognizing as paths to God?  What failures of recent generations present tasks to you today?

 

eric.m.johnston

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