My brother tells me that I am a runner now. He’s a lot smarter than me, and is an actual runner, so I ought to listen to him. But I protest that I cannot be a real runner: I don’t have any race stickers on the back of my car, or post my route online, or even have a subscription to Runners World (even though he bought me a gift subscription, but I let it lapse.) So I’m not a real runner.
“That’s not what makes you a runner,” he says. The point is that you focus on making that a part of your week, your schedule. You plan around it and make it a part of your day. The way you spend your time determines your identity.
I still don’t feel like a real runner. But I will allow that I run 3-4 times a week. And when I do, I suffer from a malady that a lot of real runners suffer from: “Monkey mind.” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong wrote in the Runners World that my brother bought for me about this phenomenon. It is the experience of jumping from thought to thought throughout the run: “did I eat enough? Did I eat too much? Why does my foot feel funny? I don’t remember that house being that color. Here comes a runner with a dog. Dang…have to buy dog food when I get home.” Monkey mind.
And, of course, it is not only runners that have this problem. How many of us find ourselves in the place where our minds race through the day, on a run, or a bike ride, or a commute to work, or an hour of flipping through the channels on TV or social media on our phones. How many of us know the experience of jumping around in our brains for an hour or more sometimes, and not being able to remember a thing that we thought about? Monkey mind.
And it is something that many of us know well. Uncentered. Unfocused. And, according to Armstrong, unhealthy. It can be mentally and emotionally and even physically exhausting to bounce back and forth between thoughts. And all of sudden this behavior that was meant to relax you ends up making you more emotionally tired or stressed or unhinged.
I am guilty of it, for sure.
It is always dangerous to psychoanalyze a Bible author, but I could make an argument that today’s Psalmist struggled with monkey mind. Because today’s Psalm looks to me to be an attempt to create structure and order in the midst of what is otherwise a chaotic life.
Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm in the book, and the longest chapter in the Bible. 176 verses. But what is most intriguing is not the length of the Psalm, but its structure. It is actually a really long acrostic poem. Remember those poems that you made for your mother when you were a kid on Mother’s Day, with each line of the poem starting with each of the letters of the word “mother?”
This is exactly what Psalm 119 is. But instead of spelling “mother,” the psalmist uses all of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. There are twenty-two stanzas, one for each of the letters of the alphabet. Each section includes eight verses, with all of the verses starting with that letter of the alphabet. So, today’s reading has eight verses that all start with the Hebrew letter mem. And if that weren’t enough, each of the 22 repetitions of the eight verses use the same 8 words: synonyms for Torah. So, our passage and all other 21 sections all include “law,” “decrees,” “statutes,” “commandments,” “ordinances,” “word,” “precepts,” and “promise.” All eight. Twenty-two times. Repeated again and again. Each line in each stanza starting with all the same letter.
That seems like someone who is trying to create a little order and structure in their life.
But, we can’t miss the forest for the trees, here. Because this isn’t structure just for the sake of structure. The inspiration for the Psalmist is important here: it is all about Torah. All 176 verses!
“Oh, how I love the law!” Unless you are one of the handful of lawyers in the room today, you probably have never uttered that phrase in your life. Especially as Christians who have been raised on a steady diet of the Apostle Paul and his duality of law vs. grace, we might struggle with the Psalmist’s apparent love affair with Torah. “I don’t love the law…why do we even need it, now that we have Jesus?!”
But Biblical scholar Beth Laneel Tanner says that our common understanding of Torah is too limiting. In Hebrew, she says, Torah means more than simply the law given to Moses on the mountain, or the rules and regulations from Exodus and Leviticus. She explains that “Torah” has a broader meaning that includes all of God’s teaching or instruction. It is not old and static, but dynamic and ongoing, like a parent might teach a child throughout their lives. So the Psalm is talking about the way that God teaches us – through Scripture, through prayer, through community. Torah, in its most basic meaning, is the instruction that God gives us, to teach wisdom and guide our days. All of that is what the Psalmist is celebrating here.
And now, perhaps it starts to make sense why this passage shows up in a series on prayer. For an ancient and profound model of prayer is one that meditates and reflects on the teachings of God in our lives. At least that’s the Psalmist’s perspective.
Meditation is the way to happiness: “Oh, how I love your (teachings)! It is my meditation all day long….How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
Meditation is the way to confidence – unintimidated by foe or expert: “I have more understanding than my teachers….I understand more than the aged….I hold back my feet from every evil way.” When we meditate on God’s teaching, we are not intimidated by those who know more than us, because we know God knows more than any human.
And meditation is the way to order and structure our days, in order to leave behind the exhaustion of the daily monkey mind and reframe our very existence in the context of God’s teaching and purpose for our lives. The Psalmist invites the reader to a way of meditation and prayer that is not motivated by obligation or expectation, but by immersion in the ways of God for our lives. For the Psalmist, prayerful immersion in God’s teachings is what brought structure and health and happiness to his or her life.
So, what does that look like in our lives? Are we supposed to spend all day reading the Bible? Every waking moment reading and meditating upon the words of Scripture? Well, I’m not saying it would hurt, but, it’s also probably not very realistic.
Last week, we began our Lenten prayer series with a time of intentional prayer in the morning. “Between a shower and a bagel.” This week, we talk about place familiar to a lot of us, especially the commuters in the room: “on the turnpike.” But even if you aren’t a commuter who crawls down I-70 or K-10 every day, my guess is that sometime last week, you had a block of relatively unstructured time. Either on your commute. Or maybe it is on a run. Or a ride. Or when you are in the line at the grocery store. Or waiting at the doctor’s office. And most of us, when we arrive at such a block of time, what do we do? Either we fall into monkey mind, and an hour later we don’t remember anything that we have thought about. Or we distract. We try and coax our monkey mind in one direction. We put in the earphones on the running trail. Or we look at our smartphones in the waiting room. We turn on the radio on the turnpike. Anything to distract us from the monkey mind that invades.
But what if we took time during those blocks to follow the advice of the Psalmist and meditate upon the words of Scripture? Take those moments to pray on a phrase throughout the day? Some writers on prayer suggest that you choose a phrase at the beginning of the day and repeat it throughout the day. “This is the day that the Lord has made!” or “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Or, it could be example of Torah – the teachings of God – outside of Scripture, as Tanner suggests is possible. An ancient phrase like Julian of Norwich’s “All shall be well.” Pick a phrase for the day.
Then, throughout the day, when monkey mind starts to creep in, you can repeat that phrase over and again. Meditate on its meaning for your life. I figured since I was preaching about it, I would try it. So, on an early morning run, I repeated the phrase “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Now, my choice of the phrase might have had something to do with the fact that we just finished watching the Netflix horror series Stranger Things, and I happened to be running through an isolated and wooded road by myself in the dark. But nonetheless, it really worked. It helped to tame the monkey mind. It helped me to lift up and give away the fears that I had been harboring in my mind. To meditate on a phrase or verse of Scripture helps to order our lives in a new way. It gives us clarity of mind and spirit.
Scholar Steve D. Miller talks about “the complete submersion in the presence of God”:
“What one focuses on, shapes who one is. The persons who are absorbed in sports scores and news, or the second-by-second changes of the stock market, will be different in their approaches to life from the ones who read poetry all day, or romance novels, or watch soap operas on TV all day, or Oprah, or reality shows, or PBS. The Benedictines have very little or no television time, but they sing their way through the Psalms each week, until they have fully chewed, swallowed, and digested them into their souls. Their goal, of course, is to be remade into the image of Christ.”
And again, hear that without a sense of guilt. You should not be ashamed if you ever watch TV or listen to sports radio or look at your phone. Hear that with his bigger question in mind: “who or what is shaping you?” As my brother told me about running, how you spend your time determines your identity. And hear it without thinking that it means that you have to spend hours meditating on Scripture every day. Instead, what if you were to consider the moments that you might consider boring or inefficient or annoying, as opportunities to be shaped by the teachings of God in your life?
How many of you know the name Andrew Garfield? He is an actor that is perhaps best known as Spiderman in one of the thousand re-boots of the character. One of his latest movies, however, is Silence, about a priest who struggles with his faith. As a part of preparing for the role, he practiced the prayers of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who taught a version of meditation upon Scripture. Ignatius suggested that we choose a story of Jesus from the Gospels, and then invite our “holy imagination” to take over.
At the beginning of the day, or perhaps the beginning of the week, choose a story about Jesus, for example, next week’s Gospel reading: the woman at the well. Ignatian prayer suggests that you read it and then enter into it. Maybe in one setting, or I would suggest over the day or the week, whenever the monkey mind creeps in: Enter the story in three ways:
- First engage your senses in the story. What does the well look like in your imagination; what does Jesus look like as he speaks with her? What do you hear; the splashing of the water against the side of the well or Jesus’ voice? What do you touch; the smoothness of the jar or the coolness of the water? What do you smell; the woman has waited all day in the sun until the “respectable” women have left…can you smell the sweat and dust? What do you taste; the water on your parched tongue?
- Next talk to those in the story. What do you want to ask the woman before she talks to Jesus? And after? What questions do you have for her?
- Finally, ask where are you in the story? What are you doing? Who are you? Are you the woman? Jesus? One of the “respectable” women looking down their noses at her? One of the townspeople celebrating with her? A bystander? Where would you place yourself and what does the story teach you about your relationship with Jesus? What does the story mean for you?
These Ignatian exercises are an ancient way to meditate on the power of Scripture. St. Ignatius has forever changed the way that many Christians engage with the text, and allow it to shape them. It has helped generations move from self-centered, unfocused monkey minds into a new relationship with Jesus. As it was for actor Andrew Garfield. Ironically, for Garfield, as he prepared for his role of a priest who stopped believing, these prayers helped him, in his words, “fall in love with Jesus.” Before preparing for this part, he was ambiguous if not hostile toward God, but through them, he moved from an ambiguous relationship with God to a deeper understanding of who Jesus really was. May it be so with us! May the words of God’s teaching become like honey in our mouth and a new prayer in our hearts!