Michael Barrett shares interesting insights as part of a St. Patrick’s Day message based on Psalm 34

Cry of the Deer:
Reflections on Psalm 34 and St. Patrick’s Lorica
March 17, 2019  by Michael Barrett

Let us pray in words from St. Patrick’s Cry of the Deer:

God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me. Amen.

INTRODUCTION

This morning we have listened to Larry Oya read the lyrics of one of the most beautiful and profound songs ever written – David’s 34th psalm. Tragically, the harmony, the melody, the chords that once accompanied this song have been lost is history. Yet, the words and their imagery remain awesome – an angel encamping, the taste and sight of a good God, a story of seeking, being answered, and being delivered, a divine who comes nearest and first to the broken hearted.

These words resonate not just through our traditional Scriptures – Micah 6:8 Isaiah 58:9-11, Matthew 5:1-11, Luke 6:20-26, and Ephesians 6:10-18; but also through the written narrative of our shared spiritual experience since.  One of those shared experiences we celebrate today in the life and writings of Saint Patrick. In Patrick’s time, candidates for ministry memorized all 150 Psalms to be ordained. He must have been greatly influenced by the one we reflect on this morning. The texture of our spiritual history is woven together from David to Jesus to Patrick and to us.

David arrays Psalm 34 in four sections – he first offers an invitation to praise the Lord (v.1-3), the offers testimony of personal experience as to way we should (v.4-7), then proceeds to a hard sell urging us to experience God ourselves (v.8-10), and concludes with an instructional sermon (v.11-22)

THE INVITATION (v.1-3)

I will extoll, My soul will boost, I will bless, I will praise, I will magnify His Name. Let us exalt His name.

Each of David’s 150 songs emphasizes one of three themes – there are first, the songs of celebrating creation, order, wisdom and wellbeing; second, there are songs of lamentation; and then finally, songs of thanksgiving and praise., such as Psalm 34.

Celtic prayers mirror this same division. In Saint Patrick’s ‘Cry of the Deer’ and in his ‘Declaration of the Great Works of God’ we find similar invitations to bless and praise God.

In format, both authors address God directly in song and prayer, but both clearly have the intention of allowing others to overhear what is being spoken (v.2, let the humble hear and be glad). Both authors encourage us to bless God or bind ourselves to God. For both, blessing and binding are synonymous with kneeling before God. Blessing is an important concept. For both praising is not about just honoring God’s name, but more so the characteristics that God’s name represents. Blessing God is a way of praising Him for all he is and all he does.

To bless is a very powerful act and I fear we have lost its strength. Why do we only bless someone when they sneeze? Whenever we bless another, we are saying holy and encouraging words to them. We are bestowing positive energy upon them. What we need to ask ourselves, as a congregation, is if we are held together by those and what we bless or by those and what we condemn.

Within this invitation, a second import concept deals with glorifying or magnifying the Lord.

My sisters and brothers, we can not make our Creator, Savior, and Sustainer any more glorious or greater that he already is – But we can magnify the scope of His presence within our lives. We do that by adjusting the amount of our time, our talent, and our treasure that we dedicate, designate and devote to Him.

But this amplification must embed the way we live our lives – what do we choose to enlarge and emphasize – good news or bad news, our neighbor’s unfortunate failings or their encouraging potential, the chaos of anxiety or the order of tranquility, apathy or action? If we seek to amplify the image of God in ourselves, how much easier it will then be to perceive the image of God in others.

In the Bible there is no good word for ‘thank you.’ What authors do to express appreciation to God is to tell what God has done for them.

EXPERIENCE AS TESTIMONY (v.4-7)

I sought, I was answered, I was delivered
I was poor, I was heard, I was saved

Both David and Patrick identify several critical, desperate, and dangerous situations from which God delivered them as an impetus for their enhanced spiritual development.

In David’s case, as reported in 1 Samuel 21, in an attempting to escape from King Saul, David flees to of all places, Philistine and to of all cities there, the town of Gath.  Gath, we remember is the hometown of the slain Goliath. Apparently, David is still carrying Goliath’s sword. The vengeful townsfolk and their King Abimelech  (Achish) capture David and plan to execute him.  Imprisoned, David writes a prayer song, Psalm 56. God inspires David to feign madness and the King expels David, unharmed, from Gath. Psalm 34 is David’s song of thanksgiving after being set free.

Patrick’s desperate situation was being sold into slavery.

Some points of clarification – About Saint Patrick

Patrick was a child of an elite Romano-British family residing in the northwest coastal area of Britain known as Cambria. Right next to Hadrian’s Wall.

Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland, there were scattered Christians, particularly in the south.

Patrick did not chase any snakes out of Ireland – the glaciers had done that centuries before.

Patrick did use simple imagery, as did Jesus and David, that was easily understood by the commoner – the shamrock, as well as, the thrice folded napkin, the three-jointed index finger, and snowflake and frost, and icicle to express the Holy Trinity.

Patrick did not have a drop of Irish blood within his veins. (Patrick was British, Wellington was Irish).

Patrick is celebrated not for being Irish, but for serving the Irish.

At age 16, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. He was taken to the northwestern, Atlantic side coast of Ireland, County Mayo where he tended cattle, sheep, and probably hogs. It was during this enslavement that he was drawn deeply into Christianity by his fellow slave Cedd.

At age 22 he experienced the first of several divinely inspired visions. The initial of which indicated his imminent release and location of the escape vessel. Patrick ran way, walked 200 miles overland to the Irish Sea, had another run-in with pirates, but convinced them to help him escape. He then travels through Gaul and perhaps, even to Rome, studying for the ministry. Eventually, he returned to Britain and served the Church there. Another divinely inspired vision directed him to return to Ireland to serve the very people that had enslaved him. His family, friends, and the British Church prevented him from doing so for decades. It was not until after a long persistence that he was able to return to Ireland, at age 46, as its newly ordained bishop. He spent the next 29 years of his life founding 300 churches and fighting for social justice there.

The Psalms linked David and Patrick, in a sense. A major curricular feature of the study for ministry during Patrick’s time included the memorization of all 150 Psalms.

[We all have embedded psalms and songs within our minds, usually, an opening phrase will bring them into memory – some of mine include “hello darkness my ole friend, I’ve come to talk with you again because… .; When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in our eyes, I will  . . .; or I am just a poor boy, though my stories seldom told, I have squandered my resistance for… .]

{Note, their secondary audiences – David’s includes the afraid (v.4), the ashamed (v.5), the distressed (v.6), the persecuted (v.7), and the unhappy and vulnerable (v.8). The emotional states of many of Patrick’s poor, serfs, pirates, pagans, and slaves, especially female slaves would be much the same.

The importance of David and Patrick’s example is that when we tell others of our church, our faith, our belief – it is important to remember that the story of our own spiritual journey – ‘what God did for me,’ – is extremely effective. What we are telling others is that what God did for me, He will also do for you. We are telling them where the angel will encamp.

THE HARD SELL (v.8-10)

Taste and see. Take refuge in.
Listen to the song of the Psalmist. Listen to the Cry of the Deep.

Neither David nor Patrick overly argue theology and dogma. They do ask us to use our senses to perceive the goodness of the Lord. See the magnificence of creation, Look for goodness in small and unexpected places. Taste the Lord. One way of tasting the goodness of the Lord is to talk about God’s goodness. Hear the goodness – in birdsong, the sound of rain, and the hymns we sing. the gurgling sounds of a newborn. Smell the fresh air of spring or the salt air of the sea. Even in touch. When I use to return home after a hard day of work, my cat Boots, would immediately hop into my lap for quality petting time. I could feel the goodness of the Lord in that.

Our other choice is to listen to the roar of the lions (v.10). That is about diverting our attention and efforts to the world and it’s invitation to go for power or popularity or position, to go for self-sufficiency, the classiest car, to the beautiful people, to the maxed out credit card, and to the accumulation of possession after possession. The loudness of the lions may tend to drown out the cry of the deer.

THE LESSON (v.11 -22)

Fear, fear, fear the Lord

Our term dealing with fear comes up four times in the 34th Psalm.  What is David’s lesson? Sometimes in the Bible, ‘fear’ means being frightened or scared (e.g., v4). But v.4 does seem to really match the intent of v. 7,9,11. Sometimes in the Bible (as in Deuteronomy), ‘fear of the Lord’ simply equates to obeying all of God’s commandments.

Except for v.4, by ‘fear’ David is expressing the need for a sense of reverence for God, for trusting God, for depending on God, and for taking refuge in God. Yes, it includes awe, but it means so much more. It does not mean to be terrorized by God – it does mean to be willing, gladly, joyfully, to honor God, to obey and serve God, and to acknowledge our dependence on God.

If we do that does that mean there’s nothing for us to fear? Well, no. God programs us through fear to be cautious. Maybe not scared but cautious.

And yes there is positive fear and negative fear. There’s rational fear and irrational fear

Operating a new chain saw, we should read the safety instructions first.

Coming up to bat in the ninth, we should put on that batting helmet.

Intending to drive around Dublin, we should learn something about the rules of the road over there.

How do we tell the difference between positive fear and negative fear?

When we are confronted with fear, and we are considering a course of action, we need to check the source and then ask ourselves if any good will likely come out of the action we are planning to take.

Does this fear focus on need or scarcity or envy? Is this fear leading us into judgementalism, condemnation, or ostracism? Is this fear instilling within us, feelings of disobedience, danger, shame or guilt? Is this fear causing us to put limits on the grace power, abundance or love of God? If so, then it’s probably a negative fear –just the kind of fear that God wants to deliver us from.

Consider ‘fear of God’ as positive – it is evidenced by confidence, trust, and faith in God. It makes itself manifest in obedience, sharing, safety, and dignity. It is respect for the positive force and mystery of God.

As Rev. Sam Candler writes, ‘to experience God I need to be in touch with a tremendous mystery that does not drive us away, but, fascinates and attracts us. This attractive fascination is awe and wonder.’

If we desire life and covet to see many good days to enjoy (v.12), then what do we need to do?

Keep our tongues from evil, keep our lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it. (v.13-14). God’s freedom is not just freedom from some things; it is also freedom and responsibility to do some things.

What we say is incredibly important to God. Slander, gossip, and deception are incubators of ever-greater evil. Do good – begin by seeking to imitate God’s character in the ways David identifies:

Calm the fearful.

Hear the cry of the poor.

Reach out to the troubled

Draw close to the broken-hearted.

Strive to restore the dispirited.

Seek and pursue peace at all times.

Does this mean that we won’t have to face evil? We as Christians recognize that evil is real. Christianity is one of the few religions that does this so strongly. As Christians, our challenge is to confront evil, not to ignore it or try to hide from it or try to pretend it only exists as something else. Because of God’s gift of free will, each of us has the choice to turn to or turn away from evil. Each of us has the choice to do good or not to do good. We each have the choice of doing something or doing nothing. God does not always stop evil before it happens.

That’s why we hear from David that God mends broken hearts (not prevents them) and that God lifts the dispirited (not crushes oppressors before they start in). Our lives are experienced amidst suffering, not beyond it. But we can take heart because we know, we believe, and we trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus and that nothing can separate us from a God who will rescue all who take refuge in Him.

We have a choice. Throughout the long context of Saint Patrick’s ‘Cry of the Deer’, he binds himself – to the Trinity, to the power of faith, to angels, prophets, and patriarchs, to God’s creation, to the power of the father, and to the salvation of Christ. During this Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on that to which we want to bind ourselves. To whom do we choose to listen?

We can choose to listen to the roar of the lions and bind ourselves to a culture that fosters greed, to a world that makes little allowance for suffering, to a society that encourages us to enjoy ourselves every moment to the excluding the needs of others, and to a system that prizes the every growing acquisition and abundance of personal possessions.

Or we can choose to listen to the songs of David and the Cry of Patrick’s deer and choose to bind ourselves to a life fostering gratitude, to a congregation striving to ease suffering and injustice, to a community that stewards shares, and sustains the gifts of creation, and to a people that taste and see, speak and savor the goodness of the Lord. My friends the choice is yours. Amen.