Sunday, December 11, 2011

December 10 - Mulishness

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.


Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.


Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.

You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.


I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,

whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,

and shout for joy, all you upright in heart. -- Psalm 32

Some passages for contemplation have so much in them that it is hard to pick a thread to follow. Sin, repentance, forgiveness -- all not only appear here but follow the progression that I understand all too well. I mess something up or hurt someone, I'm sorry for it (later, if not sooner and if I'm wiser than when it happened), I repent and, hopefully, am forgiven for it by the whoever I hurt in whatever way or have been able to make some sort of amends to mend what was messed up. The process is messy itself, it's uncomfortable most of the time, and it's something that I'd rather just bury under the carpet and forget about. That, though, is not the recommended way to go and most of the time, guilt will eventually get me to the place where I need to acknowledge it and try to fix it, if it is fixable.

The part of the psalm that caught my attention, though, was the part about the horse and the mule. I don't have much acquaintance with mules, although a friend has been kind enough to give me some instruction in mule physiology and psychology. A mule and a horse are very different creatures but both, in order to be useful to humans, must be outfitted with bits and bridles to guide them in the direction the human wants or needs them to go. The difference is the kind of bit that each needs because the stimulus to response in each is different. A wise person would choose the right bit for the right animal in order to not just control where the animal goes, but to do it in the kindest but most affirmative way.

I remember Mama often telling me I was as "stubborn as a mule," hardly a flattering statement but quite accurate. I was pretty determined to do things my way, and nothing short of threat of dire punishment or the like would make me change my mind. I think if she could have used a bit and bridle on me, she probably would have. My friend tells me that if you push on a mule’s flank, it will usually push back initially, just to see if you really mean it. Looks like Mama used the right descriptor for me because I definitely pushed back and then just stood my ground until forced to do otherwise.

Now that I’ve grown up a bit and am a bit more aware of the importance of self-control and the greater world around me, I see a lot of mulish behavior (as well as recognizing it in myself a bit better). It's not as the psalm stated, "...whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,/ else it will not stay near you…”, it’s more on the order of “This is not right, I must go in another direction” or “Why are we doing this when it is not what we should be doing?” Looking around, I see a country and a world where the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer. I see countries desperately needing aid and getting it, only to have the ruling government seize most of it and distribute it to their own friends and supporters while those for whom the aid was intended die of starvation and thirst. I see populations suffering indignities, persecution, deprivation and even death because of who they are, their tribal or cultural relationship, their gender or sexual orientation, their nationality, even their religion. I also read in scripture where God has again and again given us a direction to go with regard to these very same people, a direction that would lead to a veritable heaven on earth, yet we seem to be mulishly pushing back, looking to our own interests rather than the kingdom we could be building for God, for our neighbors and for ourselves.

God gives the opportunity to repent, to turn things around, to make amends, to work for the kingdom here and now. God, being a wise God, gives me a bridle intended just for me, a personal one built just for me, to direct me in the way I need to go and to urge me to take that way. God has other bridles built for others, all designed to guide firmly but kindly in the same way mine is supposed to do. I have to choose for myself how to respond to the bridle of God and God's leading to greener pastures for me and for the world.

The bridle God offers is not a constraint but a freedom – but can the world see it that way?

Can I see it that way?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episopal Cafe Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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