Oniontown Pastoral: An Old Word for a New Year
First, I’m not telling you what to do. We all have to decide how to travel from 2022 to 2023, and I guarantee you that my stride will be less jaunty than yours. For the record, I can’t remember my last New Year’s resolution. The older I get, the more my willpower resembles the loose skin (a.k.a. “bingo”) swaying under aging arms. It’s not that I never establish healthy or edifying habits, but they never take hold in obedience to my intentions when December surrenders to January.
My method of self-improvement is often accidental. When coffee shops shuttered during our nation’s collective COVID-19 paralysis, I was deprived of comfortable writing perches. In response, wife Kathy approved the purchase of a prefabricated shed, and I spent six months turning it into a sanctum. I measured and sawed and hammered and insulated in a hypnotic frenzy and emerged 40 pounds lighter and confident that no pandemic would again mess with my mojo. But if not for a deadly virus, I’d still be chasing down words with café lattes.
Now, by happenstance, an invitation to add joy and meaning to my yearly ride around the sun has arrived as if by mail. In the envelope is one word: selah. For over half of my life, I’ve regarded selah as biblical junk. It comes up 71 times in The Book of Psalms, and I swat it away like a deer fly touching down on my bald spot.
“You know, Pastor Coleman,” I thought recently, “you should do a little homework.”
If you’re expecting at this point a ray of sacred insight to bathe your face, sorry. The fact is, nobody seems to know exactly what selah (“sah – luh”) means. So inscrutable is the Hebrew term that some translations omit it. Scholars suspect that selah is a musical notation, in the manner of forte (loud). Or maybe the word calls for an instrumental interlude or a crash of praise from cymbals.
Since no definition is assured, I favor—for no reason other than personal taste—“stop and listen.” Christian Today speculates that selah is a “term instructing worshippers to stop and consider the Lord they are worshipping.”
Believers and doubters alike can worship shoulder to shoulder in any year or circumstance by “stopping and listening.” Such a wise and generous mantra. And the beauty is, two words could disappear without any damage. “Listen.” Say these two syllables and everyone freezes. “Stop” is a prerequisite for “listen.”
Which brings me to this moment when the calendar pivots—a good excuse for looking inward, if not for making anemic promises to reduce my body mass index. What more can I do as a citizen of planet Earth than to listen? Before answering my own question, I have to note that “listen” involves more than sound. With that single exhortation, sight is called into service. Touch and taste as well. Would smell be excluded?
“Listen” is an ensemble of meaning unto itself. The Rule of Benedict, which guides monastic life, begins curiously: “Listen with the ear of your heart.” Here, an everyday English word takes on the fullness of ancient selah. Prose marries poetry. I experience what’s before me not only with physical senses, but also ask emotions to take hold of my behavior and convictions. In the space of a few deep breaths, selah makes possible new ways of being a husband, father, brother, friend, neighbor and pastor.
As expected, the ancient notation in The Psalms (and thrice in Habakkuk) is related to belief or faith. The verses selah follows are often balm for the seeker.
“Commune with your own heart on your bed, and be still. Selah” (4:4b).
“Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble; thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance. Selah” (32:7).
“I will trust in the covert of thy wings. Selah” (61:4b).
Just as often, holy listening is about confrontation.
“Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah (39:5).
“Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies? Selah” (77.9).
This is as it should be. What is selah worth if it brings comfort without correction? I deserve both in equal measure. Glancing now at my soul, what I see is prosaic, no epiphanies here.
“Pay better attention when your friends are talking. Selah.”
“Be patient and loving when all around is haste and brainstem rancor. Selah.”
“You are wealthy; you have enough heaped upon enough; remember and help the widow and the orphan. Selah.”
With respect to this New Year, I’m not bothering with temporary resolutions. I’m talking about a Way. Please bless me as I do my best.