One simple word can raise a flurry of thoughts and emotions. Recently I happily referred to myself as “old” and a friend reacted strongly. She is a physical trainer in her 70’s and often hears clients moan that they’re too old to … From experience she knows that our bodies are capable of more than we think, if, barring illness, we keep active even into old age and stop thinking of ourselves as past our prime.
I understand her negative response, but because my focus is not on physical fitness, the word “old” has different connotations for me. Now that I’m an elder, I think of the phrase, “wise old owl”, and fight against our culture’s fixation on youth. Same word, different connotations.
I write this post after watching news about the pornographic performances at the 2013 Music Video Awards and reading this rhetorical question from Psalm 119:9,
“How can a young person stay on the path of purity?”
Now there’s a problematic word: “purity”.
Where does your mind go when you hear it? Imagine the reactions if we asked the MVA audience how they try to “stay on the path of purity”. Ours is a culture where even opera advertisers use come-ons like “lies, murders, lust and betrayal!” assuming that such language will draw audiences, not turn them away.
Can you imagine a politician during a campaign saying that they try to live purely? Purity used to be an admirable goal; now it’s an archaic value.
At the rare times we hear the word, it’s usually in discussion of sexual abstinence outside of marriage. Such a limited meaning for purity truncates a magnificent ideal. What if we expand the word’s meaning to suggest these characteristics: integrated, authentic, consistent, and uncontaminated? What if we think of “pure gold” or “pure drinking water”?
It was disappointing to hear a Christian minister base a sermon on a vulgar, crude musical (her words) that she had seen. Even as she joked about the congregation not telling their friends that their minister had said they should buy tickets, it was clear that she had no regret or shame about enjoying the performance. She valued the strengths of the production despite its impurity. True, sometimes we have no choice but to search through life's garbage for meaning, but why choose it for entertainment? It sounded as if she were dismissing the wise biblical advice to fill our minds with excellence, beauty, joy, kindness and goodness
(ex. Galatians 5 and Philippians 4). Long before modern psychology, spiritual teachers were recommending cognitive behavioural therapy: change your thoughts and you will change your feelings and behaviours.
Maybe the preacher, like others, was over-reacting to Puritanism, that uptight, “holier than thou” rigidity that looks down its nose at others. They assume that a steady commitment to high values always breeds snobbish disapproval of anyone who doesn’t measure up to those values. To the contrary, Jesus himself criticized such pharisaic attitudes. He befriended swindlers and adulterers, calling them to God’s love. He would definitely have befriended all of the performers at the MVA’s.
However, he clearly did not chuckle at people’s self-destructive sin or follow their example. He urged them (us) to change direction toward the path of wholeness or purity. A desire for Christ-like integrity (what the bible calls “righteousness”) need not imply an unhealthy wish to be better than other people.
The question we started with above was written centuries before Jesus, part of the Jewish tradition he followed.
How can a person stay on the path of purity, the path of humility, confidence, service and courage, the path where one aligns with humanity’s best and trusts God to do what we cannot? The poet’s own answer to his rhetorical question is that, young or old, we “stay on the path of purity by living according to God’s word”. We listen for God’s wisdom in sacred books, in human experience, in Nature’s wonders and within us.