A few thoughts on Psalm 79 in Advent...

The Psalm for this second day of Advent, Psalm 79, is another aching lament:  the holy city of Jerusalem has been sacked, people have been left to rot in the streets and another massive group of Jewish citizens have been taken in shame into captivity in Babylon. This is the second enslavement of the intellectuals, religious elite and middle class of ancient Israel - and it is clearly devastating.

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
   they have defiled your holy temple;
   they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
   to the birds of the air for food,
   the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water
   all around Jerusalem,
   and there was no one to bury them. 
We have become a taunt to our neighbours,
   mocked and derided by those around us.

How long, O Lord? Will you be angry for ever?
   Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?

I am struck by a few things in this psalm of lament.  The first begins with Eugene Peterson's observation that 70% of the psalms are laments - and our contemporary culture is very uncomfortable with such raw grief.  Peterson writes:

King David faced everything and he prayed everything. He neither avoided, denied or soft-pedaled any of it... The contrast with our contemporary culture is appalling. We have a style of print and media journalism that reports disaster endlessly and scrupulously: crime and war, famine and flood, political malfeasance and societal scandal... In the wake of whatever has gone wrong or whatever wrong is done, commentators gossip, reporters interview, editors pontificate, Pharisees moralize and then psychological analyses are conducted, political reforms initiated, academic studies funded. And there is not one line of lament.  

There is no lament because truth is not taken seriously, love is not taken seriously. Human life does not mater as life, God-given, Christ-redeemed, Spirit-blessed life.  it counts only as "news." There is no dignity to any of it - it is trivialized.
Not so with this psalm:  the mourner cries out in agony to the Lord, "How long...?" How long will you, O Lord, be angry with us for our sins?  When will grace come and compassion soothe our wounds?  How much longer must we endure both pain and shame?  How long?  I know that I wonder, "how long" while watching what other nations report about the American spirit.  Over the weekend the leading newspaper in Turkey ran endless reports about the greed and violence Black Friday evoked throughout the United States.  Add to this the American obsession with guns and violence - death as entertainment - and a vicious, ugly picture of my beloved America comes into focus.  And, sadly, it is a tragedy of our own making - and I pray, "How long, O Lord, how long?"

Second, it seems as if the time has come for American Christians to embrace the wailing tradition of lament that is such a part of the Jewish soul.  This psalm is prayed every Friday at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and I wonder if it ought not become required prayer for those of us who follow Jesus in the United States, too?  As Douglas John Hall has written, the disestablishment of mainstream Protestant Christianity is a blessing:  we can now let go of some of our cultural baggage and join Jesus with the broken and oppressed.  We are no longer part of the social elite so we are liberated to live into our conscience rather than protect our status.

This is much more complicated to do when your religion is still part of the establishment.  I think of the on-going controversy in London over the Occupy protesters at St. Paul's.  Clearly the existing church leadership heard the voice of Jesus in the presence and critique of the young, non-violent and counter-cultural  community encamped around the beloved cathedral. They welcomed them - and encouraged them - and fed and loved them.  But the city politicians - with tax revenue to be gained at old St. Paul's - would not let themselves hear Jesus lamenting, "When did we see they hungry and ignore you, Lord?"  They had too much to protect - and so the battle continues.

I think of St. Leonard Cohen...

And third I hear in this lament a cry for justice and compassion - this is bigger than simply one person's prayer - it is a petition offered for the whole people of God.  The poet Alicia Ostriker once wrote:  "When I can't stand political and journalistic rhetoric any longer, I turn to poems. I don't believe poetry is therapeutic, but I do think it is diagnostic. Poems clarify, whether we like it or not. Here are some I have gathered, from various sources. May they be useful to others." This one, by Stephen Dunn called "To a Terrorist," touched my heart. 

For the historical ache, the ache passed down
which finds its circumstance and becomes
the present ache, I offer this poem

without hope, knowing there's nothing,
not even revenge, which alleviates
a life like yours. I offer it as one

might offer his father's ashes
to the wind, a gesture
when there's nothing else to do.

Still, I must say to you:
I hate your good reasons.
I hate the hatefullness that makes you fall

in love with death, your own included.
Perhaps you're hating me now,
I who own my own house

and live in a country so muscular,
so smug, it thinks its terror is meant
only to mean well, and to protect.

Christ turned his singular cheek,
one man's holiness another's absurdity.
Like you, the rest of us obey the sting,

the surge. I'm just speaking out loud
to cancel my silence. Consider it an old impulse,
doomed to become mere words.

The first poet probably spoke to thunder
and, for a while, believed
thunder had an ear and a choice

1) davidsweeneyart.com


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