Monday, March 12, 2018

a season for the elders AND the prophets to link arms...

As part of my up and down encounter with Lent this year, I found myself moved by the words of Psalm 107. It is the appointed reading for this day following the Fourth Sunday of Lent and maintains that wandering in the wilderness is part of real life. Time in the desert may be the consequence of national folly, exile, or spiritual confusion. 

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.
Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry he fills with good things.
Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
and broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
and cuts in two the bars of iron.

Scholars suggest two broad insights:

+ First, there are four constellations of people who have known both suffering and redemption: they come from the north, south, east and west. They are those who have experienced loss in desert places, in prisons, in illness, and upon the vastness of the sea. Robert Altizer writes that the commonality each group shares is God's "redemption from captivity or dangerous enemies" into a gathering of the grateful. (Book of Psalms, Altizer, p. 383) Each of the redeemed groupings in the psalm have parallel's in ancient Israel's history. But there are not enough clear connections between the actual exile, exodus, etc. of the people to pinpoint a precise historical context for this song of praise. It is, therefore, a suggestive and evocative poem with roots in ancient Israel's past but ample symbolism for personal meditation, too. Who among us has not known a time of being lost in what feels like the barren wilderness? Or sick and without hope? Or imprisoned by bars or addictions? Or even adrift in a tempest with no land in sight?  As another scholar observes: "The psalm is not an exercise is speculative theology... whose author shows no awareness of all the facets of the age-long problem of evil. (Clearly) the psalmist was sufficiently familiar with life to realize that circumstance do not always work out - even for the saints - in a happy way." (W. Steward McCullough, Interpreter's Bible, p. 572) The poet, Laurence Weider, rephrased the psalm like this:

Always returning to the promise, I remember
  Some few kept in mind what they had seen
  Of parted sea, of wasteland nurture, law.
  Wandering the wilderness, they cried out
  To God, to their confusion, and were heard.
  Their children founded places, and were fed.

This psalm speaks of living into and through the trials of real life with trust. In remembering we are able to steel ourselves for life's inevitable suffering.

+ Second, the psalmist offers a four-fold refrain: O give thanks to the Lord for God is good; the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever! In the context of this psalm, these words were probably a shared refrain used in the context of worship. At an appointed time, a recollection of both the nation's shared wounds and God's response would be rehearsed in a litany. In call and response fashion the gathered faithful would then respond: O give thanks to the Lord for God is good for the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. This is an invitation to live by faith not just by sight. It is a wisdom song to trust God both because it is God's historically observed nature to bring the people into places of safety; but also because trust is the way our eyes learn to see what is not always obvious. It is a charge to practice a long obedience . A commitment to truth and trust not just bottom lines. A willingness to look through the clutter and chaos of any given moment into the steadfast love of the Lord that endures forever. 

I can't help but think of the social critic Neil Postman at this moment in time when he wrote:

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility... What  Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility. (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death)

Postman is a post-biblical elder with a long vision. He understands contemporary wilderness, prison and all the rest. Psalm 107 strikes me as the voice on another elder, one who has experienced and endured the agonies of the past as well as the blessings of the Lord. Together these elders want to remind us that there is a way through our current morass. The closing stanzas of Wieder's poetic riff on this psalm cuts to the chase:

So later generations fill their mouths with praises:
A sailor's business is the ocean. On his watch
He peered into the abyss: wind twisted masts
Like paper, breakers boiled yellow, rigging
Crackled with drowned souls. The compass spun.

So later generations fill their mouths with praises:
It's possible to die from too much skill,
And possible to live not knowing how
The storm blew, how merchant port was found,
It's possible to live and never once be clam.

So later generations fill their mouths with praises:
They sing in public and before their teachers,
How water turned the salt flats into orchards,
How people settled cities, planted vineyards,
Sowed grain in fields, covered grazing lands.

So the story keeps returning, of great armies
Lost in deserts, of the small made splendid
Blessed with family and flocks, of the wicked
Choking on their empty language, hands clapping
Shut the mouth. Some parts return to mind.
A wise one sees things, and may understand them.

This is a season for elders, beloved, as well as innocent young activists rising up from the carnage of their schools. And newly energized white kids from suburban Florida linking arms with Black Lives Matters prophets. And parents holding chicken shit politicians accountable for bathing in NRA blood money. And women gathering in solidarity and strength to bring a new way of loving to consciousness. And men nailing rape culture to the Cross. And each of us recognizing the wilderness - or prison - or disease of this moment in time, but living, breathing and honoring the mercy and steadfast love of the Lord that is bigger and more true than the totality of this regime's lies and distractions. Birthing is a bloody mess and a new world is being born in the midst of our trials.

credits:

No comments:

a spirituality of l'arche - part five

NOTE: I thought I would finish this series up earlier this week but on my way to some commitments, as John Lennon used to say, life happened...