My reflections during this week were tinged by three events weighing heavy on my heart as I wrote: first, the news of the surprising death of Robin Williams, beloved comedian. He died as his depression, an illness he’d struggled with throughout his life, became too overwhelming and ended in suicide.
Secondly, I was struck by struggles of family members dear to my heart also struggling with illnesses that threaten their ability to fully be who I know them to be and live as they long to live.
This week’s reflections are on the Psalms. The Psalms are not just Scriptures to be read but invitations to pray. In fact, they are model prayers for Jews and Christians. We read them and meditate on them not just as a way of inspiring us, but also as invitations to make time and space to connect personally to God in prayer. Throughout the centuries Jews and Christians have used the words of the Psalms to inspire their own personal prayers, along with the prayers and songs of their communities.
One of the aspects of the Psalms that stood out to me this week was their this-worldly nature. They focus so often on finding more life, depth, and meaning to this earthy world of joy and pain. As I read their words, I could not but help think of a psalm of his own theologian Jurgen Moltmann developed in his book, The Source of Life.
In that book he prefaces his prayer by quoting the words of Augustine in his confessions:
“But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of any body or the rhythm of time in its movement; not the radiance of light, so dear to our eyes; not the sweet melodies in the world of manifold sounds; not the perfume of flowers, ointments and spices; not the manna and not honey; not the limbs so delightful to the body’s embrace; it is none of these things that I love when I love my god. And yet when I love my God I do indeed love a light and a sound and a perfume and a food and embrace in my inward self. There my soul is flooded with a radiance which no space can contain; there a music sounds which time never bears away; there I smell a perfume which no wind disperses; there I taste a food that no surfiet embitters; there is an embrace which not satiety severs. It is this that I love when I love my God.”
Augustine’s focus is where a lot of our modern prayer and spirituality, which divorces us from this world in hope of a home in heaven, gets it roots.
Moltmann responds with a prayer of his own, which returns to the Psalm’s roots of using prayer to help us become at home in this world in ways that rekindle our love for life:
“When I love God I love the beauty of bodies, the rhythm of movements, the shining eyes, the embrace, the feeling, the scents, the sounds of all this protean creation. When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creations of your love. In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.
For a long time I looked for you within myself and crept into the shell of my soul, shielding myself with an armour of inapproachability. But you were outside–outside of myself–and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So I came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others.
“The experience of God deepens the experiences of life. It does not reduce them. For
it awakens the unconditional Yes to life. The more I love God, the more I gladly I exist. The more immediately and wholly I exist, the more I sense the living God, the inexhaustible source of life and eternal livingness.”
As you read through these Psalms with me, I invite you to consider how praying these Psalms can help you more fully embrace a love for life; and how you and I can help those who have lost their love for life find hope, strength, and peace.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie,
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Psalm 66 calls us to praise God for the ways in which God brings us victory over our enemies. I don’t believe other people are our enemies, but those forces within our soul that crush us, leading us to self-destructive and paths that are destructive to those around us. I think its also those forces in society that lead people at large to unthinkingly harm others and God’s earth. As I write, I am moved to think about the death of Robin Williams. I write shortly after news of his death. As I write, I also am in the midst of supporting friends and families with chronic illness.
I cannot help but ask: Where is victory in one dying in a struggle for health with mental illness? At first I see none, but then I remember something my momma told me once: death is not a defeat, because everybody dies. The question is really not how you will die. It is instead a question of how you live your days.
And I look again at a person who, with his struggles, is able to live 63 years of vitality, creativity, and beauty in which he paints this world with laughter and hope. How many daily victories over the enemies his illness produced within, including the stigma from others it might have meant he faced, does that mean? I thank God for those victories, for as momma said, death is not a defeat since all of us have to die. It is how we live.
I think of the many I know with chronic illnesses, both mental illnesses and non mental illnesses. Some of you I see daily work, empowered I believe by God’s grace, to live generously, passionately, creatively, like Williams painting this world with beauty and laughter. I thank God for the ways you, with God’s help, have found the daily victories that make that possible. You are inspirations to me.
I think also of our social evils. Sometimes it is harder to see it, with kids dying in the streets here in the US and even more so in some war-torn areas of the world. My heart breaks to hear of these.
I cannot find words to express those current heartaches. I do know that beyond the current tragedies, we can see where God has found victory: over systemic misogyny where women could not vote or own property or govern their own bodies; where people of color were property and then not given the full rights of citizenship; where gay people could be thrown in jail or beaten to death for who they are.
Surely, the need for us to pray and work together with God to overturn evil around us is not over, or we would not have these situations of heartache in this world. Yet living out the Psalm in front of me means in the midst of my heart breaking over what I see before me, I must also recognize how far we have come through those who have worked together with God. I must thank God for the victories that are. I must also hear the voice of Spirit echoing through the tree-lined forest of my life, calling me forth to join my voice and hands with all those who have and are working to heal this world, for God answers these prayers not alone but with our cooperation as co-creators with the Father, Son, and mothering Spirit.
I used Psalm 67:1-2 from this week’s lectionary as my breath prayer mindfulness meditation text for the week — “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make God’s face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power upon all nations”.
On day two I had some trouble centering as I prayed it. It was like an inability to settle a ship while the waves are rocking it. As I listened to the words I was struck by the phrase, “make God’s face to shine upon us”. Where do you see God’s face in this world? I can think of the eyes of many a person with skin on them who were the face of God to me, for in them the love, graciousness, kindness, and wisdom of God were made manifest where I could hear, touch, and see it. I can think of many a neighbor, friend, stranger. I can think of the eyes of our puppy looking up loving and trusting. I can think of the sunrise and the call of the birds upon the waters. I hear these words inviting Christ to open my eyes to how God’s graciousness is made manifest all around me. I’m asking that I might see the many ways God puts skin on so I might see God’s face with God’s shining eyes gazing in love upon me. I think this Psalm also bids me to “be that face, those eyes, this day” for others.
On day three I had some trouble centering. I think, practically, a long phrase like this is hard for breath prayer and perhaps I should split it into different parts in the future. Also I have a lot on my mind as I meditate today. I kept finding my thoughts wandering. What is the key, fellow mindfulness practitioners, for that? I will say what struck me during this practice is how so often the focus of our spirituality is on ourselves: our centeredness, our peace of mind. Part of why I had trouble centering is thinking about others: thinking about Robin Williams who passed after living with a mental illness that proved fatal for him, thinking about various family members and friends with chronic illnesses, some which are not mental illnesses and some that are. These people weigh heavy on my heart this morning. I hear the Psalm’s words teaching me, though, that the reason we practice this spirituality and mindfulness to seek God’s blessing is not just for us. God’s face shines upon us, we are blessed, so that through us others might see the way through us and all kinds of people know God. So I have to seek to encounter the blessing in the center of my existence in order to be able to be there for others, so the rocky storms don’t overwhelm us and so I can more easily walk the way God has laid out before me.
On day four, at first I couldn’t focus on the words, my heart full of worries. But as I settled into meditation, this sense overcame me that I could rest, putting aside defenses. The words “us”, “way”, and “salvation” stood out to me. Many of my biggest worries I bring to my meditation time right now are not for me so much as those close to me struggling with health issues. When those close to you struggle with health issues, you can feel afraid and powerless to help. Health issues have their own path, their own journey they take. You can maybe help the journey, but I am keenly aware today that you and I are not the Healer. The waiting, the uncertainty, includes in it admitting you are without power. So the “us” is big for me.
So often, in the evangelical world within which I grew into faith, the focus was on me: my personal salvation, my personal relationship with God, my responsibility to live a Christian life. At times I find life as a liberal or progressive Christian having the same tendency: focusing on my beliefs and convictions, my questions, my freedom of consciences, my spirituality, my passions. Times like the one I am going through now remind me in my heart what I know in my head: there is no me apart from us. As Desmond Tutu says, I am who I am because you are who you are. Or as Dr. King would say, we are bound together by an inescapable garment of destiny so that what happens to one of us singly affects all of us together.
It is encouraging to know that my own spiritual practice in some way helps this weaving of me, you, and them, into us. It means a lot to know that God’s blessing is not just for me, but also for the wider us in the world. This ‘us’ includes those hurting that I am powerless to heal in my own sphere. This ‘us’ includes those hurting in the wider world like the suffering children of Guatemala and the Christians of Iraq and Palestine. I rediscovered this prayer, and spiritual practice, as an invocation for the Shining Brightness of God to shine forth upon these others, and as a promise that it is shining now and it will go on shining, even if I cannot see it in this moment. I also was drawn to the words “way” and “salvation”. Growing up I thought of this salvation for which this Psalm teaches us to pray in terms of forgiveness, or a place in glory for me. But I’m struck that the Psalmist equates salvation with embarking on a way, a journey or a way of walking in this world. More and more I come to see salvation as not just about my forgiveness personally by God, or my place in God’s family or heaven. These aspects of it are there, as givens for all of us, just waiting for us to accept and embrace them since Christ’s coming was for all who live, all who have ever lived, and who will ever live. But salvation is also taking us from a story written for us: the story built on the values and dreams of this broken world, written by the broken cycles of our family or childhood or culture, the story of our own fear and doubt; and placing us into a wider story that remains unwritten, one with the starting place of the center of life being love, hope, liberation from oppression, and healing. We are placed in a story where we can become co-creators with God, working together with God to build beauty and hope, freedom and new beginnings, community and grace. So it is pure gift and includes an invitation to participate with God in the healing of the world, including our families, our communities, and the lives of others. How have you experienced prayer as not just on behalf of a “me” but an “us”? How have you experienced your personal salvation not just as forgiveness or a place in glory but also as entrance to a new way, or new story, you write together with God?
On day five I sense a tension in my muscles and whole body as I do breath prayer using this psalm. I feel the butterflies in my stomach coming from a mixture of my alarm not going off and so much in the air I have to handle. Perhaps it should not be a surprise that my mind focuses on the word “to us” during meditation. It makes me think of the line in the Nicene Creed that describes Jesus’ work as being “for us and our salvation” When you’ve got a lot on your shoulders and you are busy trying to get everything done for your future, and trying to help others in your life, it can feel like it is all up to you. Yet this graciousness, blessing, and shining face of God toward us is not up to us. It is to us, upon us, for us. It comes to us as pure gift. This message reminds me that in my busyness to do, do, do, I have to take time to be. I have to recognize that so much that is essential to me is already there, provided each moment by the life-giving Spirit. I have to recognize what I already have. I have to trust that the Biblical description is true: there is more than enough for everyone, even though it is sometimes hard to see. I can let go of my need to be in control and trust. Doing that, just for a moment, is fairly liberating. Learning to do it each day, while still doing the part I have to do, is better. And discovering how to accept other’s giving — whether friends and family or God — while giving myself, that’s life giving.
On day six: During times of transition, it is easy for me to fear what is coming down the bend. There is a part of me that tends to expect change is bad, to believe what is around the bend is not going to be good. Such thoughts bubbled to the surface as I took part in breath prayer from this text today. Yet the words washed like water over me, reminding me that God’s heart is always gracious toward me and all of us, always ready to turn God’s face to bless, with shining eyes. God reminded me what is around the bend. There may be joy or trouble, but looming larger still around the next corner for me is the all-embracing graciousness toward me at the heart of the universe, desiring to bless and support me, at work to birth beauty in every circumstance. That is true for you, too, and all who live in God’s good world. Such knowing transforms the unexplored not into a fearful alley but into a journey, an adventure into untold territory. It is boldly going where you have never been before.
On day seven, as I set to meditation, my mind was racing to the week ahead and all that must be done. I thought about the beginning of classes in my counseling program, and the possibility of hearing back about another job. So, as I heard the words of God blessing and making God’s face to shine upon me, I could not help but think of the great “what ifs …. ?” What if grad school works out? What if I get that job I want? What if the people close to me struggling with health issues improve? What if my wife and I get to the point in our lives where we could adopt? I hear a reminder. ‘Suppose I do…, suppose I say “yes” to all those requests? Well, what then?’. I am being reminded that God blesses me to be a blessing. God opens the door so that walking through it I may do that next thing on my journey in such a way that God’s way in the world might be demonstrated through how I do it, so that through my presence in that place God’s saving power might be made known in me to others and to myself. This slows down my monkey mind, which wants to jump ahead and jump all over, making me realize that perhaps the reason for the “not yet” is to ensure not just that the open door is the right door opening for me. It is also to ensure the me entering it is the right me. God brings us through times of waiting to prepare us. And even our waiting times can be times in which we also are ones that show the way and the saving power, while we see the way shown and saving power demonstrated through others in our lives.
Psalm 69 reminds me that God hears and will respond to the cries of those distressed and oppressed. The “afflicted shall see and be glad”. I think this phrase is a deep word of encouragement. It has to be said, I believe, because often in the time of affliction you feel like nobody listens. Often it feels like your prayers hit a brassy ceiling in the dome of the sky and bounce off. God is reminding us that in the Spirit God is the life breath who gives us strength, life, and is within us. This means God never leaves us. It means there is never a time God does not hear our prayer. God is the One ever at work in our life and our world to liberate the oppressed and comfort the afflicted.
I also think it is important to notice that God will hear the prisoner, which this text says. Often, we are content to imaging prisoners as “getting their just desserts” and to think of them as barely human, but they are children of God like we are. They may be guilty of a crime, or guilty of non-violent demonstrations for justice. They may not be guilty at all. Now these words are particularly important since, in the southeast US, our criminal justice system is stacked against people of color and minorities. This verse reminds us that God sees the fact we are throwing the youth of a generation under the bus by sending far more young men of color in prison for the same crimes that equally young white men are committing.
God sees it and God’s heart breaks, God’s voice echoing forth for us to join God in the work of righting this injustice. We think wrongly that the verse, “God shows no partiality,” means God doesn’t take sides. In truth, God always sides with the oppressed. God does not side against the oppressor, for in his or her own way the oppressor is also held captive to the system of injustice. No, God stands for them both against the unjust system. This verse, to me, suggests God will ultimately win out. Thanks be to God.
Psalm 71 invites us to see God as at work in our many crises and troubles, as the one empowering our victories. We are invited to see God as present with us from birth, as the one who cared for and cradled us in their arms right alongside our mother and father. We are invited to see God at work in the heartbeat of our lives. This message reminds me that no matter how weary I am, or how many rocks, dips, and bumps the road has before me, I can trust. I do not walk alone. And when I cannot walk any further, I know who carries me.
Psalm 77 calls us to recognize our restlessness. This verse describes particularly inconsolable pain and despair. For many this is our restlessness. If it is you, this verse calls you to not face it alone but to reach out to God and another person for help. If you don’t feel that, the Psalm is calling you to see yourself in solidarity with those in such pain. There are other types of restlessness. In all of our talk of putting it all in God’s hands, which we should try daily to do, at times feelings of restlessness continue about the future, the present, all that is beyond our control. I feel this psalm is showing us facing into that feeling, really owning and acknowledging it, is important.
Sometimes in order to feel we are laying things in God’s hands, we try and act as if we don’t feel restless. God knows. God can handle it.
Finally, it reminds me that there is a type of holy restlessness. Jeremiah said his desire for justice to be done was like a fire in his bones that could not be quenched. Jesus told us if we hunger and thirst for righteousness, which really is more about justice being done in the world than some code of holiness regarding how we dress or who we sleep with, we will be filled. So don’t feel a need to apologize for such a holy discontent. It may be the labor pains of God the Holy Spirit Herself laboring within your heart and life to birth something new and beautiful.
Psalm 80, “Hear, o Shepherd of Israel, leading us like a flock, shine forth”, was the basis for a hymn in my childhood church. It painted a picture of God going before me, through the darkly gathering storm of life. It left me with hope that whatever comes around the corner, whatever the future holds, God walks ahead of me. I still see this hope in the psalm. I’m thankful to know I don’t have to face the future feeling abandoned, deserted, or alone. I know that God the Father, Son, and mothering Holy Spirit are both with me but also go ahead of me.
As I meditate on the verse, I notice that it says the Shepherding God lights the way for me. I remember a piece of pastoral wisdom I heard in youth group as a teenager: God’s Word is a light unto our feet, not a floodlight to the whole road or valley before us. I am reminded by this rich image of God lighting the way for me, one likely taken from Israel’s memory of the Exodus in which God went ahead of Israel as a fire by night and a cloud of storm by day, that it does not promise to tell me what thing I am supposed to do tomorrow or next year. God promises to light the next step or two in front of me. Only once I’ve made that step has God promised to reveal what God has next for me. So when we pray, “God show me what to do in the future”, we must also ask ourselves, “what has God shown me already to do in the now?” Only in doing so can we ensure we are in the place we will see and hear what God is saying about the future for us.
Psalm 133 — The image of kin living in unity is beautiful. Sometimes with folks around us in conflict it can be hard to not believe this is a pipe dream. I have to be honest because of this fact, I kind of buck against this beautiful verse. And that’s ok. I confront in my bucking against it my own resistance. I know in my heart my call as a believer is to work toward reconciliation not just of those I know, but all people. And not just all people, but all of creation. I am called to live in faith in the day Jesus spoke of when women and men come from east and west, north and south, to all sit down at that long drawn out table upon the grassy hill of God’s homestead at the great family reunion to be. I am called to look for a creation fully reconciled and restored. When in the midst of discord in our lives, the dream of a reconciliation of all people and all creation in Christ can be painful like salt on a wound. But it is also the hope that animates and gives strength. And as this verse suggests, there are Holy Ghost moments when a glimpse of this coming reality we work toward breaks in as it did on the first Pentecost. What have been your glimpses of the reconciliation of all things? Where can you work toward it in you life? Where do you struggle to see a point in continuing to work toward it?