Writers & Kings (Psalm 4)

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Writing is kind of like the weather; the ability to write is- more often than not- beyond the writer’s control. “At present, I can’t write a thing” Flannery O’Connor once wrote in her prayer journal, “I wonder if God will ever do more writing for me.”  Anyone who has ever put the pen to paper- or, for that matter the brush to the canvas and chisel to the stone- in an attempt to grasp that spark of ingenuity knows it is like trying to sword fight with the beam of a flashlight.

Psalm 4 finds David in a state of “psychological anxiety.” From his angst, David compares himself with those whose “grain and wine abound.” The implication of such a comparison is that David’s kingdom wasn’t experiencing a plentiful harvest; combined with the level of distress David expresses (hear my prayer 4:1, who will show us some good? 4:4), it’s reasonable to assume that Israel was experiencing a severe drought. This was no small matter.

In the Ancient Near East, a plentiful harvest was indicative of having found favor with the gods. Famine or drought, on the other hand, resulted- directly and almost without fail- in a plunge in the confidence in leadership that people had in their king.  

Of course, this is not much different than today. Poor fortune is, somehow or another, chalked up to ineptitude or immorality (sometimes both). Banks are hesitant to give a loan to someone who went bankrupt; reporters rarely ask the coach of a winless team about how much respect he gets from the players (usually because he’s too busy packing his office into a cardboard box to even give an answer); when I positioned my parents’ care atop a poorly placed collection of neighborhood mailboxes, they took away my license.

The times have changed but the assumption remains that someone who fails somehow, to some extent, brought it upon themselves. It doesn’t matter if the market was bad or the mailboxes in the rear view were much closer than they appeared. David’s kingly success was dependent on the weather, which he could not control. And yet, he was judged as though he could.

I’m not King David (no murders, no affairs). But I have been required to write papers. And stories. And articles. And sermons. And that one wedding toast which…well, nevermind. There have been deadlines. I’ve felt the panic of uncontrollables beginning to control my life: “Uh…hey God, I have like, literally, no idea what to write.” *snaps fingers*   

So where is God in the writer’s block? The drought? Where is God when the uncontrollables suddenly begin to control our success or failure?

David’s answer is simple but profound: you have put…joy in my heart…for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. Despite the political unrest, despite the public faith in his kingship, despite all these things, David is able to rest in the assurance of God’s joy.

A high school classmate of mine is in a band that recently made it big. Like, really big. I hear him on the radio at least a few times a week. And I don’t have a commute. Each time it comes on, I’m been forced to ask myself: is my joy really greater than his?

On the flip side, it can be easy for David’s rest and peace in God to become a holier-than-thou badge: “well, you may be successful and all, but lookit me: I know God loves me without any worldly success!” This kind of resolution may help for a short time. But eventually I’ll have to deal with the fact that I still get jealous whenever his song comes on the radio. Joy cannot be created, connived or controlled. It can only be accepted, accepted as a gift from God.

If I ever become a writer (whatever exactly that entails), I hope that writing will become for me another reminder of how little control I have. I hope that writing will be to me as the weather, which can change in a minute and can ruin even the biggest, best and most important aspirations. A public personae easily being among them.

David sits in uncertainty. He rests in uncertainty. He sleeps like a baby in uncertainty (In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone…make me dwell in safety 4:8). He is able to do this, because his identity and his worth is rooted in something larger, something stronger, something much more permanent.

Unlike those stupid mailboxes.

The First Time I Was Shot (Psalm 3)

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“I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill.”

Psalm 3:4

When I was a kid, I played paintball. Myself and a rambunctious collection of neighborhood kids would traipse around the woods for hours welting each other with plastic bullets, all of which were filled with a paint-like chemical I’m sure will someday give me cancer. It was great.

My mother had reservations about allowing us to buy actual paintball guns. Instead, we used our allowances to purchase small slingshots which were called ‘wrist rockets.’ The whole thing was like Lord of the Flies except we didn’t kill each other, which was only because- again- my mother wouldn’t let us buy the guns.

The third psalm has a grim opening: “Oh LORD, how many are my foes!” (3:1). The “foes” to which David here refers are the armies amassed against him by his son Absalom. whose name (ironically) comes from the Hebrew words for  “son of peace.” The coup against David is the culmination of events that began with David’s first-born son, Amnon, raping his half-sister- Absalom’s sister. David’s refusal to punish Amnon led Absalom to take justice upon himself. He killed Amnon, then fled from David. When two years had passed, Absalom and David were reconciled. Sorta. Because a few years later, Absalom gained enough support to declare himself king and amass an army to lead against David.

So no, family holiday’s were not pleasant. Thanks for asking.

I remember the first time I was shot playing paintball. It was dusk. We were playing in a construction lot. There were about six of us and it was a simple game of annihilation; last team with members standing wins. About halfway through the game, I was moving ahead of some teammates to another bunker when I felt a giant wasp sting my right butt cheek. I yelped and looked back, quick enough to catch a “I-can’t-believe-that-happened-but-damn-it-was-funny” look on my teammate’s face. The twerp had shot me.

“My bad,” he said after the game, grinning widely.

So that was also the first time I’d ever shot somebody.

Retributive justice is all we human beings really know. You hit me in the eye; I hit you in the eye; we’re even. It’s even found in the Bible (whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed. Genesis 9:6).  Justice is brought about when the killer is killed and somehow moral algebra erases the presence of a new killer.

With all that in mind, it’s interesting that this psalm is written following David’s decision not to take up arms against his rebellious son. One could argue that the decision was motivated by fatherly love; but, then again, Absalom also killed David’s first son. Furthermore, David doesn’t shy away from beckoning God to take action ( Rise up, o Lord…you strike all my enemies on the cheek and break the teeth of the wicked. 3:7). There’s something else at work here.

Contrary to human nature, contrary to the justice instincts of humanity, David accepted a posture of penitence and refused violent defense. Instead he sought defense in the humility that comes from reliance upon God.

Therein lies the hope: when David cries out to God, and God answers. Not just that, but God answers from his holy hill (3:4). The “holy hill” is the Mount of Olives to which David- and his followers- fled so as to avoid the violent clash with Absalom’s forces. Once there, David ascended the Mount of Olives, climbing barefoot with his head covered and weeping (2 Samuel 15:30). Generations later, David’s descendent would sit in an upper room and share a final meal with his disciples. Afterward, Jesus and his disciples sang a psalm, and then they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30).

The answer David found at the Mount of Olives was the answer Christ gave to all creation when he went to the Mount of Olives. Christ’s apex of glory was his journeying to the the holy hill, whence he gave himself up to humiliation, torture and death. Christ’s was the same message David had for the Philistine people when he defeated Goliath: the Lord does not save by sword and spear (1 Samuel 17:47). That’s quite the paradigm shift, both then and now.

It felt natural, it felt human, to shoot the twerp who shot me; the hangman’s noose, a standing army, defense budget and the electric chair seem natural, necessary, and pertinent to battle the injustice of the world. But this psalm alludes to the fact that true justice- divine justice- is to be found elsewhere.

The psalm does not, Ellen Cherry notes, mention confession or repentance from Absalom or David. But it’s unstated message is that if David can so rise to the occasion then we can too. And perhaps Cherry is right.

Then again, it felt good to shoot that twerp.

 

 

 

The Divine Justice of Humpty Dumpty (Psalm 2)

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“The kings of the earth rise up….you will break them with a rod of iron…dash them to pieces like pottery.”

(Psalm 2:2a, 9)

I’ve begun to notice that certain parts of childhood are rather morbid. Don’t get me wrong, I was raised in a good home: great parents, likeable -if not tolerable- siblings and I even got my braces off before my first kiss. But there are aspects of it which, in retrospect, are disconcerting; one of them being nursery rhymes.

Take, for instance, ‘Humpty Dumpty.’ Parsed into a line-by-line narrative, what parents are coo-coo-ing to our children is the story of a rather obtuse person who had the further misfortune (of being named ‘Humpty’ and) of falling off a wall and receiving fatal injuries. I picture a broken neck and numerous compound fractures. Delightful. Sleep tight, kiddo.

The Psalter is equally disconcerting to me, at numerous times. The second Psalm is one of those. The proclamation, often used as a coronation psalm for Israel, depicts the violence of man being futile before the violence of God. I am not a king and I am not God. So when I read of nations being smashed and kingdoms throwing themselves against one another with violent futility, I can’t help but think of myself as inevitable collateral.

Consider this: in the Russian defense of Stalingrad- as with numerous other battles between the Germans and Russians in World War II- Soviet foot soldiers often had to choose, quite literally, between Russian or Nazi bullets. They were forced to charge straight into enemy fire and, if they dared to retreat, their commanders mowed them down the moment they turned around.

Is there hope for humankind between the violence of their fellow men and the wrath of God?

Andrew Elphinstone was a British theologian of royal blood; Queen Elizabeth was a bridesmaid at his wedding (a bridesmaid!). In his book, Freedom, Suffering and Love, Elphinstone proposes that pain ought to be seen as a neutral entity. Just as beauty can become vanity and desire manipulated into lust or exploitation, so- Elphinstone proposes- can pain be used for evil but also for good.

A strange thought: war, genocide, tsunamis famine, rape, slavery… how could the pain evoked by these horrors be neutral?

My legs ache; I went for a nice run this morning. But, at the same time, I feel great. Such an odd equation. Is it possible that we have an intrinsic understanding of pain’s neutrality, even though our core experiences only testify to it’s evil?

Part of us at least flirts with the possibility that brokenness and pain might not always be a bad thing. Bad for chubby dumpty, in the moment anyway. But also not bad enough to be excluded from the nursery. Celebrated, even.

Which brings me back to Psalm 2 whence violence of mankind (The kings of the earth rise up 2:2)  is greeted with divine laughter (the Lord scoffs at them 2:4). The ‘strength’ of nations is a joke; but it invokes strong judgement. Human violence is a serious matter and for it I will be judged. But there seems to be a strange hypocrisy to the psalm, one that declares God will judge- through violence- the violence of the nations.

But God’s implementation of violence to bring justice to the nations is not a compromise with evil. The image of the divine scepter smashing the nations like pottery (2:9) reminds me that with it the queen can bless or destroy; either way she is just, and the scepter is a neutral party utilized for her justice.

It can be easy, as a white, privileged, middle-class, American, male (much less!) to want to believe that evil doesn’t exist. No one has raped my family; no one has judged me a criminal simply because of my skin color; I never lie down in hunger nor do I awake in dread. But I do watch TV. And, despite my deepest convictions, I often cheer when the villain gets the bullet. Because there’s an undeniable sense of justice in the defeat of evil.

The problem is that I often correlate divine justice with human justice. “The myth of redemptive violence runs deep.” if I kill you to avenge my father’s death, let’s hope you don’t also have children.  

Justice will come. But never at human hands. Never by human means. Pain is good when used by God, evil when used in subordination. I testify to this paradox, to this tension, every day of my life: I run; I ache; I pray for peace; I cheer when the villain is killed. And I hope that the little injustices, the little horrors, I suffer (I did try for that first kiss with braces still on) might one day be vindicated- to say nothing of the grand ones felt by others less fortunate than me. The Psalter gives me hope that scars might one day be celebrated.

So does, I might add, Humpty Dumpty.