Cheer Up!

‘Cheer Up!’

‘You’ll get over it’

‘Be healed!’

‘You need in depth ministry’

‘Your best life now!’

‘God wants you to be happy’

‘God must love you a lot to let you go through that’

‘The loss of your wife/child/grandparent/ your terminal diagnosis sounds awful: I know how you feel, when I was a child my pet hamster died’.

‘You may feel bad- but can’t you put that aside for a moment?’

Hear my prayer, Lord;
    let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
    when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
    when I call, answer me quickly.

 For my days vanish like smoke;
    my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
    I forget to eat my food.
 In my distress I groan aloud
    and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
    like an owl among the ruins.
 I lie awake; I have become
    like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
    those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
For I eat ashes as my food
    and mingle my drink with tears
 because of your great wrath,
    for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
 My days are like the evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.

I love how the Psalms face things unflinchingly, do not hide or resort to cliché.

I read this Psalm (102) this week. Although the Psalm moves onto reassurance, it is not facile and the writer still feels he is broken… and he is never told to ‘cheer up’

 

Lament

It was the Psalms (along with the music of U2 and Martyn Joseph) that ‘saved’ me. I’ve written about that many times. Saved me from a faith that:-

-avoided difficult questions or saw questions as a ‘threat’.

-saw lament as somehow ‘abnormal’.

-saw difficulties as something that needed to be hidden and only spoken about when they were ‘healed’.

-was only ‘happy’ or right when you were ‘happy’.

-was somehow hermetically sealed and neat & tidy.

I bumped into Psalm 88 again this week. It is one of the bleakest Psalms and it doesn’t give answers. It wrestles and gives voice to despair without trying to make it all ‘better”. I like how the Bible often does that; it doesn’t make things ‘neat and tidy’. It is a world away from ‘do x,y, z’ and you will be ok’ or even ‘there can be no God as we are suffering.

It wasn’t until this week, however, that the words that begin it (at least n the NIV) came alive:

‘O Lord, the God who saves me’

It made me think that all the best lament comes from wrestling:- if you have faith, you wail and question about suffering of others, of those close, but you wail from a position that it should not be like that. Often that makes it harder than if you had no faith.

Paradoxically, that made me feel, if not ‘better’, more open. I think that is good.

 

 

A psalm

I like the lyrical imagery of the Psalms. There was a time when I just didn’t get it: I wanted precision and directness. Now I realise the best truths are hidden in stories, art, poetry or allusion. Even then, you don’t find it and extract ‘pure truth’; it seems best just to live with the mystery.

I read Psalm 84 a few times this week, which I guess would never appear in many ‘top 10’ Psalms. I liked the NIV’s take on it:-

‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage‘. ‘Pilgrimage’ attracted me- last week I was on retreat…. but I like that sense of journey, searching and never saying arrogantly ‘I’ve found it’ (much religious violence, defensiveness and arrogance seems to come out of that feeling as it often leads onto defensiveness).

I like the stanza that follows it: a poetic piece about a dry valley and the idea that those who journey through it make it a place of springs. Sometimes faith seems a bit self obsessed: too much focus on finding ‘the right church’ ,’feeling good’ or ‘what is God saying to me?’ There is nothing wrong with any of those per se, but they can lead to navel gazing and looking after ‘my needs’. The Psalm gives me a sense that those who are pilgrims shine more light on those around them than focus on themselves.

I need Psalms like this to keep me sane.

Not one of the greatest hits

I was reading a Psalm yesterday: Psalm 69- one of the ‘ordinary’ ones & not one of the greatest hits.

When I was reading it (not for ‘work’: wherever I go and whatever I do, I think the Psalms will always be my companions), it hit me again why I love the Psalms.

They are not ‘spiritual’: in the sense of airy fairy and ‘out there’. It often seems to me that people refer to ‘spiritual’ and ‘spiritual writing’ in the same tone that small children want a lovey blanket. Sometimes I really do want a lovey blanket: life can feel too hard sometimes & I just want comfort. If I wanted that all the time, I would become unbalanced.

They are ‘spiritual’ in that the whole of life is encompassed: the Psalm has strong cries for help: not even pretending that things are ok, passionate faith, (almost) self pity & cries for vengeance.

Somewhere down the line, I got the message that some of these feelings were ‘not spiritual’: to be honest, the modern worship music I was around at the time did not help. I love how the writer lurches between all of these feelings; sometimes in the same stanza and without apology. I have tried- not always successfully- to follow the same pattern when I am up front or leading something.

In the 90s, mainstream evangelical culture nearly lost me: the Psalms-amongst others- saved me and helped me rediscover my humanity.

Psalm

(This was the best picture I could find. There are some awful ones: Christian culture sure does like its beige, bland and twee)

So I have finished the Psalms.

Well not finished exactly, but got to Psalm 150 and I am starting again.

I have done this for years. In fact, it has been the only pattern of prayer/Bible reading that has ever stuck with me. I am trying not to sound ‘perfect’ or ‘holy’ as I am not. At least not in the ways that those terms are usually deployed.

Last week I posted a bit on ‘Christian culture’ and how it got ‘suburbanised’ and ‘beige. Life was/is wild, joyful, dangerous, strange and unpredictable. Church could be the place where that is most vividly lived and acknowledged, but it wasn’t. So I rediscovered the Psalms; in turns joyful, ecstatic, despairing, anguished, WTF?! and boring. Just like life. They, along with the music of U2 and Martyn Joseph, woke me up to God again: not bland, beige or suburban but bigger than I ever imagined: closer, yet more unknowable.

After a while I learned to live with the parts I could not understand or explain and stopped trying to do so. And every day (actually some days I just can’t hack it), I read one, or try to. Some days I am switched on, buzzing even, others I am half asleep, joyless and inattentive, but I keep reading and keep praying and over time the words have seeped into me and then begin to pour out of me.

So I am back at 1, and starting to get excited again about travelling across a beige free landscape once again.

‘Suburbanisation’

After posting yesterday about swearing, it got me thinking about what I call the ‘suburbanisation’ of the Gospel. Years back I remember a noted Christian leader saying something like:-

‘Many Christians are far nicer than God is.’

..and how we all laughed at the time in that knowing, smug way.

I think the writer was on to something: we pretend. I cringe inwardly when someone says that I am ‘nice’ or ‘good’. I hope on my better days to be ‘passionate’ and thereby ‘inconsistent’ &  ‘gloriously human’, but please don’t hit me with mild and bloodless words.

‘Suburbanisation’ is where you take out all the inconsistency and the rough edges & maybe the bass notes and minor keys and end up producing something bland. Whilst I think that is a fair description of ‘Christian music’ that I heard in the early days of Christian experience, it was perhaps a good description of mainstream Christian culture: very beige.

I hit a series of crises years back (in fact I have come to realise that teetering on the edge of an existential crisis is my normal way of being) & perhaps came close to turning away from Faith: a mild ‘I believe in God and say my prayers & don’t come to church’ was never going to cut it for me: too bland. It was only then that I began to read the Bible and discover that it wasn’t ‘bland’: behind the smoothed down ‘greatest hits’ picture that I had imbibed was a book of wonderful inconsistency, ecstasy, despair, violence, sex and death. Heck: it wasn’t ‘God’s little answer book’, ‘a devotional book’ or even ‘a Bible that is falling apart is read by people who aren’t’.

Slowly, I began to realise that it was something wonderfully ambiguous that did not duck difficult questions or suburbanise them; the howls of pain I feel and am allowed to hear in others are not hushed up (as the worse suburbanised Christianity does) but accepted- even encouraged.

So when I encounter cliche and suburbanisation both within and without the Church ( Don’t get me started on the comments that I hear around Christmas that ‘it is so nice for the children’: have you bloody read the story? Really?), I am stifling a yell of ‘what the darn blazes are you saying?’

Actually, I am really stifling a yell of ‘What the fuck?’, except ministers don’t feel or even think that, cos we are so nice….

Psalm

Another Sunday, another Psalm. This has long been a favourite; again for its honesty about life.

I am part the way through an article in ‘Third Way’ about psychotherapy. This article makes the point that the Psalms’ honesty may be the start of hope for a dying church. I have read them as an antidote to Christian expression that sings ‘Thine be the Glory’ on Good Friday, changes the words of ‘I still haven’t found what I am looking for’ to ‘I’ve finally found what I’m looking for’ and relegates lament/our shadow side to embarrassed, furtive glances, nervous coughing and ‘Let’s get back to worship!’

I once toyed with turning verse 9 into a worship song- not in the key of G, sadly (irony intended), but lacked the skill and imagination to do so. I love the bit about wooden trellis/axes: it is not a million miles away from ‘They demolished Bog St Wesleyan; my family were baptised there: there is no God’.

Once again- it is poetry: don’t prose it.

1 O God, why do you cast us off forever?     Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago,     which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage.     Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell. Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins;     the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.

Your foes have roared within your holy place;     they set up their emblems there. At the upper entrance they hacked     the wooden trellis with axes. And then, with hatchets and hammers,     they smashed all its carved work. They set your sanctuary on fire;     they desecrated the dwelling place of your name,     bringing it to the ground. They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”;     they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.

We do not see our emblems;     there is no longer any prophet,     and there is no one among us who knows how long. 10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?     Is the enemy to revile your name forever? 11 Why do you hold back your hand;     why do you keep your hand in your bosom?

12 Yet God my King is from of old,     working salvation in the earth. 13 You divided the sea by your might;     you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. 14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;     you gave him as food[i] for the creatures of the wilderness. 15 You cut openings for springs and torrents;     you dried up ever-flowing streams. 16 Yours is the day, yours also the night;     you established the luminaries[j] and the sun. 17 You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;     you made summer and winter.

18 Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,     and an impious people reviles your name. 19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals;     do not forget the life of your poor forever.

20 Have regard for your[k] covenant,     for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence. 21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame;     let the poor and needy praise your name. 22 Rise up, O God, plead your cause;     remember how the impious scoff at you all day long. 23 Do not forget the clamour of your foes,     the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

So what do you read?

I am not sure what you do on a deserted island with 14 others in search of enlightenment. I hope to be spending time with this Psalm (see below)…not just reading it, but living it and letting it speak to me.

I love the Psalms; they have kept me going for years. They ‘saved’ me from a Christian world view that was all about victory, good things and shiny happy people. There is elation in them, but also deep despair- and they never apologise about either.

This one (the first few verses of Psalm 55) describes well where I find myself:-

Give ear to my prayer, O God;  do not hide yourself from my supplication.

Attend to me, and answer me; I am troubled in my complaint. I am distraught by the noise of the enemy, because of the clamour of the wicked. For they bring trouble upon me, and in anger they cherish enmity against me.

My heart is in anguish within me,  the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me,  and horror overwhelms me. And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away;     I would lodge in the wilderness;  I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.”