Monday, August 24, 2009

Psalm 137: Honesty in Prayer

dejected man surrounded by ravens

Psalm 137:9 “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”

Understandably, this verse is a problem for a lot of people. I have heard it cited as one reason that people want nothing to do with the Bible. I have also heard of it being used literally to justify infanticide. I want to explain why I’m glad it’s in the Bible.

First, this verse is a shining example of why taking the Bible literally is not helpful. All it does is make people turn away from something that otherwise could bring comfort and relief. Take the Bible seriously but not literally. I can’t say that enough. So how do we take something like this seriously without heaving the Bible through a window?

Well, the Psalms are prayers…they are the prayers sung by God’s people for at least 3,000 years. Some are attributed to King David, some to several others. This is one of the others. The collection of prayers known as The Psalms are not written as examples of how God’s people should pray. They are written as the prayers that the people of God do pray. Across the 150 Psalms we find expressions of every human emotion, and in that sense they are a model for prayer. Our prayers should be honest. God knows what we’re thinking and feeling, whether it is pretty and proper or not. The Psalms (along with much of Job and Lamentations and other passages) show us that God is big enough to handle our darkest most irreverent thoughts, our deepest doubts and despair.

The subtitle for Psalm 137 says, “Lament over the destruction of Jerusalem.” Read the history of the destruction of Jersualem by Babylon. There was an awful siege that starved the people and resulted in cannibalism within the city. It was, simply, horrific. For those who survived, having watched their own children die, wishing the same for their enemies may not embody the principle of forgiveness, but it was a prayer of honest emotion before God. I actually used this text at a candlelight vigil the week of September 11, 2001. It wasn’t an example of how we should feel—simply an expression of how many did feel. That is one purpose of liturgy and prayer—to provide a safe place for the inexpressible to be expressed.

I was glad in that moment for the improper and unpretty parts of the Bible—the parts that, when taken seriously but not literally, can help us look at the shadow side of ourselves and see that such thoughts make us normal rather than evil. And if we can take that consolation from the Bible, rather than tossing it out because the words are ugly, we will keep reading as the text guides us in transforming our grief and anger into grace.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

God with Fur On

John 14:18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

On Friday, the day I had been dreading finally came. When Ruckus (my dog) cried out for a minute or more in a painful spasm, I knew the cancer had spread to his bones and that it was time to keep my promise to my faithful friend not to let him suffer. When I called the vet, I discovered they were closing in 20 minutes. There was no time to think or to call anyone to go with me; we just went. And then it was done.

Of course for me, as for so many others, our pets are our family and losing them hurts like few other things. I have a Ruckus-sized hole in my heart. And it wasn’t just me. Gatsby (pictured here) knew something was wrong and even now continues to look for the dog. They were buddies. So while normally I exile Gatsby to the sun room at night so he doesn’t paw my face at 2 am, I let him have the run of the house on Friday night. As I got into bed, he jumped up with me and stayed close while I read and did my evening devotions. I shut off the light to sleep and about 20 minutes later he jumped down and went out of the room to go investigate the dark.

I tossed and turned, my heart aching for Ruckus. Finally I just burst into large hulking sobs. In an instant, Gatsby was back, running from wherever he had been and jumping back up on the bed. He curled up close and stayed there until my sobbing subsided and I again settled down. Then he jumped back off the bed and went about his business.

There’s a chapter in my new book about our relationship with animals and the importance of the human-animal bond. God often comes to us in other people—God with skin on. But there are many times when God is wearing fur rather than skin. For many people, the only experience they’ve ever had of unconditional love is from a beloved pet. To discount that, as unfortunately many do, is to take away the only bridge some people have to experiencing God’s love. Sometimes it is the fog that comes on little cat feet; sometimes it is God.

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