By The Rev. Deacon Joe Dzugan
May 14th, 2023
Lectio Divina – Divine or Sacred Reading-(Download)
That hope is deeper than despair, and that creativity surges from unknown depths within us,
thanks be to you, O God.
In the world this day and in the relationships of men and women everywhere,
let there be new stirrings of your liberating Spirit.
In the world this day and in the depths of our own souls, let there be new stirrings of your mighty liberating
- J. Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure – Daily Scriptures and Prayer, p. 94.
Part IV - “Wisdom Stories” (cont’d)
[“Inspired – Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again” by Rachel Held Evans.]
Ask a Catholic monk, an Orthodox priest, an evangelical pastor, and a Reform rabbi how many books are in the Bible, and you’ll get four different answers. These various traditions sort their books in different ways too, because Scripture consists of stories, poems, proverbs, letters, laws, genealogies, parables, and a host of other genres that can be difficult to categorize since they emerge from a culture so different from our own.
Because of all this, the Bible makes a lousy owner’s manual. It fails massively at getting to the point. The Bible isn’t some Magic 8 Ball you can consult when deciding whether to take a job or break up with a guy, nor is it a position paper elucidating God’s opinion on various social, theological, and political issues. While we may wish for a clear, perspicuous text, that’s not what God gave us. Instead, God gave us a cacophony of voices and perspectives, all in conversation with one another, representing the breadth and depth of the human experience in all its complexities and contradictions.
This inherent diversity is perhaps most obvious and most celebrated in the Bible’s wisdom literature.
[Take the Psalms for instance.]
The notion that [the Psalms] contain only uplifting words of comfort and praise is one of the most common misconceptions about the Bible’s Psalms – a collection of 150 songs and poems that served as the hymnbook for postexilic Judaism and as the prayer book in many Judeo-Christian traditions to this day. While soaring exultations certainly make their mark, (“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth!” - Psalm 100), they appear side by side with lament (“I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” – Psalm 6), confession (“I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” – Psalm 51), anger (“I cry out by day, but you do not answer” – Psalm 22) and bold interrogations of the divine (“How long, LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?” – Psalm 89). Because many of the Psalms were composed during the heartache and confusion of the Babylonian exile, they include gut- wrenching lamentations. The Bible even includes what are sometimes called “cursing psalms” in which the author sings some pretty disturbing songs about his enemy.
If the Bible is smudged with human fingerprints, then the Psalms my give us the blotchiest pages of all. They are, in the words of British Benedictine Sebastian Moore, “rough-hewn from earthly experience.”
“The Psalms don’t theologize or explain anger away,” wrote author and poet Kathleen Norris, who studied the Psalter as a Benedictine oblate. “One reason for this is that the Psalms are poetry, and poetry’s function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives. . .. In expressing all the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the Psalms act as good psychologists. They defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first.”
A Benedictine community sings the Psalms at morning, noon, and evening prayers, cycling through the entire Psalter every month. The repetition creates a special intimacy with these ancient words, the images they conjure and emotions they evoke gaining fresh relevance in the changing seasons of both individual and communal life. In the Psalms, you will find the right words for nearly every occasion – anger over an election that turned out all wrong, grief for the loss of a friend, awe at the sight of a sky thick with stars, joy upon entering a sanctuary’s swelling with worship music.
The Psalms, Norris explained, “demand that we recognize that praise does not spring from a delusion that things are better than they are, but rather from the human capacity for joy.” In his marvelous book “Prophetic Lament,” Soong-Chan Rah explained that lament challenges the status quo by crying out for justice. It runs counter to our American hubris, which focuses on trumpeting our successes. He explained, “The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in a loss of memory. We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.”
We forget too, that the source of much of that pain is systemic, that many of our brothers and sisters labor beneath the weight of inequality and discrimination. Without lament, Rah wrote, “Any theological reflection that emerges from the suffering ‘have-nots’ can be minimized in the onslaught of the triumphalism of the ‘haves.’”
Often, I hear from readers who left their churches because they had no songs for them to sing after the miscarriage, the shooting, the earthquake, the divorce, the diagnosis, the attack, the bankruptcy. That American tendency toward triumphalism, of optimism rooted in success, money, and privilege, will infect and sap of substance any faith community that has lost its capacity for ‘holding space’ for those in grief. As therapists and caregivers explain, to ‘hold space’ for someone is to simply sit with them in their pain, without judgment or solutions, and remain present and attentive no matter the outcome. The Psalms are, in a sense, God’s way of holding space for us. They invite us to rejoice, wrestle, cry, complain, offer thanks, and shout obscenities before our Maker without self-consciousness and without fear. Life is full of the sort of joys and sorrows that don’t resolve neatly in a major key. God knows that. The Bible knows that. Why don’t we?
It is telling, and extraordinary, that in his most vulnerable moment, Jesus himself turned to the Psalms. Hanging from a Roman cross between two thieves, while his mother and loved ones watched in shock, he cried, “Eli, Eli lema sabachthani?”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
It’s a cry straight from Psalm 22, the God to whom these words were first spoken, speaking them
back in human form. Three days later: Jesus would rise from the dead, but in that moment, when all hope was lost and the darkness overwhelmed, only poetry would do.
For this week with the “ear of your heart”: Read Psalm 22 and practice Lectio Divina.
“Thought for Extending the Practice”: Here is the prayer of one whose relentless suffering is expressed in graphic terms. Still, the speaker anticipates God’s answer in a remarkable act of thanksgiving, not being content to offer thanksgiving privately, but inviting the whole community to join in praise. The speaker calls upon “every part of the earth” and “all who are descending to the dust,” and even those yet unborn to join in adoration. Jesus recites the opening words from the cross, and there is much in the psalm to reflect upon in the light of Christ’s passion. Am I afraid to pray all of this psalm, including, at times, the opening words?
Source for “Thought for Extending the Practice”: “The CEB Lectio Divina Prayer Bible”
An invitation to our virtual participants: Discussion and comments are very much encouraged and welcomed. Online discussions can be held in the comments section in the upcoming post on Facebook for this week’s Deacon’s Reflection which is part of adult formation at St. Francis Episcopal Church.
The blessings of heaven, the blessings of earth, the blessings of sea and of sky.
On those we love this day and on every human family the gifts of heaven, the gifts of earth,
the gifts of sea and of sky.
May the light of God illumine the heart of my soul. May the flame of Christ kindle me to love.
May the fire of the Spirit free me to live this day, tonight, and forever. Amen.
- J. Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure – Daily Scriptures and Prayer,
“Inspired”, Deacon Joe Dzugan, St. Francis Episcopal Church, 2023.