December 1, 2009

entering the fray: Psalm 109

For those of you who might have missed it, there has been a wave of t-shirts, bumper stickers and other such things that say "Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8"

On first glance, you think - oh, that's nice.  Of course we should pray for our leaders.  And then you read the actual verse:
May his days be few; may another seize his position.
Then you read another line or so...
May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow.
Uhh... it kind of makes you uncomfortable, doesn't it?

For the last 10 weeks, I have been leading a Sunday school discussion of the Psalms.  We are using the "Invitation to the Psalms" study put out by Abingdon Press.  For the most part, I would say that my class was very unsure as to what to think of those Psalms when we started.  Sure - its some of the most beautiful poetry in our tradition, it holds amazing lines and words of comfort.  But the Psalms also include things like wishing that babies heads would be dashed against stones. 

When I heard about this whole Psalm 109:8 thing, I took it to my class.  The week before we had talked about "Love and Wrath" - including some of those very difficult verses that call for vengeance.  When I brought up the whole topic, I started with the slogan - and they immediately looked up the verse themselves and were shocked and horrified (just as they were when we talked about those poor babies).

Here is the dilemma.  One of the things that we talked about in this class is that every emotion and feeling is okay before God.  We have to let it out - we have to speak the truth about how we are feeling.  We find terrible and awful things in the Psalms because these are real human emotions.  It is a valid human reaction to be angry and vindictive.  In that sense, those who are wanting to use this verse are completely in the right.

On the other hand - the movement of these very same Psalms take those feelings to God and then leave them there. The Psalms are acts of worship, not propaganda. They are the desperate cries of those who are suffering and in exile and bondage and fear for their lives. And in the end, they trust in God, not themselves to execute that justice.  What I hear in this new slogan is a rallying cry for human action, not an outpouring of raw human energy before God. And that, I cannot ignore.

One final point.  This whole thing revolves around a single verse. I don't like to pick and choose verses to suit my needs - that's one of the reasons I follow the Revised Common Lectionary for my preaching.  But in the scriptures, there are instances where single verses are used to help recall things that have been said and done in the past.  One prime example is Jesus on the cross calling out the first line of Psalm 22
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Many believe that by saying this particular verse, he wasn't merely expressing forsakenness, he was also pointing us back to the entirety of the Psalm, a Psalm that may begin in desolation, but ends in an understanding of having been rescued.

So, let's just take a quick glance at the entirety of Psalm 109.  Ironically, those who have chosen this verse are working against their own intentions.  It is a Psalm of David, that begins with him pleading with God because wicked mouths are speaking lies about him. And then there is the quotation of some of the lies and horrible things those persecutors are saying... which includes 109:8.  David's response:  let what they curse be their own reward. Let them curse me. You, God, will bless me.

I'll let that stand on its own...

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