Psalm 89: Hopeful Complaining

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

June 28, 2020

I realized that I have never written a reflection on this Sunday’s readings. Here is a link to a wonderful weekly reflection by a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondolet from the National Catholic Reporter.


Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 89, as we did last week, but this time with earlier verses.

Psalm 89 is long and complex. It is significant to an overall understanding of the Book of Psalms because within 89 the entire cycle of Israel’s prayer life is reflected.


How we pray depends on how we see God. In our lives, as in Israel’s, external circumstances can shape that perception of God. 

How we feel physically, mentally; how we love and are loved; whether we are afraid or secure; how we succeed or fail – these and so many other realities put a face on God for us.


Psalm 89 reflects a time of oppression and confusion in Israel’s life. They had been flying high when David built the Temple. Its presence confirmed for them the truth of God’s promise to Abraham. But now, the Temple lay in ruins and the people enslaved in a foreign land. What did all that say about God and God’s Promise? What had happened to the loving face of God?

Contrary to expectation, the psalmist does not begin to pray from a position of lament or complaint. Instead, Psalm 89 begins by remembering and blessing “the good times”.

The promises of the LORD I will sing forever,
through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.

For you have said, “My kindness is established forever;”
in heaven you have confirmed your faithfulness.


Woman at the Well by Angelika Kauffman

It’s like Israel is sitting down beside God and saying, “You know, times are rough right now. But You’ve always been good to me, and I won’t forget that no matter what. So show me where You are taking me in these present circumstances.”

Reminds me of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well.

What a great way to begin a sorrowful prayer! Such an attitude opens our heart to God’s ever-present Mercy which will come to us — disguised even in our sorrow.


The saints among us never give up on God – and we are all called to be saints. Psalm 89 helps us understand how God is with us and we can be with God even when our specific “prayers” seemed ignored or rejected.

For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
Blessed the people who know the joyful shout;
in the light of your Face, O LORD, they walk.


Poetry: A Psalm of Life – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For me, the poem voices Longfellow’s philosophy for dealing with adversity which is primarily self-reliance and bravado. I think prayer is a good deal more effective!😃

“A Psalm of Life” became a popular and oft-quoted poem, such that Longfellow biographer Charles Calhoun noted it had risen beyond being a poem and into a cultural artifact…
Calhoun also notes that “A Psalm of Life” has become one of the most frequently memorized and most ridiculed of English poems, with an ending reflecting “Victorian cheeriness at its worst”. Modern critics have dismissed its “sugar-coated pill” promoting a false sense of security…
Nevertheless, Longfellow scholar Robert L. Gale referred to “A Psalm of Life” as “the most popular poem ever written in English”.
Wikipedia
And, besides, I like it.🤓 Hope you all do.

————————————————————-

A Psalm of Life
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

Tell me not in mournful numbers  
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers  
And things are not what they seem.
 
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal; 
Dust thou art to dust returnest  
Was not spoken of the soul.
 
Not enjoyment and not sorrow  
Is our destined end or way;
But to act that each to-morrow 
Find us farther than to-day.
 
Art is long and Time is fleeting  
And our hearts though stout and brave  
Still like muffled drums are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
 
In the world's broad field of battle  
In the bivouac of Life  
Be not like dumb driven cattle! 
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future howe'er pleasant! 
Let the dead Past bury its dead! 
Act, — act in the living Present! 
Heart within and God o'erhead! 

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime  
And departing leave behind us 
Footprints on the sands of time; 

Footprints that perhaps another  
Sailing o'er life's solemn main
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother  
Seeing shall take heart again.
 
Let us then be up and doing  
With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait.
 

Music: Show Me Your Face – Don Potter

Psalm 137:Silent Harps

Friday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

June 26, 2020

(I have not written a past reflection on Matthew 8:1-4 because other feasts have occurred on its past dates. But the story is the same as Luke 5 so that reflection is available here.)

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 137, one of the most tender and yet violent of the psalms. Set during the Babylonian Captivity, the verses express the longing of the Jewish people for their homeland and their freedom.

The composer, thought to be Jeremiah the prophet, captures the poignant desperation of those who have lost everything. In literature and music, the psalm’s ardent emotions have been applied to the shameful enslavements throughout subsequent history — of Jews, Africans, and other devastated peoples. It resounds in the lives of refugee families incarcerated at our borders. Its mournful simplicity echoes a cosmic suffering.


But the prayer can also be a very personal one. It has brought release for the pain of individuals experiencing unwanted separation from someone or something not only beloved, but core to their identity.

By the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the aspens of that land
we hung up our harps…

How could we sing a song of the LORD
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand be forgotten!


Over thirty years ago, I was blessed to spend four months accompanying my mother in the final stages of her terminal illness. It was a time of unexpected benediction and joy for both of us. But it was also a time of deep sadness to the point that I was unable to listen to my precious morning music with which I have always prayed. To do so caused the sadness to rip through me in tears- tears which would have broken my mother’s heart had she seen them. So I hid them by abstaining from music. I hung up my harp. Even after Mom’s death, it took a while for me to tiptoe back into those melodic waters. After it all, I understood more clearly what it meant when the psalmist said, “How can we sing our song in a foreign land?”


Christine Robinson’s transliteration is so perfect to capture this kind of pain, shot with unbearable light.

We were at the end of our rope—
tired, bereaved, despairing.
And they wanted us to sing!
How could we?
How can we sing God’s song in a strange land?
But we will never forget.
We will hold fiercely to our good memories of love.
And we will prevail!

Today, let this magnificent psalm bring you your own global awarenesses and personal memories of how even devastation, when received in faith, can teach and transform us.

Music: Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from the opera Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi

The opera follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered and subsequently exiled from their homeland by theBabylonian king Nabucco ( Nebuchadnezzar II). The historical events are used as background for a romantic and political plot. The best-known number from the opera is the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”, “Va, pensiero, sull’all dorate”/ lFly, thought, on golden wings”, a chorus that is regularly given an encore in opera houses when performed today.

Psalm 79: Song Sung Blue

Thursday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

June 25, 2020

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 79, a Lament Psalm so sorrowful that Brueggemann calls it one of the ”Sad Songs of Zion”.

So what’s going on in Psalm 79? 

Israel is heartbroken. They had thought they were uniquely special to God, that preference being symbolized by their magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple was ravaged, as described in today’s first reading from Kings, the community is bereft.

The psalm demonstrates the prayer’s transformation from initial angry sadness to restored faith in God. Israel has allowed its perception of God to become institutionalized in a symbol, a building. But faithful reflection moves them to realize that God is beyond institutionalization. Through their lament, they return their hearts to the true Name of God – “I am Who am”.

Help us, O God our savior,
because of the glory of your name;
Deliver us and pardon our sins
for your name’s sake.


I think we, too, try to domesticate God into bricks and mortar, customs, national symbols, people, rules, and all kinds of other potential idols. When those things crack or crumble, as all things might, we experience a devastation like that found in Psalm 79.

  • Some of us felt that way when the clerical sex abuse scandal was revealed.
  • Some of us felt that way on 9/11, or because of the pandemic
  • Some of us experience this lament when systems we trusted turn corrupt: law enforcement, medicine, religion, government.

Because we can’t see God face-to-face, we often paint that face on representations of power in our lives. That’s what Israel did with the Temple.

When those symbols prove untrustworthy, we might use it as an excuse to stop seeking God’s true and loving Face. Let’s learn from the Psalms how to persist in faith until we finally do see God face-to-face.


Early 17th century poet George Herbert captures the idea, I think.

Music: Shackles – by the group Mary, Mary – the song is kind of a modern Psalm 79, a movement from lament, through painful experience, to praise. Suggestion: Get up and move with it!

Pour Out Your Love

Monday of Holy Week

April 6, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, our Gospel places a fundamental question before us.  How should the precious oil be used – tenderly poured out or reasonably saved?  It is a question that challenges us to balance justice with mercy, reality with hope, law with passion.  How are we being asked to open our alabaster jar?

anointing at Bethany

This poem by Malcolm Guite may offer inspiration for our prayer:

Come close with Mary, Martha, Lazarus
so close the candles stir with their soft breath
and kindle heart and soul to flame within us,
lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
in quietness and intimate encounter.
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
is broken open for the world’s true Lover.

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
with all the yearning such a fragrance brings.
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
here at the very center of all things,
here at the meeting place of love and loss,
we all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

(Malcolm Guite: The Anointing at Bethany)


anoint_bethany

Jesus, give us courage to accompany you in your final journey. May your passion, death and resurrection bring us new life.

As we make this Holy Week journey, may we prove our love by our actions. May we live generously, hopefully, and gratefully in the Mercy of God.

Music:  Pour My Love on You by Craig and Dean Phillips

A Love in Troubled Times

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent

April 3, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, as we inch closer to Holy Week, we meet both a very troubled Jeremiah and Jesus.

V0034343 The prophet Jeremiah wailing alone on a hill. Engraving.
The Prophet Jeremiah Weeping Alone on a Hill (from the Wellcome Trust)

Jeremiah, the Old Testament mirror of Jesus’s sufferings, bewails the treachery even of his friends:

I hear the whisperings of many:
“Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!”
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.

That’s really raw, because you can get through almost anything in the company of true friends.


 

Jesus weeps
Jesus Weeping Over Jerusalem by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858)

Jesus came as a Friend and hoped to find Friends of God by his ministry. And he did find many. But not all.

It takes some work to be a true friend of Jesus. Some didn’t have the courage, or generosity, or passion, or hopeful imagination to reach past their self-protective boundaries – to step into eternal life even as they walked the time-bound earth.

In today’s Gospel this band of resisters project their fears and doubts to the crowds around them. The evil sparks light the ready tinder of human selfishness. The mob turns on Jesus, spiritual misers scoffing at the generous challenge to believe.

Jesus pleads with them to realize what they are doing:

If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me;
but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me,
believe the works, so that you may realize and understand
that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.

But Jesus and Jeremiah, though troubled, are grounded in God. Our Responsorial Psalm captures what might have been their silent prayer:

Psalm18 distress

The following transliteration of Psalm 18, composed by Christine Robinson, might help us to be with Jesus in his moment, and in our own moments of fear, anxiety, or doubt.

I open my heart to you, O God
for you are my strength, my fortress,
the rock on whom I build my life.

I have been lost in my fears and my angers
caught up in falseness, fearful, and furious
I cried to you in my anguish.
You have brought me to an open space.
You saved me because you took delight in me.
I try to be good, to be just, to be generous
to walk in your ways.
I fail, but you are my lamp.
You make my darkness bright
With your help, I continue to scale the walls
and break down the barriers that fragment me.
I would be whole, and happy, and wise
and know your love
Always.

Music: Overcome – Psalm 18 by James Block

Where Are We, Anyway?

March 31, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, we end the month of March in a very different place from where we began it.  On March 1st, I didn’t expect to be in midst of the Corona Desert did you?

Neither did the Israelites in today’s first reading expect to be in their particular desert. They had left the oppressions of Egypt with no certainties, but nonetheless with expectations. Now, after decades wandering the desert, those expectations turned into some typical complaints:

Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!

They even go so far as to blame a coincidental snake infestation on God, demanding that Moses get God to fix it.

desert

What’s going on here with our wandering ancestors? I think that, in our current circumstances, it might be worthwhile to consider that question. Our Gospel reading points us toward an answer.

Jesus has invited his community to a journey too – a journey away from the oppressions of injustice, selfishness, and lovelessness; to a place where “law” is not used as an excuse for domination; to a new community where all Creation shares equally in the Bread of Life.

But the Pharisees don’t get it. They are lost in a desert of their own illusions, needs, and fears. They can’t see past the sandstorms of their own construction.

That’s why Jesus tells them:

I am going away and you will look for me,
but you will die in your sin.
Where I am going you cannot come.

…. because you just can’t trust enough, let go enough to see that the journey is so much deeper than your present concerns. It is a journey of the soul from oppression to freedom, from selfishness to love, from blindness to light.

Jesus invites us too, even as we negotiate our desert journeys, to release our hearts to a world beyond appearances.

You belong to what is below,
I belong to what is above.
You belong to this world,
but I do not belong to this world.

Indeed, we must pay attention to the exigencies of our earthly journey, but today’s readings remind us that the true journey is infinitely deeper. That faith should inspire our hope, choices, and attitudes in what certainly seems like an awfully big desert.

Deserts can make us desperate, if we let them. Or they can shear us of everything that blocks our soul’s sight.

We may not see clearly beyond this momentary desert, but we are the children of an eternal and merciful God. May we trust our journey to that Immutable Loving Presence and allow ourselves to be made new.

Music: Everything is Holy Now – Peter Mayer

(Thanks to Sister Michele Gorman for sharing this beautiful song on Facebook)

So Close to the Brokenhearted

Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent

March 27, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, our reading from the Book of Wisdom clearly describes the machinations and motivations of an evil heart. We see fear, jealousy, control, and greed all strangling the described plotters.

Wisdom also shows us the characteristics of the good heart: justice, holy knowledge, purity, gentleness, patience, strength and perseverance.

The struggle between these two dimensions has defined human interactions ever since Eden.

Ps34 brokenhearted

Our Gospel tells us that these forces met their ultimate contest in the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. And the Victor has been revealed in the triumph of the Resurrection.

These beliefs are the foundation of our faith, bedrocks we can live by when life’s circumstances test our resolve and courage.


We face such a test right now. Some people ask if God is punishing us, or has God abandoned us. Some people wonder if there is really a God at all who could let this happen to his people.

Today’s readings might help us rebalance our faith and dig deeper into its mysteries – because faith is a relationship, not a handbook. No matter how hard we search, pat answers don’t exist … just the daily learning to which the Gospel invites us.

In the life of Jesus, the Father neither caused evil nor removed it. The Father simply remained one with Jesus – living, loving, suffering with him. God does that with us too.

So when we pray, do we pray for miracles? Sure we do! Some miracles would be really great right now. Even Jesus prayed for that kind of intervention in Gethsemane:

Father, if you will, take this cup from me.

But when that didn’t happen, Jesus stayed the faithful course, trusting that he was already safe in his Father, no matter what swirled around him.

We may want to pray our poignant Responsorial Psalm today, asking God to help us faithfully abide in its promise. Here is a beautiful translation by Steven Mitchell from his book, A Book of Psalms:Reflections Adapted from the Hebrew (Available on Amazon – C)lick here for Amazon

I will bless the Lord at all times;
my lips will sing out his praise.
I will thank him for the love he has shown me
and the clarity that gladdens my heart. 

Sing out with me and thank him;
be grateful for all his gifts.
Turn to him; let your soul feel his presence;
oh taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who trust him. 

You who desire true life
and wish to walk on God’s path:
Depart from evil; do good;
seek peace with all your soul. 

The Lord cares for the righteous
and watches over the merciful.
He is near when their hearts are broken;
when their spirits are crushed, he is with them.
And though they may undergo hardships,
he fills them with blessings in the end.

Music:  The Poor Man Cries – Marty Goetz (Lyrics below)

Lyrics

The Lord On High is very near
To all who call on Him
This poor man cries and He hears
And delivers him from all his fears

For the Lord is nigh to them that fear Him
The contrite will have light never dim
The righteous cry and He hears
And delivers them from all their fears
From all their fears

“Gad-lu l’Adonai ee’ti,
Oon’ ram’ma sh’mo yach-dau”
I will bless Him all my days
His praise shall continually be in my mouth
To the King I sing with pride

And the humble hear
And the sad, are glad in Him
His angels fly ’round those near
If you ever listen close you might hear
You just might hear
“Gad-lu l’Adonai ee’ti,
Oon’ ram’ma sh’mo yach-dau”
I will bless Him all my days

His praise shall continually be in my mouth
He brings good things so I know
He’s always here
Never denied I’m supplied by Him
For He has his eyes on those He holds dear
And He delivers them from all their fears
From all their fears
This Poor Man Cries, and He hears
And delivers him from all his fears, from all his fears

Rejected

Friday of the Second Week of Lent

March 13, 2020

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Mt21_42rejected

Today, in Mercy, there is a great sadness in our readings.

The poignant opening line from Genesis immediately strikes us:

Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons,
for he was the child of his old age

Joseph

We picture young Joseph in his beautiful rainbow coat and, under an olive tree’s shade, old Jacob(Israel) proudly, tenderly, watching him play.

As the story ensues to reveal the later betrayal of Joseph’s jealous brothers, we are left astounded. Such treachery, especially among brothers, sickens the heart.


Our Gospel picks up the sad theme because Joseph and his brothers are archetypes of Christ’s story with humankind.

800px-The_Wicked_Husbandman_(The_Parables_of_Our_Lord_and_Saviour_Jesus_Christ)_MET_DP835802
The Wicked Husbandman by John Everett Millais shows the owner’s murdered son

Jesus tells a parable in which he is actually the unnamed main character. He is the Son sent by a loving Father. He is the one rejected, beaten and killed by the treacherous tenants of his Father’s garden.

We know from our familiarity with Scripture that both these stories ultimately come to glorious conclusions. But today’s readings do not take us there. They leave us standing, mouths dropped open, at the dense meanness of the human heart, at the soul’s imperviousness to grace, at the profound sadness Jesus felt at this point in his ministry.

In our prayer today, let’s just be with Jesus, sharing his sadness for the meanness still hardening our world. Let us comfort him with our desire to be open to God’s Grace and Mercy.

Music:  Handel:Messiah – He was despised and rejected – Alfred Deller

What Profit?

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

February 21, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, James actually made me chuckle out loud! In today’s celebrated passage about faith and works, James – ever direct and uncompromising – really takes it home. Get this verse:

Do you want proof, you ignoramus,
that faith without works is useless?

OK, James! Tell us what you really think!😂

Well, here’s what he really thinks:

For just as a body without a spirit is dead,
so also faith without works is dead.


 

whole world

In our Gospel, Jesus says that living a life of good works is hard. He did it through the Cross and says we must follow his example:

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the Gospel will save it.

The Gospel Jesus is talking about, and the “works” James refers to,  are summarized like this:



Corporal Works of Mercy

feed the hungry.
give water to the thirsty.
clothe the naked.
shelter the homeless.
visit the sick.
visit the imprisoned, ransom the captive.
bury the dead.

Spiritual Works of Mercy

instruct the ignorant.
counsel the doubtful.
admonish the sinners.
bear patiently those who wrong us.
forgive offenses.
comfort the afflicted.
pray for the living and the dead.


If we live by these, we will find the Cross – but we will also find the Crown.

Music: Lose My Soul – TobyMac, a multi-award winning Christian hip-hop singer. The music is a departure for me, but I thought the song was really good (maybe of use to some of my readers who are teachers.) I hope you agree.

Regret

Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

February 4, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, we read one of the saddest lines in Scripture.

2Sam18_32

You have followed the story in these daily passages. Absalom rebels, designing to usurp his father’s throne. A massive battle rises between them. David, as commander-in-chief, remains behind, but gives instructions to his generals to spare Absalom’s life. Joab ignores the command, killing Absalom in a moment of vulnerability.

David is devastated.

david mourns
David Mourning Absalom’s Death – Jean Colombe


I think there is no more wrenching human emotion than regret. When I ministered for nearly a decade as hospice chaplain, and later in the emergency room, I saw so much regret.

People who had waited too long to say “I’m sorry”, “I forgive you”, “Let’s start over”, “Thank you for all you did for me”, “I love you”…..

Instead, these people stood at lifeless bedsides saying things like, “I should have”, “I wish…”, “If only…”


Life is complex and sometimes difficult. We get hurt, and we hurt others — sometimes so hurt that we walk away from relationship, or stay but wall ourselves off.

We might think that what is missing in such times is love. But I think it is more likely truth. In times of painful conflict, if we can hear and speak our truth to ourselves and one another, we open the path to healing.



If you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth.
Listen to the secret sound,
the real sound, which is inside you.
~ Kabir


That healing may demand adjustments, agreements, even a willingness to step apart in mutual respect. But if the changes emerge from shared truth, restoration and wholeness are possible.

David and Absalom never found that path because they were so absorbed in their own self-interests. Theirs was the perfect formula for regret – that fruitless stump that perpetually sticks in the heart.

I remember a trauma surgeon leaving the hospital late one night after an unsuccessful effort to save a young boy who had been shot. The doctor carried the loss so heavily as he walked into the night saying to me, “I’m just going to go home and hug my kids.”

As we pray over David and Absalom today, let us examine our lives for the fractures that are still healable and act on them. Let us “hug” the life we have. Regret is a useless substitute.

When David Heard – Eric Whitaker ( The piece builds. Be patient. Lyrics below)

When David heard that Absalom was slain,
he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept,
and thus he said;

My son, my son,
O Absalom my son,
would God I had died for thee!

When David heard that Absalom was slain,
he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept,
and thus he said;

My son, my son.