You Tyrant!

Recalling Steve Shoemaker’s post “A Song for Each Kind of Day” after returning to the habit of reading the Psalms each morning, I am stunned by the aptness of the Psalm for today.

The Psalms are existential in nature. They are profoundly personal, but they also address public life. They give voice to the heart’s desire in a given time and place — our thanksgivings, yearning, exultations, lamentations, and cries against injustice. Often they are the poet’s responses to public life in the light of faith.

THAT’S NOT NICE!

You tyrant, 

why do you boast of wickedness 

against the godly all day long?

 You plot ruin;

Your tongue is like a sharpened razor,

O worker of deception.

 You love evil more than good

and lying more than speaking the truth.

You love all words that hurt,

O you deceitful tongue.

 Oh that God would demolish you utterly,

topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,

and root you out of the land of the living!

 The righteous shall see and tremble, 

and they shall laugh at him, saying,

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge,

but trusted in great wealth

and relied upon wickedness.”

  • Psalm 52:1-7 (Book of Common Prayer)

Psalm 52 isn’t nice. The psalmist knew nothing of Watergate or the Mueller investigation, or Donald J. Trump. Nor was he imbued with an ethic that told him not to judge, to be kind, to watch his tongue, to believe that all’s right with the world because God’s in His heaven or the claim everything happens for a reason.The psalmist is not a fatalist or a determinist. He holds sacred his personal responsibilty for public life. His life is not his own. He knows himself to be a member of a commonwealth. When the integrity of the commonwealth comes under threat, his heart must speak.


BREAKFAST WITH A PSALMIST

Former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson is remembered for “the Saturday Night Massacre” when he resigned his office, refusing to obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. 

NYTimes_Saturday_Night_Massacre.jpegYears later, Elliot Richardson came to Minneapolis as the featured speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. As was the custom, he moderator and the guest speaker enjoyed conversation over breakfast the morning of the Forum. At his initiation, the convsersation turned to religion. He was writing a book, occasioned in part by the growing public agreement with John Lennon’s “Imagine There’s No Religion,” arguing that, if the slate of human history were wiped clean of religion, we would re-create it in a heartbeat because it’s in our nature. Searching Amazon’s listing of Richardson’s books, it appears it was never published. If we had the opportunity again all these years later, I would ask him if he had crawled inside Psalm 52 before he took the leap of faith that made him a hero of personal conscience and public intergrity.

ONLY A POEM (A PSALM) 

Some things are matters of the heart. Some things in public life pierce the heart so deepLy; some sins against the commonwealth are so egregious; some wealth is so obscene; some abuses of power against the commonwealth so obvious, that only a poem (a psalm) says what we feel. There is a psalm for this kind of day.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland, Dec. 18, 2018

Thick heads and the deeper truth

Micah 6:8

“God has told you people what is good–
and what the Lord requires of you:
do justice, love mercy,
and walk humbly with your God.”

One third of the Jewish Bible
is in poetry:
all the prophets, all the proverbs,
Job and all the Psalms.
Fables, sagas, metaphors–we
take it literally?
No, its truth is deeper, wider
than the sea. Our souls
leap or cry, our hearts sing or sigh.

We are called to act by holy
words in parallel:
every idea is repeated–
image, example,
contrast…thick heads hit again and
yet again. As sheep
we need a good shepherd or we
stray. For us to keep
ten commandments we need poetry.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 4, 2013

Verse – We never saw the stars

In memory of Rev. Milton Carothers

As two Protestant pastors, we had no
desire to become eremites, but went
to the monastery  to try to slow
our hectic campus lives in a retreat.
The Benedictine Retreat Master split
us quickly.  I was sent to spend the week
with an old monk–a former architect–
who now designed the gardens for his work
(all of the men must sweat as well as pray.)
We carried rocks; he talked incessantly.
Inside the borders made of stone, each day
we’d pull the sinweeds (never silently.)
At all the common  meals there was no talk
allowed–and in our cells, we were alone,
of course.  At 3 a.m. the bells would wake
us for a walk inside the walls (of stone
also) to sing, to pray the Psalms each night.
We saw no sky:  stained glass kept out starlight.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana IL

Editor’s note: I know Milton only through Steve’s tribute to him, but those who have served as campus ministers intuitively understand each other in ways that are unique t those who minister within the walls of the ivory tower. Milton, Steve and I share that history. Milton served in North Carolina, Steve in North Carolina and Champaign-Urbana, IL, and I in Wisconsin, New York, and Ohio. Like Milton and Steve, I have known the need to retreat to the Benedictine retreat center to restore my soul in the solitude and rhythms of Benedictine community.

Although I’ve never risen to pray the Psalms within the walls of stone at 3:00 a.m., I’ve often found myself awake within the starless walls of stone my hardened heart has built. Sometimes at 3:00 a.m. I’m lost among the sinweeds. A Psalm rises up within me to melt the stone, release me from the inner prison, remove the starless plastered ceiling. “When I consider the works of your hands, the moon and the stars which Your fingers have made, what is man that You think of him… and yet” and yet.