All my Springs are in You

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Reading Psalm 87 recently was one of those “Aha” moments when eyebrows raise at the sound of music you did not expect to hear. This psalm of Zion struck a different chord.

On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
   the Lord loves the gates of Zion
   more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you,
   O city of God.

A Memory of Willie

Willie got the willies when the congregation sang “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” in McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster. The professor of German language and literature, a naturalized American citizen, was flashing back to “the Fatherland” where he’d been born, momentarily paralyzed by the memories that haunted him. The Third Reich of Willie’s childhood had usurped Josef Haydn‘s musical setting of Psalm 87 for its own grandiose purposes. Deutschland had become the new Zion, the city of God, of which glorious things are spoken.

A Rebuke of nationalist exceptionalism

Psalm 87 is the poetry of a different theology and politics that startles those looking for religious and national exceptionalism. No nation, especially those that hide their sin behind the lofty goals of “unity, justice, and freedom,” is the Holy City Uber Alles.

Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia —
‘This one was born there,’ they say.
And of Zion it shall be said,
‘This one and that one were born in it’;
for the Most High himself will establish it.

Psalm 87 is striking for what it is and for what it is not

This Hebrew psalm looks above and beyond the pretensions of nation, ethnicity, and religion. Not everyone in the glorious city if God is Hebrew. Not everyone is a Moses, Aaron, or Joshua. Sure, it names Rahab — the Canaanite prostitute who provided cover for the Hebrew spies as they prepared to conquer Canaan. But Rehab in Psalm 87, say the biblical scholars, represents Egypt, the nation of Hebrew enslavement prior to the exodus. And there are Babylon, the land of exile, and Philistia, whose better armed giant Goliath fell with a thud from the shot from little David’s slingshot? What are the Philistines doing in this Hebrew song? And Tyre and Ethiopia?

The Most High will build the city into which, looking back from the future, all nations will see and know they were born there.

The Lord records, as he registers the peoples,
‘This one was born there.’

Singers and dancers alike say,
‘All my springs are in you.’

No nation is ‘Uber Alles.” No nation is accountable only to itself. The One whose Name is too Other, too Holy, to be spoken aloud — the eternal Presence, “I Am Who I Am” — registers the disparate peoples as citizens of Zion, the birthplace of the world.

The likes of Willie will no longer despair of a sacred hymn turned into a national anthem that idolizes a nation as the city of God, deluding its citizens to believe that “this one or that one” from elsewhere was not born there. Is it too much to imagine a day when all the peoples will sing and dance alike and say of Zion, “All my springs are in You”?

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 15, 2020.

Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco Forty-Niners quarterback, blacklisted by NFL teams for taking a knee during one nation’s national anthem as a way of saying Black Lives Matter.

The Church on the Bridge

Pettus Bridge, Selma to Montgomery

Pettus Bridge, Selma to Montgomery

If some churches are like opium dens, others are like Pettus Bridge, the bridge over the Alabama River you must cross to get from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

In the history of America’s civil rights movement, Pettus Bridge and the events of “Bloody Saturday” represent a crossing over from the society addicted to violence, hatred, and war to “the peaceable kingdom” of Isaiah. Think Jesus. Think Martin Luther King, Jr. Think Congressman John Lewis. Think all the anonymous souls who dared to cross the bridge from here to there.

“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies — or else? The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” [The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]

I suspect Karl Marx never knew a church like that. What he saw was religion as a tool of the powerful, an ideological overlay on reality to keep their subjects compliant with the existing social order.

The church of the bridge is no opium den. No one is doped up. No one is in a stupor. People don’t go there to hide. It is by nature a place that calls for commitment and action. The Church as Pettus Bridge is spiritually, economically, politically, and culturally revolutionary. It requires far-reaching transformation of people, structures, and systems. It’s a risky place. The church on the bridge requires you to put your whole body, mind, and soul on the line – on the  bridge – fully conscious that the troops the old social order will come after you. It is the church of Jesus and the prophets, and of Paul at his best:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Epistle to the Romans 12: 1-2, NRSV]

Every time the Church of the Bridge gathers for worship, the pews are filled with people wearing crash helmets. They expect something real to happen. They expect to make it happen. When they gather around the Lord’s Table for Eucharist, they know what they are celebrating: “the peaceable kingdom”, the City of God on the other side of violence, hatred, and war that puts them on the bridge.