Psalm 138: Settling and Unsettling

Psa. 138:0     Of David.

1    I will praise you, LORD, with all my heart;
before the “gods” I will sing your praise.
2          I will bow down toward your holy temple
and will praise your name
for your unfailing love and your faithfulness,
for you have so exalted your solemn decree
that it surpasses your fame.
3          When I called, you answered me;
you greatly emboldened me.
4          May all the kings of the earth praise you, LORD,
when they hear what you have decreed.
5          May they sing of the ways of the LORD,
for the glory of the LORD is great.
6          Though the LORD is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly;
though lofty, he sees them from afar.
7          Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life.
You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes;
with your right hand you save me.
8          The LORD will vindicate me;
your love, LORD, endures forever—

                        do not abandon the works of your hands.

There is a curious mix here in this psalm. There is certainty and confidence. The poet writes of the unfailing love of God. Of how when he called, the Lord answered. In an echo of the 23rd Psalm there is the conviction that even through troubled times God preserves his life and vindicates him against his enemies.

But then there is that explosive last line. The certainty and confidence exists alongside doubt and fear. I can’t claim to have been exhaustive about it, but none of the commentaries I’ve looked at answer the problem of this line. If the writer is so certain of God why is this line needed?

The writer seems to trust and not trust all at the same time.

Like all of us I guess.

Existing on this precipice. On this edge.

Who is this last line for?

At the last, does the psalmist fear that maybe this time God will be unable to act? Or will God somehow go against character this one time? Is the writer trying desperately to stiffen his back against the challenge?

Or is it determination on the part of the writer, to hold God accountable this time? To remind God again of his consistent pattern of action in spite of circumstances? To keep watch and ensure God does the right thing?

I like that this ambiguity is the closing line of the Psalm. The writer doesn’t need to sign it all off with a neat answer, but seems content to rest in the ambiguity. Sometimes the world is messy and I’ve just got to live in the mess, and resist the temptation to tidy it up with a orderly conclusion.

Brueggemann writes,
“deep loss and amazing gift are held together in powerful tension.”

That tension is reflected in my inability to be wholly one or the other. Wholly committed and believing. Or wholly able to let it all go into disbelief this time.

Thing is, God seems able to cope, whichever.

Light shines in the darkness. And the darkness is unable to overcome it.

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I will keep broken things by Alice Walker 

I will keep broken 

the big clay pot

with raised iguanas

chasing their

tails; two 

of their wise

heads sheared off; 

I will keep broken things: the old slave market basket brought to

my door by Mississippi a jagged 

hole gouged

in its sturdy dark

oak side. 
I will keep broken things:

The memory of

those long delicious night swims with you; 
I will keep broken things:
In my house 

there remains an honored shelf

on which I will keep broken things.
Their beauty is

they need not ever be “fixed.”
I will keep your wild

free laughter though it is now missing its

reassuring and

graceful hinge.

I will keep broken things:
Thank you 

So much! 
I will keep broken things. 

I will keep you:

pilgrim of sorrow.

I will keep myself.

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Shrimping in the rain

I have the immense privilege and pleasure of living on the east coast of Florida in a little city called Titusville. Aside of being a community of great people there really is not much to this place, unless you count the fact that we overlook Kennedy Space Centre and get a front row seat for every single rocket launch that goes from this next of the woods.

The other thing that we have is a pretty cool bridge.


The ‘A. Max Brewer Bridge’ runs from our quiet, somewhat sleepy little city over the Indian River Lagoon and down the other side to take you into the Canaveral National Seashore and Playalinda Beach. Just underneath the bridge is the Veterans Memorial Fishing Pier, known locally as ‘the worlds longest free fishing pier.’ I don’t know if it is or if it is not actually the worlds longest free fishing pier, but this I do know, every night of the week the pier attracts a crowd of fishers.

Tonight, I was down in that neck of the woods for a spot of exercise – the bridge is popular for runners and walkers (those who know me will know for sure which category I fall into). I crossed the bridge the for the first time and as I was doing so the rain started to come down pretty heavily. It was good rain – not heavy enough to put a body off, but enough for me to be soaked through fairly quickly. I made it over the bridge and started back across on the other side. As I neared the end of the bridge my eyes were diverted downwards to my right where a group of around a dozen fishermen had decided to stick out the shower and were casting their nets just as they would on any other night. I forgot to mention above, the night fishers are actually shrimpers. They come down and spend the night throwing nets over the side of the pier in the hope of catching fresh shrimp.

As I walked down the home straight of the bridge I believed I encountered a bunch of men who, regardless of the rain and the fact that they were soaked to the skin, were casting their nets into the Indian River with a persistent vision of hope – hope of a catch, which might in turn become dinner, or maybe even be turned in to a dollar or two.

Thinking of their hope, of course brought me back to Advent and in particular this idea of Advent hope – a hope which has us looking forward with great anticipation; great yearning for the breaking through of light into the darkness. Goodness knows the darkness of this last year could do with a dose of hope-filled light.

I wonder will I be willing to walk out the steps of my day tomorrow in the same way as those shrimpers were casting their nets – with a persistent sense of hope. It strikes me that maintaining a persistent vision of hope is one of the most important things that I can do in the world right now.

“In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind.” (John 1:4)

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The Past is Before Us

With the coming of advent, I have been thinking about what has past and what I am now anticipating at the year end. I am challenged by how much we live under the shadow of “the past”. So I want to make a number of personal observations about this complex issue.

I am prompted in the content of what I want to say today by two independent sources, both of which raise the issue of how we deal with the past. The first, is a personal hero of mine John Paul Lederach, who I quoted in that first blog and the second is a 2013 paper by Ira  Hyman, in Mental Mishaps, entitled Remembering the Future.

When I consider how we think about the past, I am reminded of the famous George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps we could put it this way Those who do not remember the past are condemned to live without imagining the future” So, let me make a few observations which are probably self evident.

The Past is complex, convoluted, nuanced, at some level it is shared, it is contended and there is no agreed narrative. It is neither fixed nor absolute although it contains elements which are inevitably both fixed as well as absolute. There is no agreement on when the past becomes the present. Was it 1994? 1998? Last week? Just now? So no wonder we have problem dealing with the past and its legacy. Then when we add memory to the equation it creates the potential for some confusion. We have two types of memory, episodic and knowing.

Episodic is linked to experience while knowing tends to relate to facts of skills. Episodic is less forensic, less objective, more likely to be changed by age and distance from the event and therefore less reliable, more selective. Knowing is more scientific and less contended. Both are incubated in family and community, but the episodic is more likely to conform and reflect community narratives. When we look back, we invoke both realms of memory and so the factual is fused with and often confused with the personal or episodic.

The past has left a differential legacy, with the most marginalised, disadvantaged being left without a sense of any win any tangible peace dividend. So what invades the consciences of the middle classes is qualitatively different than that which causes working class communities concerns. Here many people still contend with a wide variety of inequalities on a daily basis. The past lives on in their present.

We have attempted to address the past through different methods, the Consultative group on the past, Historical Enquiries, Public Enquiries, Police Ombudsman, Inquests, Litigation. We have considered Truth commissions, drawing a line in the past, using Art, storytelling and sport as ways of addressing legacy matters. Despite these attempts dealing with the past remains an unsolved problem as we try and move forward together.

John Paul Lederach suggests that we have inherited a linear view of time, which sees past present and future in three unconnected boxes, moving forward. What if, however, we see time as more fluid, might it be possible to see the past in a different way. Could we see the past as still present amongst us.

Michael Ignatieff put it this way “When it comes to healing, one is faced with the most mysterious process of all. For what seems apparent in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, and in South Africa is that the past continues to torment because it is not past. These places are not living in a serial order of time but in a simultaneous one, in which the past and the present are a continuous, agglutinated mass of fantasies, distortions, myths, and lies.”

In the Amarya language in Bolivia, people talk about the future being behind them and the past being ahead of them in that they can “see” what took place in the past so in that sense it lies before them, whereas the future is as yet unseen and metaphorically is behind them.  In some ways we do the same. For example we commonly say “ Easter follows Christmas” meaning of course that it comes after sequentially not that it is somehow behind it in terms of chronology.  We also say we are “ahead of time” when we have dealt with things quickly.

It should be no real surprise to us to accept that the past invades the present. A certain smell a particular noise or sound can transport us back to the past.   We can’t change the past but what if the lens in which we view the past was one of generosity, then how we locate the story of the other in our past, in our memory, might that help us re-imagine the future? Looking back on our past and asking what part of my past embraced the other and what part excluded the other? What if I had the ability to re-write my past, would it be any different? If it would then this “past” knowledge should inform the present, what we do now and assist us in addressing and indeed re-imagining the future. Lederach sees this as living in the ambiguity of the simultaneity of past present and future. So we see the past as the landscape through which we can negotiate the present and reimagine the future.

We imagine the future in the same way that we reconstruct the past. When I imagine some future event, I build that event from similar past experiences and my general knowledge. I remember a future that hasn’t actually happened yet. This process allows me to plan, – a basic human capability. What will I do for my holidays this year? I’m not sure, but I can imagine lots of wonderful possibilities.

If we accept that history is made up of a series of episodes, events which took place, some of which we experienced and have a personal memory of, but others which we didn’t experience personally and have only a vague understand of, then perhaps we might be able to see history not as a record of events, but made up of a variety of narratives and personal experiences, some of which we have only a passing acquaintance. We can’t change any of this “past”, but when we look back, it is possible to imagine that things might have been different if we had acted in another way, if we or our community had been more generous to “the other”… if we had taken time to listen to the story of the other. If we had taken time to see how our shared history is more linked than perhaps we had first understood.

So, let me suggest that if we took time to re-examine the past through a lens of generosity, we might just be able to see how “our story” might have been enhanced  by including “their story”.  In doing this, in offering generosity perhaps we might be able to re-imagine a shared future in which our story includes and understanding of “their story”. That the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Where does this take us? So we have a generation of young people born in 1994 who are no longer teenagers, those born in 1998 who have now done their A-levels. No actual memory of “the troubles”. What past did they learn about at school? My past? Our past? They are accumulating knowledge memory but through the medium of personal, episodic memory.

So we have the ability to remember the past, but we do not have any capacity to change it. We have the possibility to imagine a different future, but there is no formula to predict it, and even less control it.

Nobody controls the future, but we all control our own time. The reimagined future lies somewhere between memory and potentiality. Peacebuilding requires us to develop the art of living in the multiple time and space spheres. The well being of my grandchildren is inextricably linked with the well being of yours.

So in order to re-imagine the future, we need to ensure whatever we do it embraces “the other” and so we look for the common values, common goals, common good.  This is a big ask, to embrace the other in generosity of spirit. Are we up to the challenge?

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Anticipating the past

Advent confuses me.  It’s a time of anticipation.  But, at least for this world, in this place, at this time, can we say it is a time for hope?

I’ve been much occupied with two things recently. The first is a book, ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle which, essentially, argues that we cannot find peace in the past or in the future, we can only find it in the present.  That our internal, thought led lives are tyrannised by gnawing regrets about yesterday or fruitless ruminations about tomorrow.  That we are more than our thoughts and that peace lies in being fully present here and now, in a place of mindfulness, a place of ‘no thought’ – just being.

The second train of consciousness has been prompted by a visit to Auschwitz Burkenau WW2 Nazi death camp only a few days ago.   A place where 1.2 million people were systematically murdered.  It was the scale of the place that struck me.  I had expected a few huts, an interpretive centre perhaps.  Auschwitz is instead a small town preserved almost exactly as it was when it functioned at its height.  A highly efficient, carefully considered machine for mass murder.  There is a palpable sense of numbness there.  It presents a long hard look into the ‘banality of evil’.  There is a dawning realisation, a sense of shock as the tour progresses that the Nazis did not regard inmates (overwhelmingly Jewish although also Communist, Roma, homosexual, dissidents and ‘intellectuals’) as human – they regarded them as the lowest of vermin.

Someone asked me yesterday what I ‘thought of the Auschwitz experience’.  The truth is, it’s been largely impossible not to think about it, almost constantly, ever since.  Numbness.  Profound horror.  Disbelief that any set of circumstances could lead to that ‘final solution’.

And so to Advent.  What are we anticipating?  For me the best I can manage is hope tempered by doubt.  A desire for a triumph of hope over experience – at least for this material world.

Perhaps the seeds of greater hope can be found in the words of Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, and an advocate of a profound mindfulness.  He says, in his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, “… we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips”.


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Advent Awakening…

On Saturday morning I was flicking through my Facebook feed when I stumbled upon the following by Ian Spear, which had been quoted in a post by Pete Greig:


Tomorrow, the church will observe the dawning of a new year. Advent is not simply a prelude to Christmas. It’s a time when we look for and prepare our hearts for Christ’s return, for His Second Advent. While our culture insists that we “hurry,” Advent invites us to be still, to watch and wait.
The lectionary prayer for the first week of Advent begins, “Unexpected God, your advent alarms us.” More than anything, this prayer captures the spirit of the season. In Advent, we confront the stark reality that God is breaking in on our world. And we must ask ourselves: are we ready for Him? Have we prepared ourselves, our families, and our churches for the coming of God, for what the prophets called “the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5)?
The trouble with our cultural “holiday season” is that our lives become filled to distraction, so consumed with trivialities and to-do lists that we leave no room for God — only to be caught unawares when He breaks into on our world again.
This, ultimately, is what Advent is about: waiting for God and, in our waiting, making room for Him in our lives and hearts. As the lectionary prayer continues:
“Wake us from drowsy worship,

from the sleep that neglects love,

and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.

Awaken us now to your coming,

and bend our angers into your peace.”
I pray this prayer over my own family this season, and I pray it over you, too.

Also this week, in preparation for My opening Advent sermon, I found this prayer at the end of an Advent sermon by Rev. Dr. P. C. Ennis:

Forgive us, O God, for ever thinking of peace on earth only as a Christmas postscript.

Contemporize, we pray, your incarnation for us in our time. As the Savior’s birth once startled an ancient world, so startle us with the reality of your presence in our midst. As your word first brought shepherds and magi to their knees in adoration and caused the angelic hosts to sing your praises, so may our celebration this season be marked by humility, praise, and hope.
Break through, we pray, the hardened crust of cynicism and disbelief, and open before our trusting eyes the full splendor of the Christmas story in all of its fullness, a promise of joy and peace. Suspend our sophistication long enough to enable us to see the world as a place where miracles do happen, where a Savior is born in a stable, where peace is possible, promises abundant for all, and where there is no longer any reason for fear anywhere on earth. And so, O God, may your word become flesh anew in today’s world, to dwell among us, assuring us that no fear or sorrow, sin or suffering can ever separate us from your love, and that no enemy of your purposes will ever ultimately prevail…

Both pieces were a great reminder, to me, of the importance of this time and this task of watching, waiting and anticipating. Both pieces are worth sharing here.

May we each watch, wait and anticipate with great hope this Advent, and may we each witness the full splendor of the story as it unfolds again before our eyes, ears and open hearts.

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listening at the edge of the abyss

I find myself still without words, I can’t even figure out what I am struggling to say. However, in my waiting I can listen and today I offer these words of Water Brueggemann’s as he spoke about the significance of poets with Krista Tippett in 2013.

“What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation and then it’s deathly. So we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, you’re going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame. Which, again, is why the poetry is so important because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power.”


“I just think they are moved the way every good poet is moved to have to describe the world differently according to the gifts of their insight. And, of course, in their own time and every time since, the people that control the power structure do not know what to make of them, so they characteristically try to silence them. What power people always discover is that you cannot finally silence poets. They just keep coming at you in threatening and transformative ways.”

or just listen to it all here

Brueggemann interview with Krista Tippett

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