March 6, 2014

Psalm 79

Pour out Thy anger on the nations
 that do not know Thee,
 and on the kingdoms that do not call on Thy Name!
Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors
 the taunts with which they have taunted Thee, O Lord!
(Psalm 79: 6,12)

Prophet Elijah
Prophet Elijah

Like Psalm 74, this prayer too comes in the midst of horrific violence, most likely in the wake of the barbaric Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. And after all the pillage, rape and murder, most of those left alive were taken captive and marched to Babylon. The ones who remained behind were too few to bury the bodies of all the dead, which rotted in the streets as food for stray dogs and buzzards. The Temple had been overrun. All that was good and holy had been brutally desecrated. The psalmist, probably a temple singer, is filled with the natural instinct for revenge, and he pours out these unedited feelings. The Old Testament is not squeamish about such feelings of righteous violence or indeed about acting on them. Witness, for example, Elijah calling down fire to consume his enemies in Samaria (2 Kings 1:9-12). 

Today we find outright violence in the name of God repellent. And in daily life we usually have to do a lot of editing of violent feelings if we wish to keep our jobs, families, friends and freedom. But psalms like this one attest that at least in opening our hearts to God we have a place for unedited feeling. God can take whatever is most real and raw: even our anger and desire for bloody revenge. If we’re fortunate, then maybe we also have a person or two in our lives as well who can handle this.  But after we get it all out, then what?


The teaching of Jesus takes us to another level. When the inhabitants of Samaria treated Jesus poorly, his disciples were indignant and said, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them as Elijah did?” But Jesus rebuked them. “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:53-55).

Time and again Jesus teaches his followers the difficult path of non-violence, non-retaliation and love of enemies, no matter how badly one is treated or how vengeful one feels.

“The Art of Presence”

Normal office work at the Chancery continues as we go through the first week of Great Lent. Tonight will be the fourth installment of the Great Canon, and tomorrow morning Presanctified Liturgy. In most of our parishes people are carving time out of their normal schedules to be in church for the extra services, to fast, to intensify their prayer, to redouble efforts to lead a spiritual life.

One of the aims of Lent is to simply be more attentive to others. A little while ago a close friend sent me an insightful article about “the art of presence,” by David Brooks of The New York Times.” I’ve abbreviated it, but you can read the full piece here.

Tragedy has twice visited the Woodiwiss family. In 2008, Anna Woodiwiss, then 27, was working for a service organization in Afghanistan. On April 1, she went horseback riding and was thrown, dying from her injuries. In 2013, her younger sister Catherine, then 26, was biking to work from her home in Washington. She was hit by a car and her face was severely smashed up. She has endured and will continue to endure a series of operations. For a time, she breathed and ate through a tube, unable to speak. The recovery is slow.

The victims of trauma experience days “when you feel like a quivering, cowardly shell of yourself, when despair yawns as a terrible chasm, when fear paralyzes any chance for pleasure. This is just a fight that has to be won, over and over and over again.” Her mother, Mary, talks about the deep organic grief that a parent feels when they have lost one child and seen another badly injured, a pain felt in bones and fiber.

But suffering is a teacher. And, among other things, the Woodiwisses drew a few lessons, which at least apply to their own experience, about how those of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside the zone.

Sick & Visit
The art of presence

Do be there. Some people think that those who experience trauma need space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence. The Woodiwisses say they were awed after each tragedy by the number of people, many of whom had been mere acquaintances, who showed up and offered love, from across the nation and the continents. They were also disoriented by a number of close friends who simply weren’t there, who were afraid or too busy.
Anna and Catherine’s father, Ashley, says he could detect no pattern to help predict who would step up and provide the ministry of presence and who would fumble. Neither age, experience nor personal belief correlated with sensitivity and love.

Don’t compare, ever. Don’t say, “I understand what it’s like to lose a child. My dog died, and that was hard, too.” Even if the comparison seems more germane, don’t make it. Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness. Each story should be heard attentively as its own thing. “From the inside,” Catherine writes, comparisons “sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.”

Do bring soup. The non-verbal expressions of love are as healing as eloquence. When Mary was living with Catherine during her recovery, some young friend noticed she didn’t have a bathmat. He went to Target and got a bathmat. Mary says she will never forget that.

Do not say “you’ll get over it.” “There is no such thing as ‘getting over it,’ ” Catherine writes, “A major disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no ‘back to the old me.’ ”

Don’t say it’s all for the best or try to make sense out of what has happened. Catherine and her parents speak with astonishing gentleness and quiet thoughtfulness, but it’s pretty obvious that these tragedies have stripped away their tolerance for pretense and unrooted optimism.

Ashley also warned against those who would over interpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.