Monday 2 June 2014

Meditation on Psalm 46

ICS lives the kind of fragile life that just calls out for shelter and refuge. So when thinking of that life and of ICS’s immediate past and future Psalm 46 seems as good a way as any to anchor our thinking. In a year in which there has been a great deal of turmoil in the Board as it struggled to oversee ICS wisely, among the staff as they struggled to do ever more with ever less “man hours”, among the Senior Members struggling to put on a viable curriculum in the face of sabbaticals and faculty reductions, among the Junior Members working to come into their own as scholars and as persons, among ICS’s loyal constituency trying to understand what is happening in a place they continue to hope and pray for, it is not inappropriate albeit rather dramatic to think metaphorically about earth that heaves, about mountains hurled into the sea, waters seething in tumult. For the tiny peak that is ICS is quaking before the majesty of challenges it faces, struggling to see them as providential not fated, as it has quaked so many times over its forty plus years.

But of course, like so many of the Psalms, just when you nod your head and say yes this hoary old poetry can work to name our world, even across the ages, it makes us uncomfortable for the God it looks to seems . . .well . . . a little overwhelming. This is not a God that calms the seas, at least not here in Ps. 46. Rather, this God surges like the sea. He thunders. He puts life in tumult and hurls down whole kingdoms. Indeed, the Psalmist invites us to come and see what the Lord has done and then names the divine deed as “the devastation he has brought upon earth.” Yes this is a picture often painted in the text of the Old Testament, JHWH the apparently puny patron of hardscrabble hill warriors, before whom the mighty tremble, JHWH the subversive One who overturns the powerful Order of Marduk (Assyria) and Amon-Ra (Egypt).

I admit that there is a kind of bracing comfort to be had in all this mixing-it-up and duking-it-out. Conventional expectations we are told can be counted on to be overturned. And we at ICS certainly feel the need for such overturnings for the conventional expectations are still what they have always been—that we will fail of our promise; that the widow’s jar will empty at last. So I guess there is an obvious comfort to be had in the scene of the conventionally conceived hill god of a no account bunch of semi-nomads turning out to be an indomitable defender of their ramshackle little hill town, a hill god who turns up decisively to help that town at the break of day, that is, the time tested moment of a besieger’s attack.

There have been times in ICS’s history when we have been vulnerable in that way; when we have felt ourselves under attack by those more powerful than us. So there have been times when the scene painted by the poet of Psalm 46 seemed perfectly apt. In the Scriptures, empires we have with us always, and empires exist to be resisted. But our present vulnerabilities as a community seem not to be the result of external threat. Rather they seem interior in origin. Is the warrior god more powerful than Marduk or Ares or Mars, the warrior god “who shakes the earth with the weight of his bucklered passing,” really whom we need at this moment; don’t we really need to meditate other faces of the God of Scripture?

I don’t have a knockdown answer to my rhetorical question (sorry, couldn’t resist). But this text did surprise me and with surprise comes a sense of newness and the promise of newness is something this internally vulnerable institution needs in a big way, wouldn’t you agree?

You see, the thundering war god of the Psalm brought me up short when we are actually presented with the devastation he has brought upon the earth. “From end to end of the earth,” the Psalmist says, “he stamps out war.” And so that you can imagine the scene more vividly the Psalmist provides you sounds and sights to enable you to imagine the resultant oxymoron—a violent Peace. We are invited to hear the break of the bow and the snapping of spears. We are invited to witness the burning of wooden shields in a conflagration. In the topsy-turvydom of divine logic, violence, its overheated vistas, its sudden sharp reports do not just bring about their opposite, they are their opposites. Weakness is Strength; servanthood is sovereignty the list is long and varied. Divine clattering about on earth a full participant in the tawdry drama of human sorrow is divine transcendence. The Psalmist imagines God speaking, getting in the last word: “Learn that I am God high over the nations, high above the earth.” Of course the converse is also true; divine transcendence is God’s down-to-earth involvement. For it is this transcendent Lord, in his being “high over the nations and above the earth,” “who is with us” and “who is our high stronghold.” A Vollenhovianly inflected thinker with a pedantic sense of humour might even speculate that the Psalmist was playing with a contradictory monist’s way of putting things.

What I take from this is simple and can be expressed via the wisdom of Winnie-the-Pooh. Early on in A House on Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne has Pooh-Bear exclaim, “You never can tell about bees.” The Psalmist here adds that “You never can tell about God,” either. It sounds more profound in Latin, says the medievalist. In Winnie-ille-Pooh our ursine hero says: De apibus semper dubitandum est. Kierkegaard winks from the grave, for he had himself played with the notion that de omnibus dubitandum est (One ought to doubt everything). In the word picture of the psalmist something similar can be said of God: De deo semper dubitandum est. You see, the other word for this being unsure, of knowing you never can tell, is faith. Yes, you never can tell about God. And to me that means when one’s circumstances seem dire, or the way forward seems hazy and unclear, when there seems to be no helping us through this one anymore—why then we should try to remember—“The Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob our high stronghold.” The thing is, neither I nor anyone here knows how the future is going to go, just that there will be challenges—academic for some, financial for most, administrative for others, interrelational for all. Oh there are a world of vulnerabilities, one for each precious goodness to be found in God’s world. The way forward is unclear but in the spirit of this Psalm we can say that this mystification is life’s clarity; it seems crystalline does it not—you never can tell what God will do. Let’s be still and see, shall we? Which is just to say: Let’s act in faith and watch in wonder what our Lord will do.

Bob Sweetman