But You Do See!

Psalm 10 addresses a God whose attention can wander.

1 Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

3 For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
4 In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, ‘God will not seek it out’;
all their thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’

We might say that this God has not yet achieved perfect surveillance.

The Psalmist goes on to describe all the violence and oppression that’s going on in the shadows, under the cover of darkness, rampant and seemingly unstoppable.

On Sunday morning we talked about where in our society we might wish for surveillance.  Who is getting away with injustice?  What do we wish were “caught on camera”?  Where are there dark places we want a light to shine?

In Psalm 10, the Psalmist doesn’t just long for the unblinking eye of the camera.  When God sees, it’s not just a matter of getting actions caught on record.  When God sees, God acts.

14 But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan.

While surveillance in our social context often has an assumption of distance and sterility, in the Psalms God’s seeing means that God is intimately involved in the world, in a deeply compassionate way.

On Sunday morning we talked about the “sit-lie” law in Spokane and the ways in which how we see others affects our judgments and actions. 

Perhaps you’ve heard the poem attributed to Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good

In what ways are we God’s surveillance cameras in the world?  Not just blank faces, but involved, compassionate encounters with injustice?  What does seeing involve?

 

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Poem for Advent Four

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 22, 2013
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 7-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

The City Council Welcomes the Christ Child
by Kathryn Smith

Our city is near nature. It’s near
perfect, our sidewalks pristine. We invite you
to take a seat and admire their beauty
if it’s between midnight and 6 a.m.
But please don’t linger and for heaven sake
don’t lie down. If you’re weary you can sit
at Starbucks for the price of a latte
as long as you don’t take too long to drink it.
Are you just passing through? There’s plenty of room
at the Lusso, the Dav, the new Worthy Tower.
Otherwise, keep passing. These restrooms
are for customers. This city is nothing
without its core. You must have somewhere to rest
besides the STA Plaza. Surely you see
that the planter outside the Olive Garden
is no place to lay your newborn. Why should we let
you loiter? What good can you possibly do?

Guilt by Association

The NSA describes its data gathering methods as looking for connections between people, guessing relationships based on frequency and type of communication. Prospective employers may check out your Facebook page and be as interested in what your friends are up to as they are in your posts. If you thought you’d escaped being judged by the company you keep when you moved to the (big) city, you’ll find that large-scale data gathering has done an end-run around anonymity.

Perhaps we should think of current social graph programs as just an infinitely more patient nosy neighbor peeking from behind drawn curtains and noticing the crunch on the gravel driveway. Or the proverbial Mabel the telephone operator who knows who calls whom and only listens if it’s an emergency.

In a small town, a church, or on the corner of the internet, it can be pretty easy to get a bad reputation. Whether deserved or not, the reputation can acquire a life of its own, spreading to whole families.

Psalm 109 describes in minute detail the experience of total social annihilation. Through the language of curse, the Psalmist describes every aspect of being severed from social life, beyond the reach of human justice or reconciliation. We might call it the ultimate bad reputation, spreading across multiple generations. Though we might find the language harsh, we should also admit that it is often accurate. In Bible Study on Sunday morning, many people were able to point to examples of lives being torn apart by false accusations or just plain bad reputations.

Reputations aren’t private affairs. They affect everyone who keeps company together. The Psalmist reminds us that troth requires nothing less. To know someone, to know their truth, is to be in relationship with them. But what about when far-flung automated programs gather data? Will they understand what relationships mean? Or just lump people together by algorithms?

Many Psalms center on the making and breaking of reputations. But we also have the model of Jesus, who ate with outcasts and sinners. Does radical hospitality lead to guilt by association? Is the Church willing to ruin its reputation in order to welcome everyone? What does our practice of confession and absolution mean in a climate of faceless data gathering (and retention), the disenfranchisement of felons in the name of public safety, the extra scrutiny given to some based on faith or national origin, not to mention the usual array of small-town gossips? And what happens when the Church does get a bad reputation?

The Psalms make it clear that these are not issues to take lightly. Reputations are sticky. But then, so is the God of Psalm 109: “But you, O Lord my Lord, act on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me… With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord; I will praise him in the midst of the throng. For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save them from those who would condemn them to death.”

Poem for Advent Three

Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 15, 2013
Lessons: Isaiah 35: 1-10, Luke 1:46-55, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

The Lineage of Ailment
by Kathryn Smith

He said he couldn’t remember the name
for the cancer. But when they cut her open, it was like
a spider’s web, so thick they couldn’t see
her organs.
So when his own doctor told him
Probably, hedged with Maybe, said, We’d need tests,
but if that’s what your mother had, it’s most likely…
my grandfather said I don’t want to know.

*

To name the thing that ails you does not cure it.
It only gives it sound, a translation in the wrong
language, something to stick in the throat.

*

Scoliosis. Stubbornness. Skin too
easily burned. Lupus. Dementia.
Rheumatoid arthritis. Fear of water.
Anorexia. Generations of undiagnosed
depression. Fear of speaking out.

*

And on that day, titanium will turn
to bone in my mother’s joints—no use for the specialists
in another city, gone
the medicine cabinet’s excess.
On that day, my father’s back will uncoil
from its perpetual question.
That day, I will rise
unencumbered by the stone I’ve carried as far and long
as I remember, the empty
weight I’ve scarcely been without.
We’ll hardly know what to do
without our impediments, with a steady
upright step, with the lightness.

Troth and Lies

NIV Psalm 31:5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth. NRSV Psalm 31:5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.

There’s an old-fashioned English word we don’t use much anymore: troth.  It’s related to truth, but it also means fidelity.  Truth and loyalty all bound up together in one word.  If we want to immerse ourselves in the language of the Psalms, it’s a word we might want to bring back to popularity.  In Hebrew, emeth is the same kind of word.  It means both truth and faithfulness.  In different English translations of the Bible you’ll find sometimes one, sometimes the other translation of emeth, depending on the context.  And often the different translations choose differently.

These faithful/truthful translators are relying on us to be aware that truth and faith are inextricably related to one another, even when we don’t always think of them that way in modern English.  Troth might help us do that.  Or think about the phrases where truth and faithfulness overlap: “to be true to one’s beliefs”, “a hi-fidelity recording”, “a faithful rendition of a piece of music”.  Accuracy, loyalty, and understanding start to get all mixed up together.

In the Psalms, the truth (about a person or a situation or God) can really only be known in the context of a trusting relationship.  Troth is essentially relational.

How different is this from a view that truth is just information and facts?  Is there truth in the data collected by surveillance, in smatterings of call logs, photos, or gps trails?

Now, you might be a little concerned about this kind of truth the Psalmist describes.  Do we really need more partisan truths conditioned by loyalty?  Or a world where who you know is the most important thing?  Perhaps we hope for truth stripped clean of encumbering power dynamics and messy human relationships.  What can we do but muddy up the real truth?

In fact, the Psalms agree wholeheartedly about the problems of partisan truths. But in the world of emeth, the Psalmist asks us to consider whether we can have it any other way, as humans.   In the Psalms, truth is not a commodity that can be possessed in differing quantities but a path to follow, beset by trouble on all sides.  In some Psalms, it’s unclear whether anyone is telling the truth.  Hence the Psalmist’s cry to the God of emeth to be rescued from the miry bog (see especially v 13-14 of Psalm 69).

And besides, it helps to see why the Psalms take lying so seriously.  Partisan partial truths whose intent is to harm fall right into the category of deceit in the Psalms.  Lies aren’t merely misinformation; they are false witness, unraveling the personhood of the one lied about.  In deceit, we are uprooted from the land of the living, says Psalm 52.  What’s more, just as emeth requires relationship with God, when we practice deceit we are de facto isolating ourselves from God, even denying God’s presence and care for the world.  Psalm 10 says, “In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, ‘God will not seek it out’; all their thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’… Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.”  Psalm 15 tells us that to be in the presence of the Lord is defined by certain qualities, including truthfulness and avoidance of lying.

False witness isn’t just a biblical problem.  Mistaken identity, damaged reputations, and false witness are all frequently in the news.  Here are a couple stories just from this last week:

St Louis wrongful arrests – a long story about a culture of wrongful arrests and their negative consequences in St Louis

San Antonio 4 – news about the release of the San Antonio 4, women convicted of child molestation who have been released after more than a decade in prison due to faulty testimony.

In situations of deceit or false witness, how does the Church practice truth?

Poem for Advent Two

Second Sunday of Advent, Dec. 8, 2013
Lessons: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

And the Shrill Shall Lead the Blind
by Kathryn Smith

“Snake-occupied screech owl nests produce more
and healthier fledglings than do snake-free nests.”
-National Wildlife magazine

When the mouse lies down with you, you’ve already
maimed him. The songbird, still warm but without

her voice, has a place in your burrow, borrowed
from the woodpecker who no longer needs it.

Your realm, eastern screech owl, is bloody
survival. It’s a headless meal dangling

from a mother’s grasp, death brought close.
But a nest lined with what feeds soon festers.

What of your hatchlings’ gaping hunger
when parasites quiver your walls? Enter

the snake, blind and coiled alive around the beak
that bears it. Slippery deliverer, she’ll devour

the maggots that threaten your young,
unaware of the kingdom they’ve been born to,

the rules they break when the serpent beds down
with a raptor’s nestlings, and both creatures thrive.

Bible Study Week 1: Refuge

To start out our study Hide Me in the Shadow of Your Wings: Security, Surveillance, and the Psalms, we’ll look at an image that pervades the whole book of Psalms: refuge. The constellation of Hebrew words that sometimes are translated as refuge (other times as saving help, place of safety, and deliverance, to name a few) appear more than 100 times throughout the Psalms. Refuge is the positive side of security. It’s good to be attuned to what the Psalms think safety should be like. It can help us figure out how we fail to provide security in our communities, or when we misunderstand what we really need in terms of help.

Think about the word refuge. What does it conjure up for you? How many people are there? Can others gain access to your place of refuge or is it closed off?

You might try a Google image search for refuge. Do the images look like yours?

In Bible study on Sunday morning we noticed that a place of refuge often looks very different whether you are on the inside or the outside, not to mention how safe you already feel in your refuge.

Take a look at a few of these Psalms. How do their images of refuge compare with your own or to ones that show up as search results?

Visit the Salem Lutheran Facebook page to join the conversation.