The title of this blog is from the song “Me and God” by The Avett Brothers. The song itself is fun but not wholly relevant to this post. I just like that line.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Wild Goose Festival in Chatham County, North Carolina. Wild Goose is “a festival at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and art” that takes place over 4 days in June. You’re encouraged to camp. Tick checks are just one more means of building Christian community.
At the Saturday morning opening session, we were asked to read and reflect on Psalm 137 in small groups. It’s a gut-wrenchingly sad lament of Israel’s exile in Babylon. But what most people hone in on—and what the United Methodist Hymnal’s psalter leaves out—are the final lines, directed at their captors:
Happy shall they be
who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
It’s no surprise this psalm is often shortened for use in worship. How can anyone who believes that God is love pray something like that?
The thing is, the fact that God is love is the very reason we can pray this psalm—and the very reason we are free to offer God the sin and evil we experience and commit daily.
The psalms of lament, including those about seeking revenge (sometimes called the imprecatory psalms), cannot be ignored because, as uncomfortable as it is to realize, they are a reflection of human nature. Walter Brueggemann wrote in his book Praying the Psalms that the problem is not that vengeance is in the psalms–the problem is that it is in our own hearts. John Calvin called the psalms an “anatomy of the soul.” Anything that disquiets or offends us there only does so because on some level we know it is a mirror to our broken humanity.
The psalms can help us to face the darkest parts of our humanity strengthened by the knowledge that God has redeemed it and will redeem it. The imprecatory psalms were not intended to lead to violent actions but were a way to take all the rage and sadness the Israelites experienced in exile and hand it over to God. In our reflections at Wild Goose (where the theme was “Exile and Return”), we were asked to consider Psalm 137 as an expression of deep sadness and mourning from a community in exile and to consider who in our world might pray such a prayer today.
Because God is love, God can take up all the pain and hatred in this world and transform it into…well, love. My friend Morgan Guyton recently wrote a blog that dismantles some popular assumptions about God’s nature that make up a theory called penal substitution–including the idea that God is allergic to sin and that God poured out his wrath on Jesus on the cross in some quasi-abusive act of anger.
These attempts to deal with the problem of sin miss the point: only love can bind the wounds of sin. God can handle sin and even, in Jesus, became sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Whatever rage or anger or sadness or hatred we may feel, God’s love takes that on and redeems it. Anger could never do that. In his book Heart of the World, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “When God thunders, the cloud of wrath pours out a rustling of love.” Whatever anger our sin might merit, the God who is love approaches it not with wrath but with love–with God’s very self.
Because God is love, and he loves everyone. (See below.)