A few years ago, I preached this message (that was later included in a collection of messages from the book of Psalms). With all the vengeance in the world today, I wonder if this ancient song of Israel might resonate.
– – – –
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
When we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
We hung our harps,
For there our captors asked us for songs,
Our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you.
If I do not consider Jerusalem
My highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
On the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
Happy are those who repay you
According to what you have done to us.
Happy are those who seize your infants
And dash them against the rocks.
(Psalm 137, TNIV)
Lord, may this ancient word of scripture – anger-filled though it is! – speak to us again this morning. Though its words of rage sound offensive to us, we admit that we’re grateful for scriptures that reflect the fullness of human life rather than scriptures that foster denial. For we do battle anger . . . and even hatred . . . and even feelings of bitterness and revenge. Please pour through me this morning the gift of preaching that we might be confronted by your word, and through it move toward Jesus Christ, the one who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And in him we hope and pray, amen.
It’s Sunday morning, and again three wounded people have walked into the church’s assembly – with their wounds carefully hidden, of course.
The first is a 32-year-old wife and mom. After her first marriage ended, she found the man who could make her happy. At least that’s what she thought. But those angry outbursts before they married became brutal, savage beatings after she married. Now she’s trying to figure out how to get out to protect her children and herself without getting killed. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” the scripture reading says as everyone nods in agreement.
The second is a man who’s been set up and financially destroyed by his business partner. Through no fault of his own (other than perhaps naïve trust), he’s suddenly left in a precarious legal position. On top of that, everything is about to break publicly so that his wife and kids will be embarrassed. He’s even thought, briefly, about suicide. “And again I say it, rejoice!”
The third is the parent of a child who was killed by a drunk driver. The driver had already had a conviction for driving under the influence, and the night of the wreck was completely smashed. But he walked away from the accident – and the courts, almost untouched.
My guess is that we’re all a bit embarrassed to have Psalm 137 read in our assembly. It’s shocking. And we can probably agree on this: it’s not the ethical peak of scripture. If we’re going to read a psalm, we prefer Psalm 23, thank you very much!
In a world where there is more than enough revenge, it doesn’t seem like the church needs to be hearing the words, “Happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks.” Do we really want to encourage this? Haven’t we been praying the Lord’s Prayer together for the past fifteen years so that words like “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” become a kind of default response – not “dash their infants”?
Of course, let’s admit that Psalm 137 isn’t a lone voice in the Psalms. Despite our attempts to turn Psalms into a sweet, precious-moments devotional book, there are many words of deep anger:
“Break the arm of the wicked and evil man.” (10:15)
“On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur.” (11:6)
“Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions! Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short. May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along, like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.” (58:6-8)
Psalm 137 is not a lone voice. But it certainly does seem like the most un-Christian voice. Dash their babies? Can you say that in scripture? As a result, many Christians want to perform what Eugene Peterson calls a Psalmectomy. We want to be at our very best before God. We want to speak words of devotion, courage, and faithfulness. What we don’t want is something that sounds like it came from the Taliban.
The problem with a Psalmectomy, however, is that it exorcises the voice of people like the ones I described: the abused woman, the betrayed business partner, the grieving parent – and many, many others.
If we take away passages like Psalm 137, we only leave them with a couple options.
Some will force themselves to pretend. They’ll make spirited efforts to forgive, but they’ll never quite be able to get there. Outwardly they may say the right words, but the resentment and rage remain. Buried. Without getting to express their anger, they have to pretend that there is none.
Others will become professional victims. They’ll basically give up on life, on courageous decisions, and on people. They know they were hurt, and they’re going to live out of that pain.
As Peterson says, Psalm 137 resists both of those moves. It doesn’t recommend hatred; rather, it expresses the feelings that are there. Only then can one move beyond.
The people of God had been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 B.C. Now from exile, they’re remembering Jerusalem. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” And as if that isn’t enough, the captors are mocking them by insisting that they sing “songs of joy” from Zion. (Sadly, that very thing happened again to Jews during World War 2 at one of the concentration camps. Jewish prisoners were forced to sing and dance songs of their heritage – one final way to take away any remaining dignity.)
So the psalmist evokes God’s severest judgment on both the Babylonians who had destroyed Jerusalem and on the Edomites who stood to the side and cheered the Babylonians on.
It’s after asking the Lord to remember the enemies that he exclaims, “Happy [or Blessed] are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks.” Not exactly a beatitude we teach our children.
All right, so admittedly this isn’t the most noble moment of scripture. But it strikes me as honest. And before we write it off as being sub-Christian, perhaps we should ask what it accomplishes.
The writer takes his hatred to God, and in doing so – in bringing that raw sewage of enemy-hatred before the throne – he refuses to forgive too quickly. My own experience as a so-so forgiver tells me that Walter Brueggemann is right when he asks: “Could it be that genuine forgiveness is possible only when there has been a genuine articulation of hatred?” The hurt is real, and he refuses to pretend otherwise.
He also refuses to accept all the responsibility. He knows that there really are victims in this world. There are people who didn’t ask for what they got, who didn’t deserve what they got.
Our own versions of moralism (where you get what you deserve) seeps out in comments like this: “It takes two to destroy a marriage.” No it doesn’t! There usually are two sides to the story . . . but not always. Sometimes there is just someone doing evil and someone who is a victim.
The psalmist honors the freedom of the enemies by recognizing that they have a will and they have used the will for great harm.
But he won’t remain a victim. That’s not a role he’s auditioning for. He isn’t whining. He is praying – out loud! – his bold resistence to evil. He exposes it for what it is. He does battle with the evil by exposing it before God and by expressing his hurt, his anger, his red-hot bitterness.
But let me emphasize again: he takes this all to God. He prays it. Again, I think Brueggemann is right on target: “It is an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.”
That word of scripture comes to the 32-year-old mother . . . and to the financially-destroyed business partner . . . and to the weary, teary parent . . . and to us. What will we do with all our anger – anger at real enemies in this real world?
Will we retaliate? Will we pay them back? Will it be eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth? Or will we, instead, bring this anger before God? Do we believe he’s able to handle the honesty of it all?
I know what we’re all wondering: but what about forgiveness? What about, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”? or “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”? or “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times”? or “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven”?
True, Psalm 137 doesn’t get us there. “Kill their babies” is light-years from “love your enemies.” This isn’t the Sermon on the Mount.
It is, however, scripture. And its word to us is important. For before we can get to forgiveness, we have to be honest: honest to ourselves and honest before God.
I remember what Lewis Smedes said about forgiveness: that it has four stages: (1) we hurt; (2) we hate; (3) we heal; and (4) we come together. Listen again to those first two: we hurt, and we hate.
Psalm 137 isn’t vigilante justice. He isn’t heading out with a posse to round up all the infants. This isn’t King Herod! Rather, he’s trusting God to take the honest truth and deal with the venom. He takes his hatred to God and asks God to do what only God can do. For hatred will be fatal if it is allowed to remain and fester inside us.
Now here’s an important question: can we who follow Jesus Christ, the embodiment of forgiveness (and one who had enemies who killed him!), be trusted to hear Psalm 137? Can we hear it calling us to be honest before God about our bitterness without acting in retaliation? Can we be people of faith who’ll entrust our most precious hatreds to God, knowing that he’ll take them seriously and deal with them on his own terms? Can we begin here with this honest pain and continue on the journey toward love of enemy and forgiveness? Can we remind each other that God is in control and any vengeance that’s called for is God’s and not ours?
Let us pray:
Dear Lord of Justice and Compassion,
We bring our hatreds to you this morning. Here in the presence of your saints, we offer them to you. Some have been abandoned or abused by spouses. Some have been burned by business partners. Some have been gossiped about. Some were emotionally abused by parents. Some have been violated by monsters. Some have been lied to; others have been traumatically rejected. Some have lost loved ones to drunk drivers. And some have seen on TV the faces of evil people who bring terror into our world.
We bring these to you because we don’t want to be dominated by our hatred. We want to be free of it.
So today, Lord, please take over for us. If revenge needs to happen, you do it. We can’t. As sinners, we are too blind in our anger. And besides, in one way or another, we have contributed to the darkness of the world. We’re in no position to judge.
Having given this hatred to you, please fashion us into the image of Jesus Christ, who, when his enemies hurled insults at him, did not retaliate; who, when he suffered, made no threats; who, in the presence of those crucifying him, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And by his wounds we have been healed.
As we face our pain honestly this morning, hear our cries. Hear our pleas for justice in this world. Hear our thanks that your justice is mixed with mercy. And fashion us into a people who know true, rugged, courageous forgiveness.
Through Christ we pray, amen.
We always pause on November 21 to remember. This is a poem by Wendell Berry, written, ironically (for me), in 1994.
A man is lying on a bed
in a small room in the dark.
Weary and afraid, he prays
for courage to sleep, to wake
and work again; he doubts
that waking when he wakes
will recompense his sleep.
His prayers lean upward
on the dark and fall
like flares from a catastrophe.
He is a man breathing the fear
of hopeless prayer, prayed
in hope. He breathes the prayer
of his fear that gives a light
by which he sees only himself lying
in the dark, a low mound asking
almost nothing at all.
And then, long yet before dawn,
comes what he had not thought:
love that causes him to stir
like the dead in the grave, being
remembered—his own love or
Heaven’s, he does not know.
But now it is all around him;
it comes down upon him
like a summer rain falling
slowly, quietly in the dark.
– from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems
It was in the mid-to-late 1990’s when I got up one Sunday in the Highland pulpit with a keen sense of inadequacy. Perhaps it was the lingering fog of grief—a kind of sea smoke that washed over me many mornings. Or maybe it was just a sharpened sense of the awesome task of speaking a word on behalf of God. (“Woe to me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!” – Isaiah)
But in my prayer that morning, these words came out: “Please pour through me the gift of preaching.” And that might have been the last time I offered that prayer except that afterward Rebekah Zeller came up to tell me how much those words meant to her.
So then I had to actually think about them. And the more I thought about the task of preaching, the more they said just what I believed.
So I started offering that prayer every Sunday, and have now done so for the past nearly 20 years.
I wish I had saved every story parents from Highland told me about children who were asked to pray at dinner or at bedtime and who blurted out those words: “please pour through me the gift of preaching.” I love that! The rhythm and regularity of worship had settled in their hearts. And I love it whenever I hear a young minister offer the same prayer.
The words continue to express a deep mystery that I don’t fully understand. Preaching involves deep study, prayer, rumination, and imagination. But in the end, it is the Spirit of God who blesses the words and again speaks afresh from the Word of God to the people of God.
Many years ago, I got to be part of a small group of ministers who spent a few days with one of my ministry heroes, John Stott. During one session, Stott asked people what their current ministry challenges were. Someone began talking about the challenges they were facing in their religious tribe and in his church in particular as they began including women in all roles of ministry.
A megachurch pastor broke in: “I’d like to know why anyone thinks it’s all right to twist the word of God just so they can please culture!”
Stott turned to him and kindly said, “I think what you meant to say is this: ‘I would love to know more about how this brother who loves Jesus and scripture as much as I do could come to such different conclusions on this issue.'”
In the most recent edition of the Gospel Advocate, Matthew Morine has written an article entitled “The Feminist Agenda Within the Churches of Christ.”
Matthew is an effective minister at the Castle Rock Church of Christ in Colorado. He is a gifted, devoted Christ-follower who is passionate about his faith. You can read the full article either in the Gospel Advocate or at this link.
Matthew has expressed dismay that he has received “a lot of hate” from “the progressive side of the church” in response to the article. I hope that isn’t the case. I certainly haven’t seen anything online (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that was hateful. There were strong reactions, though the strongest seemed to come from people outside Churches of Christ.
However, it isn’t surprising to me that some have felt the need to respond—especially given the tone of the article. Here is how the author characterizes those he writes about:
– “Instead of following the plain teachings of the Word of God”
– “This disregard for the intent of the word of the Scriptures”
– “The feelings of those promoting women into leadership are fickle”
– “Hidden forces are at work seeking to corrupt your congregation and lead it into an unfaithful direction”
Perhaps the most provocative claim is that those wanting change are hypocrites: “The church leaders appealing for unbiblical expansion for women’s roles are being hypocrites.” One piece of evidence he cites is that most of the preachers in the more inclusive churches are male. But does that prove that these leaders are hypocrites? I think perhaps all it proves is that they are not the Popes of their churches. The fact that many are in congregations that are less inclusive than they believe those churches should be isn’t a sign of hypocrisy.
He also cites the hypocrisy of Pepperdine’s “Next Gen Preacher Search.” While this isn’t my project, it does come out of my office at Pepperdine, led by Jeff Walling. “Also, if you noticed the ‘Next Gen Preacher Search,’ a few ladies participated, but none of them made it to the final four contestants. Those who say they believe in women preaching are still holding women back from this role.” It seems that the implication is that Jeff or the vast group of judges intentionally rated the women lower. I hope that isn’t what he’s saying, but I don’t know another way to read this.
I remember now the words of my father: “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.” Don’t complain when people push back when you’ve accused them of ignoring the plain teachings of scripture, said they have a disregard for the Word of God, called them fickle, and boldly and baldly called them hypocrites. It isn’t hate that’s coming the author’s way (at least not that I’ve seen — and certainly not what this post is about); rather, it’s people defending themselves from unjustified criticism.
I believe he is wrong on this issue. But I don’t think he has a disregard for scripture; nor do I believe he’s a hypocrite. I just disagree with his understandings.
The people I know who believe in the expanded ministry of women love Jesus and love scripture just as much as he does. Some know scripture less than he does; others know scripture better. What’s different isn’t commitment to scripture or willingness to study scripture but conclusions about scripture. And you can be sure of this: no one can avoid the task of interpreting scripture. There is no one here who is “just reading scripture” without interpretation.
Can we come to different conclusions without calling each other hypocrites?
For me, coming to this new understanding was a painful journey. I changed my opinion on this a long time ago not because I wanted to cave in to culture or because I didn’t care what scripture said but because this is where my long study of scripture led me. (I also know others who know and love scripture as much as I do who disagree with me.)
This sermon is a decade old, but it explains how one devoted to scripture can come to an egalitarian position. Also, for further study you can refer to resources like these:
John Stackhouse, Finally Feminist
Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet
Stanley Grenz, Women in the Church
Alan Johnson, ed., How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership
Craig Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives
Ben Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity
William Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals
Carroll Osburn, Women in the Church, Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity (vols 1, 2)
This is not a matter of disregard for scripture; rather it’s an issue of different interpretations and different conclusions.
If you make the kind of bold claims about your opponents that the author makes, you will be overwhelmed with people cheering you on. “Thank you for holding to the word of God!” “Thank you for caring about truth!” “Jesus was attacked, too!”
But that doesn’t mean you were right.
Recently when Jeb Bush was asked about President Obama, he replied that he thought that Barack Obama is a good man who cares deeply about America. Then he went on to explain that he thought his vision and policies were wrong.
That’s really what I want in politics. Adults at the table. People who can disagree with one another over how to accomplish good ends. People who can disagree vehemently with the policies of another person without attacking their religion (“He’s a Muslim!”), their nationality (“He’s a Kenyan!”), their political inclinations, or their character.
I know Christians who HATE George W. Bush. And I know people who HATE Bill Clinton. Ironically, the two men seem to like each other. Just like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neal were drinking buddies and like Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy vacationed together with their families (taking a break from heated arguments with each other in the Senate—see the clip below of Hatch speaking at Kennedy’s funeral).
We live in an age of Fox News and MSNBC. An endless supply of anger and rage for fuel. I have found it helpful the last few years to refuse to watch both networks (except on rare occasions for something special).
I agree with Jeb Bush: Barack Obama seems like a good man—a loving husband, a doting father, a caring leader. That doesn’t mean I think his foreign policies are going well. And from everything I’ve seen, I think it would be enjoyable to spend an evening with George W. Bush. He, too, seems like a man with a sense of humor who loves his family and friends.
But somehow in our current political climate, it feels like you’re supposed to pick one of them to hate.
Our churches are filled with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. In largely Democratic churches (and yes, I know some!), Republicans may feel like they can’t say anything lest it seem that they don’t care about equality and justice. In largely Republican churches, Democrats may feel like they have to bottle up their thoughts and plaster fake smiles on their faces lest others accuse them of not caring about liberty and Christian values.
I once had a church leader tell me he didn’t know how you could be a Christian and a Republican. A few years later I had an elder in another church say he couldn’t fathom how you could be a Christian and a Democrat.
Can the demonizing please end? Can the character assassinations cease? Can we have sane political discourse? Can we find arenas where spirited arguments about policy and means can take place without assuming the other side hates our country?
And, while I’m at it, can we please remember that our true “citizenship” is in heaven (Philippians 1:27; 3:20) — and that our true “city charter” is the narrative of one who emptied himself, served, and died (2:6-11)? Politicians, policies, and even nations come and go through the centuries. But the in-breaking kingdom of God continues to invite us to the way of Christ.
The Rhythm of Grace
The Lead of Guidance
The Spin of Fun
The Lift of Wings
The Lunsford Foundation Trail around Abilene Christian University is my default jogging path when I’m in Abilene. It has become a sacred space for morning exercise and devotion.
Before I begin the 1.84 mile trail, I pause briefly at Jacob’s Dream. I remember well the first time Jack Maxwell described the project to our little covenant group. I’ve been there for devotionals, weddings, baptisms, and photoshoots. It’s a perfect spot to pause for a moment as the morning light shines through the stones, the space creating a sense of seeing the cross in the east.
From there, I walk down the sidewalk to where it hits the jogging trail, turning south (right) to run counterclockwise.
The first lap is a time to meditate on the many scriptures that line the path.
The third scripture (at .50 mile) is Psalm 121:2. Our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. As another psalm says, some trust in horses and chariots (and other human weapons), but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
The seventh scripture in the path appears at mile 1.37 and is the longest quotation (from Psalm 18:32-35). Once again we remember that our hope and confidence are anchored in God, who arms us with strength and keeps our way secure.
The final two passages come from Paul’s writings. The first, Colossians 3:23 (in the context of addressing slaves), reminds us that whatever we do, we should work at it with full devotion, knowing it’s ultimately for the Lord. (at 1.47)
The final one, Ephesians 6:2-3, seems like an odd choice—a reminder of the fifth commandment to honor our father and mother—until you remember how many university students are on the path. Some come from wonderful, affirming, life-giving homes; others came from homes where shame and blame were the name of the game. But all of us have to learn ways to honor our parents. (at 1.79)
Besides the passages in the sidewalk, there are engraved stones that I sometimes take in (depending on the pace!): 2 Chronicles 16:9 (at .43), John 3:16 (at .61), Proverbs 16:3 (at 1.37), and Romans 12:12 (also at 1.37).
On my second lap, I enjoy praying for the mission of Christ around the world nation-by-nation, with the help of the many banners that line the course. Even though many are for ACU promotional branding (including 34 of 42 which announce that “There’s a new cat in Division I”), the others bear the names of countries. I’ll choose one of the promotional banners to pray for students, faculty, and staff of the university. But then I pray for the other countries, including friends I know in some of them—like Antenor and Phyllis Goncalves (and others) in Brazil.
At the end of a second or third lap (full disclosure: if I do a third lap, I’m pretty focused on running; not much praying going on at this point), it’s a brief walk back to Jacob’s Dream to remember that in baptism I’ve been called to a new life, a new hope, a new mission in Jesus Christ.
“I thought elders were supposed to lead! This isn’t a democracy where they take a congregational poll!”
“They seem to have no regard for the opinions of the church. They just decide and move on without considering the church!”
It isn’t easy being an elder. So often, they just can’t win. I’ve heard the above comments from the same members—at different times over different issues. The position they express (Lead more! or Listen more!) depends on which side they’re on.
If it looks like the elders are going to make a decision that I agree with but that many in the church disagree with, then I’m leaning into their responsibility to lead. Shepherds lead the sheep!
If it looks like the elders are going to press forward with something I don’t like, then I’m going to squawk about how they aren’t dictators. Shepherds don’t trample over the sheep!
Alas, it’s hard to win this one as elders.
The truth is that elderships must do both: they must stay in close touch with the church. They must listen to the voices of all the sisters and brothers in a church. Discernment is an important part of the process of decision-making. AND they must eventually decide. And it seems increasingly (as with American politics) that there is fall-out with every decision. It’s too much. Or it isn’t enough.
This is the point in a great blog where a seasoned minister gives the answer to this dilemma.
I don’t have one. If I did, I’d open a consulting business and get rich.
I’m only pleading with people to see the challenge. And perhaps be a bit more compassionate. Press hard. Pray hard. Make your case. But do your very best to make the hard work of leading a joyful one.
And I know: it can’t always be.