Five years ago, I wrote this piece based on the wonderful movie “Higher Ground.” It still rings true for me now that I’m 60 and leaning into Easter.
– – – –
This post is part movie review and part memoir of a winter Christian.
Higher Ground stars and is directed by Vera Farmiga. It follows the faith journey of Corinne Briggs—first as a child “asking Jesus into her heart” when the pastor tells the children that Jesus is polite, waiting to be invited into their lives; then as a young mother thrust back into belief when she, her husband, and their child are delivered from near drowning; and finally as a woman who lives in the middle of a fundamentalist group of self-proclaimed “Jesus freaks.”
This film avoids the easy road of turning all the Christians into hypocrites and judgmental clowns. They are three-dimensional people of faith, seeking to live in deep community. They are held together by lives of constant Bible study and prayer. They turn to God’s word for “answers” on everything—including the hilarious scene where the men gather in a circle to listen to seven cassette tapes on sex by some well-known Christian sex expert. (Yes, such tapes exist! I was forced to listen to them when I was an engaged student in college.)
Corinne wants desperately to share the easy faith and confidence of her husband, Ethan. She would love to believe that every prayer is answered, that every verse of scripture is literally true. She even begs God for the gift of tongues as a kind of confirmation, though it’s not endorsed by most in their community.
But in trying to survive in this fundamentalism, she keeps finding parts of her life that must be shut out—her love for literature, music, and creation. When her best friend is diagnosed with brain cancer and is left dramatically altered by surgery, she finds herself unable to just jump in and be thankful for God’s answer.
Following the surgery, the pastor leads the congregation in “It Is Well With My Soul.” At that point, you see Corinne joining in lifelessly at the chorus. You realize she can’t remain in this place. Not all is well with her soul.
A fundamentalist therapist tells her that she’s in danger of going to hell where her flesh will be whipped and ripped. He tells her that she must decide whether she’ll be inside with Jesus or outside with the dogs.
Corinne returns to her church building. Inside she sees all the signs of religious confidence; then as she walks outside dogs begin to gather around her. She realizes that her place is on the outside, without hating those on the inside.
As a winter Christian, my life has been dogged by doubts and questions. I tried many times to be a good fundamentalist. Six literal days of creation? Check. Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch? Check. God’s answer to every prayer? Check. I memorized large chunks of scripture and spent (literally) an hour a day in prayer. I listened to the sermons on the eternal, conscious torments of hell (a renewed favorite theme within Christian fundamentalism).
But, alas, there were gaps in the armor of faith. Some were caused by reading outside my protected circle. Some by over-thinking. (I’m always guilty of this.) But some just by life.
During my years as a minister, I constantly felt the disappointment of some who wanted more confidence. They needed miracles; their minister loved mystery. They loved The Prayer of Jabez; I was embarrassed by it. They turned to scripture as an answer book; I found in it life’s greatest questions (along with an “answer” in Jesus). They saw it as the inerrant blueprint for dating, marriage, job, etc.; I trusted it as my spiritual community’s library of faith. They wanted confident prayers expelling Satan and claiming spiritual victories; I turned to the Lord’s Prayer. They spotted God’s healing everywhere they turned; I kept performing funerals. They needed more “already”; I’m “not yet.” They wanted sermons where everyone could shout “Amen!”; I preached anticipating quiet nods, thoughtful expressions, and eyes moist with hope.
It may sound like I think I’m really more spiritual than others. I don’t. I’m a winter Christian. I love and desperately need my fellow summer believers. I’m drawn by their answers, their confidence, their optimism.
But at age 55, I’m thankful for this faith that has survived. Doubt-filled, less-than-confident faith. I’ve given up thinking that if I just try harder I’ll have the assurance others seem to have.
I will groan, long, wait, and hope. For I’m a believer in the resurrection of Jesus.
My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay
Tho’ some may dwell where these abound
My prayer, my aim is higher ground.
This is the prayer written and spoken by my dear friend Leonard Allen on the opening night of the 2016 Pepperdine Bible Lectures (just before N. T. Wright spoke):
Eternal God, we come to you through our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the power of your gracious Spirit. You are holy and your name is great.
We gather tonight as people whom you have welcomed into your household, and to your table. And you have surrounded us with sisters and brothers—the body of Christ—so that we are not alone. With them, we enjoy the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and experience the reality of your kingdom coming.
Tonight as we assemble in this place, we anticipate a feast—a feast from your Word, a feast of fellowship, a feast of friends old and new. We thank you for the gracious gift of hospitality by this institution. We thank you for the speakers, invited from all over the globe, who bring us their learning, their wisdom, their faith, their passion for your kingdom. And we thank you for our brother Tom Wright, from whom many of us have learned much over the years. What a rich blessing this week!
Dare we pray to become more cruciformed? By the death of your beloved Son you took an instrument of shameful death and made it the means of life for us. So the cross has become for us a powerful and precious story. Through the cross we have been brought down to death and back to life through new birth. So we are your baptized people. You’ve raised us from our watery graves, made us alive with Jesus Christ, and touched us with the fire of the Spirit of Christ.
So I say to Jesus now:
Thank you for the cross, Lord
Thank you for the price you paid
Bearing all our sin and shame
In love you came
and gave amazing grace
And now, oh God, continue to form us through your Word and Spirit!
Make us, as Jesus was, lovers of truth and able to be trusted.
Make us, as Jesus was, full of kindness, even for those who dislike or even despise us.
Make us, as Jesus was, resolute in trust and steadfast in faith.
Make us, as Jesus was, instruments of your peace.
We want to live more deeply into the story of Jesus. May it be so, oh God, this very week.
I pray though Jesus. Amen.
PBL, May 3, 2016
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.