There’s this spot in my neighbourhood I go when I need to listen, when I need to think. You may know the place yourself.
For years before I lived in my current neighbourhood, I only knew this spot from driving through. It was – and still remains – my favourite moment on the drive from Richmond into the city.
It was earlier this afternoon that I found myself in that place again, looking down on that panorama of mountains, and of ocean, punctuated by the port’s cranes and those hovering over ever-evolving towers. Downtown seems so small, so distant from the crest of the hill where Knight Street and 37th Avenue meet.
Sitting atop the hill, with the city in view, I found myself reading and rereading the 31stPsalm.
In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame
This is the poetry of the refugee. They are the words of one being sought for destruction. This is the vision of the displaced, the reality of the dispossessed, the lament of one who fears they will never again find their way home. This is the poetry of anyone who has ever been in relationship with another human.
And we know what that’s like, don’t we? We all have our stories of leaving. Of places we can never go back to. Others of us carry stories of running away, even running for our lives.
This is not a world free from violence, and the Psalmist knows it. This is not a world free from hate, nor is ours a culture unbound by shame.
In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
Do not let me ever be put to shame;
In your righteousness deliver me.
The breathless words of a poet on the run. Footfalls on cobbled streets, shallow breath being caught. The Psalmist escapes, feeling, perhaps finding himself truly and utterly alone. And in it all, the only one who remains faithful is God.
As I read the psalm through, I wondered, where is God? The Psalmist alternates between a sense of God’s imminent presence, and a frustrated longing for salvation. Throughout the psalms, God is imaged as solid, strong, tender, and caring. God is at times imminent and involved, and at others, feels distant.
But as I looked at this Psalm in particular, it seemed to me as though God is not absent in this psalm. Even in the midst of frustration, anxiety, and pain, we find her as close as the psalmist’s breath, as near as the hand of a mother holding her child’s hand – past the bully’s house – on their way home from a particularly traumatic encounter at school.
Even in those times we find ourselves with heaving chest and sobbing cries, God is there, whispering to us that we are her beloved. Even – perhaps especially – on those days we’re so overwhelmed we cannot possibly believe such love is possible.
The Psalmist gives me comfort. The Psalmist gives me hope. Because the Psalmist – like each of us – is full of contradiction. But then, so is God. And so is the relationship between God and humanity.
It’s not just one steady march. It’s a dance full of ups and downs. Proximity and distance. Sometimes we’re good to each other. Sometimes not so much.
In February, listening to an interview between Krista Tippett and atheist philosopher Alain deBotton, I was particularly struck by this quotation from one of deBotton’s books:
“A wiser culture than ours would recognize that the start of a relationship is not the high point that romantic art assumes; it is merely the first step of a far longer, more ambivalent, and yet quietly audacious journey on which we should direct our intelligence and scrutiny.”
The religious subculture in which I grew up painted – and often continues to paint a rosy picture of what life in relationship to God ought to look like. In hindsight, that image is strangely similar to the one found in romantic art, let alone Disney’s princess stories. It all starts awkwardly to be sure, but you meet, it’s sunshine and roses, and happily ever after.
But I can’t buy into that any more. I’d rather trust a poet than the marketers of feel-good films to tell me the truth about life, and love, let alone my relationship to God. Rather than paying regard to those worthless idols, I think I’ll listen to the bible this time around.
In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the Lord.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.
9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbours,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, ‘You are my God.’
15 My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
Navigating his relationship to God through real trouble, through real anxiety, through the complexities of life, the Psalmist has a lot to offer as we figure out what it means to live into the complexity of a relationship with God on the other side of its consummation.
And the Psalms, I would argue, usher us beautifully and helpfully into the ambivalent, and yet quietly audacious journey that our relationship with God ought more properly to be.