Perfect hate; perfect love

photo by Katherine Brown
How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!
If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: 
when I awake, I am still with thee.
Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? 
and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
 

Psalm 139:17-24, excerpt from Psalm 139, lectionary text for Jan. 17, 2021

(King James Version because that’s what I’d memorized way back when.)

I memorized this psalm when I was in college.  I wandered campus reciting it, gestured with my hands to show ‘beset behind and before,’ quickened my speech to pull the darkness over me, then slowed my cadence to count thoughts more numerous than sand.  With dramatic passion, I rejected the wicked, then with a hastening urgency addressed the LORD directly, alibiing my firmness.  ‘Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? And am I not grieved with those that rise up against thee?’  See me, God?  I have ranged myself with you against all those ‘bloody men.’  I am on your side.  So you are on my side.  Yes?  My tone implied the question; hinted at uncertainty; perhaps accounted for the difficulty I had in memorizing the last verses.  ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart:  try me and know my thoughts….’   I chanted them formally, as if to distance the risk of such a prayer.

Psalm 139 has felt so privately mine that I am surprised to find it in the lectionary cycle.  It expresses a relationship too intimate to recite in community — ‘You have searched me and known me ….’  The lectionary portion reinforces that sense as it includes only the verses that dwell on the relationship of psalmist and LORD — omitting any reference to the wicked, to enemies, to any other that would complicate or contradict the connection so intense and pure and personal.  As if this is the only axis of relationship that is. Yet for two weeks, now, of all the psalm’s poetry, the lines that have lingered are those omitted from the lectionary.   I find myself pondering ‘perfect hatred.’  The phrase catches and sticks in a mind still disturbed by the violence at the Capitol as a symptom of anger and fear and hate that is not new only newly fomented.  The inauguration was at most a pause in the storm.  Division persists.  

This practice of writing words is personal.  This is a devotion, not a manifesto.  I write for my own need and faith relationship; theology (if that), not politics.  The presenting offense that day was against the Constitution, not the Bible.  It pertains to the way we relate to each other in and as this nation, regardless of how any of us relates to God.  Except, except … I am commanded not just to love the LORD but my neighbor.  I cannot ponder my own personal escape into the ‘uttermost parts of the sea’ and ignore the violent tearing of our national fabric.  Yes, it was a a fabric flawed in its original weaving, but the pattern of its dreamed ideal has a beauty worth furthering.  This leaky vessel should be rewoven not ripped apart.  We are all in the same sea and so far away from shore.

A day or two after the insurrection, The Washington Post quoted a demonstrator still crowing over the battle for the Capitol, justifying the violence by distinguishing opponents from neighbors: “These police are protecting the villains inside that building. Somebody back in a small town, that’s my neighbor,” [the interviewee] said.  Maybe it was happenstance that the man quoted defined the ‘villains’ of Congress in opposition to those whose identity he construed in terms of literal proximity.  To me, though, ‘my neighbor’ connected immediately with Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self, and the man’s definition was at odds with Jesus’ teaching how to love as neighbor, stretching ‘self’ across a striking line of division. Love of neighbor is God’s ‘royal law.’ The law goes farther still:  Love the stranger among you as yourselfLove your enemy

That one quote — of the entire article — went deep and twisted.  It evoked words I love and claim and am claimed by, yet its undermining revision passed unremarked.  Either it was overlooked or was seen as more of the same from one among a crowd which had perpetrated violence under — literally — the banner of Christ. I was angry.  I hurt.  These words that to me are treasure were mistreated, made to be of little account.  Into this miasma of exhausting emotion came Psalm 139.  Its proud proclamation of ‘perfect hatred’ complicated my pondering of neighbor-love.  What is ‘perfect hatred’?   How does it fit in a faith that is lived not just as a private intimacy between me and the LORD but in relationship with the national neighborhood?  

Some commentaries assert that these verses are ‘unpleasant,’ ‘ugly,’ yet justified as an example of honesty before the LORD.  The honesty — not the hate — is what we are to emulate:  name the hate so that God can transform it to love.  I am not convinced.  The flow of the psalm itself does not suggest that the hate is meant to be a transitory state, set aside as perfection in love is reached.  The hate described is perfect, complete, full.  How can the proclamation of perfect hate be a part of the process of being perfected in love?  

Perhaps the answer begins in following the flow of the psalm.  Say it aloud.  Allow the cadences to pull me in and pattern my thoughts.  Begin with the declaration of God’s presence, close as breath.  Recite the impossibility of escaping from God — and then the truth that enemies make it difficult to experience God’s presence.  ‘Depart from me therefore!’  Then pause.  Remember.  Neither I nor the wicked can depart from God’s presence.  All those prior verses made that plain.  We are bound together in this world, its morning wings and sea surrounding, its light and its dark, its already-written, still-imperfect, yet coming-to-be.  Take a fresh breath and pray those last two verses.  Claim perfect hatred not as passionate emotion against the other but as passionate commitment to the LORD.  That commitment requires the risk of the prayer to be divinely searched, divinely tried, that I may learn to oppose in myself that which opposes the LORD, that I may oppose it as well in any other.  The end of the psalm takes me back to its beginning, the declaration that, bidden or unbidden, God has searched, God has known.  God will do so whether we ask or not.   Bidding God’s knowledge of me, I bid my own of God.  This is the axis of relationship that makes the others possible.

‘Lead me in the way everlasting.’  

Lead me in the way of love.  Lead me to long and work and live for love’s perfection.  Love of God, love of neighbor, love of stranger, love of enemy, love of myself.  Love of this fragile vessel that is our national neighborhood.    

Cup my palm as if God’s right hand, holding us afloat on this wide sea that is not our own.

The word that breaks in.

photo by Katherine Brown
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; 
the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; 
and in his temple all say, "Glory!"
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

Psalm 29; psalm for Sunday, January 10, 2021

Newness is not to be grabbed.  It is gift to be received, to be grasped-by. So I sit upstairs at my desk to read and write and look and listen.  I am given the particular text; I am given the particular time.  I work to connect the two, and I pray for newness to come.

It is a grey day.  The light is low.  The sky is soft, folds of greys, ranging from creamy-pale to a subtle violet.  The trees are black against its ground.  Their bare branches stretch tall, seem to reach, bend and sway as the wind blows.

An aptness at the outset connects text and days, liturgical and political.  Psalm 29 is the text given for Sunday.  The day I sit to it is Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, the celebration of the arrival of the Magi — ‘three kings’ in tradition’s claim — who follow a star and ask King Herod where to find the child born king.   The focus of Epiphany is usually on the Magi, and their miracle star.  At stake is a clash of kingships, and of kingdoms.  And on this very day, Congress meets to ceremoniously process the tally of Electoral College votes so to effect the ideal of peaceful transfer of power according to the people’s will. 

I read Psalm 29.  The cedared height of Lebanon skips like a calf in my mind’s eye as the trees outside my window dance in the wind.  I imagine a forest flinging itself around in some mad jig.  At first there’s a playfulness to the picture.  Then I re-read and realize:  the forest is flung.  The trees don’t dance of their own accord but as the wind takes them.  As the voice of the LORD thunders and breaks and flings and flashes, convulses the wilderness, whirls oaks and strips the forest bare.

As the voice of the LORD makes be.  

Give glory to the LORD, O heavenly beings, the psalm begins.  Give to the LORD ‘the glory of his name’ — a definite glory, peculiarly God’s own, not to be confused or conflated with the glory or strength of any other being.  Give glory to the LORD whose voice sounds with terrible power through the rest of the psalm — over the waters, through the forests, upon the mountains, within the wilderness, until all who see and hear and feel God’s power cry out ‘Glory!’

‘The LORD sits enthroned as king forever.’  

At stake in the psalm — as in the day, liturgical and political — is the clash of kingships.  Heavenly beings are not to set themselves above the LORD, nor is anything on earth.  The imagery is violent.  Creation itself is overwhelmed.  The voice of the LORD has a destructive power.  Its end, though, is not chaos but the conquering of chaos.  The voice of the LORD does not destroy for destruction’s sake but for the sake of life, for shalom — that is peace, and more than peace, wholeness.

‘The LORD sits enthroned as king forever.’   

I hear helicopters passing over. I wonder if they are headed downtown, if they carry news crews or the National Guard.  The morning’s planned ‘protest’ of Congress’s ceremonial attestation has morphed into a mob action.  I leave my desk for updates.  I see photos and videos of the crowd streaming onto the Capital grounds, surging up the steps, smashing doors and windows, swarming through the hallways.  They bear American flags and Confederate flags.  They bear massive banners emblazoned with Trump’s name.  They bear banners that say ‘Jesus Saves’ and ‘God Wins.’  The relative sizes suggest that Trump is the senior member of this trinity.  I text friends.  I turn on the television to flip through the news updates.  The aptness of the psalm is unnerving — its claims of God’s sovereignty are literally contradicted on the streets, Trump and God conflated in the signage borne.  The psalm reminds of what’s at stake: ‘The LORD sits enthroned as king forever.’   Kingships clash.

Day turns toward dusk, and flash-bangs light up the Capitol.  Dusk turns to dark, and events continue to unfold.  Congress is back in session.  Senators speechify and commentators opine.  I talk back to the television, in fervent response to the violence itself and to the sanctimony of the belated disavowal of such mayhem.  I am angry with those whose dismay seems self-serving.  I am angry with those whose words seem sincere yet dangerously mistaken.  ‘This is not the America I know,’ they say, as if their experience is the sum of national identity.  ‘This is not who we are,’ they offer, as if history effectively contradicted the claim.

This is us.  Conflating the unholy with the holy.  Confusing the dominion delegated to us with our own will. Shrinking our conception of neighbor to the one near us.  Excluding the other.  Grabbing after power.  Trying to save ourselves alone. We articulate other ideals, even strive to live them.  But this is who we live.  This is who we are. Name it truly.  This is not who we want to be; this is not who we are called to be.  Tell the truth; make space for transformation.

I want to write flames and thunder and trumpets.  I want words that blaze high enough to light the dark, brass that rings clear amid the din.   I am shocked at my own urgency.   It is not my anger alone that takes me aback but my intense desire to word it.  Why bother?  Why add more words to the myriad already spoken and texted and posted and published?  Where are such words to be found?  What difference do they make?

‘The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. …  The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.  The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness.’

Words do things.  Words divide.  Words incite.  

‘The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”’  

Words strengthen and words bless.  Words have power to make things be.  

I am given these words — already aflame — that acclaim as king the LORD, God who will not suffer any other to share the glory of his name or throne.  Feel their force stripping away false claims.  Let myself be grasped and moved by their power.  Add my voice to the throng saying ‘Glory!’  The chorus praying peace that is healing and wholeness for all lives, not some, that words and voice together may further that end.

Birth breaks the world open. We are broken of our own doing. Pray birth, now, of God’s own in-breaking.