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Month: May 2017

Personalizing the Psalms (Psalm 83)

Personalizing the Psalms (Psalm 83)

I shared with my spiritual director that I was finding that some of the Psalms resonated in a new way with my heart. She suggested that I go a step beyond my reading and reflection. She advised me to re-write certain Psalms in my words in order to express personal emotions of anguish, anger, joy, and gratitude. Over the past weeks I have tried to incorporate this spiritual discipline into my times of contemplation.

My approach is guided by a few principles:

  • Find a quiet time with a good pen and pieces of paper.
  • Select a Psalm that speaks to me.
  • Identify the main emotion of the Psalmist (e.g., fear, despair, confidence, happiness).
  • Underline the key verse or phrase that connects with my heart.
  • Allow myself the freedom to change the order and flow of ideas in the Psalm. I do not feel obligated to include every phrase of the text in my personalized version.
  • Express my faith and vulnerabilities as boldly as the writer of the Psalm. I try to reach into my heart.
  • Read it aloud and revise several times. Then offer it to God as a prayer and a poem.

 

Psalm 83

I wrote a personal version of this Psalm while praying for hungry people in South Sudan and preparing to speak about them at a fundraising banquet.

 

God,

We long to hear your voice.

 

People are crying out to you

Pleading for action.

How can you look down detached and distant

From the violence and hunger in South Sudan

And the broken lives on the streets of Winnipeg?

 

I can theologize with the best of them.

I can explain free will

And the nature of evil (at least on a theoretical basis).

But here on earth

Your enemies craft plans

Against innocent people.

Nothing can stop them.

 

Some of us pray from our protected cloisters.

Others are crying out

From refugee camps.

From bombed out buildings.

From hospitals that treat the wounded.

From homes without food.

 

You have no obligation to listen to our prayers

Uttered in comfort.

But would you listen to the victims?

Would you act on their behalf?

 

Powerful God,

Take these men of violence

The authors of war and destruction,

Reduce them to whirling dust

And straw before the desert wind.

With a raging wildfire

Destroy their armed villas,

Their offshore bank accounts,

And even the memories of their deeds.

Terrify them with the hurricane

Of your judgement.

Let them be put to shame

And die in disgrace.

 

Lord,

We your people need to know

That the God of justice and mercy

Rules over all the earth.

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Things that Make for Peace (Luke 19.42)

Things that Make for Peace (Luke 19.42)

The images of Syrian children struggling to breathe were horrifying. Their young lives were threatened by an attack using Sarin gas dropped from warplanes. The local hospital was ill equipped to respond to the emergency. To make matters worse, it was bombed in the same attack. The Syrian  civil war is entering its seventh year. The statistics are staggering; 465 thousand killed, over 1 million injured, and over 12 million displaced people and refugees.

Syria is not the only place of great violence and suffering. We can add to the list the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, South Sudan, Yemen, the Ukraine, and Afghanistan. In each of these locations there is no apparent peace plan apart from more violence.

Years ago, Walter Wink wrote about the myth of redemptive violence. Political and military leaders make promises based on superior forces and bombing. In some ways they are simply repeating the words of a Russian general (quoted by Niall Ferguson in The War of the World) that we will have to save the town by destroying it. The intractable conflicts of our current time should at least make us open to think about other ways of building peace.

Jesus paused when he entered Jerusalem. He expressed his lament with the following words: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Having entered the city, he predicted that the Roman armies would one day overcome the city and destroy the temple. He could see the outcome of popular sentiment and religious propaganda.

Those of us who follow Jesus have the mission of describing and defining those things that make for peace. I have a short list based on values from the gospel teaching:

  • Humility.
  • Mercy and compassion for others.
  • Commitment to truth and justice.
  • Willingness to forgive and seek forgiveness.
  • Service to the most vulnerable.
  • Generosity.
  • Love of enemies.
  • Concern for the common good.
  • An awareness that God will judge our actions and our motives.

I find it disappointing that so few of these virtues are part of the discourse of our times. One reason may be that we as citizens still hold to the myth of redemptive violence. May God have mercy on our world! May our churches be places where the things that make for peace are part of our teaching and witness in a broken and wounded world.

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Reflections After a Heart Attack

Reflections After a Heart Attack

I did not anticipate that the main artery of my heart was about to be blocked. I was about to go out for a walk when I felt an intense pain across my chest. This was the first sign that my life was threatened. I was both fortunate and privileged. Regine drove me to the emergency ward of a hospital. Medical professionals attended to me. I underwent surgery and was placed in intensive care.

I am now at the beginning of an uncertain period during which I must focus on recovery. I am warned about engaging in the routine activities of life and work – the things that gave meaning to my existence as a person. I stand before God and my friends as someone that is weak and unable to care for himself.

There are strong emotions after a heart attack. Some of these feelings may be intensely personal and shaped by the circumstances of an individual. However, I suspect that there are common questions and anxieties shared by many people during a medical crisis.

  • “Why me?” In my case, medical tests had not revealed a susceptibility to heart attacks. It is easy to wallow in self-pity and to think that there was something unfair about what happened to me. But I also ask: “Why was my life spared?” Our friend Louise died of a heart attack a month ago. I cannot bring myself to think of God as a divine puppet-master that pulls the strings around us. I prefer to contemplate that life is a gift and that my days have been numbered since the date of my birth. I have been given more time for a reason.

 

  • “What changes must I accept and embrace?” I thrived and found my purpose within the mission of an international organization. I enjoyed friendships, collegiality, the sharing of gifts, and the commitment to common values. I sense that I will lose something of my identity and passion if I take the logical steps into retirement. What meaning will I find when separated from the vocational community to which I belonged?

 

  • “How do I feel about death?” I admit that I was afraid in the emergency ward. But more dominant that fear was the desire to live longer and enjoy my life with Regine. There are things we want to do as a couple. I also want to spend time with children, grandchildren, and friends. It seems too early to say the final good-byes. I want to savour more deeply the rich experiences of life.

 

  • “How do I place my sufferings in the context of the injustices and violence of the world?” I feel the weight of privilege. Millions of people in the world are crying out for mercy. They lack food, are displaced by violence, and struggle each day to survive. I contrast my circumstances to theirs. Last week I had the best of medical care with the costs covered by Canada’s social medicine program. The disparity requires me to find an ethical perspective in which I continue to hold some responsibility for those on the margins.

 

I want to conclude by emphasizing the meaning of friendship and family in the days following my heart attack. We are grateful for those people that hold us up in prayer, drop off meals, mow our lawn, and simply listen to the confused expressions of my heart. In a time of weakness, they allow us to experience community and ministry in a new way.

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