Psalm 59 – Victimization Needs a Voice

Oh, my God, deliver me from my enemies;
    put me out of reach from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from evildoers;
    save me from the bloodthirsty.
Look at how they lie in ambush for my life!
    Powerful people are attacking me, Lord—
        but not because of any error or sin of mine.
    They run and take their stand—
        but not because of any fault of mine.

Get up when I cry out to you!
    Look at what’s happening!
You are the Lord God of heavenly forces,
    the God of Israel!
Wake up and punish all the nations!
    Grant no mercy to any wicked traitor!

They come back every evening,
    growling like dogs,
    prowling around the city.
See what they belch out with their mouths:
    swords are between their lips!
        Who can listen to them?
But you, Lord, laugh at them.
    You mock all the nations.
I keep looking for you, my strength,
    because God is my stronghold.
My loving God will come to meet me.
    God will allow me to look down on my enemies.

Don’t kill them, or my people might forget;
    instead, by your power
    shake them up and bring them down,
        you who are our shield and my Lord.
For the sin of their mouths,
    the words that they speak,
    let them be captured in their pride.
For the curses and lies they repeat,
        finish them off in anger;
        finish them off until they are gone!
Then let it be known to the ends of the earth
    that God rules over Jacob.

They come back every evening,
    growling like dogs,
    prowling around the city.
They roam about for food,
    and if they don’t get their fill,
    they stay all night.
But me? I will sing of your strength!
    In the morning I will shout out loud
    about your faithful love
        because you have been my stronghold,
        my shelter when I was distraught.
I will sing praises to you, my strength,
    because God is my stronghold,
    my loving God. (Common English Bible)

David was in a major pickle.

He was wildly successful as a member of King Saul’s court and a captain in his army. David fought Saul’s battles and won major victories. And this put him in the position of being the object of jealousy from Saul. So much so, that the king was ready to snuff out David’s life. David had done everything Saul had asked of him, and he was now about to be repaid by becoming a hunted man.

Today’s psalm was crafted by David in this awkward space between being at home but about to be on the run. It was a time of high anxiety and hypervigilance, of trying to come to grips with what was happening and about to happen.

Honestly, I really don’t like it when people poo-poo and invalidate other people’s emotions.

Every feeling which comes up for us is meant to be acknowledged and paid attention to.

Otherwise, if every feeling is tossed into some internal trash bin, those emotions eventually come out sideways,  looking like the stereotypical uptight and inflexible person who chronically complains and irritates others with their stone-faced tight-lipped sanctimonious policing of another’s feelings.

Such persons are aghast that psalms like today’s are even in the Bible. Biblical scholars identify these psalms as “imprecatory” psalms because they are curses, giving vent to the bitter anger and painful wonderings of the inner person.

A few years back, I was a chaplain in a large care facility. One of the residents was a retired Episcopal priest. He developed a brain tumor and had surgery to remove it. However, getting rid of the tumor damaged his ability to speak.

So, when I came to see him after his return to the nursing home, he labored intensely just to get a simple sentence out. And after each struggle to speak he would swear and utter some expletive, then apologize to me.

Finally, I said to him, “There’s no need to apologize. You have spent your life using words to bless and help others and now that has been robbed of you. You are angry. I am angry. Let’s just sit here and swear together about it.”

We raged together about disease. We swore like sailors about injustice. We cried out to God for vengeance on evil (and I was secretly praying that no one would walk into the room while we were doing this).

Whereas psalms of lament express deep sadness, imprecatory psalms rage with deep-seated anger.

With no cursing of disease, sickness, and death, it comes out sideways in this unkind sort of “snarky-ness” toward each other. In fact, one day I was speaking with someone at work, and she said to me, “Everyone was so mean to each other yesterday that I went home and cried.”

What I am proposing here is that our anger, our rage, even our vengeance needs recognition, just like our sadness does. Our bitterness must have an outlet, not directed toward one another, but toward the evil itself – and even toward God because God is big enough to handle our rage, whereas other humans are not.

Victimization needs a voice, and a bit of raging and cursing is the means to do it.

Giving voice to our deep anger is cathartic and therapeutic. Our speech needs to be congruent with the intensity of our pain because wherever there are no valued words of assault for victims, the risk of hurting each other is much higher.

Despair with no voice and no one to hear will eventually transition to harming others.

Holy One, you do not distance yourself from the pain of your people, but in Jesus bear that pain with us and bless all who suffer at another’s hands. Make our hurting holy! With your cleansing love, bring healing and strength; and by your justice, lift us up so that we may again rejoice in you, through Christ, my Lord. Amen.

Psalm 120 – Gaslighting Trouble

Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the 1944 film, “Gaslight”

I’m in trouble. I cry to God,
    desperate for an answer:
“Deliver me from the liars, God!
    They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.”

Do you know what’s next, can you see what’s coming,
    all you bold-faced liars?
Pointed arrows and burning coals
    will be your reward.

I’m doomed to live in Meshech,
    cursed with a home in Kedar,
My whole life lived camping
    among quarreling neighbors.
I’m all for peace, but the minute
    I tell them so, they go to war! (The Message)

I wish we lived in a world where people always speak and live the truth in love, without lying, pretense, or posturing. But we don’t. Not everyone embraces a life of encouraging others through truthful affirmation and selfless acts of service.

In reading today’s psalm, I immediately think of all the patients I’ve seen as a chaplain on my behavioral health unit who have been gaslighted.

“Gaslighting” is a recent term, yet the concept is as old as Satan’s interaction with Adam and Eve in the Garden. The word comes from the 1944 movie, “Gaslight,” starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In the attempt to drive his wife insane, the husband rigs the gaslights of the house so they will flicker at night. Whenever his wife comments on it, her husband flat-out lies and says the lights are not flickering at all. I’ll let you watch the film yourself to see what happens.

A person who “gaslights” uses psychological manipulation to gain and assert control over someone or some group. Gaslighters actively undermine others, using their words against them, plotting nefarious plans for them behind their backs, lying without so much of a blink of an eye, and turning family or friends against someone – all with the insidious agenda of increasing their power over that person and solidifying their dependence from the victim.

All of this gaslighting behavior is done with a smile, said with syrupy words to hook you, rather than help you. That, of course, makes it hard to spot – which is why it is so devilish. If the gaslighter can get you to doubt yourself, your abilities, or your perception of reality, then they can worm themselves into your life and plant their thoughts inside you.

Gaslighters don’t want peace. They want conflict. People at war give them an opportunity to gain more influence and power. Plus, they just plain like to watch others fight amongst themselves. It gives them a sense of control.

Today’s psalm is part of the psalms of ascent – songs used by the community as they walk their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and up the temple mount. The people collectively lament the gaslighting activity of those who oppose and hate them. And they turn to God, who abhors gaslighters, seeking solace and safety from their evil ways.

The gaslighter’s end is certain. They will have to contend with the God who will not be manipulated by anyone. Although it is not our job to punish sinners, it very much is our responsibility to see and avoid gaslighting as much as possible, as well as, God forbid, becoming a gaslighter ourselves. To that end, take note of some of the manipulative marks of gaslighters and patterns of gaslighting:

  • Pitting people against one another. This is done a variety of ways through gossip masked as trying to help, subtle slander, and carefully placed lies.
  • Avoiding responsibility. The gaslighter never owns their words and actions but are experts at blaming others for whatever goes awry.
  • Creating fights and conflicts. Gaslighters chronically avoid the dirty work. They get others riled-up at each other, then sit back and look for an opportunity to seize control over the warring parties.
  • Sucking-up to others. Flattery is a well-worn tool of gaslighters. They are masters at buttering-up people to get what they want.
  • Comparing people. This is just another way of driving a wedge between people. “Why can’t you be like ___?”
  • Mistreating the weak and powerless. The weak have no value for the gaslighter because the powerless have nothing to offer them. So, oppression becomes a means of getting the weak out of the way, like they’re some pesky insect to get rid of.
  • Bragging about accomplishments and stealing other’s. Gaslighters will always take the credit for an accomplishment and then boast about it, all the while badgering the victim.
  • Not keeping promises. Usually there’s a bait and switch where the gaslighter will promise something, then switch the rules or tell a bold-faced lie that they never promised that.

There is much more gaslighting behavior, but you get the drift. The best way to deal with a gaslighter? Get as far away from them as you can, find genuine supportive relationships, and leave them to God.

Today’s psalm can be your prayer to the Lord, offering a heartfelt plea to the Divine Being who does the opposite of gaslighting: strengthening you, giving you power, listening to your voice, and loving you with complete altruistic motives.

Eternal Father, you created us in your own image and likeness, but sin has warped the minds of humanity so that there is much injustice and much carelessness of the rights of other people in this fallen world. I pray you will right every wrong and vindicate those being treated unjustly. Keep us, your people, from trying to take matters into our own hands for vengeance. Give justice and peace to all those who have been cruelly and unfairly treated. May the injustice they have endured be the means to draw them into the saving arms of your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

How to Handle a Sinner, Part 2

Reconciliation Statue
Reconciliation Statue, placed in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, England, bombed by the Nazis in World War II.

Being emotionally and/or spiritually wounded by another downright hurts. So, what do we do when it happens? Gratefully, Jesus provided some clear teaching on how to handle a victimizing person. (Matthew 18:15-20)

In part one, we considered the initial step to be taken when a person has been offensive and brought damage to another and/or the community. In their straying from the law of love, we are to respond by speaking to the person privately, to attempt a one-on-one reconciliation and restoration. This effort may be repeated several times over.

These next two steps are only to be undertaken when it has become evident that the person’s intransigence about hurting others will not budge.

The Second Step – Take One or Two Others (Matthew 18:16).

Reconciliation Statue Berlin
Statue outside of the Church of Reconciliation in Berlin, Germany.

“If they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'” –Jesus

The idea here is not to get a few buddies together who agree with our assessment. Rather, we seek others who know the person and can provide loving and objective help. This upholds the ethics of the Old Testament:

A solitary witness against someone in any crime, wrongdoing, or in any sort of misdeed that might be done is not sufficient. The decision must stand by two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15, CEB)

When a person fails to respond to reproof privately, then others need to get involved so that there is not a situation of “he said, she said.”  The witnesses are to help establish the nature of the problem. This is purposely meant to be a rather drawn out process because the goal is restoration. We are to give the person every chance to respond to correction.  People need to be given the grace of time to be effectively wooed back to the flock.

The Third Step – Tell It to the Church (Matthew 18:17-18).

Reconciliation Statue Hiroshima
Reconciliation Statue in Hiroshima, Japan

“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” –Jesus

If the person ignores the group of witnesses, the group is to report the problem to the church. If the person still refuses to listen, then the person is to be treated like “a pagan or tax collector,” that is, the person is to be excommunicated and treated as though they are an unbeliever who has different needs. Jesus did not mean that we never talk to the person again. It is just the opposite: We communicate to them the need for grace just as we would to anyone.

The sixteenth-century Reformed Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, took up this this matter (Question and Answer 85):

Q: How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by Christian discipline?

            A: According to the command of Christ:

Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and after repeated and loving counsel refuse to abandon their errors and wickedness, and after being reported to the church, that is, to its officers, fail to respond also to their admonition – such persons the officers exclude from the Christian fellowship by withholding the sacraments from them, and God himself excludes them from the kingdom of Christ.  Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members of Christ and of his church.

This approach is also germane with groups of people, churches, or Christian organizations. In the last century, churches around the world ostracized the South African Dutch Reformed Church for their refusal to bend concerning their racism and stance on apartheid.  Restoration did occur.  Not only that, but the Belhar Confession was eventually crafted from this church, a document which stands as a thorough biblical stand against structural racism and racist actions.

The Power of the Small Group (Matthew 18:19-20).

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” –Jesus

Jesus reiterated his point about binding and loosing; opening and closing; banning and forgiving. One of the great Reformation teachings is the priesthood of all believers.  The beauty of this is that we may confess our sins to one another in a close, intimate setting so that the steps do not need be done. Small gatherings of believers coming together to confess sin and pray together is the most powerful setting there is.  If we neglect this, we are missing out on the power of God.

Conclusion

Once upon a time, there were two brothers. Their father had a large farm and when he became too old to work, he called his sons to him. “I am too old to work anymore,” he said. “I will divide my farm in half and give each of you one half. I know that you will always work together and will be good friends.”

When the brothers first started farming on their adjoining farms, they were the best of friends and would share everything together. Then, one day there was an argument between the two brothers, and they stopped speaking to one another. For many years, not a word was spoken between them.

One day, one of the brothers was at his house when a carpenter came to his door and said, “I would like to do some work. Do you have any work that I can do?” The brother thought for a moment and then replied, “I would like for you to build a fence on my property. Build it down near the stream that separates my farm from my brother’s. I do not want to see my brother and I would like for you to build a high fence there. I am going into town and I will return this evening.

Bridge over stream

When he came back that evening, he was shocked to see that the carpenter had not followed his instructions. Instead of building a high fence he built a bridge over the stream. The man walked down to look at the bridge, and as he did, his brother walked toward him from the other side. His brother said, “After all the terrible things I’ve done to you over the years, I can’t believe that you would build a bridge and welcome me back.” He reached out to his brother and gave him a big hug.

The brother then walked back up to his farmhouse to talk to the carpenter. “Can you stay?” he asked. “I have more work for you to do.” The carpenter answered, “I’m sorry but I can’t stay. I have to go, for I have many other bridges to build.”

Sometimes you and I have hurts and wounds from our brothers and sisters in Christ. When that happens, we often build a fence between ourselves and them. We stop talking to them. We do not want to see them. We do not want to be around them. However, Jesus wants something different. Instead of fences, he wants us to build a bridge of love.  He wants us to connect and work it out.