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.

Psalm 79 – Unbearable Pain

The nations have come into your inheritance, God!
    They’ve defiled your holy temple.
    They’ve made Jerusalem a bunch of ruins.
They’ve left your servants’ bodies
    as food for the birds;
    they’ve left the flesh of your faithful
    to the wild animals of the earth.
They’ve poured out the blood of the faithful
    like water all around Jerusalem,
    and there’s no one left to bury them.
We’ve become a joke to our neighbors,
    nothing but objects of ridicule
    and disapproval to those around us.

How long will you rage, Lord? Forever?
    How long will your anger burn like fire?
Pour out your wrath on the nations
        who don’t know you,
    on the kingdoms
        that haven’t called on your name.
They’ve devoured Jacob
    and demolished his pasture.
Don’t remember the iniquities of past generations;
    let your compassion hurry to meet us
    because we’ve been brought so low.
God of our salvation, help us
    for the glory of your name!
Deliver us and cover our sins
    for the sake of your name!
Why should the nations say,
    “Where’s their God now?”
Let vengeance for the spilled blood of your servants
    be known among the nations before our very eyes!
    Let the prisoners’ groaning reach you.
With your powerful arm
    spare those who are destined to die.
Pay back our neighbors seven times over,
    right where it hurts,
    for the insults they used on you, Lord.
We are, after all, your people
    and the sheep of your very own pasture.
We will give you thanks forever;
    we will proclaim your praises
    from one generation to the next. (CEB)

The setting behind today’s Psalm is the destruction of the temple and a conquering army who proudly gloats over their victory. This is a prayer, an angry cry for God to step in and act on behalf of the humiliated people. The psalm is more than a simple plea for help; it is a deeply passionate appeal. As a child of the 1960’s, my phrase for the psalmist’s entreaty is, “God, stick it to the man!”

There is no polite knock at the side door of God’s house in the face of such evil. This is a pounding on the front door with the demand for God to do something about this terrible trouble. For the psalmist, the incongruence between who God is and what has happened to God’s people is inconceivable and unacceptable. To profane God’s temple is to profane God; and to kill and maim God’s people is to flip the middle finger at God. The psalmist is beside himself and overwhelmed with emotion.

There is something very instructive here that we ought not miss. When we have been brutalized, victimized, and/or demoralized, we just want someone, especially the Lord we serve, to take notice and feel what we are feeling. Never underestimate the power of empathy and solidarity. To feel alone and bereft of help is an awful feeling.

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer offends some sensibilities. I wonder, for those who find the language difficult, have ever had a daughter raped or a house destroyed by fire or seen a person killed without mercy in front of their own eyes. Methinks they have not. The feelings of helpless despair and sheer anger defy human words. These are not casual affronts but malicious destructions of property and people.

We need someone to affirm the raw ruthlessness of it all, to have some understanding of the impossible place we are in with such wanton cruelty. When our very support is ripped from our lives, the madness within is too much to bear. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

God is big enough to handle our rage and our hurt. The Lord is available and hears our desperate voice of prayer. Yet, God is not always going to directly and immediately answer on the terms we stipulate. God acts out of God’s own providence and justice, and not from our expectations. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

God sees, knows, and feels with us. The realization of this enables us to recenter and reorient ourselves around faith, hope, and love. New life is never a gift in a vacuum; it comes out of agonizing struggle in reckoning with the existing evil.

So, when someone goes through a hellish experience, we are to exercise our capacity to listen and witness the horrible spiritual pain of the person. Healing hurts: it is not a pleasant affair. We are to hang in there and walk alongside another in their hour of need, even when their vitriol seems over the top to us. For only in telling our story to another will any of us find relief and renewed hope.

The psalms permit us to use language appropriate to what has happened to us. They also allow us to move beyond the venom to the God who restores broken lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’ will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. As the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace, through Jesus Christ my Savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.