Singing in the Wilderness (Or: Where are we Going?)
by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones
Holy One, sometimes you are found not in the words of Scripture,
but on the receiving end of them.
As we let the words of this Psalm cross our lips and thoughts,
listen to the connections we make with them.
Make this ancient word lively once again, in your heart, as in ours.
Thereâ€™s a cherished tradition of engaging with Biblical texts which is called â€œMidrash.â€1 Instead of the usual habit we have in the post -Enlightenment West of pulling it apart to see how itâ€™s made, who really said it, when they wrote it, Midrash looks at it with head and heart on one side, and says, â€œHmm, letâ€™s tell a story about it.â€ In the telling of the story, Midrash uncovers many possible layers of meaning in the lively texts of Scripture.
Iâ€™m going to follow that cherished tradition with this Psalm, and tell a couple of stories and see what emerges in this text that may be of value to us as a community, and as individuals as we begin this yearâ€™s Lenten Journey, paying attention to the ways of God in our world, and to the ways we go in in Godâ€™s world.
Imagine a young girl, say 15 or 16.
Her grandfather, now dead, was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem,
back in the day when her people were free.
Her mother has sung her and her brothers to sleep every night
with Psalms she learned from her Grandfather.
Songs of Godâ€™s steadfast love,
of Godâ€™s protection like a fortress in the mountains,
of God the shepherd leading her people beside calm waters.
Every night, her mother would kiss her head with
â€œGod Blesses, cherished one, Never forget.â€
She doesnâ€™t, this nameless one.
Instead she begins, as she grows, to sing her own songs,
beside the rivers of Babylon, where harps hang silent,
where the desert wind from the west scours the landscape, and the skin,
where the foreman cracks his whip across her back for the fun of it,
where some have turned away from God in shame, or despair,
because they are here, slaves, not there, free.
This is her song.
â€œTo you I lift my soul,
donâ€™t let me be shamed,
silence the cruel laughter that mocks our plight,
God whom my grandfather called â€œSteadfast.â€â€2
Each night, before she sleeps, her eyes turn west, across the desert,
and her heart carves out a highway across the wilderness, home.3
â€œShow me the wayâ€ she sings,
Order my steps in your word, Lord,
Show me the path that leads back to you.â€4
Teach me how to live here, while my soul is there,
wherever, with you.
Keep me from forgetting, keep my feet on your path,
no matter how far it is, no matter how long.
No matter how excruciatingly distracting life gets,
if you are Steadfast, God of my Grandfather,
teach me to be steadfast too.â€
My second story is more familiar perhaps,
perhaps not, given that weâ€™re telling it slant.
Mark gave us few clues about this compulsion
by the Spirit to send Jesus into the wilderness,
save that he spent it with angels, and wild beasts,
and the temptations that come to anyone
pushed to the edge, the limits, of human endurance.
I wonder what the song sounds like on his lips?
with the calloused hands and strong shoulders of the skilled tradesman.
He is days hungry, unspeakably thirsty,
dusted from head to foot by the desert sands.
His calloused hands
crush the milk from a shrivelled cactus.
Every night for days now, when his feet want to take him home,
he remembers the blessing of his mother
â€œWe are blessed, Cherished One, never forget.â€
His eyes then pierce the frosty darkness of the eastern sky,
tracking back to that forsaken land of Babylon,
and his cracked voice
sings to the God that brought them home,
â€œHoly, We are home, but we are not free.
This world keeps changing,
but still we are not whole, nor holy.
Show me how we can be whole,
in here (heart), and here (head), and here (hands).
Teach me your ways, order my steps,
set my feet on the path
that leads us back to fidelity,
to hope, to a future, to You.
For the sake of your goodness, remember us.
For you are the God called Steadfast,
the One who shaped me in my motherâ€™s womb,
the One who calls me cherished one,
order my steps in your word,
and I promise,
I too will be steadfast.
I will show your people the Way.
Lead me in the way that is good,
from this day to lifeâ€™s end.
Be the covenant, the promise, the care, the food, the water,
the light, the sustenance, the safety,
the ground upon which we walk.â€
And what about us?
How might we sing this psalm this Lent?
Â© Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones February 2012