Tag Archives: narrative

In our lockdown anxiety: Get a new narrative from Psalm 91

The well known Psalm 91 seems to be placed in the Old Testament Book of Psalms to answer the last question of Psalm 90: “How long?” We all have that question these days, especially here in the beautiful Delaware River Watershed where the stay-at-home order is already getting to feel like a long time.

shelter narrative

Psalm 91 can be a great comfort if you read it with a Jesus lens. But if you are reading it like every line of the Bible is a principle from the textbook of God, it could trip you up. With a Jesus lens, the psalm reminds us that our afflictions are temporary and every light in the darkness illumines our everlasting life. But read as a set of principles, it could be very discouraging, since most of the promises it lists are not likely to be specifically fulfilled for you and your loved ones any time soon in any verifiable way. Taking the theme of the poem seriously, the psalm reveals God, the Father of Jesus and the parent of us all, to be good, attentive and active on our behalf. As a result, we have something on which to build an anxiety-unraveling narrative.

The Jesus lens

Here is a summary of what Psalm 91 leads us to believe.

It starts and ends with truths that lead us into fullness. The thematic word is “shelter.” As you shelter-in-place, God is your shelter — that sums it up for now. God is your shadow in the desert. God is your hiding place from what attacks you. God is your fortress in the battle, and more. If you can’t do the poetry, now would be a good time to learn.

Whatever happens, nothing shall hurt you. Even though trouble and affliction come upon you, those bad things shall come to good. There may be grief right now as far as the quarantine goes, but there is joy in the eternal now of our heart-to-heart relationship with God. These are all the longed-for and debated promises Jesus-followers spend a lifetime grasping and grappling. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul teaches that the experiences of Israel with God “happened to them as an example,” and the stories about them “were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The risen Jesus told his disciples, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus considered the book of Psalms to be ultimately about him.

Those who rightly know God, will set their love on him. In hope, they will call on her. In response, God’s promise is to deliver his loved ones out of trouble, and in the meantime be with them in trouble. We move through life in partnership with God for our given time. A person may die young, yet be satisfied with living. A wicked person will not be satisfied even with long life. In due time our conflict ends and we are done forever with trouble, sin, and temptation.

the inner narrative

Under the thumb of principles

The problem with this psalm, especially for anxious people who are looking for that out-of-reach security they crave, is piled up in the middle. In that part the poet gives an extravagant description of what God will do for us in hard times – like when the nation is stricken with a virus.

It says she will do things like give us courage when “pestilence…stalks the darkness or destruction lays waste at noon.” It says “A thousand may fall at your side”…but no “plague” will “come near your tent.” Like the devil quoted to Jesus, it says angels will bear you up so you won’t even stub your toe.

I think most people know these are not verifiable principles to apply to the present plague. Even the good doctors are dying! So many say God is a fraud when Christians claim such statements are inerrant – and often pretend they are completely true, even when they are sick!

On the one hand, no one knows just how much God is personally sustaining us or angels are caring for us. I can’t measure God’s care but I shamelessly rely on it. All my hope is built on the love and truth demonstrated in Jesus.

On the other hand, like Jesus told the devil, we must not test God to see if we are being cared for according to our standards, tempt God to see if she fails us, prove God as if he were a theorem. The devil went for the obvious proof, “Show that you are loved by God by demonstrating God’s care as you throw yourself off this pinnacle.” How many of us dive off our mountain of anxiety, daily, and are daily disappointed at God’s lack of response! Jesus comes back with the deeper scripture, the more-personal and less-principle Deuteronomy 6:16. That verse recalls the Israelites arguing with Moses about water, as if the Lord had not provided for them every step of the way. Don’t keep testing God as if water couldn’t come out of a rock any moment, as if you weren’t thankful for the gift of life — and an eternal one, at that!

We might not be able to fix it

Anxious, controlling people want facts they can rely on, since they feel stuck in the middle of a mess they are consigned to fix. Americans, especially, might be effectively chastened, for once, by the present crisis and decide they aren’t the light of the world after all. We don’t live in the shelter of what we build for ourselves — at least not for long.

Psalm 91 shines a light on God, our shelter, from beginning to end. It starts

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

In Robert Alter’s more literal and immediate translation:

He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter
…..in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night. –
I say of the Lord, “My refuge and bastion,
…..my God in whom I trust.”

It is a basic anxiety-reliever to adopt a preferred narrative and keep rehearsing it until one’s mind can conform to it. This post is like exposure therapy for people locked in principles that damn them or deprive them of a faith they can’t live up to or believe in.

This small part of Ps. 91 could be a new mantra to replace the rehearsal of fears that dominates one’s inner dialogue. In these verses, the names of God could provide a budding reassurance that might flower in the midst of trouble.

Where do I live? In the shelter of the Most High. The Hebrew word Elyon suggests a supreme monarch, one who is elevated above all things. It is first used in Genesis 14:18, describing Abraham’s encounter with the priest/king Melchizedek, “He was priest of God Most High.” Melchizedek gives us a picture of Christ in several ways (Heb. 7), Jesus the king and priest who did not fit the principles. Our shelter is greater than the umbrellas of our understanding.

How are my needs met? By the Almighty. The Hebrew word Shaddai primarily suggests a  powerful God who is strong beyond our imagination and is more than capable to supply our every need. This is the God who parted the sea and moves in all creation. In the all-sufficient name of Shaddai, there is no need that cannot be met, and no circumstance that won’t, ultimately, be overcome. My physical needs lead me to spiritual needs which, when addressed, help me sort out my physical needs.

Who knows me and still loves me? It is the LORD. This personal name for God was considered so sacred in Judaism the original pronunciation is uncertain, only that it contained the letters YHWH (JHVH in Latin).  It has been translated as Yahweh, Jehovah, and more often as the LORD (in all caps). This represents a relatable God who calls Moses from the burning bush and wants all of us to know her love. Every joy and fear in our hearts is important to the Lord. In Jesus, we see just what a friend we have. God calls my name and it is joy to respond. It is good to have the hairs of one’s head numbered, even if I feel my scalp itching.

Who can I trust? My God. The Hebrew word Elohim appears at the very beginning of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It is technically a plural word. The creator is one, yet plural (Father, Son, Spirit). The God we trust is the same God who creates all things, the first and the last, the God who is forever faithful to his creation. The creation is infected, but it is good. My first reaction may not always be trust, but I can get to a deeper place where I meet the author and protector of my faith.

God’s ways are higher than our ways, yet we can love her as a friend. God is unsearchable yet so very near to us. In His shelter, we find strength, comfort, and rest for our souls. If you are anxious, that assurance might seem like nice poetry meant for someone else. I hope this little piece shows ways to deconstruct such an unhelpful narrative in your inner dialogue and strengthens a new narrative informed and empowered by God’s Spirit, alive in you in perilous times.

Gotye and Kimbra tell a new Adam and Eve story

You’ve all seen this video, right?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UVNT4wvIGY&w=560&h=315]

It has been viewed over 440 million times on YouTube. Which kind of made me wonder why I had never heard of it until it was already old news. It was the top song on the Billboard 100 in 2012.

I’m not sure what is better, this addictive little song called Somebody That I Used to Know or the parodies of it. As soon as I got to listening to: “now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” I also heard

People are creative — and this song apparently strikes a chord with them. When Gotye sang it at the University of Michigan, people loudly sang along with him. In an interview he said all that singing was about “Releasing pent up relationship angst,” which he thought was also kind of sad. We could also sing along at Broad and Dauphin.

To hear Wally De Backer talk about the song, it seems like it just kind of happened. He had a story to tell about how a guy is processing a break up. It was such a short song he decided he was missing the other part of the story – how the girl was reacting, so he put her in. He almost gave up on it at different times and then it ended up being his first big hit that made him famous.

The “new and improved” Adam and Eve story

I think it is famous because we are all right there in the video, at least a little bit, as the present generation rushes to “socially construct” their new, improved Adam and Eve story.  I seriously doubt Gotye intended to do this, but his song is channeling the prevailing philosophy that is making relationships what they are today.  The song is like an Adam and Eve story, only this narrative does not have God, Adam or Eve. It has Gotye as the story-telling god, then Gotye and Kimbra in a new narrative that amounts to a revised version of Adam and Eve. In this version there is only Gotye’s “red state” reverie and Kimbra’s “blue state deconstruction” coming to a mysterious, inconclusive conclusion, showing a typically distant ending to a relationship. It is the story of a new normal.

I think we should keep looking at how new narratives are affecting how we think about relationships.

adam-and-eve-rae-chichilnitskyWhat makes this an Adam and Eve song in my mind probably has to do with the fact that I am way Christian. I was at the Sleep-Eze store not long ago laying on beds to try them out and I befriended a rather odd woman who was laying on the bed next to mine. She ended up kind of trailing us as we were making a deal on a mattress. She finally asked, “You must be Christians, right?”  Gwen and I said, “Oh yes, we are way Christians.” I even see bed-buying as a Christian activity. So listening to Gotye is a similar experience for me.

That being said, I think Gotye’s song is an Adam and Eve story, right down to the title lyric. Somebody that I used to know could be titled Somebody that I used to have sex with using “know” the way Genesis uses it when talking about Adam and Eve. Genesis 4:1 says: Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. The second story of creation in Genesis 2-4 is essentially an explanation of how men and women relate the way they do. It is about sex and marriage, love and children, family and mutual care.

Gotye’s song is about sex and what it is like when the couple is no longer having it, how they don’t get to love and mutual care. They had sex; they got painted into a common picture, in this case, his common picture. Like Adam and Eve were both naked and felt no shame, Gotye and Kimbra are shamelessly naked in their video (which is probably how it got viewed 440 million times). But then the woman wakes up to the fact that he isn’t willing or capable of actually forming something that is mutual, so she gets out, gets unpainted.

The new normal of postmodern relationships

What makes this story so interestingly postmodern is this:

  1. It goes without saying that God is banished from the picture.
  2. People have sex first, then they try to form intimacy. That’s elemental to the relational landscape to which many of us have conformed.
  3. But mainly, the two people in the story are struggling over having a shared sense of what the reality they have created together means. And they don’t agree. They “don’t make sense.” They can’t even talk civilly about it.

Gotye’s audience really relates.

One of the public’s favorite lines of the song is: “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness. Like resignation to the end, always the end” — that mysterious inconclusive conclusion that marks this generation’s lives. In some sense, it is relieving when you expect something to happen, even if it is bad, and then it actually happens.  It at least comes to some kind of end. He calls his feeling a “certain kind” of sadness, since he won’t admit to anything really being anything. But this despair is so compelling that he can’t resist an extra lament, “resignation to the end, always the end.” The narcissistic emptiness of this makes me want to cry — which is something the people avoid in this sad little song, even though it is sad. It’s all in his head.

When Kimbra adds her side of the story it is equally compelling. The lack of centeredness, of substance, of commitment is making her crazy. His ambivalence made her feel like “it was always something that I’d done.” Doesn’t the whole society make you feel that way these days? I am always shocked when I call customer service for a problem and they regularly tell me I have caused the problem. When I demonstrate it was really them, they don’t apologize. I’m responsible for everything, but no one thanks me for taking care of things — another way we are like gods. People are enraged by the futility of their relationships in this context. Having sex should imply that we want to know one another but the knowing does not happen. So Kimbra moves over toward Gotye in the  video and yells: “I don’t wanna live that way, reading into every word you say. You said that you could let it go, and I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know!”

Then they just start screaming at each other musically. She lets him have it. He winces and withdraws, and keeps sticking to his story. She finally moves away, gets unpainted, and they sadly end up whispering “somebody that I used to know.” They apparently think,It’s really sad that the relationship happened to me that way.”

It is an unstisfying narrative

The postmodern narrative about how things work is all there. It teaches us that reality is inevitably made up of what we create together. That’s it. “I was lonely in your company but that was love and it’s an ache I still remember.” That’s it.  But people are angry about that. They want more and expected more.  But everyone is locked in their singularity — defensive, enraged, unsatisfied, intimate without intimacy. That’s happening to people. They think it is sadly normal. Gotye told the story and people bought it — again. And they sang it with him until they knew all the words.

The ongoing Biblical creation story continues to say that it is not good for us to be alone without God and each other. That’s the true normal we were singing about last night at our Sunday meeting. We know we need to get together, but we also need to know that we really need to get with God to get together with one another. God makes reality. We co-create with Him, but we are not lonely gods, ourselves, failing at creating love on our own — at least we are not meant to live like that. If God doesn’t create, if Jesus doesn’t get us back with God, life is just one damned thing after another. A lot of us are really enraged that we end up with people who are resigned to their godless end: cut-off and screwed over. Let’s  talk about that more next time. Until then, let’s be aware of the new narratives that are lying to us about the relational landscape.

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