Renewing Corporate Memory for our Ecological Dark Night
Proper 21(26) B
19th Sunday after Pentecost
By Jason Wood
One of the things I’ve struggled the most with in singing contemporary worship songs is the almost exclusive focus on “me.” If you grew up like I did in a variety of evangelical churches, we tended to sing a lot of songs about how “I could sing of your love forever,” or how God “set me free,” or “here I am to worship.” And I really don’t mean to bash that, because there’s a lot that’s beautiful about reminding ourselves of the deeply personal and intimate love of God. The Christian faith proclaims: God does love me, and because of that I can live a transformed life.
But, as you well know, the problem comes in staying there. As I read through the Psalms, it’s true: there’s plenty of “I” and “me” going on. But there’s also a great deal of “we” and “us.” Even where there isn’t, though, it’s important to remember: the very reason we have the deeply personal prayers attributed to the psalmist is because they also spoke to and resonated with a community. Certainly, individuals could find comfort in these prayers for deliverance. But in practice, these hymns were recited together, week after week, year after year. They were corporate expressions of worship, and they reflect a corporate experience.
So when we read words like “LORD my God, in you I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,” (Ps. 7:1 NRSV), or the Psalms’ countless other pleas for deliverance, we’re not just entering into the experience of an anguished individual. The meaning of these Psalms was forged in the long, aching historic experience of a people in exile, a people oppressed by empire after empire, even after returning to their own land.
There’s no other way these Psalms could come to us. Read from a privileged social location, however, it’s easy to miss. Instead, we’d rather skim over lament, and circumscribe the passionate cries for help by our individual and private emotional life. It feels easier than attending to the very real, barely escapable presence of suffering and death all around us, and if we pay close attention, within us – a presence with which the Psalms are intimately acquainted.
…And then, every so often, that corporate experience, so often implied, becomes explicit. That’s one of the reasons I love Psalm 124, in today’s lectionary. Listen and imagine:
“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side – let Israel now say – if it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, they would have swallowed us alive” (Ps. 124:1-3a NRSV).
Wow. You can almost hear the people of Israel reciting this together, exhorting themselves to remember the source of their salvation. Theirs is no provincial deity, no petty god of a time –bound empire. This is YHWH, the architect of earth, the shaper of the stars, creating and sustaining all that is. By the surpassing power of this God, the people have escaped death…but just.
In a time like this, as ecological devastation gathers apace – in acidifying oceans, in deepening climate instability, in deforestation, in soil contamination and degradation, in rising sea levels – it may seem premature, even false, to sing how “the flood would have swept us away…the torrent would have gone over us” (v.4). For peoples living on the coast, the climate change-instigated “raging waters” are still very much rising. Our rapacious industrial system continues to swallow the poor and the earth alive.
How can we look clearly at our planet’s ecological dark night and sing of how God has already brought us through? Whether we as a human species will change our behavior enough for the rest of non-human creation to thrive remains a perilous question. To glibly sing this song as if we might escape the sustained and deepening suffering of creation already caused by our addictive consumption would be dishonest. It would be a crass denial of our reality.
Yet perhaps a similar question is this: how could the people of Israel celebrate deliverance while still in captivity? Somehow, Psalm 124 was recited and sung for hundreds of years by a people still attacked, still oppressed under the floodwaters of empire. They celebrated deliverance even while their hearts agonized for it. Was it merely institutionalized denial? Or was it something else?
Ultimately, I believe this is a song of renewing memory. For how can we find courage to face the trials of today with hope for the future, unless we remember what God has done in the past? Singing a song like this cannot be an individualistic escape from the desolation of our planet home, but a holy corporate act that gives us strength to remain. Remembering deliverance enables us to stay awake to our unfolding ecological tragedy, but with faith. For our help, this planet’s help, the help of all who suffer at the expense of industrial consumerism, is still in the Maker of heaven and earth.
Therefore, if this God has dragged us from the gates of death before, then today we hope against all that is dying around us:
May the LORD do so again.
Jason Wood is a white male settler living in Vancouver, on unceded Coast Salish Territories. He runs a small urban farm called Red Clover Farms, and is a co-founder of Earthkeepers: Christians for Climate Justice, a citizen-led ecumenical network “living into a biblical vision for ecology, love of neighbor, and climate justice.” This September, he is crowdfunding toward the release of his first album, A Garden Green, a collection of grassroots folk corporate worship songs inspired by the Songs of Ascent. You can support him here.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.