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Concerned with the "unselfing" of our self-preoccupied, self-bound society, Peterson offers insightful, thought-provoking reflections on eleven select psalm-centered prayers that can help us to overcome such things as self-centeredness, self-assertiveness, self-righteousness, self-sufficiency, self-pity, self-service, and self-love.
A good friend, pastor of a church in Baltimore, was mugged one summer night while walking his dog. His assailant took his watch and wallet and then, just to let him know who was running the show, threw him to the ground and kicked him a couple of times in the ribs. When I saw him a few days later he was bruised, sore, and still feeling the emotional effects of the violence. He told me that he was looking forward to leaving the next week for Wyoming, where he would vacation for a month in the Grand Tetons, far from the crime-ridden city.
Six weeks later I met him again. This time his arm was in a sling. "What happened?" He had been riding a horse on a trail in the Wyoming Rockies. The high country there is pristine and exhilarating. There it is impossible to harbor a mean thought for more than ten seconds, let alone act in a mean way. The nearest criminal is at least a hundred miles away as the crow flies. Suddenly, his horse reared, spooked by a shadow, and my friend was on the ground, writhing in pain with a broken arm. He commented, "It is safer to walk on the streets of Baltimore at night than in the mountains of Wyoming in daylight—that wilderness has twenty different ways to kill you."
Each day we wake up to a world of violence. Things are falling apart. People snarl and snap at each other. It isn't safe to walk the city streets at night. But neither is it safe to hike in the wilderness mountains by day. The world is in a bad way: the earth's resources are being used up in an orgy of gluttony; the earth's beauty is being ravaged at an unprecedented rate; the earth's people are being tortured and cursed and demeaned in an epidemic of dehumanization. People compile statistics and publish their findings each year. The numbers are appalling: murders, rapes, assaults, robberies, child abuse, spouse abuse, political terrorism, wars. The cruelties that people think up to inflict on others surpasses our ability to take it in. When we see what people do to each other and to the land we want to leave for the hills. But no sooner do we get there than we find ourselves in the middle of another kind of violence: a volcano erupts and destroys mountains; a flood roars over riverbanks and drowns a ranch; an earthquake opens a chasm in the earth, toppling everything that is erect and swallowing it in its gorge.
The earth is a violent place. It is violent in city and country. It is violent whenever people get together and it is violent when they don't get together. We want a life where things are safe and comfortable. We want things under control. We want to exclude the evil, the danger, the disaster. We put padlocks on our doors and build fences around our yards. We place policemen on our streets. We build arsenals of weapons and deploy them across the world. For all our efforts the violence does not diminish.
Praying in the Midst of Violence
If violence can neither be escaped nor wiped out by counter-violence, is there anything to do but contain it as best we can and stoically put up with it? There is. We can pray. Wise and respected voices across many centuries tell us prayer is the only act that makes a difference.
Psalm 46 is one of these voices, praying in the midst of violence in order to do something about it. It is our desperately needed corrective to the widespread malpractice of prayer as withdrawal, as escape. When the world dispenses its blows and humiliations a little too liberally, we try to pray ourselves into a private world of consolation where we seek God's sympathy. Set alongside biblical prayer, and in particular alongside Psalm 46, such prayer is seen as a symptom of illness of spirit.
Healthy prayer does not withdraw. But neither does it confront. It is not so much a way of dealing with what is wrong in the world or myself as a way of dealing with God in the world and in myself. Evil (in the form of violence, in Psalm 46) is dealt with indirectly: it is absorbed into the forms and ceremonies of prayer. Prayer frees us from the assault of brute experience by setting us in the energies of grace experience. In the process, the violence itself is changed.
Praying people have been successfully doing this for centuries in every part of the world, and they continue with incalculable impact. That journalists do not report their actions or their effects does not diminish the strength of their persistent peacemaking. Violence is taken seriously but kept in perspective. God requires my attention even more than the violence; in attending to him, I see his city taking shape in the catastrophe.
Violence Without and Within
The background images of Psalm 46 are violent. Praying this psalm puts us in touch with more violence than we bargained for. Three sets of images are used. First, there is violence in nature: the earth opening its jaws in an earthquake, volcanoes erupting out of the ocean, floodwaters spilling destruction (vv. 1-3). The next set of images refers to political violence: angry nations, kingdoms that disintegrate, solid achievements of governments melting away like wax figures under a hot sun (v. 6). A third set refers to military violence: wars, bows, spears, chariots—the frightening arsenal of weapons used to hurt and kill, to conquer the weak and enslave the poor (v. 9). It is easy to footnote with contemporary details: earthquakes in Turkey, famine in the sub-Sahara, floodwaters on the Mississippi, wars in the Middle East. We are looting the earth's resources. We are aborting the unborn. Violence without; violence within. Some act out their hostilities on others and we put them in prisons. Some act out their hostilities on themselves and we put them in mental hospitals. Some act out their hostilities on nations and we put medals on them.
If we think that prayer is going to get us out of the conflict, we are misinformed. If we think that an immersion in the Psalms will insulate us from the abrasive news of the day, we are mistaken. If we think that looking to God fills us with undisturbed peace and unalloyed joy so that there is simply no space left in our lives for an awareness of barbarity, we are wrong. Nature is violent. Governments are violent. People are violent. Reading the Psalms is a shocking experience. Praying is a courageous act.
But even though the imagery of Psalm 46 is violent, violence is not the subject. God is the subject. Whatever the circumstances out of which prayer arises, it deals with God. No matter how God-defiant or God-forsaken the settings in which we find ourselves, prayer, with a kind of built-in radar, tracks its way to God. Nothing can "out-reality" God, and prayer is the primary action in which we cultivate awareness of this unattended and unperceived reality in the midst of the noise and neon.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge
is the heartbeat of this prayer, the two lines marking the systole and diastole of its interior rhythm. The couplet is repeated after each of the three symmetrically composed parts—after verses 3, 6, and 10.
The naming of God is done here with great care. LORD of hosts paints a picture: "hosts" are "armies"—vast, angelic troops, swift and fell, carrying out the divine command. God of Jacob recalls a story: the persistent assailant at the river Jabbok who wrestled Jacob into the intimacy of blessing. A powerful God, "LORD of hosts," and a personal God, "God of Jacob." But there is a surprising reversal in the way these names are connected with our expectations. We expect the military metaphor to be associated with defense, "refuge." We expect the personal metaphor to be connected with intimacy, "with us." But the terms are deliberately rearranged so that we get intimacy with the warrior God and defense from the family friend. A powerful God (LORD of hosts) befriends (is with us); a personal God (God of Jacob) protects (is our refuge).
God is one, in any case. The shifting of terms prevents stereotyped expectations of just what God will be and do. Cliché is the great enemy of prayer. The particularities of faith are blurred into generalities through pious repetition. But now our perceptions, and therefore our expectations, are sharp again. In a destructive society, we are treated with dignity (we are not violated). In a depersonalized society, we are engaged in relationship (we are not isolated). We are not things to be used. We are not objects to be ignored. We are valued, protected, and honored; we are loved, listened to, and spoken with. We experience safety and intimacy. What we have experienced, we can then do. "The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."
Civilization as We Know It
There is more. The triple affirmation of a powerful and personal God is linked to an image that encourages the praying imagination to realize what this affirmation means in a violently disintegrating world. The image is presented in verse 4:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
In contrast to the pervasive violence that constitutes the atmosphere in which we pray, the city of God is set down as a simple matter of fact. A city is a civilized place, a place of courtesy and trust. It is not exclusively this in our experience, but it is so characteristically (it is the exceptions that get reported). This city of God is not a blueprint for the future, not a hoped-for aspiration and not a promise that just might be enacted with the right legislation. It is here. Now. God dwells in this place, this world. God is not an occasional tourist to our shores. He has set up habitation here, not as a camper but as a citizen: there is a city of God. It is in the same world where the violence is, which means that we need not go off looking for God in a quiet, secluded glen.
Augustine used this image of the city of God to develop his exposition of the presence and action of God in the midst of human presence and action, the history of God's ways permeating the history of our ways. He wrote The City of God in the rough and tumble of one of the most violent times in our history, when Alaric and the barbarian hordes were streaming out of the north and ravaging Roman civilization. This is not escapist theology but something more like prayed journalism.
The city of God on which Augustine reported cannot be identified with the politics, legislation, and judiciary that our journalists report and our scholars study. But it would be very much a mistake to conclude that it is therefore invisible, a "spiritual" reality in the midst of our materiality. It is very much visible, very much historical, very much actual. True, it is not seen by many, but that is not because it is invisible but only because they are not looking in the right direction or do not have their eyes trained to see these actions and this presence. Augustine's concept has been systematically ignored for centuries. But it has not been refuted, nor is it likely to be, for it is developed out of the much-confirmed praying of Psalm 46.
Flowing alongside this city, "there is a river." In the ancient world the important cities were built on the shores of great rivers—Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Tiber. Rivers flowed out from Eden. A river will flow through new Jerusalem. A river is drink and cleansing and transport. That "there is a river" means that God's habitation in this world is no slum existence. It is not a refugee camp desperately thrown together out of packing boxes and barrels. It is well supplied with a river and is therefore a glad place.
The juxtaposition of river and city requires us to understand God's dwelling among us comprehensively—both that which is created by God's word and that which is constructed by builders' hammers. The presence and action of God in our midst is not perceived any better by banishing the noise of the city so that only a pristine creation (the river) remains. Nor is its perception enhanced by eliminating the wild elements of water and wind so that all that is left is the controlled and measured streets and structures of revelation (the city). God's habitation includes both: mystery and clarity, nature and history, the elemental and the complex, creation and kingdom.
In the context of the terrifying and inescapable violence in nature and nations, an astounding claim is made for this river-city: "she shall not be moved." This verb was used earlier in verse 2, "though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea." It is used later in verse 6, "the kingdoms totter." Here it is used for the city that "shall not be moved" (v. 5). The word comes from the vocabulary of catastrophe. It is used in the ancient literature of Ugarit in an apocalyptic way, for the total falling apart of everything at doomsday. The mountains fall apart, the kingdoms fall apart, but the city does not. Creation is not safe, civilization is not safe, but God is.
The city of God is safe, not because it is defended, inviolate space but because it is the sphere of God's characteristic action, his help. The nounhelp is used in verse 1: "a very present help." Dahood translates it as "help from of old," interpreting "very present" as "having been present always"—a long track record of being present. In other words, there is a history to this helping, with centuries of documentation. God is not a desperately conceived new remedy but a tried and true help, a well-proven help. The verb help is used in verse 5: "God will help her right early." "At crack of dawn" is the more literal and far livelier translation of the Jerusalem Bible. We need not muddle through half the day, or half our lives, before God shows up, rubbing his eyes, asking if there is anything he might do for us. He knows the kind of world we live in and our vulnerability in it, for he has taken up habitation in it himself (Jn. 1:14). He anticipates our needs and plans ahead. He is there right on time to help, "at crack of dawn."
We are helped: not by taking care of ourselves but by being taken care of; not by garrisoning ourselves behind thick walls of indifference but by risking life in the world with a helping God; not by reducing our lives to the trivial dimensions of a self-help project but by venturing into the unfamiliar and untested polar expanses of grace. The great affirmation and insight of the life of faith is that help is being given all the time.
To the objection "I prayed and cried out for help, but no help came," the answer is "But it did. The help was there; it was right at hand. You were looking for something quite different, perhaps, but God brought the help that would change your life into health, into wholeness for eternity. And not only would it change your life, but nations, society, culture." Instead of asking why the help has not come, the person at prayer learns to look carefully at what is actually going on in his or her life, in this history, its leaders, its movements, its peoples, and ask, "Could this be the help that he is providing? I never thought of this in terms of help, but maybe it is." Prayer gives us another, far more accurate way of reading reality than the newspapers. "Think of it!" exclaims Bernanos's country priest, "The Word was made Flesh and not one of the journalists of those days even knew it was happening!"
Behold the Works of the LORD
Two commands direct us from the small-minded world of self-help to the large world of God's help. First, "Come, behold the works of the LORD." Take a long, scrutinizing look at what God is doing. This requires patient attentiveness and energetic concentration. Everybody else is noisier than God. The headlines and neon lights and amplifying systems of the world announce human works. But what of God's works? They are unadvertised but also inescapable, if we simply look. They are everywhere. They are marvelous. But God has no public relations agency. He mounts no publicity campaign to get our attention. He simply invites us to look. Prayer is looking at the works of the Lord.
We look. What do we see? We see that "he has wrought fertility in the earth." The proliferation of life is stunning. Inattentive to anything but the gaudiest of billboards and bloodiest of disasters, we wake up and look around. Unpraying, we read only the big print, notice only the megatrends, observe only the giant wreck. Praying, we see the data stream in from everywhere. One praying pilgrim, Annie Dillard, walks out of her front door and tells us what she sees:The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly's terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world's water and weather, the world's nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.
We also see that "he makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, he burns the chariots with fire!" God is engaged in worldwide disarmament. All the ways in which men and women attempt to forcibly impose their wills on neighbors and enemies are thrown into the trash heap. Violence does not work. It never has worked. It never will work. Weapons are not functional.
The history of violence is a history of failures. There has never been a won war. There has never been a victorious battle. The use of force destroys the very reality that is exercised in its behalf, whether honor, truth, or justice. Living in the kind of world in which we do and being the sinners we are, we sometimes cannot avoid violence. But even when it is inevitable it is not right, God does not engage in it.
A steady, sustained look at God's works sees that our frantic, foolish arms buildup (whether personal or national, whether psychological or material) is being subjected to systematic and determined disarmament. Violent action is the antithesis of creative action. When we no longer have the will or the patience to be creative, we attempt to express our will by coercion. The lazy and the immature account for most of the violence in the world. But however prevalent violence is, the person at prayer sees that that is not the way most of the world, the world of God's action, works. But it takes energy and maturity to see it and to sustain the vision.
Be Still and Know
The second command is "Be still, and know that I am God." Be still. Quit rushing through the streets long enough to become aware that there is more to life than your little self-help enterprises. When we are noisy and when we are hurried, we are incapable of intimacy—deep, complex, personal relationships. If God is the living center of redemption, it is essential that we be in touch with and responsive to that personal will. If God has a will for this world and we want to be in on it, we must be still long enough to find out what it is (for we certainly are not going to learn by watching the evening news). Baron von Hugel, who had a wise word on most subjects, always held out that "nothing was ever accomplished in a stampede."
And know. The word know often has sexual connotations in biblical writings. Adam knew Eve. Joseph did not know Mary. These are not, as so many suppose, timid euphemisms; they are bold metaphors. The best knowledge, the knowledge that is thorough and personal, is not information. It is shared intimacy—a knowing and being known that becomes a creative act. It is analogous to sexual relationship in which two persons are vulnerable and open to each other, the consequence of which is the creation of new life. Unamuno, a Spanish philosopher, elaborates: "‘To know' means in effect to engender, and all vital knowledge in this sense presupposes a penetration, a fusion of the innermost being of the man who knows and of the thing known." The knowing results in a new being that is different from and more than either partner. No child is a replica of either parent; no child is mere amalgamation of parents. There are characteristics of both, but the new life is unpredictable, full of surprises, a life of its own.
This sexual knowing that results in newly created life is the everyday experience that is used to show what happens when we pray: withdrawal from commotion, shutting the door against the outside world, insistence on leisurely privacy. This is not an antisocial act. It is not a selfish indulgence. It is no shirking of public responsibility. On the contrary, it is a fulfilling of public responsibility, a contribution to the wholeness of civilization. It is, precisely, creative: You cannot make love in traffic. For all his marvelous creativity, Michelangelo never painted or drew or sculpted anything that compares with any newborn infant. For all his wide-ranging Renaissance inventiveness, Leonardo da Vinci never faintly approximated what any peasant couple brought forth by simply going to bed together. People who pray give themselves to the creative process at this same elemental, world-enriching, self-transcending place of surprise and pleasure.</ p>
Be still and know. Civilization is littered with unsolved problems, baffling impasses. The best minds of the world are at the end of their tether. The most knowledgeable observers of our condition are badly frightened. The most relevant contribution that Christians make at these points of impasse is the act of prayer—determined, repeated, leisurely meetings with the personal and living God. New life is conceived in these meetings.
Prayer is not all we do. Patterns and behaviors develop out of the prayers. Continuing the analogy to the family, there is also child-raising, lawn-mowing, and making a living. There is intelligence to be exercised, behavior to be shaped, moral decisions and responsible courage. But if no babies are born, there is no continuation of civilization. Births themselves will not take place if people of faith are not desirous enough of God's love, disciplined enough to leave the world's distractions, and leisurely enough to "be still and know."