Every now and then a random scripture will stop me in my tracks.
The impact may be emotional, intellectual, or both. For a while it may become all I think about.
Almost inevitably, a few days later, my congregation gets to hear about it on Sunday, because I can’t avoid sharing it. Psalm 13 is one of those texts, and this is one of those weeks!
Imagine… You’re on a boat. An old boat, not totally seaworthy, perhaps. You really wish you were somewhere else, almost anywhere, in fact. You really wonder now why you’ve given your life savings to the boat’s owner, based on the promise that he could get you where you wanted to go.
Then you remember where you’ve come from, and you remember thinking that trying to get your kids to safety was worth any risk. Anything is better than where you were…
There’s a lot of you on the boat. As the seas turn nasty (again!), you start to get really afraid, because the boat’s not holding together too well. You realise that after trying to get away to avoid being killed at home, you might end up dying a long way from anywhere. Some people have died already.
The cry goes up: “A ship! Over there.”
It’s a military vessel, but you don’t know whose. Still, you can’t help thinking that all will be well now, you’re being rescued… aren’t you?
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain* in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. Psalm 13:1-4
For many people with stories like the one we just imagined, the enemy who will rejoice… is Australia. Us.
As I read those words this week, all I could hear in my head were the words, said in triumph,
“We’ve stopped the boats!!” and the unsaid next line “aren’t we clever?”
And I wept, stopped in my tracks by the realisation that, for many of the people on the boats, I am part of ‘the enemy’ – an unwilling part, to be sure, but part none the less, because of what is being done to them by my country.
It’s not the first time I’ve felt this shame, but the first time that I have felt it in such a way, to the point of physical sickness as I thought about it.
I need to say that I am NOT an advocate of open boarders, or unregulated immigration.
But I AM a believer in timely, compassionate (and rigorous) on-shore processing for those who have come to our shores seeking a refuge of safety.
I DO NOT believe that asylum seekers who come by boat are ‘queue jumpers’, because in almost all situations there are NO queues to jump! I DO believe that Australia should work with Indonesian authorities to create legitimate opportunities for people to have their claims assessed, thereby cutting the illegal people smuggling trade off at the knees.
And I can say all of that, knowing that my words do not make a jot of difference to the political leadership in this country I love. And in case you feel I’m playing party politics here, let me hasten to add my distress with most of the parties in our system. As Eva Cox reminded us on Q &A last Monday, bi-partisanship in the political sphere is no guarantee of good policy or outcome.
As the week has gone on, and I’ve come back and forth to my conversation with Psalm 13, I’ve wrestled with two questions:
“I know I’m not the only person feeling this way, so what can we do about it?” and
“How do we speak ‘the living Word’ into this?”, or better “how do we attend to the living Word in this?”
Each week in church, we say at the end of the scripture readings:
”The living Word is among us” and respond “The light of Christ is in our midst. Thanks be to GOD.”
This is a statement of trust on our part: that we find in the readings something that speaks to us of GOD’s living Word. And as John’s gospel reminds us, the living Word refers not to the actual words we read or hear, but to the logic, meaning, patterns and wisdom we see in the life of Jesus, the one in whom we see unique revelation of the way of GOD.
This is why I changed my question from “How do we speak the living Word into the desperate plight of asylum seekers?” to “How do we attend to the living Word already present in their situation?”
Me talking today to a group of faithful and compassionate people in a Hobart church, is not going to introduce the living Word into experience of the people on boats, or the people stranded without citizenship on Manus, or Nauru, or in Indonesia. It’s not going to cost me anything to speak like this today, either. Some of you may disagree with me, sure, but I don’t need to be brave to do this.
I would never presume to imagine that it’s up to me to somehow ‘inject’ the Word of GOD into a situation where that Word has been absent up ‘till now. But, just maybe, if we speak about it together here, we might glimpse what the living, creative, dynamic, compassionate Word of GOD is already up to. If we make a space where people who are thinking the same kinds of thoughts and wondering what to do about it, can do this together, then maybe we can find a way to be a part of the work of GOD’s spirit: maybe we can find a way to help our nation be a friend, rather than an enemy.
I don’t imagine for a moment that this is straightforward or easy, but my trust in the life of GOD among us insists that it MUST be possible… somehow!
Saying things like this always comes as something of a challenge to me, as I suspect it does to many preachers. We’ve been raised on that ‘rule’ of polite and respectable society that religion and politics don’t, and shouldn’t mix. I manage to put that one aside by remembering Jesus: he clearly thought they did!
A more contemporary word comes from Robin Meyers, in his fabulous book “Saving Jesus from the Church”:
As long as politics is broadly conceived as the exercise of power and its moral consequences, then the church should never separate the body, soul, and body politic.” I’m with him!
But I also believe that worship should be a celebration, and I want people to go home with something optimistic (not necessarily ‘feelgood’, but definitely optimistic). And there’s a risk that when we focus on something like this, some people might go home feeling a bit down.
At the same time I’m well aware that I don’t EVER want to be worship which makes people feel good by anaesthetising them to what’s going on around it. Such worship is not only untrue to the biblical tradition in which we stand, it’s dishonest to the reality of life as GOD’s people.
Perhaps the optimism is to be found in our honesty with each other, and with GOD, that we struggle with stuff. Perhaps our confessions shouldn’t be about how we fail GOD or sin constantly, but about how we do our best in a world that’s not easy, and sometimes come up short. And perhaps they should also include the other sense of confession: that even when it’s not easy to see, the living Word IS in our midst.
As I was working on this witness, I received an email asking me to read a note from Tajikistan, about a young boy who has been in the hearts and minds of many of us as we’ve shared in the news of his life and illness. The news of him is bad, and we have been asked to care for him and his family in our prayers and any other way we can.
In doing so, we make another statement of the living Word among us, and beyond us.
And, with a sense of deep privilege, we accept an invitation to be part of the story of a fellow human that most of us have never met.
This may seem all too little, for us people who like to do things for others. But it’s a statement of trust, and an act of faith, when the distance between he and us may be reduced just a little.
There may be more we can do in support of the people coming to our country in boats. It may be as simple as correcting the people who call them “illegals”, or “queue jumpers”. It may be remembering them in our prayers, it maybe some form of political activism. That’s a decision for each of us to make.
As I said before, I don’t imagine for a moment that this is straightforward or easy, but my trust in the life of GOD among us insists that it MUST be possible… somehow!
One more thing: the words which hit me between the eyes are not the last words in the psalm.
It took me a while to see it, as I sat with the rest. But eventually I remembered the statement of trust in the psalm, the same kind as I’ve been talking about here.
It reminded me that stories are almost never one-dimensional, and we should never characterise the story of a young boy in Tajikistan, or that of the asylum seekers, purely as desperate or sad or fearful: they are as multi-facetted and complex as our own.
Just imagine, after all you’ve been through, to still be able to say:
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:5 &6)
Truly, the living Word is among us. The light of Christ is in our midst.