One of the hardest things for me to do is talk with my kids about violence – honestly, but without scaring them; hopefully, but without glossing over difficult truths; justly, but remembering that they’re young and tender. My reflection at the Practicing Families blog today (here) tells some of that story.
Psalm 98, selected verses
Compose a new song, and sing it to the Eternal God
because of the unbelievable things God has done;
God has been true to God’s promises;
fresh in God’s mind is unfailing love
for all of God’s family.
Even the ends of the earth have witnessed how God saves.
So raise your voices; make a beautiful noise to the Eternal, all the earth.
Let your joy explode into song and praise;
Make music with the harp;
sing a beautiful melody with the chorus.
With trumpets and horns,
fill the air with joyful sounds to the Holy One.
Let the sea rumble and roar,
and all the creatures it holds shout praise;
let the whole world and all those who live in it join the celebration.
Let the rivers applaud
and the mountains join in joyful song
In the presence of the Eternal because He is coming.
Zoe and Carter, sister and brother, both travel with a sketchbook tucked under an arm, pens in hand. They’re both really talented, really creative, and they never just sit still during Sunday School –they’re always creating characters, drawing scenes from new original stories. A few weeks ago in Sunday School, we finished our conversation a couple of minutes early, and I told those two, “We’ve got this whole wall covered in chalkboard paint. You should fill it up!”
Lately, we’ve been putting a question on the chalkboard, inviting people to write their answers.: one month, the board asked where people wanted to travel to, one month it asked about a favorite memory, and it’s really neat to see the different answers scribbled all over as people add their own. This month, the question is: “What does love mean to you?” And there’s only one answer on the board – in all capital letters, someone has written, “total acceptance.” And around those letters was a lot of empty space.
And I don’t know – I didn’t ask her if the drawing was in response to the question on the board – if maybe, to Zoe, love means just what she wrote: that you don’t have to hide your true self anymore. Or if her drawing wasn’t in response to anything, really; if this shy middle-school girl was just offering up an invitation to a room full of middle-schoolers – giving them freedom – saying the one thing they all really, really need to hear, and have such trouble trusting…
I also didn’t ask about the mouth. But I can’t help but notice that on the mask, the face has full, puffy lips, spread into a wide smile. And on the face underneath – the real girl has her mouth just slightly open. No false smile, no manufactured emotion. I don’t know why her mouth is open – but I wonder if maybe she’s about to speak…
Zoe’s gift – this permission-granting to her peers – it was quiet. Some of them had even left the room by the time she finished, so they didn’t see the picture until their next time there, a week later… Still, her offering reminds me of this other girl, who had a revelation of a similar sort, and was louder about it…
When she was a little girl, Catherine – she would come to be known as St. Catherine, of Genoa, but not yet – when she was a little girl, Catherine wanted to be a nun. Her older sister had joined an order, but when Catherine presented herself, she was refused – she was only 13. And as this was fifteenth-century Italy, soon after her parents married her to a nobleman and she was miserable for years and years – like, she prayed that God would make her really sick, so she could just stay in bed and wouldn’t have to be a wife – she said this prayer until one day, she was sitting in church, and she was so overwhelmed by God’s love for her – she felt it, so palpably, that she stood up in the middle of her confession, and walked through the sanctuary and out the doors of the church. She couldn’t stay where she was.
And after that, she devoted her life to caring for the sick – she began working at the local hospital, she eventually became its director, and she moved in to the facility, even as the plague swept through her town, she spent her days walking those halls, providing care for those in need. And doing this, she came to see herself – her own need, and her own strength – in those she cared for, and she came to see God in them, too – all vulnerability, all glory. And one day all this seeing became too much, and she left – like she’d left the church years before – but faster, this time she ran through the streets of her town and as she ran she shouted what she’d seen, she said: “My deepest me is God!”
My deepest me is God. That’s what she learned, about her true self, staring into the faces of her neighbors, sick as they were. That’s what she learned as they stared back at her, as she saw herself in their eyes. Catherine said to her patients, “Something of God is alive in you.” And the sick back said to Catherine, “You and I are not so different.” And Jesus, fifteen hundred years earlier, said, “I and my Father are One.” And somehow that’s all the same thing.
Maybe that’s why that girl’s mouth is open… maybe that’s what she’s saying, what she knows, now that her mask is gone. My deepest me is God.
It’s the same truth that the earth cries out in the Psalm – that God lives, in every inch of it.
Have you been to the ocean? When the waves fall on top of each other, it sounds like clapping, right? The Psalmist says those peaks are praising God as they crash.
And the mountains? The way they stretch toward heaven with a kind of majestic embrace of the earth? The Psalmist says that wide reaching, is song for God.
I remember having a six-month-old baby on my hip one afternoon when the wind blew through the trees, and the leaves, they shimmered in the sun, and he could not take his eyes off of them, I remember him leaning back, almost out of my arms, so he could see better – the way the light played on the yellows and the greens, he was captivated by all of these leaves, dancing for God.
One commentator says, “Just by being what it was created to be, all of nature praises God.”
It takes a long time for us to learn what the rest of nature already knows. Some of us never do. Some of us do for moments, and then we forget again. But this Psalm tells us – and so, our ancestors in faith tell us – that our voices are part of that chorus of praise; our instruments lend it depth. Just by being who we are, we praise God. By shedding masks, we let God live. Because my deepest me is God. And your deepest you…
And so to be who you are is an act of creative resistance. It is to say, to the rising tide of voices that tell you “you are not enough, and never will be,” that you always have been. If we trust that – if we trust the voice of God in us above all others – what would become possible?
Psalm 98 is an old, old song. And it tells us to sing a new song. It is an ancient lyric that the people of God would have sung in celebration, in worship. And it invites all its singers to do something else. It invites them to sing something new.
Some of the great poets did this – they took this instruction, to do something new – but only after resisting it at first. John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton – they all sat down, at one time or another, with a translation of the Psalms laid in front of them, and their own blank paper, their own pen in hand, and they attempted to render these same verses in their own poetic style. And each of them failed.
These men who had such mastery of the language found themselves stifled by their own assignment; they could not give new life to these old words. But each of them went on to craft some of most beautiful religious poetry the world has known, their very own works of praise and lament and questioning… John Milton could not rewrite the Psalms, so he wrote Paradise Lost. He wrote, “What is dark within me, illumine…” They were creators. The Psalmist knows that, about the earth and about each of us. So when he calls us to sing a new song, that’s really what he calls us to – to let the God that lives in us create.
But it’s a scary move – the one from recitation to composition, creation.
An old professor of mine wrote a book about a pioneer woman on the Kansas plains. It’s a tale of survival, and family, and rugged determination. I was a student worker in her office as she was writing it, and she used to bring me drafts to proofread. She’d bring in chapter after chapter, each one excited her more than the last. Until one day I was sitting at the student work desk and she walked in, holding a stack of papers that was visibly weighing her down. Her face was stricken. She was pale. And I asked her what was wrong, and she told me, “She’s going west.” I didn’t know who she meant, and my professor seemed frustrated by my asking, but she said, “Annie. Annie’s going west. Annie! I never knew she would leave…”
Annie is the protagonist, the heroine, in my professor’s book. So I still didn’t understand what she was saying. I said, “What do you mean? She’s your character! It’s your book! How could you not know?” I said, “If – if you don’t want her to go west she doesn’t have to go! Just, you know, write that she stays.” And my professor shook her head. She was so, so sad, but she said, “Erika, … I can’t make that happen. She’s already gone.”
And eventually, as she followed her character, my professor came to learn that going west was exactly what Annie needed to do. But here’s the thing: composition is risky. Living into our calling as creators takes courage because creation is free. We give life to what is part of us but not exactly us, it is from us but it is beyond us, too. Sing a new song, the Psalmist says, but what happens when we do? What will it sound like?
Maybe we can’t know. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Creation takes on a life of its own. Maybe it’s not ours to direct where and how it will go. Maybe it is only ours to help each other trust the impulse in us that wants to bring forth something new, some new song, some true self, some way for God to live.
Catherine of Genoa’s discovery, her song, that her deepest self is God, is more than that, of course. Because to know that about one’s self is to know that about all things. The deepest part of every person around her – the sister she envied, the husband she had such struggle with, the patients who were wasting away – the deepest part of each of them – God.
And you, and I, beneath all that we fear, and before we dress ourselves for the day with yet another mask, and beyond the real violence we do to ourselves and one another when we convince ourselves that we are not enough, you and I are creators. Something of God lives deep in us and when we allow it, it lives in the world, too, and it gives life. The call of the Psalm is to be free, so that God might be free. To speak and to sing, so that the voice of God might be heard. To learn the truth that the mountains and the waters have always known – that in creation lives a bit of the creator – and to rejoice in that.
We need each other for this work. Because there is so much trying to make us forget. We need the oceans and the leaves and we need each other. We need to say to each other, in big and small ways every day, “Your deepest you is God.” We need to listen to each other, and love one another, believing fiercely in that truth. My deepest me, and your deepest you, and the truest self of every other soul – is God, a creator. Trusting that, what becomes possible?