In her book H Is for Hawk Helen Macdonald describes her experience raising and flying a goshawk. She explains that birds gripped her imagination from an early age:
I was a scrawny, too-tall child with ink on my fingers, binoculars around my neck, and legs covered in plasters. I was shy, pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, fantastically clumsy, hopeless at sport, and allergic to dogs and horses. But I had an obsession. Birds. Birds of prey most of all. I was sure they were the best thing that had ever existed. My parents thought this obsession would go the way of the others: dinosaurs, ponies, volcanoes. It didn’t. It worsened. When I was six I tried to sleep every night with my arms folded behind my back like wings. This didn’t last long, because it is very hard to sleep with your arms folded behind your back like wings. Later, when I saw pictures of the ancient Egyptian falcon-headed god Horus, all faience and turquoise and with a perfect moustachial stripe below his wide haunting eyes, I was stricken with a strange religious awe. This was my god, not the one we prayed to at school: he was an old man with a white beard and drapes. For weeks, in secret heresy, I whispered Dear Horus instead of Our Father when we recited the Lord’s prayer at school assemblies. (p. 27)
This Lent, we’re focusing on the Psalms, as a way into our theme of honesty. In Psalm 91, the psalmist compares humanity to birds that are hunted, like ducks or geese, saying, “God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler.” And at the same time, the Psalmist also likens God to a predatory bird who defends us and mothers us with the majesty of Horus: “God will cover you with the divine pinions [that is, the outer part of a bird’s wing including the flight feathers] and under the wings of the Holy One you will find refuge.”
Clearly life was precarious in ancient times—full of pestilence and arrows, nighttime terrors and noonday destructions, constant warfare, fallen dead and wounded, scourges of disease and persecution. We, too, share in this human condition of vulnerability. We have different, yet equally frightening adversaries: anxiety, depression, cancer, addiction, broken hearts, homelessness, hungry kids in our schools, a broken and corrupt democracy, climate chaos. The Psalmist’s image of God is one who shields us and rescues us, one whom we can confidently name: “my God, in whom I trust.”
When poet and writer Kathleen Norris moved from New York City to the Great Plains, she began to spend time in a Benedictine monastery. Benedictines gather multiple times throughout the day to “pray the hours.” During these times of communal prayer, they chant the psalms together. The psalms are also the centerpiece of their practice of lectio divina, a slow, meditative chewing over small portions of scripture. Norris writes this about her time with the Benedictines:
I realized . . . that I’d been most fortunate in being given another chance to encounter worship, in middle age, in a context that restored to me the true religion of my childhood, which was song. For me, participating in monastic lectio has meant rediscovering a religion that consists not so much of ideas or doctrines but of song and breath. It’s encountering the words of scripture in such a way that they become as alive as the people around me. As Emily Dickinson put it, words that “breathe.” (From The Cloister Walk)
The psalms (like the scriptures in general) do not represent a finished product that we can label and package, as “truth.” They are song and breath; they are alive. They invite us into a genuine struggle, an intense ongoing dialogue between people and God. This exchange is honest, and therefore messy and inconclusive. With vivid metaphors, Psalm 91 probes our profound human vulnerability. And it also probes just how far God will go to care for us. The God of Psalm 91 is portrayed not just a protector but also as a bird of prey. My favorite sentence in Helen Macdonald’s book describes the sheer power and ferociousness of a goshawk: “It looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.” (p. 4) What do we make of the fierce God of Psalm 91 who will even go on the attack to defend us from harm?
Jesus’ time in the wilderness embodies the tension of this psalm—the push and pull between our human vulnerability and the promise of God’s protection. The Holy Spirit filled Jesus and led him into the desert. At the Spirit’s direction, Jesus didn’t eat for forty days. His work, in this time, was to enter fully into the depths of human vulnerability. To grow hungry, to know weakness and fear and desperation, to yearn not only for food, but for safety, shelter and home. Death stalked him; the devil, like a vulture, circled. The desire for life consumed every thought, every breath. The tests that confronted Jesus in this condition of vulnerability exposed the clear choices he must make.
As God’s beloved, God’s anointed, who would he be, and how will he lead? He could feed himself with stone-bread, rejecting our human hungers. Or he could live with the hunger, and become our teacher, showing us the face of a God who sustains us through the leanest of times. He could rule all the world’s kingdoms. Or he could share in our human powerlessness. He could flaunt a special invulnerability, leaping from the pinnacle of the temple, to call forth a spectacular rescue. Or he could walk humbly and quietly beside us, enduring the pestilence and the arrows, the terrors and the scourges. He could give us life that rises from the ashes of storm and sickness and death. He could be the sort of protective shelter and holy refuge that loves us through suffering rather than sparing us from it.
On Ash Wednesday, I went to a press conference at the capitol sponsored by OutFront Minnesota, supporting a bill in the legislature that would ban conversion therapy. In case that’s not a familiar term, conversion therapy is the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation, seeking to make a gay or lesbian person straight. Though this type of therapy has largely been discredited, it is still legal and it does still happen. So Christian faith leaders showed up on Ash Wednesday to confess the complicity of the church as a whole in this harmful and abusive practice. We declared our repentance, the commitments we’ve made to turn in a different direction, toward a new view of human belovedness. We explained our belief that diverse human sexualities are a gift from God, that they represent one aspect of the divine image that resides within us.
Words like confession and repentance are really just another way of talking about honesty: honesty about our human vulnerability and how it calls us to trust in God, to find our refuge, our protection, and our shelter in the Holy One. When the press conference wrapped up, there was a moment of ritual. On one side of the room stood a pastor imposing the traditional ash cross with the words, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And on the other side of the room stood another pastor offering crosses of glitter and oil, saying, “remember that you are divine and to the divine you will return.” As I pondered this moment, I realized that, to me, these apparently contrasting symbols and words mean the same thing; from different perspectives, they point toward a shared truth. Remembering that we are mortal is also how we remember that God’s breath is in us and we depend on God for life. Wearing a sign of our vulnerability, hunger and weakness, we can surrender to the strength and grace of the divine that already abides within us. Becoming conscious of how sin deludes us and evil tests us, we can loosen our grip on our false selves and allow our true selves to rise to the surface.
Most of Psalm 91 is narrated from a human point of view, speaking about God in the third person. The Psalm concludes; however, with a stanza in which God speaks in the first person. “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them.” I’m struck by the intimacy of relationship that the psalmist assumes between God and humanity, not just here, but throughout the psalms. “When they call to me, I will answer them.” That’s what I’ve experienced in practicing lectio divina, in treating the Bible as a whole, and psalms specifically, as breath and song, living words. Marcus Borg once compared trust in God to the experience of floating. God is the love that holds us up in each and every moment. And God is always trying to communicate that love to us. When we stop and listen, it’s transformational.
Kathleen Norris says it this way:
I have learned that prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been. People who are in the habit of praying—and they include the mystics of the Christian tradition—know that when a prayer is answered, it is never in a way that you expect. (From Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith)