When Hope and Goodness Seem Lost
Another Way for week of September 16, 2017
When Hope and Goodness Seem Lost
Psalms is one of the most beloved books in the Bible for many of us. Go to almost any funeral or memorial service, and the scripture you are most likely to hear is Psalm 23. I memorized it as a child, and perhaps you did too.
A book of songs and poetry for the most part, the ancient texts of Psalms allow us to experience a little of what worship thousands of years before the time of Christ would have been like.
But I remember when my eyes first really opened to the disturbing language in some chapters of the book of Psalms. I no longer find them as comforting as I once did. Many of them are full of revenge and wishes for retribution. Payback. Everything that I was taught—also as a child—to turn away from. To cherry-pick one example, the writer of Psalm 41 which is a “Prayer in Sickness,” is not only ill, his enemies “say cruel things about me. They want me to die and be forgotten.” He has been abandoned by friends and those he thought he could trust. “Even my best friend, the one I trusted most, the one who shared my food, has turned against me” (Psalm 41:9).
Then the Psalmist prays, “Be merciful to me, Lord, and restore my health, and I will pay my enemies back.” Another Psalm, 58:8 has this wish for his enemies: “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.”
I don’t recall many lessons in Sunday School about expressing that kind of attitude, other than gentle nudging to always be forgiving.
Author Anita Hooley Yoder, who recently researched and compiled the 100 yearhistory of Mennonite women’s organizations, Circles of Sisterhood (Herald Press), is also a frequent contributor to my favorite devotional magazine, Rejoice. Anita pointed out in her Rejoice meditation how Christians living in the midst of war and violence may more easily connect with the desire for vengeance portrayed in many Psalms.
At the time of her writing, a Christians in Nigeria were experiencing extreme violence and displacement with destruction of churches, families slaughtered, and children kidnapped. It is still going on. We shudder and try to put such horrible images out of our minds. Yet the reality in so many places—Congo, Syria, North Korea and more, is inhumane and grotesque treatment of our fellow humans, including children. This conduct begs for justice. Anita closed her meditation in Rejoice by admitting, “In my comfortable North American life, I prefer not to think about [these things]. And yet I find great hope whenever I hear of someone surviving evil and choosing the good, leaving the rest in the hands of God” (Rejoice, September 2015, p. 27).
I recently found a beacon of hope in an autobiography published in 1986 by Mark Mathabane, titled Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa (Free Press). Mathabane grew up in the 60s and endured that era’s separate rules, land, and society for various classes and races, raids over documentation papers, hunger, starvation, and horrific beatings, including at the hands of his own extremely beleaguered and embittered father.
The family lived in the township of Alexandra outside of Johannesburg, where all three of our daughters visited, as part of our church’s “sister church” connection with an Alexandra congregation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Yet through even such a miserable early life, his mother—who could not read—related folklore and tales of courage and cleverness so that she was somehow able to instill in Mathabane:
“… that good always invariably triumphs over evil; that having brains is often better than having brawn; and that underdogs in all situations of life need to have unlimited patience, resiliency, stubbornness and unshakable hope in order to triumph in the end. I learned to prefer peace to war, cleverness to stupidity, love to hate, sensitivity to stoicism, humility to pomposity, reconciliation to hostility, harmony to strive, patience to rashness, and creation to annihilation” (p. 80, 1986 edition).
Isn’t that a poetic piece of prose—on a par with many Psalms? And from one who had every right to despair or take his own life. Eventually Mathabane was able to go to college in the U.S. on a tennis scholarship and became an excellent writer and author of additional volumes. I think of the well-known South African leader of the same era, Nelson Mandela, and the 27 years he spent in prison because of apartheid, and then the path the downtrodden in South Africa chose to follow seeking reconciliation rather than revenge.
We must also choose love, hope and reconciliation in our own battles, whatever they are.
Find out more about Mark Mathabane, a photo of his mother, and his other books at his website.
Comments? Your own stories? Send to Another Way Media, Box 363, Singers Glen, Va. 22850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987.