babylon and baby heads: revenge and Psalm 137

6 07 2014

I love words. Words have this amazing ability to paint pictures in our minds. All I have to say is “Tower Bridge” and there it is in your mind. Or The Shard, or a mountain top, the seaside, Bugs Bunny, love, hate, war, revenge and that feeling you have when you think you’ve left the house without your pants on. 

Some things we all see the same – say, for example, my hand – but then, our imaginations and experiences can take a simple word like hand and transform it. If your last memory of this hand is that I hit you with it; or held your hand; or fed you; or pointed you in the right direction, then how you describe this hand will change. So words might look the same, but they can take us to very different places. 


The Psalms use words to describe feelings, but more than feelings – they use words to describe their very being. The Psalms cover life and death and love and faith and faithlessness and doubt and when everything is fine and when everything has gone wrong. The Psalms are the song and lyric book of faith, they aren’t always pretty, but they are always honest. The Psalms are almost without fail addressed to ’you’, the ‘you’ being Yahweh, the God of Israel. You are this, you are that, we blame you, we love you, we worship you… they are nothing like the prayers of nations around them, always trying to appease and flatter their gods, but they are addressed to Yahweh who is trustworthy enough to be angry at and to be vulnerable with. They’re not just meditations on life, they are prayers to God; and not any old spiritual presence or vague hope, but Yahweh, the I Am, the God of Israel.

Psalm 137 is pretty honest. This has one of the most well-known first lines and least-liked last lines. ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ obviously brings to mind Boney M; and the less well-known ‘happy are those who seize your babies, and dash them against the rocks.’ That’s never taken off as a catchy line. Its awkward. It’s written from a different time and different place, a world of tribal warfare, of more immediate violence, and also a culture of directness of expression. It doesn’t mean they would actually go and dash babies heads; although it might mean they wouldn’t argue if someone else does it; and it certainly means that what they feel like.

The Psalm tells a story of a people who have been humiliated and captured and what we want now is revenge. Revenge on Babylon, revenge on everyone. Who hasn’t wanted revenge? 

Harnessing our feelings, and pouring them out to God, is so important, so valuable, even the most unattractive ones. Worship and faith is about being real, not presenting a veneer of respectability whilst inside we seethe with unspoken rage. Once spoken, the feelings that need redeeming, changing, or taken away can have that done. God is thick-skinned. And, because he’s not a magic we can control he won’t go and do what we’ve asked just because we’ve said ava kadava and summoned a patronus.

God is not just God when everything is working out well. God is not absent when things have gone belly up. I struggle with the absence of God, the inaction of God. Like the Psalmist I can stand on a high mountain and be overawed by God’s creation and his wonderfulness; and I can be in the depths of sorrow or anger when I see injustice and poverty and loneliness and my own ineptitude and feel lonely in a crowd and want to crawl into a hole and everything to just stop.

Like the Psalmist, when we see people destroy what we love most – for them it was Jerusalem and the temple, for us it might be our families, ourselves, our homes, our safety – we are hurt and angry and want revenge.

That is where we come back to Jesus, who took on himself at the cross all that anger and those thoughts for revenge, who broke that cycle of revenge and violence with his grace, grace that gives the power to forgive, the power to hand over anger and revenge to him, him who took it to the cross. Otherwise it sticks to us, and when it sticks to us, it defines us. We become bitter and twisted and end up only singing this one Psalm. 

Let’s be honest with God, and let’s be poetic, let’s express ourselves and be a bit less British and reserved and a bit more Middle-Eastern about it, and let’s trust that God can handle it, that it is good for us, and that he can take our sadness, disappointment, rage, and thirst for revenge and transform it into something beautiful.




fearday the thirteenth

13 08 2010

Fate led me to accidentally walk under a ladder, but touch wood everything was fine – my star sign said it was going to be a difficult day, but I’m a good guy so I figured what goes around comes around and karma would treat me well. Anyway, as luck would have it I was wearing my cross and I took communion yesterday so I pretty much knew God would protect me. Even it had all ended in tears I know I would be ok because I was baptised so I’ll got to heaven. Touch wood.

be afraid

Superstition is everywhere. Beliefs that denote a wish, a desire for something; a hope that there is a higher power that looks out for us. Touch wood  – many say it, but does anyone actually believe that wood has special powers? Fate – a fear that there is some power that directs us like 2 blobs on a GPS into situations that we have no control over. Luck – an entity with a quota we might use up. Superstition comes from fear, fear that something somehow somewhere is going to make bad things happen. Fear that someone is out there trying to trip us up.

Religion often acts in the same way. It also stems from fear, fear that God looks on us badly, fear that we need punishing, fear that in the end he will make bad things happen or send us to hell. We bargain with God in the hope that he won’t trip us up; we look busy doing our best to please him; and if that is a bit much, we try to win him over (or con him) with some superstitious beliefs in the power of church attendance or the eucharist or baptism or confession or jewellery or money or quiet times or piety.  I know I haven’t given you much time over the years, Mr God, but here is my baptism certificate and my lucky cross to show I hadn’t forgotten you.

Should we be more afraid of the very real and tangible Mr God?

I am afraid but I am not afraid. I am afraid because God is God – beyond our comprehension and understanding, beyond planets and universes and full to the brim of creative wonderment and overflowing with so much love we could not look upon his face. I am afraid because I am human and he is God.

I am not afraid because God is not like a holy Subbuteo player ready to flick us from this world. I am not afraid because God does not demand endless superstitious acts to keep him onside, acts that I might get wrong and muck it all up and have to start again. He is remarkably irreligious. I am not afraid because Jesus asks for our whole lives and when we give him everything it would be totally out of character for him to turn round and say thanks for this but you forgot to touch the wood. And by the way, its Friday the 13th so you’re out of luck…

I am not afraid because he bursts through and breaks and shatters all ideas of luck and karma and fate with his wonderful, endless grace, grace we cannot earn or bargain for but grace which is given and which we can receive.  As the prophet Bono says: Grace travels outside of karma. Grace makes beauty out of ugly things. Grace is the thought that changed the world. Grace is real and tangible and is called Jesus. I said that last one.

And some classic Mumford & Sons:

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