Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 78) transports me to Camp Solidarity in the coalfields of southwest Virginia, circa 1989, where I have gone to sing union songs with some striking Pittson miners. When I get to my tent I get out a flashlight so I can read and re-read a letter I had received from my Aunt Aileen. She and I had been pen pals for years, engaging in an ongoing battle of wits because we were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Our ideological divide didn’t dampen our love for each other, though; she was a true family “character” and I adored her. So when I wrote to tell her I was going to go support some striking coal miners for a week, I thought that would really get her goat. But instead of the tongue-lashing letter I expected, much to my dismay and delight I got a card telling me how proud she was that I was getting involved with the union. While she lamented the corruption of some of the union leadership, she knew that the movement was important to sustain workers’ rights and safe working conditions. I was floored. What happened to my George Wallace-loving aunt? I soon made a trip down to Tennessee to find out, and on that visit I learned some family history that I’d never been told. I learned that my grandfather, Clarence Harris, had been one of the first union leaders of western NC, at the Sayles-Biltmore Bleachery plant. Aunt Aileen and her sisters, including my mom, had walked the picket lines as teenage girls. (Aileen had fallen in love with a union organizer, who broke her heart and later became a communist worker in Chicago, which I suspect was the genesis of her right-wing politics!) All l had ever heard about my grandfather Harris was that he was a godly man, very active in his church, and very knowledgeable about the Bible. Aileen told me that one of the reasons he was so good as a union leader was that he taught some of the plant managers in Sunday School, and out of those relationships he was able to negotiate and bargain better than most. By the time I came on the scene, though, the unions were nothing but buried memories, and it took me going to the coalfields to dredge those memories up to the surface for Aileen.
All of us have many family stories; some our parents tell us and some they figure are better left unsaid. It’s the ongoing work of revisionist history – choosing and shaping stories to help form our identities. This is what the poet Asaph seems to be doing in Psalm 78. He is recounting a history of Israel, from the exodus through wilderness wanderings through conquest and nation-building. From his summary account, the people were generally stubborn, rebellious, unfaithful, unbelieving, forgetful, disloyal, and unreliable, and would only come around to righteousness if God lowered the boom and slew a good many of their strongest. God’s anger was never fully unleashed, though, because in his mercy he remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return. According to Asaph, God finally rejected all the tribes except Judah, whom he loved, out of which came David, whom he took from the sheep pens to be the shepherd of the people. Asaph concludes his poem by lauding David, praising the way he shepherded the people with integrity of heart.
Asaph began his poem be saying he would utter hidden things, things from of old, things we have heard and known that our ancestors told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation. But of course he didn’t tell the whole story. In Matthew’s genealogy, we see reference to Bathsheba as well as David, which reminds us that there was a lot more to David’s history than integrity of heart and good shepherding. There was lust, adultery (possibly rape, if we were to know the whole story), murder, followed by a whole tragic history of dysfunctional family dynamics between David and his children. All this, from the one identified as a man after God’s own heart. When Mary and Joseph sat down and told their family stories, I wonder how much of this they shared with Jesus. I suspect that they truly did utter hidden things and didn’t hold back any of the sordid details. These stories contributed to his understanding of who he was, to the grace and compassion of his ministry among people who were but flesh. These were the people he identified with, the sinners, the broken, the dysfunctional; these were the people after his own heart. Solidarity forever.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.