Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 107:33-43) transports me to the Myrtle Beach pavilion, circa 1974, when I finally got old enough to join the Gashes Creek Baptist youth group and attend their annual beach retreat. One night of the yearly retreat was always spent at the pavilion, for an evening of ski ball, roller coasters, cotton candy, hot dogs, and chances to win stuffed animals that would give you further chances to win the heart of the girl of your dreams. After indulging in a satisfying amount of carnival food, I asked one of the girls to ride the Trabant with me. I thought my show of bravado and courage at being willing to board this tilting and spinning disc of a ride would impress her. First mistake. The second mistake was when the ride operator put the girl, who outweighed me (not hard to do, as I was skinny as a rail) on the outside seat. Third mistake: having eaten those hot dogs and that cotton candy. The ride started, the disc started going round and round and then tilting up and down, and the G Forces started pressing the girl against me. I remember vividly the song that was playing for the ride, Band on the Run. I still get queasy whenever I hear it on the radio. If I could have escaped and ran, I would have. Needless to say, I found out the hard way (and so did the poor folks who happened to be on the other Trabant cars at the time) that the Dotson stomach is not meant for carnival rides. I eventually recovered and spent the rest of my evening pitching pennies onto a plate, finally winning enough tickets to salvage my stature with the girl by presenting her a life-size Pink Panther stuffed animal.
The Psalmist, continuing a theme throughout scripture, portrays God as something of a Trabant or Tilt a Whirl operator, with humanity going around and around and up and down through a series of historical waves with a G Force (God Force?) that will pin you to your seat and cause your stomach to drop to your toes or rise to your throat in a heartbeat. The mistakes of humanity that get them on this ride to begin with are wrapped up in one word for the poet – wickedness. When you go back and look at this word in the Hebrew Bible, you see it defined, starting with its first occurrence before the great flood, as corruption and violence and rebellion. This is the axis of wickedness around which humanity spins its way into its ups and downs. So how is it that God is at work, operating this ride? Just as Mary sang in her magnificent maternity song, God has long been at work casting down the corrupt rich and lifting up the lowly poor. Just as Jesus taught in his parable of the vineyard, God messes up the economic equilibrium, bringing the last to the front and the first to the back of the line. And here in this Psalm, God is at work, raising up the hungry and impoverishing the proud. The hard lesson here is the spin cycle that seems to be at work, a cycle that seems so difficult for humanity to escape. The hungry are given a bounty; they are lifted up, but invariably, once their bellies are filled, they become as proud as princes, engage in oppression, in short, they get above their raising. And so the ride spins and tilts and they are brought low again; their rivers become a desert and their fruitful land a salty waste. And then, once they experience the hunger pangs again, they are raised up out of distress.
And so the poet leaves us with a moral to the story – let those who are wise consider the steadfast love of the Lord. Which, translated for me in the context of the carnival we find ourselves living in, stay off the ride. Stay on level ground, steadfast ground. The ground of love. Stay off the spinning ride of corruption and violence. Be satisfied to walk on ground that is not moving. I don’t claim to have any wisdom or high moral rationale for resonating with Psalms like this. I think I’ve simply learned that I don’t have the stomach for rising to the top, only to be cast down to the bottom. I’m content to pitch my pennies onto the plate in hopes of presenting a life-size portion of peace to the folks I walk and talk with.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.