Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 85) transports me to a period of my life that started somewhere around the second grade, when I and all the boys started hating the girls, and vice versa, each claiming the other group had cooties. It’s a fairly common experience, although I do observe that the repulsion toward the opposite sex lasts for a far shorter period of time now than it did back in my day. My five-year cootie fear finally ended when I had my first kiss, with a Jan Brady lookalike who will go unnamed, right before I ran out onto the court for a seventh grade basketball game. Suddenly all the flaws in the “other” were gone, the cooties cleaned up, the repulsion magically transformed into attraction. Glory! I could have seen it coming if only I had been reading up on my popular psychology, and had known about the Westermarck Effect, named for Finnish anthropologist Alexander Westermarck, who discovered the observable and predictable phenomenon of young boys and girls developing sexual repulsions for each other through early adolescence. Cooties appear to cross cultures.
A different kind of cooties plagued the relationship between God and the covenant community. It was called iniquity, or sin. It meant the people were untouchable to God. They were dirty. This lasted for a time, until something happened. For whatever reason, God outgrew the anger and forgave the people, completely cleansing them of their cooties. Steadfast love replaced repulsion and indignation. And once cleansed, there’s this wonderful kissing imagery. It isn’t between God and the people, though. When the relationship is restored, the passage describes truth and mercy (in the KJV) embracing, and then righteousness and peace close their eyes and lean in for a holy kiss.
I think the imagery here has a lot to teach us. Truth and Mercy embracing. Righteousness and Peace kissing. If you read through the Hebrew scriptures, you’ll see that these words represent two very different camps of the covenant community. Perhaps we can imagine the faith community struggling through early adolescence, with one group converging around the themes of truth and righteousness, and the other group converging around themes of mercy and peace. One side focuses on personal purity, the other on corporate ethics. One emphasizes individual responsibility, the other social justice. Righteousness and Peace. It’s the age old struggle of conservative and liberal dispositions, individual versus communal responsibility. These dispositions are often seen and felt in the various forms of prayer and praise. Listen to your prayers and your praise songs– are there more “I” and “me” words or more “us” and “we” words? That might give you a clue which side of the seesaw you’re sitting on. And throughout history, each side has avoided the other like the plague, believing the other is infected with cooties. It’s sure true today, as we see plenty of evidence in the adolescent kind of talk that passes for discourse among the faith community. Could it be that the Psalmist was envisioning something as radical as a first kiss for a boy who’s been hating girls for years? A radically new relationship, where prayers of forgiveness and the assurance of pardon targets both personal peccadillos and systemic sin, both the individual and the communal aspects of iniquity? And once cleansed and cootie free, the two historic ideological enemies – the doctrinal truth-seekers and the practical mercy-givers, the personally righteous and the globally peaceful – pucker up and plant a sloppy wet one square on each others’ lips. I’m kind of interested in that kind of romance of ideologies. It feels to me like some matchmaking is in order. It’s time for these two historic enemies to embrace and discover the glory in each other. It beats the heck out of running around yelling cooties.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.