Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 118: 25-29) transports me to an Israeli Sukkot ceremony, aka Feast of Booths, where families remember the vulnerable days of wilderness wandering, when they survived on the edge of night in fragile dwellings. Each family constructs a simple sukkah, or booth, sometimes reminiscent of the temporary shelters you see used by homeless families, and for seven days this becomes the dwelling place, the place of family meals and devotions. During the devotions, one of the Psalms recited by all observers of the Feast of Booths is Psalm 118, so from the simple and insubstantial spaces you hear families singing together in Hebrew what we would translate, Oh Lord I beseech Thee, send now prosperity, or Oh Lord, grant us success.
The context of this poem is a victory celebration, complete with a branch-waving parade and resounding shouts of joy and victory (which church folks are familiar with from Palm Sunday services). I have to admit at the outset, I am out of my comfort zone in this context. I am uncomfortable with triumphalism. I find much of the assumption of success in an overconfident prosperity theology to be fairly flimsy if not downright abhorrent. That’s just me; I don’t mean to be passing judgment on those who have a sunnier spirituality. For some reason, though, I am more comfortable with darkness, and gravitate toward theology like Buechner’s in The Magnificent Defeat, or Elie Weisel’s image of the tragic God in Night, or the shadowy spirituality of Rilke’s Love Poems to God. Maybe it’s part of the residue of living in the South, imbibing William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and finding more richness in the tragic side of life than in the triumphant. Maybe it’s coming to terms with periodic plunges into depression. For whatever reason, I just haven’t been able to find a way to authentically access the sparkling spirituality of Joel Osteen’s ministry or the Gaither Reunion Choir singing a snappy version of Victory in Jesus.
But then I have to come to terms with Psalm 118, and allow it to give me passage to unfamiliar territory, the territory of triumph and success. I simply can’t ignore the troublesome passages. The German martyr Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a wonderfully tragic figure in his own right, said as much when writing about the Psalms: Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power. I am reminded of a sentence a former pastor used to say whenever he would read a troubling text of scripture: This, too, is the Word of God.
Walter Bruggemman reminds us that the Psalms emerge from those experiences which have a surplus of meaning, for which conventional and cultural resources offer no adequate voice. He also helps me remember that this poem, like all the Psalms, is inherently Jewish and has a distinctive Jewish shape – the shape of active, protesting suffering, the shape of defiant, resilient hope. It all makes sense to me when I imagine hearing the victory Psalm ring out, not from some crystal cathedral, but from those shadowy booths connected to the homes of Jewish observers of Sukkot. And it reminds me of a time when I was able to sing Victory in Jesus with a kind of spirituality that is genuine for me. It was in my late adolescence, and my mom was dying with cancer, after years of grueling chemotherapy treatment. One of her favorite songs was Victory in Jesus, and while she wasn’t a singer, she would often hum or whistle the tune. There was something about her resilient spirit that could claim victory even in the midst of terrible suffering. So when a group of friends and I formed a contemporary Christian group and made a recording, we arranged a version of that hymn just for her. When I listen to it now, I smile, because it’s as if I arranged it from the shadows of a fragile booth dwelling. It’s painfully slow, with a touch of minor key thrown in for good measure. And I hear the lyrics, and realize that the poet who wrote that song must have been a kindred spirit, with words like wretch, groaning, lame, blind, and broken spirit dotting the victorious verses. And the final line of the hymn speaks volumes: He plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood. There’s my surplus of meaning, a plunging down into a prosperity of soul that enables me to hear an old, old story and re-tell it with authenticity.
“Victory in Jesus” arranged by Stan and sung by his college friends in “Rejoice”