How we read the Bible is always shaped by our context, but I can’t wait until the day when my mind stops seeing Scripture in terms of a pandemic. Just before I came to this morning’s lectionary selection from Psalm 31, for example, I saw a news report about the possibility that we’ll all start wearing masks when we venture out in public for groceries or exercise. Truly, my COVID-obsessed mind told me, I am soon to become “an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street [will] flee from me” (v 11).
But if this particular context makes some scripture seem relevant in ways I’d never have considered before, in other ways it feels more distant in meaning. Like David, I don’t doubt that “My times are in your hand,” but at first read it’s awfully hard to pray the plea that follows: “deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors” (v 15).
Who’s persecuting me right now? Do I have enemies?
While our society can feel like it’s been pulled apart by social distancing, and we’re tempted to see each other as sources of contagion, a crisis like this also pulls people together, melting away disagreements and differences that suddenly seem not all that important. America might be as politically polarized as ever, but right now I can barely remember how much time I used to spend thinking about partisan politics. Our country still has geopolitical rivals, but right now it’s hard to think of nations like Iran, Russia, or China as anything other than fellow sufferers in a global pandemic.
When the word “enemies” comes to David’s lips, his mind is filled with images of other people who mean him harm. When I pray his words now, all I can see are impersonal, invisible forces: a virus multiplying and spreading; the emotional and spiritual dangers that come from prolonged isolation; the fear I feel about my family’s health, or my employment.
I do pray that God will deliver us from those enemies, but I found myself turning away from that language in Psalm 31 and instead repeating the poignant first verses of today’s selection:
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away. (vv 9-10)
I read those lines over and over. Not because they describe me; I’m in good health and good spirits. But I was reminded of something Kathleen Norris once wrote about the psalms: that they’re meant to be read collectively; even when I sit alone at home in the early morning, I’m praying words that are being prayed somewhere else (or sometime else) by other people. When the poetry of the psalms seems irrelevant to my own life, I can trust that it describes someone else’s situation, and I can pray these words in their stead or for their sake.
So I felt myself praying verses 9-10 for those of all beliefs and nationalities who face the frightening loneliness of intensive or hospice care, for those who have lost or are losing their loved ones. I pray that God would make his face to shine upon those his servants, and save them in his love (v 16).
As such prayer stretches me outward in empathy, I can feel myself being delivered from seeing would-be enemies as anything other than neighbors worthy of love.
Much as I appreciate spending time like this with God, in the end today’s psalm reminded me of Evelyn Underhill’s insight (quoted by Norris): “The spiritual life of individuals has to be extended both vertically to God and horizontally to other souls; and the more it grows in both directions, the less merely individual and therefore the more truly personal it will be.”
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