“Every word you write is a smite against the devil.”
I came across that quote in Edmund Morris’ biography of Theodore Roosevelt, when, as a young man, Roosevelt explains his prodigious journaling habit. Roosevelt believed deeply in the power of words to form hearts, define reality and take ground.
I’ve had the urge to smite lately. Some because I have come to a place in my journey where I have some stories to share and convictions to speak; more because the past two pandemic years have created some distance—real and perceived—between you—the Waterstone congregation—and me. I want to move closer, to talk with you more and widely through this effort of writing. I don’t know if it will be called a blog or a journal or a series of letters; I just want to write for a while so you know my heart for some things.
Emily Clauss (who, by the way, is a joy-full writer with the good gift of succinctness and has been the writing voice of Waterstone and myself for over a decade) asked me what to call this new writing venture. I want to give it the title “Practice Resurrection.” This of course is the last line from Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front.” These two words have formed my heart and defined reality for me. In fact, I write under these words as I write to you now. Berry’s encouragement is to actually live (and write) as if Christ is risen from the dead. All things forgiven. All things new.
So let’s practice resurrection. Here we go...
During the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, I saw an image that seared into my memory: a Ukrainian woman being carried on a gurney by four emergency workers after a bomb turned her hospital into rubble. The woman is long into her pregnancy, and she is holding her hand low under her womb, cradling her unborn child. It is especially hard to look at her ashen face reflecting her shock at what had just happened. I close my eyes to pray and I see this image.
Several days later I learned that this woman and her baby died. When I think of it, I am heartbroken. But I also feel so angry—a raging resentment—that this young mother and her innocent child were violently killed because Russia’s leader decided he wants a neighboring sovereign country as his own.
The war, the atrocities in Ukraine make us feel helpless. We see the images and read the accounts of civilian targets being shelled, and we wrestle with what to do with this anger and heartbreak.
When we gathered for the first worship services after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Elliot Campbell led us to pray Psalm 7:14–16: “Whoever is pregnant with evil conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment. Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made. The trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads.”
Welcome to the imprecatory psalms, given for moments like these.
The imprecatory psalms call down destruction, calamity, and God’s judgment on enemies. Most of the time we don’t know what to do with them (when was the last time you heard Psalm 109 read in church?). They are uncensored in their articulation of hatred and anger. They are immediate in their disdain with no three second time lapse to bleep out the bad words that come between what is felt and what is said. We in the American church tend to gravitate toward more measured promises of God’s presence and mercy. We are discomforted with the violence and vengeance found in these psalms, and we wonder what they have to do with a God of love.
In a recent article in Christianity Today, Tish Harrison Warren writes that during her seminary training, she had a professor from Northern Ireland who lived through the Troubles, the 30-year ethno-nationalist violence in Northern Ireland. He witnessed violence against the innocent firsthand. This professor shared that when he was younger and a seminarian himself, he rewrote a psalm for a class assignment in which he prayed that any terrorist who made a bomb would have it blow up in his face. His American professor pulled him aside, chastised him for using such violent imagery, and told him he needed to repent. Warren’s Irish professor, reflecting on this memory, told his students that he realized then his American professor had never witnessed unprovoked violence against innocents and children.
The imprecatory psalms remind us that we do not yet live in the new heavens and the new earth. The imprecatory psalms name and protest the present evil. They give us language to express necessary outrage about injustice perpetrated on others. They call on God to enter the darkness to do something about it. They resolve that the God who has created and calls every Ukrainian and every Russian to know him will also avenge wrong and bring ultimate judgment on human hostility. These psalms call us to the reality that every day in this world someone needs us to pray an imprecatory for them. This is probably the reason why there are so many imprecatory prayers in the Psalms. Tish Harrison writes, “[The imprecatory psalms] remind us that those who have great power are able to destroy the lives of the weak with seeming impunity. This is the world we live in. We cannot simply hold hands, sing 'Kumbaya,' and hope for the best...Those of us who long for lasting peace cannot base that hope on an idea that people are inherently good and therefore unworthy of true judgment. Instead, we find our hope in the belief that God is at work in the world, and he is as real—more real—than evil." (Christianity Today, March 8, 2022)
And what is this present work of God in this brutal world? The imprecatory psalms instruct us that we are not merely praying that violence triggers more violence in endless cycles of vengeance. Rather, we are asking that God will ricochet people’s evil actions back on themselves, as we prayed in Psalm 7: “Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made. The trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads.”
In other words, we pray as Tish Harrison’s professor did, “May their bombs explode in their faces.”
Of course we can pray for Putin’s repentance and for Russian soldiers to lay down their weapons in protest of their government’s intentions. But this is also a moment to be confronted and comforted by God’s gift of the imprecatory prayers. At Waterstone we say, “Pray a psalm every day” (reading it aloud if possible and paying attention to what or whom the Holy Spirit brings to your mind). You will be impressed with the resources we have for terrible times. We will begin to understand how God cares deeply about what is happening in the Ukraine. And we will be strengthened by how God reveals himself not as a soft, cream-of-wheat god who only forgives and always tolerates. He takes his rule seriously. He takes seriously what people do to people. The anger of the Psalms is evidence of his love for what he has made, and they signal again the holiness of his being, and ours. This is a moment when we plead for God’s mercy but also lean into his righteous, loving, and protective rage.
There are times that we wonder if God is even there but he’s there in everything. Our media is so filled with the bad things that happened driven by bad people. We need to have comfort in that knowing our God is a good God and what he does is in his Ultimate plan which sometimes it’s hard for us to understand. We thank him for providing us with the psalms so that of that we have a resource and an outlet for our anger and our not knowing why.
This is something to look forward to. I have several emails I get, but I'm not consistent reading them.
New day, new habits!
Larry, thank you for sharing your heart with us, and for leading us to God's word to further help us to 'vent the heart-wrenching despair, anger & frustration' that we feel about not only this ugly war, but the constant and worsening evil & corruption happening every minute in this world!
The 'practice resurrection' theme immediately caused me to reflect on Tim Keller's writing on that very subject in our book study, Hope in Times of Fear. He also reminds us that we do not yet live in the new heavens and the new earth. I really thought that was the direction you were headed, but then you pull out Wendell Berry on us.... Oh, Larry.....:>)). Good stuff!
( And by 'us', I really mean 'me').
Share on, my friend!!
So good Larry. Thanks!
Thanks Larry for sharing, I believe America is headed for very turbulent times in the next 2 years.
Thanks Larry! These thoughts are very timely. It is so difficult to watch Ukraine and other issues like no limits abortion and stay positive. Your words and the Psalms help a bunch.
Gentle hands and a strong backbone. Amen and Amen.
Love it! Gonna really enjoy this Blog.
Amen and amen. Thank you! I am so glad the Lord is nudging your gift of words to the page. I fully believe He will use this to bless and transform others for His kingdom drawing them closer to Himself through your gift.
Thank you for the picture painted with the brush of your words. Thank you for safe spaces to grieve and to express authentic emotions in a Biblical way.
We are thankful for you!
Thanks for the great new blog Larry!
I had never heard of the imprecatory psalms before. Another weapon to add to the
Armour of God straight from Holy Scripture. A big relief for the powerlessness many of us feel. But,
no more. Let the chips fall where they may!
I,too, have asked myself and Our Lord - what am I to do with my feelings and thoughts about the atrocities that is happening in the Ukraine. Does He see - does He care? Of course He does - He is God. He hates evil more than I do. He saw the evil during the Holocaust. He sees when a child is being abused.
I, like you, like David, pour ' our hearts out to Him' He hears - He cares.
Thank you Larry
I appreciate the fact that you are doing this - I appreciate the honesty of a blog, which is sometimes hard to do in sermon. In our home group, we are reading Keller's book. I have read some of his work before, and arguably, this isn't his best work. That said, this week we were on chapter 10 - social justice (my world!). He introduced the chapter with this quote on page 156. “If all the repairing of the world was to happen in the future, then there is little to do but to live lives of personal morality and sit on our hands and wait. But, as we have learned throughout this book, the resurrection means that the liberating, repairing power of God is here new, through the risen Christ and his presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit. We have not been saved just to be safe but saved in order to serve.” I struggle sometimes with the Psalms, and the waiting for God to intervene. Engagement may alleviate the helplessness of rage, but losing the battle leads to disillusionment and confusion. Anyway, I will spend time thinking about this perspective this week.
You have so eloquently written how I've been feeling about this atrocity occuring in Ukraine. I'm reminded how Hitler & the Nazi's zoomed across Europe in their bid to conquer the world & subjugate it to a pure Aryan Race. Killing so many innocent Jews & others they deemed inferior. I feel helpless & have prayed often that awful horrible things will happen to the aggressors & their leadership.
Such a heart breaking story, and so many others we will not know in the Ukraine. So beautifully said Larry and yes are great King Jesus is still on the throne.
I am looking forward to the sharing of your heart. Your first writing to us really spoke to me. I remember in small group a few weeks ago Bruce basically said “someone needs to take Putin out.” That, and what you have said here, have really resonated with me. I have not read a Psalm every day, but am seriously thinking about it. I WANT to … it’s just the doing that causes me hiccups in my journey. Thank you for your bravery and willingness to share You. I value that - and you.
I do read psalms daily. And each and every time I recite/study the imprecatory psalms I remember what an old Pastor instructed: "God said it, and that settles it". God is not only "Abba", but also Adonai " Sovereign Master". Then the imprecatory psalms make sense; and we have every right to pray both for evil ones redemption and/or total restraint. It seems that old Hebrew laws (think Leviticus) were not "heavy handed", but obedient. This month (May 14th) the Holy Spirit's leadings are to discuss the tensions between Abba and Sovereign Master in our Men's Prayer-breakfast. Where does our prayer life fall between the two; or have we run off into the ditch one side or the other; and why? Obviously the imprecatory psalms should be included during this. Thanks. Holy Spirit never fails to supply his agenda! JohnD
I have wondered how to pray for the people of Ukraine and there country. I will start reading the Psalm everyday. I now understand the meaning behind them. Thank You Pastor