Advent Riffs, Third Sunday: Keeping Faith

Advent candles, Third Sunday

Advent candles, Third Sunday, photo by Melly95, used under Creative Commons license

“The LORD God keeps faith forever,” promises the psalmist. In the face of every day’s news, what does that promise mean today?

Refugees turned away. Food stamp eligibility cut. Mounting farm bankruptcies and farmer suicides. Sending asylum seekers back to danger and, yes, death in Mexico. In Afghanistan, lies about progress, lies about victories, changing stories, with the only constant being the suffering of that country’s people under bombs and bullets and bullying.

Over all of it, lies and lies and more lies emanate from the White House. Foot-dragging often, the House of Representatives finally moves toward impeachment, all of us knowing that the Republican Senate has pledged not to consider any evidence, with the presiding officer pledging ahead of time that “there will be no difference between the President’s position and our position.”

Set against the daily drumbeat of awfulness, the psalmist’s promise seems hollow:

The LORD God keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.

The LORD gives sight to the blind;
the LORD raises up those who were bowed down.
The LORD loves the just;
the LORD protects strangers.

The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.

What reason do we have to believe this thousands-of-years-old promise? What hope does it offer when we see the oppressed continually ground down, food taken from the hungry, more captives in our prisons than ever before in history and more than in any other country in the world?

Reviewing Karen Armstrong’s most recent book (The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts), Nicholas Kristof writes:

“Scriptures historically were infused with contradiction and mystery, intertwined with ritual and music, to offer glimpses of deep truths and often to promote ethical behavior.”

That is, scripture is not a literal description or history or promise, but rather an intricate puzzle offering inspiration, contradiction, and challenge. Armstrong herself writes of understanding scripture as art form and as myth:

“But traditionally, a myth expressed a timeless truth that in some sense happened once but which happens all the time. … The myths of scripture are not designed to confirm your beliefs or endorse your current way of life; rather, they are calling for a radical transformation of mind and heart.” (p. 11)

Armstrong describes scripture as a form of art, not only open to but needing the engagement and interpretation of the viewer / reader / listener / performer who encounters it. Scripture—whether the Torah or Psalms or Gospels or Koran—does not stand alone, outside of history and geography, but lives through engagement and interpretation and re-interpretation in every age.

By this logic, the psalmist’s promise is meant neither as an description of reality nor as consolation for suffering with a promise of pie in the sky or reward after death. Rather, the promise should inspire all of us to “keep faith forever,” to work with all our power to change the world, to bend the arc of history, to tirelessly act with compassion and seek justice for all in our own time and place.

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