Lord, the Lord Almighty,
may those who hope in you
not be disgraced because of me;
God of Israel,
may those who seek you
not be put to shame because of me.
I have been trying to compile a collection of psalm recordings that spans the Psalter. It seems interest in the Psalms has come into vogue again, and there are numerous musicians and groups seeking to mine their riches. This in addition to the rich history that singing the Psalms has throughout Western musical tradition. So I have Handel’s chandos anthems, the Neville Brothers singing “Rivers of Babylon,” the cycle of penitential psalms by Orlando di Lasso, Bono singing Psalm 40, an incomplete set by a project called EveryPsalm, which is recording a psalm each week until they finish, and three albums worth by the Africa Psalm Project, based in our very own Uganda. To date I have managed to track down interesting settings of 146 Psalms, leaving only four which are missing (check my math on that).
Two of the remaining are among the major imprecatory Psalms—69 and 109—which no doubt many musicians are reluctant to pick up due either to squeamishness or savvy financial calculus. Within popular Christianity opinion is divided over whether and how these psalms fit into our New Testament understanding of the Gospel. And with the abundantly rich material available in the rest of the Psalter, it seems almost unnecessary to turn to such theologically thorny passages. How did David write with such audacity? Didn’t his mother teach him “if you don’t have something nice to pray, don’t pray anything at all”? Was he really aware that he was writing under the cloud of divine inspiration, or was he just an angry guy blowing off some steam who got a free pass from God?
All of these thoughts came freshly to the forefront of my mind this week following yet another community meeting. For those not familiar, these are periodic gatherings of the community and its leadership called over public disagreements which generally degenerate very quickly into a competition for who can abuse the mission or its various members with the most vitriol. And just like in little league, everyone gets a trophy. As time has gone on, my trajectory has been from helpless anger to slightly bemused resignation at the inanity of the spectacle. But in the last year, something has snapped in me, and I have been increasingly unwilling to let the community leaders dictate the terms of the conversation. This gushed out like a firehose on Monday as I felt compelled to denounce the many speakers before me who, feeding off of each other, had become increasingly brazen in their falsehoods, and generally whipped the assembly into a fury with their lies. One choice example will set the scene: The Local Chairman II, who is over the half-dozen villages in our parish, said these exact words, “You missionaries want to prevent us from having clean water so that our children will fall sick and you can get money from us at your clinic.” At these words, there was an approving round of applause from the crowd.
Now, no one in our community is ignorant of the fact that our mission has been involved in the drilling or rehabilitation of something like half a dozen boreholes just in our parish not to mention the wider area of our district. And it is also true that we lose money on every patient we see at Akisyon a Yesu Presbyterian Clinic, so if our plan was as the local chairman said, it’s being terribly mismanaged. It is also true that all of these men and their families have received good care at various times by our clinic, so they know the true situation intimately.
Nevertheless, this is the message that our local leaders continually spread in their community, and on Monday I felt compelled to discredit it. When my turn came to speak, I said that the mission had come first of all, not to bring water, but the water of life, which is the Gospel. I continued, “Everyone wants water to drink but on Sunday, there are very few who come to get living water. For many years, this community has preferred to drink out of the poison well of lies coming from the mouths of your local leaders. God says that liars will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. So you the members of this community need to decide whether you will continue to drink the poison that will lead to your own destruction or the living water that wells up to eternal life.” It remains to be seen whether my speech was impolitic or incisive, but as I spoke the words, I felt tremendous peace and calm, even in the midst of howling denunciations from the crowd. I am not generally someone who feels at home saying “Thus saith the Lord” on virtually any subject, so all of this is terra incognita for me.
Much has been said about the problems in our community with polygamy, drunkenness, and violence. But it is increasingly clear that the biggest block to the Gospel’s progress here is a culture steeped in deceit and untruth. If “the truth will set you free,” then our neighbours are the worst kind of slaves. And who or what is keeping them in slavery? Obviously, Satan, the father of lies, but it’s not a very big jump to see in our local leaders his avatars; they certainly bear his image.
I came away from the meeting battered and emotionally overwhelmed, but also suffused with calm. Gone was any personal animosity, any sense of urgency over winning the argument or even of tactical retreat. If you only ever went to these public meetings, you would assume that the mission had not a single friend in the community, and indeed it normally feels that way in the aftermath, but I received a Nicodemean text message that evening from one of the men being discipled for church leadership, “Your labours in the Lord are not in vain.” In such a mob, it’s safer not to let your light shine too brightly.
As I pondered all the events of the day on Monday night, I revisited Psalm 69, and understood David’s words as never before. The contours of the poetry fit almost glove-like to our current situation—at 3000 years’ remove. David knew that sometimes it’s not enough to cry out for justice—sometimes, we must cry out actively for God to tear down the springs of injustice.
The following day, during clinic devotions, we sang these words “The power of Satan, Jesus has removed.” During announcements, I reminded the staff that we had sung those words, and that they are true. Jesus has defeated the power of Satan on the cross. But, I added, there’s still a lot of work to do to realise it within this community. I said it by way of an invitation to the brief midweek prayer meeting we have before work on Wednesdays. Despite my weekly advocacy, we have consistently been four who gather.
Wednesday, as my turn came to pray, with much fear and trembling, I prayed the following words, which had been tumbling in my mind for several days:
God, we are the sheep of your pasture, and we are weak and stupid as sheep. You have said that shepherds will be judged more harshly on whether they have done good or ill, and we pray today that you would stand up and judge the shepherds of this community. We pray for our local chairman, Loyale. He has spoken arrogantly against your servants—both those who are now here and those who have gone—he has believed in his heart and modelled for his people that the lies he speaks will not be judged by you. We pray that you would remember his sin and let him suffer its due. May you silence his tongue so that he cannot be heard. May you remove him from his position of influence in this community. May he be chased from his place here, and may the people he has misled no longer be subject to his lies. We pray that you would provide for your people in this community a good leader who will speak truth to them. We pray that you would open the eyes of this people to discern truth from lie. We pray that as you humbled Nebuchadnezzar and made him like a beast that you would bring down this man. And most of all we pray, that if he will turn his heart to you and repent, that you will be merciful and forgive him. May we, your people, also be ready and willing to forgive. You say in your Word that when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us. May anything here said that does not conform to your will be translated into words that are pleasing to you. We ask for these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Perhaps if we continue to humble ourselves and pray, God may yet heal our land. When I opened my eyes, we were not four, but ten.
Let heaven and earth praise him,
the seas and all that move in them,
for God will save Zion
and rebuild the cities of Judah.
Then people will settle there and possess it;
the children of his servants will inherit it,
and those who love his name will dwell there.