I’ve been praying Morning Prayer now for over 11 years, something that astonishes me when I really think about it. There are definitely days in which I struggle with some of the readings. Monday almost started off to be one of those days.
Sometimes there are passages with which we all struggle, or that bring back bad memories. In the two-year cycle of readings for morning and evening prayer, the worshipper will cycle through most of the so-called Old Testament once, and the vast majority of the New Testament twice. The Psalms are read on a seven week cycle, so that means one reads most of the psalter seven times a year. You would think on a schedule like that, especially after a number of years, there would be few surprises in store. But when you consider that we also follow a three-year lectionary cycle for Sundays, you can end up with endless combinations of scripture to contemplate during the week, as my friend and mentor Dan reminded me in class one day. And the amazing thing about scripture is that there is always something new there. Scripture truly is like living water: just as you can’t step into the same river twice, scripture also rolls through our lives and refreshes it in unexpected ways.
On Monday, a day already fraught with sadness and tragedy, I groaned aloud when I saw that Psalms 41 and 52 were scheduled for that morning. To be honest, almost every time I see Psalm 41 I groan to myself a bit. Through its first eight verses, the psalmist’s plea for protection from God and mention of enemies are standard fare. But when it gets to naming the betrayal by a beloved companion—a theme even more pointed in Psalm 55– that’s when I often feel my heart begin to sink.
Like most people, including the psalmist, I have suffered incidents of betrayal and pain by those I held most dear. The raw emotion that pours from the page in these psalms is so powerful because it comes from a place that resonates so deeply in our own lives these thousands of years later. Sometimes, it’s just hard to get to that perspective if the emotional context of the day is already heightened, yet I know if I can get there to that sense of catharsis there will be blessing. There have been times I have read the end of Psalms 41 and 55 with tears welling behind my eyes, and I was hoping that Monday, the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, would not be one of those days.
Yet, the beauty of scripture is how it can lead us afresh to new life as well as help us to express our deepest pain and fears. I slogged through Psalm 41 and almost wearily began Psalm 52, which also starts off strongly denouncing betrayal and evil deeds by a person with power. Yet I then remembered that this psalm also contains one of my most beloved images of God’s grace and mercy:
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.
I will give you thanks for what you have done
and declare the goodness of your Name in the presence of the godly.
These two psalms placed together remind us that lamentation in the face of betrayal can help us move to forgiveness—the kind of forgiveness that restores the perspective and allows us to remember that, even in times of trial, God is a God of abundant love and mercy. Olive trees are themselves a sign of abundance: their olives can be used as food, or pressed to make fine oil for cooking, or for burning in lamps for light, or for anointing those chosen and beloved of God. They provide their abundance even when impatient humans harvest them not by climbing into their branches and raking out their fruit but by shaking them violently or beating them with sticks. They provide cooling shade with their evergreen leaves for both human and animal, and habitat for the birds who can rest in their branches.
Olive trees can live for hundreds of years, because I am told that certain of them, even if cut down, send up new growth from the root-stock. This tenacious clinging to life may be one of the reasons why it was an olive branch that the dove released by Noah brought back after the flood had subsided, telling him that creation was again bearing fruit even after terrible destruction. Olive trees therefore are a sign of eternal life and eternal compassion, of the goodness of creation as a sign of God’s provision for us in times of devastation as well as times of plenty. To be a green olive tree in the house of God is to participate in God’s restoration of creation and reconciliation with all the earth.
Lamentation and anger are natural responses to being wronged and betrayed, these psalms remind us, and giving vent to these reactions helps us to eventually remember that hurts that we have received still cannot displace us from our ability to live in compassion and generosity as children of God. As I marveled at this precious image buried within this pair of psalms, I began to lean into the healing promise of this ancient image, forming my own prayer of thanksgiving and intercession as I continued to ponder this gift I had been given.
we praise and bless You,
and kneel before You in gratitude.
Let us open ourselves to your will
for love and true peace, O Holy One,
that your power may work in us
for the sake of healing and unity.
Help us to release the burdens
of past hurts that we still bear, O Healer,
that wound us still in memory and spirit.
Make us instead
like green olive trees in your courts, O God,
upright and resilient before the storm.
Send deep our roots into your Word, Lord,
and let us draw wisdom
from your Law of Love.
Holy One, make us bearers of life and hope,
of goodness and abundant grace,
fed and nourished by your mercy
flourishing in our lives.
Help us spread wide our arms,
offering evergreen respite from the heat of day
to all who seek You,
Our God and Mother.
Precious Savior, your blessings pour over us:
anoint us to your service this day.
Grant your comfort to those
whose cares weigh upon our hearts,
as we lay them before You.
Olive Orchard, June 1889, Vincent Van Gogh, from Wikimedia Commons