By Dirk G. Lange.
November 9, 2014 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
Just over fifty-three years ago, a huge wall was built, a mighty fortress—a wall around East Berlin, a wall to keep out and a wall to keep in. This wall isolated people and forcefully molded them into a single, straight, dreary one-dimensional way of living. The wall represented an oppressive system without cracks, without breaks, without life.
Almost 500 years ago, a monk by the name of Martin Luther felt the pressures of another oppressive system, one in which a person was never sure of God or God’s mercy, one in which a person could even pay to climb the stairway to heaven quicker and easier. In many aspects, the church itself had become a fortress, dictating who was in and who was out.
Every system, every culture, every community risks succumbing to the temptation of shutting borders and protecting an identity. We are quickly seduced into the illusion of absolute control and power. Brick by brick, wall by wall, suspicion by suspicion, power is built, oppression takes hold. We construct an identity, a security, a world. We construct our own way to heaven. (Or is it to a ghetto?)
Who or what can defeat and break the walls, the towers, the fortresses we construct? Who or what can overcome oppression in the land? Where do we turn when creation shakes and societies are in an uproar?
Psalm 46 is a song, a hymn, perhaps, even a litany with a constant refrain “God is our refuge” punctuating the flow, surprising and comforting. It considers things in which we might seek refuge and sees danger— creation (the earth changing, mountains shaking, waters roaring and foaming) and societies (nations in an uproar, kingdoms tottering). Perhaps we turn to weapons and shields for protection and life. Or we turn to tanks and missiles and drones. None of these, however, provide a place, a safe place, a sure way, a certain identity.
Selah. In Psalm 46, every stanza ends with this surprising and untranslatable Hebrew word.
When a psalm is sung in a worship service, this curious little word does not confront us because it has been edited out of the text. Yet, it appears three times in Psalm 46, once after verse 3 (though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah); and once after verses 7 and 11 (The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah).
Martin Luther, Old Testament professor and translator, could not figure it out. Finally he writes, “The word Selah is introduced confusedly and altogether without discernable order, to show, that the motion of the Spirit is secret, unknown to us, and by no means possible to be foreseen…” And then he continues, “wherever it comes, it requires us to omit the words of the psalms” or we might say, it interrupts the words of the psalms, it breaks into the words. Finally, he writes, we are brought to a “pausing and quiet frame.”
Selah breaks into our reading, into our meditation, into our life and disrupts the meaning that we create. It breaks through the mighty walls. Selah silences us and our constructions. It silences the mountains shaking and the kingdoms tottering. It disrupts the walls of a medieval church. All is silenced. Reformation.
Twenty-five years ago, the wall of a grey, oppressive society, the Berlin Wall, symbol of Stasi violence and terror and forced conformity, symbol of hopelessness, symbol of a totalitarian system, came breaking down. This did not happen because of the use of force or weapons or violence but through small and hidden prayer groups that had permeated the East German society for decades finally irrupting in more public display in the Monday prayers for peace in Leipzig. Communal prayers grew from clandestine small group meetings to prayers of 2,000, then 5,000, then 10,000 plus participants.
They processed with their vigil candles lighted not towards the high altar but into the streets, towards tanks and armed soldiers. A liturgical process silenced weapons (both Soviet and American) and brought down a wall. Everything was silenced. Everything was subdued and defeated by one little Word that irrupted and continues to irrupt in the middle of the text.
In a silent, unexpected interruption by the Holy Spirit, we are freed. A candle is lit. The wall crumbles and weapons are rendered useless. God acts. God “makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with fire.” Out of the depths of despair and hopelessness, God speaks a surprising word and opens an unexpected way.
During the late 1980s, another resistance movement was active and another revolution was taking shape: the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia. Its leader, Vaclav Havel (later President of the Czech Republic), wrote, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” (Disturbing the Peace, Vintage, 1991).
As the young and not so young processed out into the streets in October 1989, there was no assurance of success. They were afraid. Would they be met with violence as had happened in Tiananmen Square (Beijing, China) earlier that year? This is a question that the demonstrators for peace and democracy in Hong Kong are perhaps asking themselves in these days as well.
Psalm 46 directs our attention not to creation trembling or nations in an uproar, not to our power and ability but to the dismantling of all power. Be still, that is, let go, abandon, desist, cease. Our hope is directed not inwards nor is it directed upwards towards a transcendent God in some heavenly realm or up behind the high altar). Our hope is in God who dwells among us, in the midst of the city, giving us a river whose streams making us glad. God-with-us.
Psalm 46 continually reminds us that the Reformation is not a celebration of identity but rather the deconstruction of walls, whether those walls be political, cultural, ethnic, economic or religious. Today, every community can ask: what walls have been built up that knowingly or unknowingly confine and reduce us?
“Be still… and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” Selah.
Dirk Lange is associate professor of worship at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Bible Study Questions
1. What borders and gates have we placed around our community that need to be opened or broken down?
2. Our society encourages trust in oneself. What does it mean for our lives when the psalmist calls us to trust in God alone?
3. Is success or something else the criterion for action whether in our lives as individuals or in our faith communities?
For Further Reading
Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Facets), Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2001.
Vaclav Havel, Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990 Vintage Reprint Edition, 1992.
Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2013.
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