One of the many moving moments during my sabbatical seven years ago occurred at the Tent of Nations, an educational, peace and organic environmental family farm/centre owned by the Nassar family. In November of 2013, the group I was with spent a day at the Tent of Nations, located seven miles southwest of Bethlehem in Palestine. It is a destination for people—mostly young people—to live with others, help with farm chores and engage in person-to-person peace-making.
The working farm offers empowerment programs, workcamps, summer camps, and community volunteer opportunities. The 100-acre organic farm is known as “Daher’s Vineyard.” The Nassar family has been fighting since 1991 to keep their land, which has been threatened with confiscation by Israel. An important international presence has been contributed by those volunteers who attend the various programs at the farm. The Tent of Nations is a place where people meet together, learn together and work together to inspire one another to be peace-makers. Psalm 133 is used as a guiding principle: “How pleasant and harmonious when God’s people are together.”
At the Tent of Nations, you will find Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Europeans, North Americans, Africans, Asians, atheists, environmentalists and the curious; people from around the world come to be part of this community of love and hope. The Nassar family refuse to be enemies, writing that intention on a rock at the gate to the farm in different languages.
It’s not remarkable that a verse from a psalm was chosen as a guiding principle for the Nassar family. They are a devout Christian family and rely on the psalms to give expression to their hope for justice, their hope for peace, their hope to be friends with others, and their firm hope that God is present in their struggle and desire for justice in the world.
With respect to the psalms, I’ve heard a number of my peers dismiss them as archaic expressions of a pie-in-the-sky faith or, on the other hand, as poems that contain violent descriptions of God’s judgement. I read the psalms as fiercely human, giving expression to human longing and hope, feelings of depression and abandonment at times, feelings of anger sometimes, as well as feelings of deep community and joy; I use them in my own prayer life.
Another farmer located in North America—a Christian thinker and poet, Wendell Berry—has written a lot about “place” and the importance of place. He has written that no place on earth can be completely healthy until all places are. Berry has talked about how our sense of community must include the land, the plants and animals that inhabit the land, and all our kin that live. Berry also talks about hope and how hope must animate how we live and work and have our being. And for Berry, this hope isn’t just an abstract notion; hope begins when doors are closed, even slammed shut, and when the promise of dawn is a distant thought. Hope begins in that place of despair as a glimpse into a new beingness and a new beginning, a radical hope where one’s roots come from God’s being.
The psalms are full of this radical hope; Psalm 139, for example, was a psalm probably written during the Jewish exile in Babylon when all hope was lost of returning home. The people felt abandoned by God and yet the poet says that God knows our rising and our laying down. God knows our thoughts before they are formed. God knows our innermost parts. And there is nowhere we can be where God’s Spirit is not! Even the farthest limits of the sea will not be bereft of God. God operates in deep night and bright day!
Psalms like 133 and 139 also challenge our preconceived notions that we try to protect—notions that are based on our fears. That’s part of the radical hope of which Wendell Berry lived out and which the Canaanite woman embodied. Wendell Berry challenges us to see beyond our individual lives to the collective life of the universe; he pushes us to see that a tree’s health, for example, depends on our health and vice versa. He challenges us to look beyond our me-first thinking.
The Canaanite woman pushes us to think about our own biases and prejudices and how we act on them. We’re pushed to discover how we dismiss other people based on our quick judgement of others, as Jesus did initially. Real hope pushes us to encounter the parts of ourselves that separate and are bound in fear. Real hope pushes us to embrace a togetherness that is based in love. The Canaanite woman forced Jesus to confront his biases.
Jesus had to reevaluate his own sense of hope in being confronted by the Canaanite woman and maybe it sparked in him a thought back to Psalm 133 about kindred living together in harmony and finding mutual healing in weaving lives together. When we share our fears, our griefs, our despair, our uncertainties, as the psalm writers did, we rediscover a radical hope; and we find new courage and imagination to be together in new and life-giving ways—ways that are healthy for the earth, also as the Psalm writers say. This kind of community building and hope-filled living —like the Tent of Nations—is the hardest work that we can do.
But we don’t do this work alone. God’s blessing is part of it—a rich blessing of oil running over our heads. A rich abundance of dew that sparkles on a new morning. God’s presence is a blessing that calls us beyond our self-imposed limitations into the radical hope of a new tomorrow.
Walter Brueggemann has written a lot about the psalms; I end with this prayer he wrote after 9/11 and it seems appropriate today in all that we are facing in the world:
When the world spins crazy, spins wild and out of control, spins toward rage and hate and violence, spins beyond our wisdom and nearly beyond our faith… When the world spins to chaos as it does now among us… We are glad for sobering roots that provide ballast in the storm. So, we thank you (God) for our footage in communities of faith, for many parents and grandparents who have believed and trusted as firm witnesses to us, for their many stories of wonder, awe, and healing… And when we meet you hiddenly, we find the spin not so unnerving, because from you the world again has a chance for life and sense and wholeness. We pray amid the spinning, not yet unnerved, but waiting and watching and listening, for you are the truth that contains all our spin… and leads to hope.