Scholar Fridays is a series on Bearings Online where we feature 2018-19 Resident Scholars. Ruth Harder is a pastor at Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, KS. She spent January-February 2019 at the Collegeville Institute working on a writing project titled In Safe Keeping—A 21st Century Pastoral Conversation with Psalm 91. To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
What is your current project and what inspired you to undertake it?
I began by immersing myself in the language, imagery, worldview, and promises of Psalm 91. This led to a full-blown argument with Psalm 91, with me doing most of the arguing.
It took several days at the Collegeville Institute for me to acknowledge that I’ve been in grief’s wake for a while now. In the congregation where I serve as pastor, there have been two recent deaths by suicide. Both of these individuals cried out often in the language of Psalm 91, but found very little earthly relief—death being their only ultimate relief. Deep down I think I hoped Psalm 91 would provide a channel for me to focus some of my grief and existential fears. It did not disappoint. And even though I might still cringe upon hearing the grandiose and comprehensive assurances of security and protection within Psalm 91, my heart has softened a bit. What I hear now, what I need to hear now, is the promise that God is with us, through all the terrible realities and human strife. This I continue to choose to believe.
My off–and-on relationship with Psalm 91 began more than 15 years ago when I was serving as a hospital chaplain. Many patients asked me to read this psalm to them, so I memorized several translations and recited it often, trying not to show my alarm over the dramatic and rather archaic sounding phrases like fowler’s snare, plagues, pestilence, flying arrows, tents, not to mention the thousands (ten thousand just to the right!) falling all around. Oh and then there is the threat of “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” (Actually, just lions and vipers are mentioned, to which I still say, “oh my!”)
I start to worry when anybody uses Scripture in self or nation-protecting ways at the expense of others’ lives and interests.
One patient, a retired military veteran, told me that Psalm 91 traveled the world with him—it was literally sewn into his army uniform. He called it “The Trench Psalm.” I learned later that soldiers, such as those during the First World War, started calling Psalm 91 “The Trench Psalm” because, according to Ronald W. Goetsch, “The men in France found all their experiences in it—wire entanglements, poison gas, bombs, mines, booby traps, shells by night, shrapnel by day, trench fever, destruction by the thousand. Yet God was ever their defense.”
I decided the hospital bedside wasn’t the place to debate Psalm 91. But as I walked the hallways of the hospital and talked to my chaplain peers, I expressed my developing unease with Psalm 91, or more like my dis-ease with some of the interpretations I was hearing. In the case of soldiers praying this psalm in the literal trenches, I start to worry when anybody uses Scripture in self or nation-protecting ways at the expense of others’ lives and interests.
What book are you reading right now for pleasure?
Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Three Junes by Julia Glass, and My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris.
Do you ever listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind of music?
Yes, but while I was at Collegeville the crackle of the fireplace was all I needed.
Did you have any “surprising conversations” with other resident scholars?
The conversations were wonderfully eclectic—food, recipes, geography, academic pursuits, family, politics, art, rituals around dying, Mennonites, Catholics, Baptists, birds, etc. I also loved getting to know a woman named Pat, who swam laps three days a week at the St. John’s University pool. She has always wanted to write a poem about the sound of the pool door opening. “The sound of Benedictine hospitality,” I said. “Yes, that’s it!” she responded.
What is your greatest “ecumenical moment”?
When I learned how to spell ecumenical! Also, I participated in a week-long interfaith clergy fellowship at Chautauqua Institute and heard/met leaders like Krista Tippett, Greg Boyle, and Joan Halifax.
How has your spiritual practice changed over time?
Anything that helps me pay attention, enlarge my imagination and sense of wonder, and connect me to greater purpose is what I try to focus on.
I’m trying (not always succeeding) to be more kind to myself, and to treat spiritual practice as an opportunity to tap into a generative power at work in the world as opposed to a time of doing something expected, prescribed, or rigid. Sometimes going on a walk, going to an art museum, or taking photos is a way to connect again with the generative power and presence all around us. Anything that helps me pay attention, enlarge my imagination and sense of wonder, and connect me to greater purpose is what I try to focus on. Right now it’s photography.
What question do you wish I had asked? (and what’s the answer?)
Question: What is it like being in Minnesota in -30 degree weather? Answer: If you’ve never had snot freeze inside your nose, you are fortunate.
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Alexander Lostocco says
I have taken the 91st Psalm and changed to reflect current language and memorized it. I say it every day and some times multiple times a day. It protects me. It is my way of holding on privately to God. I love the pray and what it says.