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Modern Psalms in Search of Peace and Justice

By Dwight L. Wilson, illustrated by Nancy Marstaller. Friends United Press, 2017. 226 pages. $16/paperback.

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The psalms of the Bible express the deepest and most varied emotions of people longing for God’s peace and justice. They are the voice of a common humanity; they have spoken for and nourished countless generations, and they still speak to us today. Their reach is so broad and deep that calling one’s own words in pursuit of peace and justice “psalms” is an act of courage, and might even be called daring. In writing a psalter of modern psalms, Dwight Wilson proves himself fully equal to this challenge. He follows the ancient psalmists’ tradition in crying out to God against the injustice he finds, and in expressing his experiences of God’s presence. But the word “search” in the title is a clear message that we are still nowhere near true peace and justice.

The publication of this collection celebrates Wilson’s 50 years in the ministry—in the broadest sense. He rarely refers indirectly to the Divine but instead addresses the Holy One, the Great Spirit, and other names, most directly as “You.” All are expressions of his relationship with the Supreme Being. They are outcomes of the history of his ancestors’ and his own many struggles.

In his 140 psalms, Wilson makes no attempt to match or rephrase any of the Bible’s 150 psalms, but he covers as much ground. They are cries in response to the wide variety of evils that have impacted him personally: walls, false prophets, authorities who lack vision, the prevalence of guns, oppression and bias of any sort, being an outcast for various reasons, and many others.

The biblical psalms are often intensely intimate and personal, but often they speak for the entire Israelite nation. Wilson’s nation is the community of the underprivileged and disenfranchised, the victims of neglect and racism. His historical perspective is the slavery of his ancestors and all its racist consequences.

“We are Your children”: it is striking how often babies and children come up in these psalms. One of Wilson’s many volunteer activities is simply holding babies in the pediatric cardiac ward of a children’s hospital, and this has generated a dominant theme in many of his psalms. The baby has a divine message, and holding one leads him to say: “Momentarily I am one / with You who hold me.”

In his praising the power and glory of God, Wilson’s work is just as compelling as the biblical psalms, and the praise gives his psalms their unique expressive power. The temptation here is to quote him at length, but a brief sampling will have to do: “let go of myself / to flow into Compassion’s stream”; “I thrill to Your music, snap my fingers”; “Release me to live / in endless spring / not because winter is absent / but because blossoming is perpetual”; “we turn to You, / our spiritual GPS.” Sometimes a phrase brings the reader up short to ponder the words before going on: “I am the child called / to obey before conception” and “Let the whitened glare / of modern deeds not obscure / the velvety Light / of modern faithfulness.”

In many of his psalms, his sufferings and his trust in God echo the forcefulness of the biblical psalms: “My enemies surround me,” “unleashed hellhounds / licking their lips in savage anticipation,” but this is triumphed over by “Your steadfast mercy,” “Your ways are / beyond my comprehension,” “Your unending forgiveness”; “forgive” is here a verb of unusual frequency. His concluding psalm begins: “My Creator and my Center, / Your presence is my joy.” The search for peace and justice calls on all of us to be aware, as the psalm inspired by meeting for worship says: “The opening way / in this Quaker meeting / brings together spirits / which rise to meet You, each expecting a gathering of souls / at Your river of peace.”

The underlying tone of all these psalms is our commitment—relying on divine power—to be actively engaged in righting these endless wrongs. Dwight Wilson challenges us to join him when he says: “Let us tie our cables / to the problem and pull. / Together.”

William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. His thoughts on "The Psalms as Spiritual Directors" are scheduled to appear in the March 2019 issue of Presence.

Posted in: February 2019, February 2019 Books, Quaker Book Reviews

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