I regularly teach the course “Engaging the Bible in Rural Ministry.” Throughout the course I work to instill the understanding that the Bible is a rural text. Rural communities find themselves in the text through the patterns of life, the imagery, story, and prophecy. When rural communities connect their story with the biblical story they can thrive and live into new futures.
My hope is to occasionally provide something like biblical interpretation for rural communities. Today I want to explore the first three verses of Psalm 50. I provide the Common English Bible (CEB) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) from Biblegateway.com:
50 From the rising of the sun to where it sets,
God, the Lord God, speaks,
calling out to the earth.
2 From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines brightly.
3 Our God is coming;
he won’t keep quiet.
A devouring fire is before him;
a storm rages all around him.
1 The mighty one, God the Lord,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
This text opens a Psalm in which Israel’s actions and practices are called into question. It is call to faithfulness and conviction within their religious activities. This is something for rural communities to consider, but I really only want to talk about the first three verses.
The first three verses speak to the action of God toward the people of God. God calls out to the earth, God shines brightly, God is coming and won’t keep quiet. These messages are one’s of hope and strength for many rural communities. Rural communities continue to experience a sense of loss and abandonment, due to the draw of educational, cultural, and economic opportunities in urban areas. Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas document this well, engaging the rural brain drain phenomena, and how some small towns are attempting to stop it. Media and society continue to paint rural communities as “less than” or stereotypes that are to be visited or observed, but not embraced. Side note: yes, I know not all metropolitan media outlets do this, but the overwhelming majority still portrays the rural as somewhere that is not the center of society. Also, much of the media that does portray rural as a positive place still wants to “improve it” with urban ideas.
This scripture, however, offers a different image. An image of a God who is calling out to the earth, to the people, the rural people. It is a God that shines on the earth, on the rural communities. This is a God that is coming to the rural places. This image of God, even with a consuming fire, a perfect Zion, and omnipotent power is coming to the small rural towns. Not to destroy. God is not going to destroy God’s people. God is there to remind God’s people of their hope.
Truthfully, up until this year, I thought this Psalms were overrated. I thought they were fine poetry for funerals and weddings. I never really saw them as the rich and robust scriptures they are. Then, I started to spend time with them. I started to read them from a place of longing and hope, and this scripture, in the lectionary for Transfiguration Sunday, found me. It spoke to me and to the rural spaces I love with power and hope. A hope that reminds us that God is always coming. God is always calling out. God is always shining on us.
Even if the metropolitan world does not see rural communities as valuable beyond resource extraction and labor, God sees them. Even if the messages the schools, television, and movies send to rural areas is one of abandonment, God still calls. God still comes. God is still here.
With this knowledge, rural churches, rural communities, and rural towns can know they are not abandoned. They can know their story is not over. They can know that there is a future where God is there. It is also a reminder that if God is here, then we should be too. The rural brain drain combined with an otherworldly escapist piety of certain churches can create a double abandonment. Therefore, instead of attempting to “get to God” we should be looking at how God is already here with us and responding to that presence.
We should listen to where God is calling us. Perhaps to the schools? The hospitals? The wilderness?
We should look for where the light is shinning. On the empty mills? The open farmland? The shelters and nonprofits?
We should look toward the direction that God is coming from. From the places of love? The spaces of creativity? The homes of new life?
Where does this scripture speak to your rural community?