Psalm 48 – A Rocky Mountain Urban Psalm
One of the defining experiences of our Street Psalms community is a series of theological conversations that we call “intensives,” in which we consider how big ideas impact the way we live, lead and serve on the margins of our cities. During one of those intensives, called City of Joy, we sometimes explore the ambiguity in which God’s beloved city, Jerusalem, represents in scripture both the heights and depths of the human experience. One of the passages that we sometimes consider is Psalm 48, in which the city itself – its walls, buildings, and towers – become an urban temple and sanctuary for an encounter with God.
In order to lean into this Psalm, I recently paraphrased and personalized this song of scripture to my own city, Denver. This was a good experience for me, and I would invite you to do the same for your own city.
1The Lord is magnificent and marvelous, deserving of praise like none other!
Scripture points us toward Jerusalem– Mount Zion – as the matchless place where humans encounter God and lift their praise. My home is in another city:Denver,Colorado, at the foot of theRocky Mountains. Even here, our highest praise is reserved for God.
2 Speaking of our city, isn’t Denver itself magnificent? Just to mentionDenver conjures images of a gleaming metropolis nestled against spectacular snow-covered peaks. How blessed we are to live here!
Like other great cities “set upon a hill” (well, okay – Denver itself is a flat place, but it borrows glory from the nearby mountains), the Mile High City sparks imagination, inspires music, and draws people from around the world to visit, to seek their fortune, or even to relocate, trading the harsher rhythms of places like Chicago or L.A. for that laid-back Denver groove.
3 God is present in this city. Never forget that it is God who has gifted this place and these people with such an abundance of beauty and resource.
4 There have been difficult times forDenver: Flood and fire nearly wiped it from the face of the earth before it could even get started. Cycles of boom and bust have been devastating at times – especially to the poor, taking everything from families and communities at the bottom and margins of society. Xenophobia and racism have found footholds in Denver: we remember with shame the Sand Creek Massacre, the anti-Chinese riots, the KKK’s influence in local government in the 1920’s, and the persistent patterns of segregation and neglect that marginalize communities in so many cities.
5 Yet somehow, thanks be to God, we Denverites manage to transcend that legacy, coming together to imagine and build a great city.
6 Dr. King observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We have lived that truth inDenver. The purveyors of ignorance and exclusion have their day, from time to time, focusing their wrath on scapegoats drawn so often from vulnerable communities. Fear is their only song.
7 But “like grass they soon wither.” Think of John Chivington, the pastor-soldier once hailed as a hero, who is now our state’s foul icon of bigotry. The mighty KKK was driven from power – the Catholics, Jews and African-Americans whom they oppressed outlasting them, becoming vital parts of the community, and even its leaders.
8 We live in a place that inspires songs: “…RockyMountain high,Colorado.” And we’ve all seen the postcards with verdant City Park in the foreground, majestic Mount Evans shining in the background, and the towers of downtown rising between them. This city is indeed blessed by the Lord Almighty. Like everything else in creation – including the good things made by human hands – it comes from God, belongs to God, and reflects the glory and goodness of God.
And although sometimes we are tempted, like God’s people of old, to think that it is the strength of our own hands that have created all this abundance, it is always God who gives us the ability to create. Our history and our future are in God’s hands. Word!
9 Denverites aren’t big church-goers, at least not when compared to some other cities. We’re just as likely to seek you, Lord, in the outdoor temple of your creation. But whether in church or the great outdoors, we experience your goodness and bounty, and something is stirred deep within.
10 Indeed, whether we are singing praise choruses with a handful of our neighbors in a humble church on the east side, celebrating high mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Colfax, walking around Wash Park, biking Cherry Creek, or climbing a 14er – everywhere we go your goodness and glory are present to us. And whether we recognize it or not, your hand – bearing righteousness and justice – is always there, to sustain, comfort, and redirect.
11 Denver rejoices, Lord! Our very presence here in this beautiful place rises like a song of gratitude and joy. Our extended family inAurora andEnglewood join in the song. Our sistersLakewood andGlendale, Thornton andWestminster, Wheatridge andArvada all join in the chorus of praise and thanksgiving!
We are grateful to live in this place. We are more grateful for your Word fleshed among us, and your guiding presence as we seek to live together.
12 Just as long ago the Psalmist invited people to walk aboutJerusalem to be reminded of the faithfulness of God, let me invite Denverites to take a “spiritual journey” around the Queen City of the Plains, in order to encourage your faith and inspire you to praise. Take a trip around our city – a long walk, or a bike ride. You could take your car, though it might be better to get a bus pass and let someone else drive so that you can look around. But however you get there, go to some of Denver’s special places:
~ At Confluence Park you can see where the Arapaho once camped, whereDenverwas born, where immigrant communities took turns getting a toehold in the city at its lowest point, where our poorest neighbors sometimes still camp, and where some of our wealthiest neighbors are building spectacular lofts.
~ Go up to one of the promontories where you can get a glimpse of the whole city, like Barnum Park on the west side, the dome of the state capitol building, or Inspiration Point (at 48th and Sheridan) where you can look north to Ralston Creek and see where gold was first discovered.
~ Visit Argo Park in Globeville, where you’ll be reminded of the Eastern European immigrants whose hard work under toxic conditions helped make Denver a prosperous city, and of Mexican immigrants whose hard work does the same thing for us today.
~ Take an early morning walk at Bluff Lake or the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Not only will you see wildlife in the heart of the city, but you might be able to imagine what this place looked like before 1859, when fortune-seekers built a ramshackle little wild-west town that succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
~ Spend a morning strolling through Riverside Cemetery, where the scions of Denver’s founding families and the nameless poor lie together, their stories as mingled as the dust of their ashes, in a cemetery that can no longer afford to water its grass.
13 Learn to recognize the outline of some of the tall buildings downtown: Republic Plaza (at 56 floors, our tallest tower), shiny new places like The Spire or the Four Seasons that dominate the skyline from the west, and certainly more familiar structures like the “cash register” building on 17th avenue, or the Daniels and Fisher Tower on 16th street.
Then walk a neighborhood like Five Points – leaving time for soul food at the Welton Street Café or Coleman’s Taste of Detroit. Ask a long-time resident to walk with you, to share their stories of hope and pain that wait behind the doors and within the walls of every home in the ‘hood.
Have you heard about the 1908 revival that was reported to have shut down all activity in the city for a couple of days, as people flocked to hear the gospel preached across the city? Do you know the long story about Denver’s struggle to provide a decent education for all of our children, how it shaped the development of the metro area, or how Denver’s experience with busing shaped the struggle for educational justice across the country? Do you know which of our high schools has almost 50 different languages spoken by its students? Get to know the stories that have shaped our city. If you will love this city, then make them your stories! Do you know about the Orange Crush, and how their run in 1977 transcended football and brought the city together? (Is it okay to praise God for Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson and Lyle Alzado?)
Be sure to learn the stories of your neighborhood, too… so that you can tell them to your children, and so that each wave of new neighbors will know that that they are inheriting something precious, to be treasured and passed along.
14 For God – the God whose goodness we see and celebrate inDenver,Colorado – is our God for ever and ever; this God will be our guide even to the end.
A companion prayer adapted from Walter Brueggeman’s Prayers for a Privileged People…
You are the God who has set us in families and clans, in tribes and communities, and, finally, in cities. You have placed us inDenver. This is our home, our city. We give you thanks this day that you are Lord ofDenverand of all cities.
We pray for Denver today: for the east side, the west side, north and south, Montbello and all 26 miles of Colfax. For the folks from the ‘hood, and for the new urbanites. For our poorest neighbors, for the powerful people at city hall, and for the wealthy in the lofts and board rooms of downtown.
We pray forDenver’s sisters: Aurora, Cherry Hills, Lakewood, Thornton, Highlands Ranch, and others.
And also for Jerusalem, Nairobi, Baghdad, Tacoma, Camden, GuatemalaCity, Phoenix, and a thousand other cities.
In all our cities this day, there will be crime and sharp moneymaking. And also compassion and forgiveness and generosity, and leaders doing justice… and injustice.
Like the city of your dreams, make ours a city where those who were once poor now prosper, whose children are no longer doomed to misfortune, and where unlikely partners live and work together in peace. We would be grateful, God, if you would let us help build such a city here, in Denver.
Be our God this day. May your will be done in our city. We pray in the name of the one who wept over the city. Amen.
directs Mile High Ministries
listens to Miles and John Lee
looks (and sings) more like Willie Nelson