This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Bible: God in the fortress — or the slum

A famous impressionist artist once said, “I know what I’m looking at, but what am I seeing?” This inviting question leads to the heart of Psalm 48.

Jonathan Larson
Jonathan Larson

At first glance, an ancient traveler approaching the hill town capital of King David enters an apparently modest, walled city like many others in the Mediterranean world: Jerusalem’s cobbled shape, its narrow, smelly passageways, darkened dwell­ings and forgettable lodgings. This impression would only be slightly relieved by a religious shrine, the palace and, perhaps, its position on a ridge top.

But this is not what the pilgrim-poet perceives. What insight reveals to the psalmist is closer to the image of a nearby village, suggested by the 19th-century American Episcopal clergyman and lyricist Phillips Brooks:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; / The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For those with such eyes to see, this is no run-of-the-mill town. The truth of it is lyrical beyond telling. So imposing is it that adversaries flee in disarray as though scattered by the fury  of nature. It is encircled by the finest battlements, marked by  elegant heights and defenses.

This grand vision arises from a single source, a recognition of the One who inhabits the city: “God is in her citadels” (verse 3).

Such is an indispensable trait of authentic spiritual leadership: to perceive in the smallness of a spiritual community the astonishing presence of the One who surpasses intellect and words — whether that be in favelas or nomad shelters, in bustees, backwaters, exile encampments or city tenements.

Real leaders emerge from the ranks of those who “walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts, go through its citadels” (verses 12-13). A leader’s vision is greater than those who see only the plainness and defects of the communities we serve.

On the eve of his own self-giving, Jesus alone sees the coins offered by a widow (Mark 12:41-44) and recognizes the vast fortune that has been given. The incarnation itself appears in the humblest guise, largely ignored by the erudite and powerful for its sandal-clad plainness.

The early church and Anabaptists often reflected a similar social disadvantage.

So, the question for us moderns who might rue sociological trends and budget attrition in our times could be: “I know what I’m looking at, but what am I seeing?”

If second sight (the ability to perceive things not present to the senses) lies at the heart of Psalm 48, the Apostle Paul’s personal story — his self-inventory in Philippians 3 — turns, too, on what those eyes reveal.

Fastened now upon the ins and outs of his life course, those eyes observe what can best be described as an estate sale.

The encounter with Jesus, who Paul only here claims as “my Lord” (verse 8), has triggered an inner seismic event: a cognitive shift that has reordered all scale of value. Turned it on its head. It is a deft illustration of the prov­erbial saying, “Put out the candles, the sun is up.”

Abandoned is everything that might be considered worthy of a curriculum vitae: privileged birth, notable family, erudition, personal qualities, material possessions. Burned away, all, under the brilliance of the One he has encountered.

In this we note a striking parallel to the self-emptying portrayed in the earlier Christ Hymn (Phil. 2:5-11). What remains for Paul is a single desire. Love going out to meet its own Source. Worth going out to find the master Vein. Justice setting out to acknowledge its Fountainhead.

It is this race which now defines Paul’s life (verses 12-14). He presumes nothing about the finish line (verses 11-13). Those eyes are now trained upon a single point, focusing all his powers on the prize that awaits a faithful course.

Now writing and leading retreats, Jonathan Larson of Atlanta has wandered the globe as storyteller, service worker, teacher and pastor. He blogs on the spirituality of travel at

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