Saturday, August 26, 2017

“A Song for the Journey” - August 27, 2017

Text: Psalm 121

(Worship under the Trees service)

This summer, we have been looking at a number of different Psalms in worship, and this is the last in a series of sermons from the Psalms.  (Please, hold your applause that it is finally over.)  Our scripture this morning is Psalm 121.  If you look in your Bible, the heading over this Psalm probably says something like “A Song of Ascents.”  Not a Song of Scents, as in smells, but a Song of Ascents, as in ascending, going up.  Psalm 120 through 134 are all songs of ascent.

What does that mean?  Basically, these were travel songs, songs that groups of travelers would sing on the way to Jerusalem.  The journey was along a road that increased in elevation, especially as one approached the city.  It was a mostly uphill journey, and the Psalms of Ascent were traveling songs for that journey.

Traveling has always had its challenges, and while the way we travel today is a good bit easier than traveling by foot to Jerusalem, it can still be difficult.

I have two siblings, two sisters, and I remember as a child our family traveling to grandma’s house.  We had a 1960 Ford Falcon.  It was an automatic, a fancy 2-speed automatic, if you can believe it.  The car was blue-green, a shade they don’t really use for cars anymore. It had vinyl upholstery on the seats with lines on it, and in the back seat those lines defined our territory – I was on one side, Leigh Ann on the other, and Amy, the youngest, stuck in the middle.  Those lines were not just suggestions – they were definite boundaries that you were not to cross.  It just made for a better trip for everybody.  Especially my mom and dad, I’m sure.  Enough fighting went on in the back seat that this rule was necessary.  Susan also has two sisters, and they had the same setup on their car trips.  Maybe you had a similar rule.  Maybe you still do.

Today, when we go on trips to see family, we will usually have our dog Rudy with us.  He is getting a little better, but he is still a terrible traveler.  You could say that he has improved to just terrible.  He really does not handle riding in the car very well.  And whenever we stop, it really slows things down as we have to walk Rudy and let him do is business.  And then in the summer, because of the heat, we can’t go in and eat in a restaurant and leave Rudy in the car, so we often take a picnic lunch, which can be nice, but it’s one more thing to take care of before we can go, and who wants to have a picnic when it’s 96 degrees?.

The ancient Israelites did not face these specific challenges, but then again, they had challenges that we definitely don’t have to worry about.

Over the last few weeks, thousands of students have descended on Ames.  Some of you are among them.  Many came from a short distance – maybe from a town in Iowa, an hour or two away.  Others had a longer trip – maybe from the Twin Cities or Chicago, or maybe even from a place like Texas or Virginia or Florida.  And then a good number of students came from other countries, from China or Indonesia or Kenya or India.  No matter how far you have traveled to get here, moving into the dorm or into an apartment can be a major undertaking.  

What do you do on those long trips?  How do you pass the time while traveling?  For thousands of years, one of the answers has been music.  So we have travel songs.  “Found a Peanut.”  “There’s a Hole in the Ground.”  And then one of the worst songs ever and yet at the same time maybe the all-time traveling classic, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

Now, we can be a bit more sophisticated than that.  And technology does make a difference.  We can just plug in our phone and play our favorite music.  We can set up playlists specifically for the trip we are on.  Many years ago, I drove a van full of students to New York City for a spring break mission trip.  So we made a cassette tape of New York songs to play on the way.  (I told you it was many years ago.)  We had Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” “On Broadway” by George Benson, “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen, and I don’t know what else.  Songs to make you think about your destination and get excited about the trip.

If you are going to the ocean, you can play beach and surfer songs.  If you are going to the mountains, you can play John Denver.  Sometimes when we go to see my parents, I’ll play “Indiana Wants Me, Lord I can’t Go Back There.”

It is interesting that the Psalms contain 15 different songs of ascent – essentially, 15 different traveling songs.  That’s ten percent of the Psalms.  But then, consider that there were numerous festivals in Jerusalem each year, with the biggest and most important being Passover.  A lot of people would travel to Jerusalem for Passover, and this was not necessarily an easy journey.  And so, there were these songs that you would sing every year on your way to Jerusalem, on your way to the temple.  When you think of it in this way, the Songs of Ascent become a kind of seasonal collection of music – maybe a distant cousin to our Christmas carols, which as it happens make up close to 10% of our hymn book.

Now, maybe they sang other stuff on the trip.  Maybe they sang the early Israelite equivalent of 99 bottles of beer on the wall.  If you think of these as seasonal songs, maybe they also sang something like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman.  I don’t know.

But I am impressed that as they traveled, they did so with an awareness and a dependence on God.  Psalm 121 is maybe the best-known of the Psalms of Ascent.  It begins with an acknowledgment of need.

We often use the metaphor of life as a journey.  This can be a helpful image, and if that’s the case, then we all need some help along the way.  

Now personally, I am not one to want to stop and ask for directions.  Having a GPS or cell phone helps a lot when it comes to finding where we are going, but there are still those times when we need some help finding our way.  And then we need gas.  Or if you happen to drive a Tesla, you need to find a charging station.  Our car may break down on the side of the road and we have to call AAA.  And if we are traveling very far we need a place to stay and a place to stop and eat.  We cannot get very far without some help.

In the journey of life, we need help.  The question is, where do we turn for help?  “I lift my eyes to the hills - from where does my help come?” asks the Psalmist.

I had always thought of this as a beautiful, poetic phrase, which it is – “I lift my eyes to the hills” - but there is a reason the hills are mentioned.  It is not that they portray strength and steadfastness and power; it is not that we might identify the majesty of the mountains with God.  It is actually the opposite.  If you were to look to the hills ahead as one journeyed to Jerusalem, you might think of danger, as the hills provided opportunities for robbers to hide and ambush travelers.  And in the hills were altars to the god Ba’al and sacred Asherah poles dedicated to foreign deities.  Who one might call on for help was a real question.  Beyond that, it could be just plain tough going traveling uphill, most often by foot, and maybe carrying small children.  The hills were not necessarily a welcome sight.

I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

God “will not let your foot be moved.”  Having one’s “foot moved” was an expression of misfortune.  In mountainous areas, losing your footing could lead to a very dangerous situation.  I remember helping roof a house one time – it was on a Habitat work site.  It had rained earlier in the morning, and at one point as I walked across the roof my foot started to slide – I was afraid I might fall right off the roof.  

There are a those times in life when our feet may slip.  It can come through a divorce, a layoff, an illness, through a disagreement that becomes a feud that becomes a personal vendetta, it can come through loss and grief.  As we journey through life, we need to know that God is there and God will keep us from falling.

And we know that God will be there because God does not sleep.  In fact, God neither slumbers nor sleeps.  What is the difference?  There really isn’t any difference, but in Hebrew poetry, and in English for that matter, such repetition is used for emphasis.  God will not fall asleep, God will not fail to take notice, God will be there. 

The journey to Jerusalem might take a couple of days.  When the group stopped for the night, someone would keep watch.  After a hard day of traveling, staying awake was hard.  It was important to have someone keep watch who would stay awake and alert.  There were dangers lurking, both wild animals and unsavory people.

Some of you can have difficulty staying awake.  I know it because I’ve seen it on Sunday mornings.  But I have the same trouble, especially on Sunday afternoons. 

In this journey of life, we need someone to look out for us, someone to keep watch that we can depend on, someone who will be there, who will not doze off. 

The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

There is a reason we call this service “Worship under the Trees.”  How many people would come if we decided to have “Worship under the Hot Sun?”  It just doesn’t sound as inviting.

Imagine walking all day on that hot, dusty road to Jerusalem.  You are tired and thirsty and the sun is blazing down.  Then you round a bend in the road and the trees cover you overhead and there is shade.  You never thought you’d be so glad just for a little shade.

When Zoe was young, I remember driving to Dallas in the middle of the summer.  It was close to 100 degrees and the air conditioner was having a hard time keeping up.  The sun was coming in the car, and no matter what we did we couldn’t seem to keep the sun off of Zoe.  It was awful.  But then we discovered a sun shade that we could stick on the window anywhere.  It was fantastic - one of the truly great inventions of modern science.  Shade is important.

The Lord is your shade.  In the trials of life, in the hard times, God protects us, shades us, helps us on our way.  In those times when stress and worry and conflict and apprehension beat down on us like the hot sun, God is there.  When we are treated unjustly, when we are afraid, when we are hurting, “The Lord is your shade at your right hand.”

The Psalm concludes, “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  God’s protection is not a fleeting, temporary thing, but is “from this time on and forevermore.”  God goes ahead of us, God is with us, God is behind us, God is all around us, and God will always be there. 

This is a wonderful psalm, a great passage of scripture, and as much as anything, it says something to us about our outlook.  About attitude.  On a long and difficult journey, the Psalmist chooses to be hopeful, to focus on the good, to trust in God, to be reminded of God’s goodness and care.  The attitude is one of “Bless the Lord O my soul, I’ll worship your holy name.”

Psalm 121 is a Song of Ascents, a song for the journey, and it raises the question for us: what song do we sing along life’s journey?  There are a lot of choices.  We could sing:

Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me
I Can’t Stand It
Money, Money, Money
Take This Job and Shove It
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
I Fall to Pieces
We Can Work It Out
I Just Want to Celebrate
I apologize, particularly to students, for all of the dated song references, but you get the idea.  What is our attitude, what is our outlook, what is our focus as we move through this life?  What song do we take with us?

The Psalmist gives us a traveling song to carry with us, a song for the journey.  “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”  Amen.

Friday, August 18, 2017

"The Good Shepherd" - August 20, 2017

Text: Psalm 23

If you have not yet been to the Iowa State Fair, today is your last chance.  You can even get tickets to see Kid Rock perform at 8 pm tonight, if that’s your thing.

But for a lot of people, the fair is about deep fried foods, preferably on sticks, and the Butter Cow.  It is about prize vegetables and free entertainment.  It is about products and displays in the Varied Industries Building, crafts and artwork at the Cultural Center, and exhibits in the 4-H Building.  The fair is about people watching and riding the skylift.  And it is about the animals.  The Horse Barn and the Swine Barn and the Cattle Barn, the Pigeon and Rabbits and Poultry building.  And of course, there is the Sheep Barn.

Some of you grew up on farms, but I am among those who did not.  Even if you grew up on a farm, if it was in Iowa there is only a small chance that you raised sheep.  So for a lot of people, if you want to be around sheep, your best bet might be to head down to the Sheep Barn at the State Fair.

We live in a society in which most folks have only a passing familiarity, if that, with sheep, and yet the image of sheep and shepherding is a very common image in scripture.  The 23rd Psalm is maybe the best-loved passage in the Bible, a familiar and comforting scripture.  We have looked at several Psalms this summer, and it only seemed right that we spend a week considering the 23rd Psalm.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters…

For a lot of folks, Psalm 23 is like an old friend.  A lot of people who don’t know a thing about the Bible have at least some familiarity with the 23rd Psalm.  But as familiar as the words are, they were written in a different world.  We can recite the words: “The Lord is my shepherd,” but when you get right down to it, who really wants to be a sheep?

You will find a lot of Psalm 23 re-writes using different metaphors, getting away from the shepherd and sheep image.  “The Lord is my coach…, or “the Lord is my agent…”, or “the Lord is my major professor” or “the Lord is my Internet Service Provider.  He giveth me wide bandwidth and protecteth me from spam and viruses.”  The psalm is rewritten in a way that people can better identify with it.  But part of the popularity if these paraphrases is the fact that we would rather think of ourselves as an athlete, or a student, or a vacationer, or a computer user, than a sheep.  

The Good Shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures, but we generally don’t want to lie down because, well, we don’t want to stop.  We are on the go; we have things to do and people to see.  We don’t want to slow down; we don’t want to rest.  But the thing is, we will eventually slow down and come to a stop, whether we want to or not, and it may not be in a place as pleasant as the green pastures the shepherd has led us to. 

The shepherd cares for us and knows our needs.  Whether we know it or not, we need a Good Shepherd.  

The Lord is my shepherd… He restoreth my soul.  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…

Sheep are often characterized as stupid and foolish.  That characterization may not be entirely accurate; some have argued that cattle ranchers are responsible for that ugly rumor, all because sheep do not behave like cows.  Cows are herded from behind, with cowboys hooting and cracking whips, but that will not work at all with sheep.  Stand behind sheep making loud noises and they will just run around behind you, because sheep want to be led.  You can push cows, but you lead sheep.

Sheep will not go anywhere that someone does not go first – and that someone would be the shepherd, who goes ahead to show them that everything is all right.

As it turns out, sheep grow fond of their shepherds.  One sheep herder said that it never amazed him that he could walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing even one of them, but if a stranger set foot among the flock it would cause pandemonium. 

Now, to throw another animal into the mix: when Susan and I were first married, we had a cat named Mary Ralph.  She was named after a no-nonsense nun, and the name fit perfectly.  She was quirky, even for a cat, and while she was just a little black cat, people were scared of her.  With good reason.

When we lived in a small town in Illinois, Mary Ralph started following us when we would go for a walk.  We would have to go back and put her in the house, but finally we decided “what the heck,” and we let her follow us.  So we went for a family walk around the block: Susan and I walking, Zoe in a stroller, our dog Conway on a leash, and Mary Ralph bringing up the rear.  We walked to the end of the street and turned at the Methodist Church, and she was still with us.  We got to the next corner, at the bed and breakfast, and she was lagging behind.  She would eventually make the turn, but then she always had a hard time making it to the next corner.  She would see a leaf blowing in the wind, or a sound would startle her, or there would be a rabbit, or she would have a stare-off with a cat looking out somebody’s window.

I would have to go back and get her to re-focus on the walk, and sometimes I would just have to carry her home.   I was about the only one who could do that – if a stranger tried to picker her up, we might have to pay their medical bills.  The experiment did not last very long; she was soon banned from family walks again.

We can all be a little like Mary Ralph in that we have a hard time following the shepherd.  And at times it probably appears that Jesus is trying to herd cats more than lead sheep.  We don’t necessarily like being led – we might like the idea of setting off on our own, charting our own course.  We can feel like the grass is greener in other pastures.  But we are at our best when we follow the Good Shepherd.  Jesus came to show us how to live, that we might follow.  And Jesus does not ask to go anywhere that he has not already gone.  The Good Shepherd restores our souls and leads us in the right paths.

The Lord is my shepherd.. yea, tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy road and thy staff, they comfort me…

Sheep can scare pretty easily.  And they have a real knack for getting lost.  We might think that the image of sheep is a terrible picture of what we are like.  But here’s the thing: we may be more lost than we think.  We can be lost in a relationship that’s offered more hurt than love, in a job that leaves us depleted and spent.  We can be lost in the guilt of not being good enough or good-looking enough or smart enough for someone whose judgment cuts deep.

Some of us have gotten lost in battles against declining health.  We can be lost searching for meaning and direction.  We can get so lost that we lose sight of who we are and who we were created to be.

And we can surely get lost in grief.  Many of us have passed through the valley of the shadow of death.  We have experienced hurt and sadness and disillusionment.  We have lost loved ones.  We have glimpsed our own mortality.  We have been in that deep valley; some of you may be there right now.

It is great to have the students back in town.  There is an excitement and energy around town that we don’t feel in the summer.  (There is a lot more traffic, too.)  In these first weeks of school I think about students and especially new students.  There can be a lot of challenges, and it can be a big transition.  Even if you have been here awhile, there are those times when life can feel overwhelming.  In those times, we need to know that God is always there with us.

The Lord is my shepherd… Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.  Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup overflows.

A ten year old boy named Brian was in trouble with his parents.  He was banned from electronic devices and was not a happy camper.  He was sulking and not much fun to be around.  That same evening there were guests visiting for dinner, and the group was big enough that a separate kids’ table was set up. 

It had not been smooth sailing with Brian, so in a nod to their son and effort to include him, even though he was over at the kids’ table, Brian was asked to give the blessing for the meal.  Everyone bowed their heads, and Brian prayed: “'God, I thank you for this table which you have prepared before me in the presence of my enemies.  Amen.”

I read that somewhere but I’m not sure it really happened like that.  But for sheep, it is pretty obvious what it means to have a table prepared in the presence of enemies.  The enemies may be wolves, coyotes, mountain lions.  Assorted predators.  Sheep can be very vulnerable.

For us, it may not be so obvious, but we surely face enemies.  The enemy might be illness or poverty or addictions or anxiety for the future.  The enemy might be bigotry, racism, injustice.  And sometimes, we can be our own worst enemy.  

Like many of you, I have been just aghast at what took place in Charlottesville and the continuing racial strife in this country.  It feels shocking to me, but I know that for many people of color who have to face subtle and sometimes not so subtle discrimination all the time, it is not shocking at all.

I read a couple of accounts of what took place in Charlottesville written by people who were there.  Brian McClaren is a pastor and author.  He wrote,

The courage of the clergy [and faith community] present inspired me.  In public gatherings and in private conversations before Saturday, participating clergy were warned that there was a high possibility of suffering bodily harm.  A group of clergy walked arm-in-arm into the very center of the storm, so to speak, and kneeled.  This symbolic act took a great deal of courage, and many who did so were spat on, subjected to slurs and insults, and exposed to tear gas.  I hold them in the highest regard…

There were other groups protesting the message of white supremacy and Naziism. I was deeply impressed with the Black Lives Matter participants. They went into the middle of the fray and stood strong and resilient against vicious attacks, insults, spitting, pepper spray, tear gas, and hurled objects.

I was also deeply impressed by UVA students I met.  The group of young men and women that stood up to the torch-carrying marchers on Friday night had amazing courage.  Their fellow students, their parents, and all of us, should be proud of these young leaders.
Whatever else it means, for God to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies means that in those frightening and troubled times that we face, God goes before us and God stands beside us, giving us courage and strength. 

The Good Shepherd loves all of the sheep.  And here is the thing – here is the really hard thing: that includes our enemies.  That includes those whose lives stand against what Jesus stands for.  That includes racists and haters.  It includes all those who are lost.  Like that one lost lamb, God’s desire is to bring them back into the fold.  God’s desire is for love to win.  We are called not to hate our enemies but love our enemies and pray for the power of God’s love to transform our enemies – even as God’s love transforms us.

The Lord is my shepherd …surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The notion that goodness and mercy are following us is a nice sentiment, a hopeful thought, but if they are always following us, like maybe at a safe distance, what good does that really do us?  Well, digging a little deeper may help to understand the meaning here.  Instead of just “follow,” the sense of the word is really closer to “pursue.”  Imagine God coming after us, pursuing us with goodness and mercy.  We cannot get away from God’s goodness and mercy.

No matter how far we may feel from God, God is pursuing us with goodness and mercy.

When we face trials and tribulations, we are pursued by goodness and mercy.

When we are worried, when we are filled with anxiety, when we feel inadequate, when we feel that we are not up to the task, there they are: goodness and mercy.

Charles Laughton was a famous stage and screen actor of many years ago.  He was known as a great dramatic reader. One night he attended a dinner party, and after dinner Laughton was called upon to recite the 23rd Psalm.  His timing and intonation were perfect.  And of course Americans love anything with a British accent.  Everybody loved it – it was a big hit.

After this, others were invited to offer something.  There was an older woman sitting in the corner – she was the aunt of the host.  She was asked if she might recite something.

She was nearly deaf so she hadn’t heard what had gone before.  She stood up and started to recite the 23rd Psalm. People were embarrassed.  It was an awkward situation to have her recite the same psalm as this great actor.  But before she finished, people were caught up in her recitation.  Some even began to weep.  It was powerfully moving.

Later somebody asked Mr. Laughton why her reading was so moving when she didn’t have any of the skills that he had as an actor.  He said, “I know the psalm.  She knows the shepherd.”

We have a Good Shepherd.  Amen.

“How Long, O Lord?” - August 13, 2017

Text: Psalm 13

Imagine watching as violence overtakes your country, leaving you with little option but to flee.  Imagine risking your life, traveling hundreds of miles, and throwing yourself on the mercy of strangers in a foreign land.  Now imagine doing all that as a child, with no parents, no family to support you on the perilous journey.

Sixty-six million people, the most in human history, have been forced from their homes.  Over half are children, and millions of these are unaccompanied minors.  How long, O Lord, must children suffer from war?”

A woman finds herself in an abusive relationship.  But it’s not always easy to dislodge yourself from such a situation.  She has few resources, no one to advocate for her, seemingly nowhere to go.  Finally she gets up the courage to take her children and go to a shelter.  Now she is facing a whole new set of challenges.  How long, O Lord, must people suffer?

In Cincinnati, an eight year old boy is bullied at school, even knocked unconscious in the bathroom one day.  Two days later, he commits suicide.  Eight years old.  He is unusually young but joins so many young people, and some not so young, who are victims of bullying behavior.  How long, O Lord, will bullies inflict pain?

A young father is fighting cancer.  After months of treatment, his body is weakening and he knows that he will not be around to see his children grow up.  How long, O Lord, must we face such heartache?

And then on Friday, hundreds of white nationalists descended on the University of Virginia campus, carrying torches and shouting white supremacist and Nazi slogans.  Larry Sabata, director of UVA’s Center for Politics, tweeted, 

“I watched every minute.  Sickened by their torchlight parade up the Lawn.  Outraged by their behavior at the Rotunda.  Beyond disgraceful.  In my 47 years of association with UVA, this was the most nauseating thing I’ve ever seen.  We need an exorcism on the Lawn.”
Yesterday, after a morning of confrontations between white supremacists and counterprotesters, a young man driving a vehicle plowed into a crowd, leaving one person dead, 19 injured, and countless people terrified.

The visibly shaken Charlottesville city manager said, “Hate came to our town today in a way that we had feared but we had never really let ourselves imagine would happen.”
How Long, O Lord, must we suffer from the sins of racism and bigotry?

The news is filled with heart-wrenching stories.  And in our personal lives, we often face deep heartache and pain.  In the face of this, there are those times when complaint and protest before God is the only form of prayer that we can manage.  How else should you pray when you get news that your spouse is having an affair?  How else should we pray over a loved one ravaged by cancer or Alzheimers?  How else should we pray when a young life is lost?  How better to pray when life seems to have spiraled out of control?

“How long, O Lord, must we bear pain in our souls and sorrow in our hearts?”  We have all prayed “How Long, O Lord?”  

We live in an often-frustrating world.  We live in what can be a world of danger and hatred and poverty and injustice and indignities large and small, a world of sickness and disease and troubled relationships, a world of rude behavior and daunting challenges.  We could ask that question many times over, every day: “How long, O Lord?”

Now in case you didn’t notice, our scripture this morning is not the cheeriest of texts.  (Did anybody notice that?)  Over the past weeks, we have looked at Psalms of praise, Psalms that impart wisdom, Psalms of thanksgiving for the beauty and wonder of creation that call us to worship the Creator.  This morning’s Psalm is different from many of the Psalms we often hear, but this kind of Psalm is actually very common.

Psalms of lament are frequently found in scripture.  Psalm 13 is the shortest and simplest of these types of Psalms and often cited as a textbook example of an individual lament or complaint.

The Psalms were the hymnbook of the temple and have often been the hymnbook of the church.  When you look at the superscription on this Psalm, the introductory note that you find at the beginning, it says, “For the leader” or “for the director of music.  A hymn of David.”  This was to be sung as a part of corporate worship.
We don’t often include complaint against God as part of our Sunday morning worship, but it would be very Biblical to do so.  We come here each Sunday to praise God, certainly.  We want to be joyful, we want to be happy – of course.  But there are those days we come here with pain, with deep hurt, with anxiety, with worry, with fear, and we need to be able to express that.  The Psalms give us the words to express the full range of feelings and emotions to God.

Martin Marty is a longtime church historian, maybe the leading authority on American religion and culture, now retired from the University of Chicago.  Years ago, after the death of his wife, he wrote a moving book reflecting on the Psalms titled A Cry of Absence.  There is a kind of summery spirituality, a spirituality of joy and praise and thanksgiving.  But Marty wrote about those more difficult times, the winter times of the soul.  Roughly half of the Psalms fit a wintry sort of spirituality.

Marty wrote,

Winterless climates there may be, but winterless souls are hard to picture.  A person can count on winter in January in intemperate northern climates, or in July in their southern counterparts.  Near the equator, winter is unfelt.  As for the heart, however, where can one escape the chill?  When death comes, when absence creates pain – then anyone can anticipate the season of cold.  Winter can also blow into surprising regions of the heart when it is least expected.  Such frigid assaults can overtake the spirit with the persistence of an ice age, the chronic cutting of an Arctic wind.
In a winter time of the soul, the Psalmist cries out to God:  
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
   How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
   and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
The writer is holding nothing back.  The enemy spoken of may be death – but it may be something, or someone else.  At some point, in one of those winter times of the soul, these are words that any of us might use to cry out to God.

On the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – quoting from Psalm 22.  We need the Psalms of Lament because there are those times when they speak to us – and those times that they speak for us.

For our Music Camp, we had a theme of “Sunshine in My Soul.”  Clearly, a summery spirituality.  Which is wonderful.  We need to be able to express praise and joy.  We all long for that feeling of “sunshine in my soul.”  But there are those times when our heart is in another place. 

The modern-day equivalent of Psalms of lament would be the Blues.  The Blues have their roots in the music and experience of African American communities in the Deep South.  Spirituals and work songs of slaves became the backbone of a new kind of music.  Blues ballads offer unvarnished accounts of suffering and hardship.  It is pleading, blunt, genuine, heartfelt music.  The blues are the music of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin and B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton.

If you listen to the blues, you will discover that the cause of a singer’s suffering - and thus the subject of a classic Blues song - varies a lot.  Music critic Edward Comentale observes that a Blues singer may feel assailed by “a feeling, a mood, a nameless threat, a person, a lover, a boss man, a mob, and, of course, the Devil himself.”

And so the singer cries out for help.  In “Cross Roads Blues,” for example, the great Robert Johnson sings this plaintive refrain:

I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, "Have mercy now
Save poor Bob if you please."  (info on the blues from Scott Black Johnston)

Robert Johnson’s song shares a spiritual kinship with the Psalms of lament.  And we need these kinds of Psalms.  If nothing else, the Psalms teach us that whatever our experience, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, we can share that with God.  We need to share that with God.

Psalm 13 can teach us something about the nature of prayer.  It is OK to complain to God.  It is OK to question God.  It is OK to get angry, to cry out in prayer.  We can be completely honest when it comes to prayer.  Deep and heartfelt prayer, real prayer, has to be honest.  If we are just mouthing words without thinking about it, if we are just expressing platitudes, then our prayer is not very genuine.

We learn here that in addition to the more positive feelings of the end of this Psalm, we can share feelings of abandonment, forsakenness, anxiety, inner turmoil, and fear of death with God.  This is all a part of prayer.

We also learn something here about the nature of God.  God is big enough to handle our questions, our doubts, our deepest worries and fears.  We are not going to shock God.  We are not going to scare God by telling it how it is and how we feel.  God is big enough to handle our anger, even when it is directed at God.  God is involved and connected with all of life, from the best of times to the absolute worst of times.

And in fact, I don’t know if there could be a truer prayer than crying out to God, complaining to God, protesting against God.  Because this means that you are intimately related to God.  It means that even as you suffer, even as you hurt, even as you grieve, you are including God in that experience.  Crying out to God over the sin and evil in our world, or over the pain and heartache that we ourselves are facing, is about as genuine as prayer can get. 

As a classic example of a Psalm of lament, Psalm 13 contains three movements.  First, complaint or protest.  We are all doomed.  How could you let things get this bad?  I am suffering here.  I am dying here.  How long, O Lord?

The next movement is petition.  What do you want God to do?    

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
   Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
   my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
It is brief, it is to the point, but the Psalm moves from complaint to petition - to request.  Just like Robert Johnson’s blues song: “Asked the Lord above, ‘Have mercy now/Save poor Bob if you please.’”

And then comes what is maybe a surprising turn, verses 5-6.  

But I trust in your steadfast love;
   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
   because he has dealt bountifully with me.
How is this even possible?  Crying out to God, lament, complaint, “How long, O Lord,” and then, “My heart shall rejoice in your salvation; I will sing to the Lord for he has dealt bountifully with me.”  The change in tone seems very abrupt.

In some ways, I think that this may be the point.  It is possible to read this as looking back in gratitude or looking forward in trust, but the sudden change in tone invites us perhaps to see complaint and praise as simultaneous.  We can be asking “How Long, O Lord?” even while we are proclaiming, “The Lord has dealt bountifully with me.”  We can cry out in hurt and pain and at the same time be mindful of the grace and love of God.  The lament and the praise are not mutually exclusive.

Another way of saying this, perhaps, is that we are both people of the cross and people of the resurrection.  We know suffering and we have a great hope.  One writer said that as Christians, “the agony and ecstasy belong together as the secret of our identity.”  And so even in those moments of great celebration, we are nevertheless aware of the pain that we and others suffer.  And even in the darkest of times, we still have a hope that is greater than what we are experiencing in that moment.

“How Long, O Lord?  How Long, O Lord? …  Yet, I trust in your steadfast love.  I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”  Amen.