Friday, August 18, 2017

“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.

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