January 30, 2011

“Psalms of Lament: Living in a Broken World”

Numbers 11:11-15
Psalm 13, Refrain #1
Mark 15:33-38

As most of you know, we have been celebrating the Psalms at St. Andrew’s this month, and last Sunday our focus was on Psalms of Praise and Thanksgiving. Now, I’m sorry for any of you who missed last Sunday because it was a great Sunday! With the theme of praise and thanksgiving, we got to pick some joyful, lively music, and there was a wonderful spirit of rejoicing in the church.

I think it worked out really well. But it wasn’t just that we had planned a good service… it was also the fact that everyone came in to church in a great mood! Someone told me afterward that the entranceway before church last Sunday was full of laughter and excitement and joy. Do you remember why? It was warm outside!

That was the morning that we finally got a break from the bitter cold of a Saskatchewan winter, and we all came in to church rejoicing. It was a great day! And most of us arrived at worship more than ready to praise and thank God for all God’s blessings, including the relatively warmer temperature.

But happy and joyful are not always the perfect words to describe the people of God as we gather for worship. In fact, even though the mood was pretty light last Sunday, I am quite sure that there were at least a few worshippers among us who were feeling less than ecstatic. There were some of us feeling stressed and tired. There were some of us feeling guilty and anxious. There were some of us feeling sad and disappointed.

One of the gifts of the Psalms of Lament is that they remind us that no matter what we may be feeling, we are invited and called to lift up our prayers to God. When the psalmists felt sad, they told God about it. When the psalmists felt stuck, they called out for God’s help. When they were frustrated and angry, they cried and screamed for God’s attention. And when they felt abandoned or alone, they lifted up their voices until God’s presence was made known to them.

The Psalms do not paint an unrealistic picture of a life lived in a perfect world. Nor do they ask us to pretend that everything in our lives is great all the time. The tree mentioned in Psalm 1 has deep roots so that it can survive when the storms come. And the righteous one does not fear bad news, but also does not stop suffering simply because he or she has faith in God.

The prayers of the Psalms reflect life lived in a broken world. Indeed, within the 150 Psalms, there are more prayers for help or laments than there are prayers of praise and trust. And these prayers can teach us how to pray and have relationship with God, even in the darkest of times.

As I mentioned last week, most of us have been taught to pray rather decently and in order. We have learned to pray by respectfully bowing our heads, folding our hands, and offering our prayers for others to God, always adding “if it be thy will.” We are polite. We are not selfish. We pray for those who have greater needs that we do. And we make our requests quietly and humbly, and often without too much determination.

The psalmists who prayed these prayers for help had a different way of praying. You see, laments centre on the needs of the one praying. They’re not prayers for our neighbours, but they are focused on the relationship and the bond between God and the one praying.

God is addressed differently too, with none of the nice salutations that we often put in our formal prayers. Laments are blunt. They name the problems, and they demand that God do something to help.

Think, for a moment, of the people (or the person) in your life with whom you can be blunt. With whom would you risk sharing your troubles, your complaints, your feelings of hurt or abandonment?

Real relationship means real conversation, no matter what form that conversation takes. And so in the prayers of lament we can see the strength of relationship between God and the one praying, even when things are not so wonderful.

To the ones praying these prayers, God is not a deity that one approaches tentatively, asking for things under certain parameters, but is instead one that is to be engaged in honest and open conversation about one’s hurts and one’s needs.

We tend to organize our prayers into nice arrangements of words that are pleasing to the ear, while at the same time we confess that God knows everything we think before we even say it. So why censor our words to God?

A few weeks ago, I told you about an episode of a TV medical drama in which there was a shooting on a college campus in Seattle, and the medical staff are trying to cope with the onslaught of seriously injured patients. In one case, several doctors are working on a young man, trying to get his heart pumping again after his condition suddenly worsens.

One of his doctors, Miranda, is on the edge of a breakdown after losing so many patients and feeling helpless to do anything to save them. In a moment of despair and frustration, she looks up into the air and cries out: “You bastard! Not this boy, too! Not this boy!” And then she leaps back into the work of saving his life.

Miranda’s cry for help was so sudden, and so quick, and so quickly over that some viewers may have missed it. Or they may have wondered who on earth she was yelling at. But it was clear to me that Miranda’s cry was a lament to God. It wasn’t polite. It wasn’t nicely worded. And there was no salutation at all!

But there was also no pause to consider whether God might be present or listening. There was no wondering whether a prayer might be helpful. It was simply a cry for help to a God was obviously near, who has simply got to care, and who ultimately must have the power to do something about this terrible situation. Miranda’s cry was a prayer of faith born of relationship with the God of the universe.

Censoring our words says that the relationship has limits and parameters, but telling God how we feel, even when we think that God is the problem, is being all that God created us to be.

As modern people, we still ask, “Is it OK to make such demands of God, to speak to God in this way?” Where from an ancient perspective, the opposite question would be the one they would ask of us: “When and how did it become NOT OK to make such demands of God?” When did it become NOT OK to tell God just how we feel about life and even about God? How long can you have true relationship with someone when you cannot speak your mind, when you cannot ask the questions that are the most troubling?

If we don’t make the mistake of skipping over the more difficult passages in the Bible, the stories of Scripture can give us permission to honestly express our doubts and fears and struggles to God.

As a church leader, Moses’ lament is perfect for those times when I am feeling stressed, frustrated, or overwhelmed by the responsibilities of ministry. When I feel surrounded by only the voices of complaint, I can join in Moses’ cry to God: “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me!” And I can remember how their journey went on, and how God went with them, and how they did eventually make it to the Promised Land.

Perhaps there are times when you feel that sense of being overloaded and overwhelmed… in your work, in your family responsibilities, or in your church commitments. Perhaps there are times when things just don’t seem to go right… when one problem after another seems to come your way… when you have more than your share of illness, and pain, and disappointment, and loss.

Listen to the cry of the psalmist in Psalm 13: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? 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?”

When we read the psalmist’s words, we don’t know anything about the situation that is causing him such sorrow. The psalmist’s prayer for help speaks only of the feelings, not the events. All of us have different events that precipitated feelings such as this, but we all know the feelings being expressed. The poetry brings forth memories for us of times when we were in the same emotional space.

But Psalm 13 and most of the prayers for help have a surprising turn. The prayer moves from demanding that God act immediately to a declaration of the person’s trust in God. In verse 4 the psalmist is complaining, “my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.” But then in verse 5 we suddenly hear him say, “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

It’s a strange and confusing gap. What happened between verse 4 and verse 5 to change the psalmist’s attitude so dramatically? What happened to renew his hope? What happened to bring him back to place where he can rejoice and sing praise to the Lord?

Just as the raw emotional images of the Psalm trigger us to remember our own pain, the gap here causes us to struggle to understand it and possibly to remember how we have survived other difficult times to stand again and offer praises to God.

It’s difficult to name what happens in that gap… how mourning can turn into dancing… how sorrow can subside and leave space in our hearts for joy… but the wonder and mystery of God can indeed make it possible.

This morning we read a familiar passage from the Gospel of Mark. It was the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. And as the author of Mark’s Gospel tells it, Jesus calls out to God in pain and anguish just before he dies. But it’s not just any cry. Jesus calls out a question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It’s a cry that can make us wonder… Had God truly abandoned Jesus on the cross? Was he really alone and without any help? Or, had Jesus suddenly lost his faith? In the midst of such terrible pain, did he think that God was nowhere to be found?

But what we may not notice at first is that Jesus is quoting from a Psalm. He’s quoting the first line of Psalm 22, one of the great Psalms of Lament. And like most of the Psalms of Lament, Psalm 22 is a plea for God’s help, followed by expressions of hope, and trust, and praise.

The psalmist cries out: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” And then he proclaims: “Yet you are holy… In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.” Again, we may wonder what happened in the gap… how the psalmist moved from despair to hope in God.

There’s a gap in the Gospel story too. After Jesus dies that horrible death on the cross, they take his body and put it securely inside a tomb and they go home. And then there’s a whole missing day… a gap that lasts through the Sabbath day until Sunday morning.

But on the third day Jesus is raised, and he appears to some women, and later to the disciples… and they are called, and inspired, and sent out to bring life and hope and joy to the world in the name of Jesus Christ, the Risen One.

May God be with us and hear our cries when we are filled with sorrow and sadness and pain. May God be with us in the gap, and may God lead us once again to life and hope and joy and praise. Amen.