This week we are exploring an area that is uncomfortable and yet universal to all of us. There are times in our lives when we experience the disorientation that comes from living in a broken world, the disorientation that can come from within or without. Today we will delve into the depths, those places we may have been afraid to express because they don’t appear to be compatible with faith. There are periods of time in our lives in which it appears that God is no longer with us, sometimes this comes from our own errors, but sometimes we have no idea why it appears that God has abandoned us. There are also times in which we disagree with the way things have happened in the world, and we are not pleased with God for allowing it. I was taught that those kinds of thoughts were ungodly and should be avoided, ignored and repressed. Our culture tells us that we can be or do anything, that we can control our lives and always be comfortable if we just buy the right products, make the right investment decisions, or vote for the right party. Deep down we know these things aren’t true, that sometimes, as in Job, bad things happen to good people. God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust, so how can we make sense of it all? The bad news is we can’t make sense of things. The good news is that we don’t have to face doubt, fear, or questioning alone; through the Psalms we are shown a worshipful way to ask God to walk beside us through our disorientation. Psalm 13 is from a time when David couldn’t figure out why things weren’t working out. Samuel had anointed him and Jonathan was his best friend, why did God allow Saul to come so close to killing David so many times?
To the leader. A Psalm of David.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
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?
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.
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.
Have you ever in the silence of your soul asked some of these questions? I know I have. Allow me to share with you my most recent time of questioning. Two years ago on Christmas Eve I was on Facebook and saw a status update that was posted to a friend’s wall that said “Why did they have to kill you on Christmas Eve?” My heart weighed heavy, and I jumped on the phone to call my brother. As the night passed, the story unfolded, and it wasn’t pretty. My friend had lost his job laying carpet when the housing market fell through the floor, unemployment had run out and he had kids to feed. In desperation he returned to selling drugs and he was gunned down by a rival, eleven young African-American men lost their lives in that area since then. On Christmas day my friend’s mother called me to ask if I would come out and lead the funeral service and I said I would. This would be my first funeral. I had to ask God if he could have possibly had my introduction to leading funerals be gentler. With help from my pastor I prepared as best I could for the funeral and flew out to Philly. I made it through that week somehow and was able to lead the funeral and graveside services for the 400 plus mourners. I was able to make it through by the grace of God, but deep down I had some questions burning. Eventually I couldn’t hold them in any longer and used a tool that you will get to use in two weeks that helped me express my questions to God in a worshipful way. As the Psalmists before me I held nothing back and God helped me work through my pain and loss. The result of this was the Psalm of Lament that I wrote entitled Words Are Not Enough.
My Father, in the comfort of your Holy Spirit
Why did he have no options to support his family
Other than selling on the street?
Why did he have no other opportunities?
God you kept me from dying on the operating table
You gave me opportunities to study and paying jobs
Father, remember back in the day
How we worshipped you with joy
Father the injustice of privilege for the rich
And death for the poor must cease
The blood of the oppressed cries out from the streets
Bestow your favor on the poor
And bring the greedy to justice
I desire to experience your goodness again
To shout your goodness with joy
And share your love with compassion
Father, thank you for your mercy
Christ, thank you for your continual sacrifice
Spirit, thank you for your presence.
Intercede with your sighs
Words are not enough.
Over half of the Psalms are laments, the children of Israel experienced loss and pain on a regular basis, some of it through circumstances beyond their control or influence and at other times they were the source of their own pain. The laments take these negative circumstances and hold them before God in childlike trust. Their inclusion in the Hebrew Scriptures may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for us, and the Hebrews, as a trusting community I would say that bringing our dark experience into the light of God is an act of bold faith. If we truly trust God is there really anything we cannot talk about in God’s presence? By speaking our hurts and sorrows in our worship of God we boldly proclaim that our God is big enough to handle anything we bring to him, no matter how negative. When we bring the fullness of our dark thoughts and lay them at the feet of God, we prepare the soil where new life can be born of God.
The Psalms of Orientation had common structures and elements, and expressed the truth of a well-ordered life. The Psalms of Disorientation have some common elements, and structural formulas to articulate a much different message of disorder and the felt absence of God. These elements and formulas are governed by two guides: First the whole range of expressions in the Psalms of Disorientation is ALWAYS addressed to God. While what is said may be scandalous or without redeeming social value, the speaker is absolutely committed and knows that whatever is to be said about the human situation must be addressed directly to God as the Lord of the human experience and our partner in it. That does not mean things are toned down. God does not have protected sensitivities and is presumed and expected to hear the fullness of what we say. The reality is that communication addressed to God is an invitation for God to work in God’s way regardless of the content of the communication. The second guide is in the consistent forms of this liberated and expansive speech. The speech itself imposes a recurring order to which we may turn in our disorientation. These forms then serve to speak of the collapse of the oriented forms, while at the same time assuring us of the God directed order that exists in the chaos of the moment. One of the more interesting findings of chaos theory is that over time chaotic systems display ordered patterns. Once again science is catching up to biblical understanding. This structured way of expressing distress at the chaos of life then serves as a guide to leading us into, through and out of the darkness. The structure of the Psalms of Disorientation has two pieces: the Plea and Praise. There is a sense of motion already evident here that is towards God.
The Plea of the disoriented begins with an intimate and personal Address to God. There are no strangers here; God is not some being far off who is disconnected, but one that has a long history of faithful interaction. The Plea is followed by the Complaint which characterizes the desperate nature of the situation. When reading this, it seems as though the Psalmist may be overstating their case, but as those of you who have experienced difficult times may understand the perception of one who is suffering does not always match what appears to be reality to others. In the complaint the speaker intends to turn their problem into a problem for God, who is able to deal with the problem. The complaint can also be a complaint against God in an attempt to hold God accountable for doing something in the situation. After the complaint comes the petition. The Petition is a bold imperative, invoking God’s action and compassionate attention, often suggesting that the unjust situation would not have occurred if God was paying closer attention. This often uses legal language to invoke God’s role in the covenant. The next piece is the most fascinating to me. The Petition is followed by the providing God with motivation to act. In other words this is the stage of grief called bargaining. The key difference is the presence of a two-way covenantal relationship that places obligations on God as well as the petitioner. What is interesting to think about here is what some of these motivations tell us about our understanding of God and what we see as motivating him. In many of these Psalms what is said reveals more about the speaker than about God. A few of the motivations found in these Psalms are:
1) That the speaker is innocent and so is entitled to God’s help.
2) That the speaker is guilty, but repents and seeks forgiveness and restoration.
3) God was good to a previous generation and God should follow that precedent to the current generation.
4) The speaker is valued by God as someone that remains faithful in praise, to lose the speaker would silence praise.
5) The speaker appeals to God to consider the loss of God’s prestige, power and reputation if something so terrible were allowed to stand against one that has been so faithful.The losswill not be to the speaker who will merely die, but to God who will be perceived as unable to care for his own.
The motivations here certainly run the gamut, but it is obvious that the speaker has no time for theological niceties and is working to secure God’s action for saving the speaker’s skin. After motivations comes the difficult to hear imprecations. These are unguarded language that is censored or precluded in most religious talk. This is the decidedly un-pretty voice of resentment and vengeance that will not be satisfied until God repays those who have done wrong. Psalm 109 demands
8 May his days be few; may another seize his position. 9 May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. 10 May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. 11 May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil. 12 May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. 13 May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation. 14 May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the LORD, and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out. Psalm 109:8-14 NRSV
Don’t hold anything back David, tell us how you really feel. While we might cringe at what is said here can anyone of us say that thoughts like these have not crossed the silence of our souls? These sentiments feel unworthy to be shared with God, but they demonstrate that as life falls apart, so do the old disciplines and safeguards and we speak unguardedly about hard realities. The worshipping community of Israel amazingly kept these Psalms in their book of worship and that is pretty stunning to people like me who can have to sensitive a sense of the appropriate.
All of these elements serve to bring complaints from individuals and communities before the throne of grace to the only one that can bring true resolution, and to be quite frank I think our heavenly papa appreciates that expression of childlike faith. When everything else seems to fall apart Israel through its book of worship reminds us that there is someone faithful to whom we can bring our complaint.
This assurance is expressed in these same Psalms as praise. The Psalmists declare that even though it seemed like God wasn’t paying attention they know that God has listened to their complaint; even more than that they declare that God their father could not possibly withhold his loving hands from them now that he has heard. They also praise God by remembering to repay the vows they have made to God if he would just listen. This is an expression of that base of orientation we discussed last week, gratitude. Finally the psalmist who has accused God acknowledges the true character of God as saving, generous and faithful. This does not negate the feelings the psalmist felt in the accusation, but is a faithful declaration that disorientation and disorder are not the final say. It is in our honesty before God that our relationship moves into new possibilities of faithfulness. Sometimes what we need more than anything else is to talk things out with God.
God desires us to hold no part of ourselves or our feelings back from relationship with him. As a worshipping community we are called into a relationship with God in which we too can confront God with the questions, doubts and fears that echo Jesus words (quoting the Psalms) on the cross: “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” Next week, we will look at the Psalms of Reorientation, but for now take the time to express those parts of yourself that you feel are unacceptable, that you feel God wants no part of, and carry those things into God’s redeeming light. As the Psalms show us: God’s presence is the best, and most productive, possible place for us to express our sadness over the brokenness of ourselves and the world. Maybe then we can be called “Men and women after God’s own heart.” as David who authored many of these Psalms was before us.