“I can’t pray right now,” I told my spiritual director a few years ago. I had words for lots of things, like anger and sorrow, custody battling and trash talking. But when it came to prayer, I had no words. Maybe it was because I was protesting the God who I thought had treated me so unfairly, maybe it was because I’d run out of words that felt appropriate to say in prayer.
“Have you tried praying the Psalms?” she asked me. And I thought, “Duh. and No, i haven’t tried that, but it makes sense.” With her urging, I began praying the first 6 verses of Psalm 139 every day. Well, some days I only made it through one verse, before I started crying or gave up because the words dried up in my mouth. Some days, the words positively shimmered with holy presence and God spoke to me through them.
In short, I discovered again what J Clinton McCann says about this section of Scripture: “the psalms are BOTH humanity’s words to God and God’s word to humanity”. In other words, the Psalms are conversational, providing words for us to speak to God when our own words fail us, or when we long to speak in unison with others of faith. At the same time, the words of the Psalms constantly remind us of God’s reply to human need and human praise, they remind us that God is responsive.
Today is week 2 of 5 that we will spend in the Psalms this summer. Last week, we read Psalm 100, and heard its theme’s repeated in Pastor Hans’ sermon. Psalm 100 is a communal praise song, meant for use in worship, meant for shouting the glories of God in unison with the saints.
Psalm 13 is another kind of song entirely. If Psalm 100 is the summer pop anthem by a boy band, meant to be sung on a sunny day at the top of our lungs, then Psalm 13 is an Adele ballad, born out of heartbreak and sung through tears in the shower. Technically, it’s called an individual lament Psalm. And though out of 150 total Psalms, there are about 65 psalms of lament, we rarely hear them read in worship. In the Revised Common Lectionary, which chooses a psalm for every week, the lament Psalms are highly edited, to include the nicer verses, and many churches skip the Psalm altogether anyway.
And when you hear Psalm 13, which is not even the most raw of lament psalms, you can understand why this kind gets left out.
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
That’s quite an accusation! Does God forget us? Does God turn her face away in our time of trouble?
In the next verse, the Psalmist ramps it up. “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?”
This begins to feel like a desperate situation, possibly even life-threatening. Everywhere the Psalmist turns there is trouble. And when she lifts her eyes to the exalted place where God is supposed to be, the enemy is there instead.
Maybe you’ve been desperate in your faith life, like the Psalmist. I know I have. These first verses of Psalm 13 remind us that we are not the first to be in this predicament. We are not alone in our struggle. And we can bring even this to God, using words as grief-stricken and anger-filled as we need them to be. If there is a negative thought or emotion you’ve experienced, you’ll find a Psalmist speaking about it to God, giving you permission to speak that way in prayer too.
Yet even as the Psalmist laments the lack of God’s presence, she calls for an answer from heaven. Really, she demands it. “Look at me and answer me, God!” she shouts, “I’m dying here.” Then she reminds God that God’s reputation is on the line: If you don’t answer, she cajoles, my enemy will boast about their victory and my foes will rejoice. The implication is that victory and rejoicing belong to the Lord, and it’s time for the Lord to take them back from the hands of the enemy. “This is your territory, Lord, take it back!” the Psalmist insists.
These second two verses of the Psalm remind me of the great arguments God’s people have had with their God for millenia. Like Abraham pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses arguing with God’s readiness to turn away from the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt, the Psalmist is comfortable being confrontational with the Most High. My Old Testament professor Ralph Klein often said that these stories and verses are God allowing herself to be held accountable by her people.
This is powerful stuff, and powerfully useful. At Tuesday morning bible study this week, as the group began to read as they always do, each taking a verse around the circle, Becky Sullivan started to sing. I wasn’t there, but I know the experience was haunting because she sang to me on Thursday afternoon over the phone. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as those ancient words took on modern melody, and I could feel the pain behind the song. Becky doesn’t remember exactly when she put the words of Psalm 13 to her own tune, but it was sometime in the midst of a deep depression she suffered as she uncovered a trauma in her past.
In her version, those first 4 verses are sung twice before moving to the surprising words of praise in verses 5 ad 6. Singing, and sometimes even screaming those words, gave Becky permission to be where she was in her struggle, to bring her whole self before God, trauma and all. She recognized her own struggle in the Psalmists words and gave them music that eventually helped her heal.
What do you make of abrupt transition at verse 5-6, I asked Becky, because I was struggling with how the Psalmist got from such deep lament to singing of God’s love and blessing. “I understand those words as promise, not command,” she said. The movement to praise will come eventually because God promises to look and answer and love steadfastly. If we can’t get there today, that’s okay. We can stay in verses 1-4, repeating them as often as we need. But eventually, God brings us the assurance of God’s trustworthiness and unfailing love. Then our song is changed to praise.
That movement is not a straight line, from lament to praise. It’s more of a circle, or an infinity symbol. “We do not begin at one end and come out at the other. The agony and the ecstasy belong together”, a theologian wrote. Luther wrote that the mood of this Psalm is the “state in which hope despairs, and yet despair hopes at the same time…”.
There are many things which bring us to such a state in the world today, and this Psalm is useful for those too. In fact, as news broke of the shooting at the Republican congressional baseball team practice on Thursday morning, a friend of mine quoted Psalm 13 on Facebook. “How long, O God?” Mindi asked, will we mourn victims of gun violence before something changes in our country.
And Friday afternoon, I was finishing this sermon as the news broke of the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez. I had already written about the hashtag #howlongOLord trending on Twitter when Philando Castile was killed last year. The same hashtag trended two years ago this weekend when the 9 saints were killed at Mother Emanuel Church. So as I listened to the words of Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, I heard her anger and grief as lament. The cry of “how long, O God” went up at the state capitol Friday evening as people joined their voices with others mourning another senseless death of a black man.
Lament is a faithful response to the trauma we experience and see around us, and the Psalms give voice to the cries of our hearts when suffering would otherwise silence us. Such words are not comfortable in worship or in any public space really. They may even make us afraid, either of God’s wrath or our own. Yet, such words are an audible reminder that the sin of individuals and systems is contrary to God’s will.
Violence of word and deed are not the way God intends us to live. People living in fear for either their black lives or their law enforcement lives is not part of God’s intention for the world she has made. The supremacy of men over women, white people over people of color, legal residents over illegal residents is not the way we have been called to live. So when that sinful reality bears down upon us, we rise up in lament. We say aloud, O God, this is not what you want. This is not what we want. Lament cries out for a better way, addressing the only One who can make such a way.
“How long, O Lord?” we shout. “Look on me and answer, Lord my God.” we plead. Yet in those despairing cries, we hold out hope that God’s response will be swift in coming. We pray that our agony and the forces that lead us to death will be stopped by the one who holds death and resurrection together forever in the person of Jesus Christ. Amen.