Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Time for Lament

Sermon Notes for February 25, 2018 
Read Mark 8:31-38 and Psalm 22..

My God, My God why have you forsaken me?

Who among us hasn't felt like this at some point?

When we look at the book of Psalms, we find that a third of the Psalms are about lament.  Almost as often as there is praise and thanksgiving, there is crying out to God in times of darkness, in places of loss and loneliness and heartache.

We all have dark times in our lives. The times when the test results come back positive, or a relationship falls apart, or the job we counted on disappears, or we lose the ones we love, or we are betrayed by the people we trust. There are earthquakes and hurricanes and fires and whole communities lose everything and it is hard to see the light.

Another group of children are murdered and we cry out at the senselessness of their deaths. People scream at each other in fury and no one is really listening to anyone and it seems like there is no way to cross those divides. Innocents die and good people are killed trying to protect them and this is not the way it should be. We know that. And so we cry out to God.

During our worst days, during our darkest times it is easy to feel alone. To feel abandoned by God. Jesus himself will cry out these words as he hangs on the cross. He too will call out demanding where God is in the worst moments of his life.

It's okay to cry out to God when you feel abandoned. It's okay to ask God where he went during your darkest times and demand God's presence when you are suffering.  This psalm resonates with all who suffer and wrestle with the question, "how can God care for me and still allow this pain?" To know God, to cling to God’s promises, and still to go through times of suffering produces a sense that something is wrong - that this isn’t the way it should be.

When faced with these feelings, we often come to the conclusion that we are profoundly alone, that God is gone.

But despite feeling that way, the psalmist still cries out to God. Even when we don’t feel God’s presence, we can still cry out. And the psalm doesn’t end there. This is a Psalm that alternates between despair and hope, solitary suffering and solidarity with the faith of Israel.  Psalm 22 has two easily identifiable parts: the prayer for help in verses 1-21 and the praise for help given in verses 22-31.

The movement of the Psalm powerfully captures the experience of nearly all believers.  We always live in the tension between struggle and victory, between despair and hope, between crying for God to come and help and praising him for doing exactly that, between the agony of God’s absence and the ecstasy of God’s action on our behalf.

Because even in the midst of our aloneness we cry out for salvation. We ask God why he has forsaken us and in the same breath point out that God is our salvation. Even when we feel alone we pray that we are not. We pray that God will come and deliver us. That God will come and comfort us.

For God is holy. And to God we can trust. We look back to all those who God has delivered and cared for before and know that God will be with us too. Even in the darkest time. Anne Lamott has famously said, "Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up."

All of the psalms of lament move in this pattern: the psalmist cries out to God in grief, in despair, alone and forsaken, but ends with trust in God’s salvation.  All of them but one. Psalm 88 is the only Psalm of lament that doesn't end with a word of hope. Instead, it leaves us in the darkness, asking God why.

I spent a long time debating this Psalm, whether or not I should use it and what place it has in our lives. But I think it does. Precisely because it doesn't resolve into hope. Because sometimes our lives end in darkness. That matters. Sometimes there is no answer. Sometimes the worst happens and we are standing in the wreckage. No miracle occurs at the last minute. It's in those moments we have to rely on faith alone. And God can handle our anger with that. If we look at the Psalms to teach us how to pray, this shows us clearly that it is okay to yell at God when we're in the dark. You can't yell at God and ignore him at the same time.

We can't always escape suffering. No matter how much we want to. Commentator Walter Brueggemann writes that this psalm embarrasses conventional faith.  Sometimes Christians can be naïve about suffering. We live in a world where everything is designed to fix our distress. We go to the doctor to replace our a bad knee. We go to the pharmacist for quick pain relief. We leave neighborhoods or jobs or spouses or children to avoid suffering. But in this "dark" psalm God gives us the gift of a prayer that does not resolve. Faith means staying, even when answers don’t come. Psalm 88 is an important prayer to have in our repertoire, because life is sometimes like that. We all spend time in darkness. We all are left to rely on faith alone, crying out for our Lord.

Lent is a time to sit in darkness, to be aware of the harder parts of life. Too often we want to rush ahead to the resurrection, to the joy of Easter, but Lent matters in our lives just as much. I overheard a quote recently "Don’t Easter my Lent." Because this is the season when we remember that death is part of life and we are called to notice it.  We are called to face it.  We are called to let the reality of death re-prioritize our lives.

That’s why I am beginning with these darker psalms. The psalms of lament and pain. Because they are part of life. And it gives us a place to begin to pray them. Let the psalms of lament shape your times of darkness. The psalmists, despite their intensity and shocking candor, always pour out their white-hot feelings to God.

No matter how angry and despondent you may be, if you use the psalms of lament to give you words for your prayers, you won’t be bottled up or repressing. Rather, the language of the laments are so startling that they will probably help you to be more honest about your emotions than you would have been.

But the laments don’t just help you to be emotionally honest; they also bring you to the real God. Our great danger is that in the midst of our pain we forget or deny that God is a God of wisdom, power, and goodness. The psalmists, struggling as much as any of us, will nevertheless draw us back toward that reality and anchor us in it.

So in this world where so much seems to be going wrong, where we barely need to look at the news to see stories that make us sad, or furious, or fearful about what the world is coming to, we can do what generations before us have done. We can turn to the psalms and pour all of it out to the God who is listening, the God who cares. And the God who inspires us to move forward, through the darkness and back into the light.