Ps 137: 1,3 – sorrow
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
As I was researching this weeks sermon and devotions I utilized the internet to get a brief survey of the way that the lament (complaint) psalms are though about and taught. Today's is of particular interest. In one commentary Psalm 137 is presented as a complaint inspired by sorrow. And we can see why, 'By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept.' It is written at the time of or soon after the Babylonian Empire had overcome Judah the city of Jerusalem. Many were slaughtered, many taken into forced captivity and some left behind to find a way to survive. This is a song of the people who were forced to leave home and land and perhaps even family, for Babylon. Theirs is the sorrow of a traumatizing .
Traumatizing loss affects us deeply because it never seems to go away. In my own experience, just when I think I've finally found a way to live with some peace and joy, another circumstance or experience, even something that isn't traumatizing in itself, can bring the memories, the pain, the shame, the loss, rushing back so that I experience it all over again. Pain is isolating. So having a venue in which to give words to suffering and pain is vitally important. And this is what we see in this Psalm. The people of Judah are deeply aggrieved. But instead of remaining silent they cry out to God and put their pain into words. Yes, some of those words are troubling for us to hear. That bit about dashing Babylonian babies heads against rocks is particular ugly. But lets not misinterpret this. The Psalm doesn't serve to encourage or condone that behavior. Nor does it suggest that God's response will be to mandate such behavior. The Psalmist is honestly expressing the dept of pain that the people feel, the anger, the violent impulse. But it is safely placed in the crucible of a complaint to God. So, this psalm offers us too a practice for action when we are frozen and isolated by pain. God is powerful enough to hold and heal our deepest anguish and great anger.
But before we conclude today's reflection, we really must acknowledge that this Psalm isn't only about generic trauma, loss and pain. It is specific. It is about political and military oppression and forced emigration. The trauma is specific. And opens up entirely new vistas for us to hold in contemplation and prayer. Judah is forced to leave their homeland. People leaving their homeland for another has been in the news a great deal lately. Forced by the threat of violence by drug cartel's in Central America, and by war in Syria. And these traumatized emigrants have not generally been welcomed or received with hospitality. This Psalm exposes us to the deep pain and sorrow of all those whose simple and innocent lives are disrupted by political and military violence and injustice. And it does so under the assumption that God cares deeply about the cries of those whose lives are disrupted and traumatized in this manner. So an honest encounter with the Psalm 137 not only gives us a place for and practice in response to our own sorrow and pain, but it also exposes us to the sorrow and pain of the emigrant and teaches us to listen with the ear of God.
Today's Prayer – Give us the courage, God who is ever listening, to give voice to our pain, our frustration and even our anger. Assure us that you are both strong and loving enough to bear our burdens and accept our criticism. Make these times of complaint into holy experiences of comfort, hope and inspiration that we might not only survive, but thrive through difficult and challenging times.
Tuesday - Shame
Ps 51:1-3: Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
'Have mercy on me, O God', cries David after the prophet Nathan confronts him with his sin. He has abused his political power by having Uriah murdered in battle after impregnating Uriah's wife Bathsheba. In his cry we enter into lament that perhaps is the deepest and most troubling of them all, the lament of our guilt and shame. 'My sin is ever before me,' David continues and so forces us to face that which we most want to avoid, our faults which have caused destruction and pain.
One of the most common criticisms of churches like Berean is that in our focus on social justice we turn a blind eye to sin. Perhaps we do it for understandable reasons. Sin has too often been used throughout Christian history to frighten and coerce people with threats of an angry God and eternal punishment in the afterlife for power, political and financial gain. And it has also been used as a weapon to harm enemies. Those unlike 'us' are labeled 'sinners' and so stripped of dignity, agency and legitimacy. Even now 'sin' is most often thought of as a issue pf personal piety; sexual infidelity, dishonesty, and anger for example. But the sins most often complained about, by Israel to God and God back at Israel, are social; the presence and avoidance of the impoverished, financial advantage of the wealthy over the poor, the shaming and renouncing of the sick and disabled, and the use of violence as a social method for instance.
What David gives voice to is a mix of both personal and social sin. Yes, he is guilty of sexual infidelity, but it is an abuse of his political and military power. Both personal and social sin is addressed. Facing our failures whether we have failed by using unkind words that cause pain or participating in systems that abuse or oppress, is such a painful process that it is tempting to either ignore or project our faults. And in this way David is an example. He does not deny his sin. Neither does he try to shift the blame. Instead, trusting in God's unfailing love and great compassion, he faces and names his sin. And this is vitally important.
It is important because it is NOT fear that compels David to be honest with himself, Nathan and God about his sin, but trust in God's love. Too often we have been taught to fear God when we sin. What we need to celebrate is that we are loved in our sin and then out of it into something new, something clean. David will sing in this song, 'wash me and I will be whiter than snow.' Too often when I am offering spiritual care to folks I hear them say, 'that’s just the way I am.' That isn't always a confession of sin. Sometimes its just frustration with a weakness that they cannot seem to overcome. Regardless, notice the theological story. There is nothing that can be done. But we worship a God who created beauty out of chaos, who renamed Jacob, Israel and Saul, Paul, and who was not finished with David even after this grievous sin. Admitting sin and trusting in God is proclaiming the chore of our faith, which is that we are not reduced to worst moment, nor are we stuck in unhealthy patterns. God is always willing and indeed able to intervene in our lives in transformative ways. That is why we confess sin with confidence. It isn't only an act of humility, but also of great confidence in the creativity of God working in our own lives.
Prayer – Encourage us Lord, through your great love and mercy, to admit and confess our sins, personal and social. Make us brave to acknowledge that the way we are can be unhealthy and hurtful, to ourselves, our friends and neighbors and even to larger society. But teach us to trust that when we engage in this honest assessment of ourselves, you do not leave us or forsake us to guilt and shame. Instead, you call us Beloved, you re-name and shape us, forgive, cleanse and renew us that we would be better fit to serve you and your kingdom. Make moments of honest and reflection and confession moments of humble confidence, peace and joy knowing that we are not stuck as we are, but loved into our truest and best selves.
Ps 57:1-4 - fear
1 Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.
4 I lie down among lions
that greedily devour human prey;
their teeth are spears and arrows,
their tongues sharp swords.
This is another of the Psalms attributed to David. Tradition tells us this prayer was inspired when David's life was threatened by the violent anger of King Saul. He goes to hide in a cave. What a poignant metaphor of the times when we are strangled by fear, isolated, alone, powerless. This is a song born of hopelessness and threat. Saul seems to hold, at this point, all the power and influence and David is trapped in a moment when he can find no way to respond with any confidence or agency. He cannot talk, plan, strategize , work or fight his way out of this situation. 'I lie down among lion,' he prays in song. The threat is great and he has no feasible strategy for rescue or relief that can ensure a safe and secure future.
We connect to this story even though our lives are often not threatened by the anger of malevolent rulers. The loss of a loved one to death or divorce, the breakup of a friendship, tension in a family can also raise within us the experience of threat and fear. It can be the pressure of work that can conjure self-doubt and thoughts of what we would do without the work and its paycheck, or perhaps even worse, the dreaded pink slip that makes our imaginations run wild with imagining the worst. And then, perhaps more subtle but no less debilitating is the fear that if people really knew us, they would no longer love and care for us. If we expressed our opinions, acted out of our truest and best selves, we would be rejected. I suspect we have all felt this way. I know at times when I feel called to preach a prophetic word that challenges the status quo that our society is comfortable with I feel that fear. So too often, we place ourselves in the cave of not being ourselves in order to survive that which we fear, being rejected.
Once again, the implications go beyond these legitimate personal concerns and into the social realm. What fear must grip even today the largely African-American residents of Flint Michigan now that they know that the water they and their children have been bathing in and drinking. There are not only the reports of sickness and disease, but also the woeful response of the bureaucrats and the knowledge that changes in the water supply that lead to this situation were made for financial reasons. Profit more important than people. Fear must grip them. Does fear grip us on their behalf?
David's complaint is a supreme act of faith. An abundant future appears impossible, yet David's lament calls for God to intervene making the impossible, possible. Faith is not hoping for the best, but crying out for God's intercession when all seems lost. Complaint then, is one of the ways that we as humans participate in God's creating and redeeming mission in the world. Complaint is the feed-back loop that calls God to liberation and rescue in a world gone wrong. When we remain silent in the face of our personal fears that reduce us, or in response to injustice that disallows the fullness of life, we are not being faithful or obedient at all. It is the most serious act of disobedience because our complacency merely encourages the powers that be to hold sway and maintain their influence. Complaint trusts that our God not only rescues, but also proclaims that God is the ultimate authority in the world, over all other earthly political powers, over all personal demons that haunt us. Complaint liberates us from our fear and liberates us to confront the powers that frighten and abuse others.
Prayer- Teach us God to be sanctified lamenters. Let our complaint not be that which leaves us trapped in a defeated mentality, but instead, that which liberates us to be hopeful. Let complaint free us from fear that causes us to deny our truest selves and leaves us complacent and complicit in the suffering of others. Let our complaints become a bold proclamation of the reality and powerful intervention of the loving and creative God who hears the cries of all you suffer.
Ps 140:1-2, 10 – anger
Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers;
protect me from the violent,
who devise evil plans in their hearts
and stir up war every day.
May burning coals fall on them;
may they be thrown into the fire,
into miry pits, never to rise.
The honesty of the psalmists emotions can be disturbing when it ventures into anger, especially when that anger is expressed violently. Monday's psalm, 137, ends with the image of Babylonian babies be thrown against rocks! Today, we see an expression of anger only slightly less disturbing, 'may they be thrown into the fire...' Our most natural reaction is to cringe and promise to never read that psalm again, or at least that verse of the psalm.
But anger is a natural emotion. Denying that we are angry is dangerous. We all have had experiences where either we or someone we know has habitually suppressed frustration and anger and we know what happens. It gets stored, festers, even grows and eventually gets expressed. And this expression is neither healthy or helpful. Crying out in anger to God in the midst of pain, suffering and injustice is a gift. Anger offered to God is less likely to be dangerous and unhealthy and actually, can be transformed from destructive to constructive, from vengeful to reconciling.
In terms of spiritual health, taking our hurt and anger to God in prayer accomplishes much. When we vent our frustration and suffering we actually can learn about our truest selves, our values and our unresolved hurts. We discover facets of our lives and relations that we have made peace with but which do not actually make for peace. As we speak and then listen might even learn that our anger isn't toward the target we assumed but is a reaction to another person or situation. When we complain and listen deeply, The Spirit can lead us from a place a fear (which is what inspires anger) to an attitude of trust in God. Even in this moment of pain, God is with me. Even in this injustice and unfairness, God is working. And when we realize that we can trust that God is working, as Paul said, 'all things work together for good,' our anger is not destructive, but constructive. Anger, when spoken and then baptized in prayer, isn't harmful or debilitative, but an energizing force that empowers us to address a change that we need in our own lives, or to advocate for growth in our relationships and even society.
It is important for us to pause and contemplate the fact that while today's psalm contains a great deal of anger, even violent anger, it concludes in a much different place. The psalmist, through expressing anger, is lead by the Spirit to an emotion and experience of assurance. 'I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor, and upholds the cause of the needy,' the psalmist proclaims. And this is perhaps what we need to be reminded of. Anger turns to violence when we are threatened and feel that there is no protection, no justice, no viable response to the threat other than the fight. The psalmist discovers through offering anger to God in prayer, that they are no alone or abandoned to be a perpetual victim. God is an active listening and ready responder to those who suffer unjustly. In this age of 'stand-your-ground' laws and the propensity for politicians to manipulate us with the threat of violence that only they can respond to (often with force), we would do well to remember that we do not trust in force, but God, to protect and guide us. Not only that, be we trust that God can use the threat to lead us to new life and fresh faith.
Prayer – Teach us to no longer be ashamed of our anger, God of mercy and of passion. Lead us in offering every emotion, even anger to you in our prayer and contemplation, that we might be shaped and energized to be your representatives of reconciliation in an angry and violent world. Give us the courage to question our anger, to learn from it, and to see it transformed into another tool which you can use to see your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Ps 69:19-22 – despair
19 You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed;
all my enemies are before you.
20 Scorn has broken my heart
and has left me helpless;
I looked for sympathy, but there was none,
for comforters, but I found none.
21 They put gall in my food
and gave me vinegar for my thirst.
22 May the table set before them become a snare;
may it become retribution and a trap.
In today's psalm we hear the psalmist complaining about the shame he is subjected to as the result of cruel and heartless people. 'I am scorned, disgraced and shamed,' he writes. Is there any worse feeling than the rejection and worthlessness that is the experience of shame. Brene Brown, who is an expert on shame, has written, 'Shame is the most powerful master emotion. It's the fear that we're not good enough.' Could it be that the threat of physical violence is not the only of Saul's attack's on David? Could it be that he subjects David to a campaign of public shaming? I honestly don't know if that is the experience that leads to the creation of this psalm. But I do know that feeling that we are not good enough is a terrible thing. And I know that the powerful then and now will often use character attacks, or public shaming, to discredit those who criticize or oppose them.
Our own experiences of shame are not necessarily public or as dramatic as what I have just imagined. Shame can take us in its grip when we speak before thinking, when we respond emotionally to stress and say or do something hurtful and outside our character. Brown further explains that "the difference between shame and guilt is the difference between 'I am bad' and 'I did something bad.' " Some feel shame because a disease or chronic illness necessitates care and causes a loss of independence. Some carry shame because they have failed to live up to some high standard put upon them by parents, teachers, or preachers. Theologically shame is an insidious form of idolatry because when we experience shame we are allowing some other authority to call us 'worthless,' when the God who created us has already, according to Genesis, called all creation good.
Henri Nouwen has said, "The real 'work' of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice that says good things about me. Nouwen places the word work in quotations marks, perhaps to remind us that prayer, in this sense, isn't work, but a gift. But when we couple Nouwen's lesson on prayer as listening to a loving voice and one final Brene Brown Quote, we come to understand how complaint is a spiritual practice that rescues us from shame. Brown writes, 'Shame derives its power from being unspeakable...If we speak shame it begins to wither.' And this is exactly what we see in the Psalm for today. Perhaps we do not hear the specific details of the psalmists shame, but we do hear the psalmist admitting aloud, to God, the shame he feels. And as he speaks, the shame withers. Perhaps this is the best understanding of why confession, although not a formal or traditional part of Baptist theology or practice, is something worth exploring. When we ashamed, we feel isolated and alone, trapped and powerless. We are worthless. When we speak, when we share with someone, someone whom we trust to love us, the shame loses its hold. We are no longer trapped in feeling worthless, but loved, just as we are and loved into something new. 'I will praise God's name in song,' the psalmist soon after complaining about shame concludes. 'I will glorify him with thanksgiving.' Complaining about shame renders it powerless and frees the psalmist to once again experience joy. He is once again reassured of his value, that he is God's beloved.
One final note and perhaps warning. When the early church read this psalm, they saw the crucifixion of Jesus. Religious and politically powerful and influential people not only misrepresented him, arrested and tortured him, but shamed him as well. The cross was a dishonorable and shameful way to die. His friends has abandoned and denied knowing him. The fear that shame is, that we are worthless, was visited upon him. It was visited upon him because he befriended Samaritans, and healed the sick, because he fed the poor and criticized religious and political leaders. He was shamed because he was an advocate for all the vulnerable and the rejected and hated. He was shamed because he would not leave or forsake them. And he has called us to this shameful cross. Sometimes following Jesus means that we knowingly accept the shame of welcoming the disdained, ignored and shamed into our beloved community. And that is a challenging thing for us to consider.
Prayer - Remind us in prayer, today, loving God, that we are your beloved. Teach us that we have not earned it, nor are we more worthy than others to be beloved. Let us in this moment bask in the free gift of your merciful and unfailing acceptance. And let that love not only humble us so that we do not join in the shaming and scorning of others, but also protect us from the fear that would keep us from welcoming outcasts into our community or going to stand with the rejected in their time of need.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.