Sermon preached April 10, 2011
Texts: Psalm 13; Job 17:6-7, 23:1-6
Play excerpt: Bessie Smith, “St. Louis Blues”
The blues. Some of us may like blues music. Many of us like music that has roots in the blues or intersects with the blues – rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country. Whatever our musical preferences, we seem to have more difficulty prayin’ the blues.
Are any of you familiar with the ACTS model of prayer? This model suggests that prayer should revolve around four movements: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication. It is not a bad model for a prayer life. We express our sense of the goodness of God and God’s love for the world and for us. We acknowledge the ways we have not lived out that love in our lives. We give thanks to God for the good gifts of life. We ask for the well-being of others, for the world, for ourselves. A couple of weeks ago, I preached a sermon on prayer as asking and included in that a discussion of praying for forgiveness as we pray for ourselves. I also spoke about praying for others and for the world. Next Sunday, the sermon will be about prayer as gratitude and thanksgiving.
What is distinctly absent in the ACTS model is prayin’ the blues, is lament, is complaint, is grieving. Why? Are we so concerned that we will become whiny, that we ignore such praying? Are we so convinced that things could be worse that we have no right to express dismay at the way things sometimes are? Are we concerned that complaining has no place in our conversation with God? I don’t know, but this I do know – when we neglect lament and complaint we cut off a powerful and necessary form of prayer, a biblical form of prayer.
My spirit is broken, my days are extinct…. I am one before whom people spit. My eye has grown dim from grief, and all my members are like a shadow…. My complaint is bitter. Job
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? 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? The Psalmist (Psalm 13)
Lest you think this is but a single, isolated psalm, listen: Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble (10:1). My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol (88:3).
If we take the Psalms as our cue, honest cries from the heart are vital to prayer as relationship. Psalm 10 (v. 14-15) says of God: “Indeed, you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands.” God, it seems, may be more open to our laments and complaints than we are willing to share them.
I appreciate the honesty of Marjorie Suchocki in her book In God’s Presence. Have you never been very angry with God? There are times when our sense of justice is outraged, or when someone we love is in horrible pain, and we cry out to God for relief. But the injustice or the pain continues, even as we pray for redress. We pray, and release the praying, and continue to experience the assault on our spirits by the situation of great grief. Has your soul never, like mine, screamed its rage at God for seemingly doing nothing? Sometimes I have an image of beating my fists against the chest of God, sobbing like a comfortless child…. It is all right to share rage with God who understands…. We are called to honesty in prayer, regardless of the state of our emotional well-being. God receives us as we are, and how we are is no surprise to God. (37-38)
God receives us as we are, and how we are is no surprise to God. God notes trouble and grief, and trouble and grief manage to make their way into each of our lives.
We hurt sometimes. Relationships don’t work out – our affections are not returned and we feel the pain of rejection. Life is difficult – there are moments when the only choices we have are between not so good and even worse. Some days the best that is possible is getting through relatively unscathed. We know disappointment – a job does not pan out, the vacation we planned and anticipated turns out to be little fun. We see others suffer. We watch while our parents age and feel the pains and difficulties of aging. We see our children – they break bones, their hearts break, and while we know that some heart break is inevitable, we wish we could protect them from it all. People we care about hurt. This week acquaintances of mine, people who in the last year plus have lost a son, now have a grandchild suffering from hydrocephalus. People we love die. We look at the world and see that it can be an absolute mess – one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, is the country hit by a devastating earthquake; Japan is reeling from an earthquake and tsunami, and a primary source of power – nuclear energy – has proven to be a curse as well as a blessing; Libya remains a deeply conflicted country; Afghanistan is not a peaceful paradise, nor is Iraq a model of Mideast democracy. Peace between Israel and Palestine remains elusive.
Have you never been very angry with God? There are times when our sense of justice is outraged, or when someone we love is in horrible pain, and we cry out to God for relief…. Has your soul never… screamed its rage at God for seemingly doing nothing?
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? 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?... Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble. My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.
And God wants to hear from us, hear it all. We are called to honesty in prayer, regardless of the state of our emotional well-being. The heart of prayer is relationship, and solid relationships are rooted in a deep and searching honesty, and that includes those moments in our lives when we are in pain, those times in our lives when we witness suffering and injustice.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a brilliant philosopher and theologian and committed Christian. When his son Eric was 25, Eric died in a mountain-climbing accident. Wolterstorff used one of his God-given gifts to deal with his grief. He wrote, wrote a book called Lament for a Son. Parts of the book are like prayers of lament. Their honesty is instructive.
I skimmed some books on grief. They offered ways of not looking at death and pain in the face…. I will not look away. I will indeed remind myself that there’s more to life than pain. I will accept joy. But I will not look away from Eric dead. Its demonic awfulness I will not ignore. I owe that – to him, and to God (54)…. To the most agonized question I have ever asked I do not know the answer. I do not know why God would watch him fall. I do not know why God would watch me wounded. I cannot even guess…. I am not angry but baffled and hurt. My wound is an unanswered question. The wounds of all humanity are an unanswered question (68). Faith endures; but my address to God is uncomfortably, perplexingly altered…. I must explore the Lament as a mode for my address to God (70)
Lament, complaint, prayers arising out of grief and pain and hurt are not meant to deny that there is beauty, joy and love in the world. Wolterstorff will accept joy. Next week we will be focusing on prayer as thanksgiving and gratitude. Yet prayer as relationship entails honesty. Again, Nicholas Wolterstorff: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic…. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. (34) Deep honesty in the midst of the pain, grief, disappointment, heartache, injustice, that is a part of life in this world – prayer invites such honesty, and when we dare pray with that kind of honesty, we find a God who recognizes how painful life can be, and who cares.
Prayer as lament gets to the heart of prayer as relationship. It also gets to the heart of prayer as transformation. Prayers of lament are hopeful acts. They are prayers of faith. We trust God is listening. We trust God cares. We trust that “God works with the world as it is in order to lead it toward what it can be.” We trust that “prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what can be” (Suchocki, 57) We trust that transformation is possible, and to pray prayers of lament is part of changing ourselves and our world.
Perhaps transforming our hearts through acknowledging our hurt and pain works something like this process described by Elizabeth Lesser: Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness…. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a larger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy…. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180)
Praying our prayers of lament can be part of moving our hearts toward tenderness and compassion. Praying our prayers of lament may help us discover the power of anger in the work of love and justice. We see that kind of transformation in the Psalms. A Psalm “regularly holds together hurt and hope, pain and praise” (The Discipleship Study Bible) Psalm 13 begins: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? 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? It concludes: But I trusted your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Prayin’ the blues is a lot like the blues themselves, where lament transforms toward joy.
Play excerpt: “St. Louis Blues” Louis Armstrong. Amen.