“A defining question, becomes, “is the God I pray to big enough for all of this? And all of us?” Because if she is, then the prayers I speak with my words and with my body and with my numbness are not going to be pretty.”
Psalm 69, adapted and interspersed with life. The italicized text is Psalm 69 from the Message (adapted to be plural); the regular font is ‘life’ as written by Winton Boyd.
God, God, save us! We’re in over our head, quicksand under us, swamp water over us; we are going down yet again. We are hoarse from calling for help, bleary-eyed from searching the sky for God.
Whereas we once prayed for victims, today we do that but pray more for courage. Whereas we once felt helpless, today we know that we choose inertia, status quo. Where as the psalmist prayed for himself, we pray for our nation.
We’ve got more enemies than hairs on our heads; sneaks and liars are out to knife us in the back. God, you know every sin we’ve committed; our collective life is a wide-open book before you.
We wonder, God, if we know the real enemy? Is it the NRA? Conservatives? Gun owners? Politicians? We the voters? We with short attention spans that jump from headline to headline, tweet to tweet? Others (Fill in the Blank)?
As we name the sins of others we see, help us explore the sins within us we choose not to see, cannot see, or will not acknowledge?
God, answer in love! Answer with your sure salvation! Rescue us from the swamp, don’t let us go under for good, pull us out of the clutch of the enemy; this whirlpool is sucking us down.
All of us, God, are suffering. All of us look for courage, love, and kindness. As children, we need kindness. As activists and prophets, we need love. As wise elders or those preoccupied with family and work or those studying or falling in love – we all need courage.
Save us from this swamp. For the sake of all victims of senseless violence, this week and every week. For the sake of all us, because we are all victims of this violence.
We are continuing our journey through the Psalms and we move today to the second stage of our three-stage journey. The first stage was that of Psalms of Orientation, today we begin to explore Psalms of Disorientation, and eventually, we’ll explore Psalms of Reorientation. (This formulation was first proposed by Walter Bruggemann)
In my introductory sermon to the series a few weeks ago, I indicated that these Psalms of Disorientation demand that we do not pretend the world is other than it really is.
- They speak but fear and a sense that little is in our control.
- While most psalms of disorientation often conclude with gratitude and praise, they do not minimize the pain, the anger, the confusion or the doubt.
- Laments are part of this movement. Maybe most important for us – they see nothing that can’t be included in prayer.
It doesn’t take us long, I suspect, to identify life events that can be totally disarming and disorienting for us.
- Sometimes it is as simple and personal as a world – cancer, dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, stroke, suicide, fired, divorce, stillborn…
- Sometimes it has a more communal feel – robbery, multi car crash, flood, fire, bomb, mass shooting…
The question, and the challenge for us in the church is how do we reconcile these events, these feelings, these disrupted lives with the faith we profess, and the God we pray to? Is our faith a resource for us in these destabilizing moments, and if so, how? If not, why not?
I appreciated Tammy Marten’s reminder this week that Buddhists ground their practice in a simple truth – ALL LIFE IS SUFFERING. To many of our Western ears this is both stark and depressing sounding. There is a long and ancient tradition of interpretation and work with this truth, and it cannot be minimized to a short sentence. This practice cuts through whatever veneer one may have about life as fair, always happy, and always good.
Our Hebrew psalms, like this one, speak the same truth. They ASSUME all aspects of life belonged in their practice of prayer; not just thanksgiving and praise. Many of us in western Christianity ground our faith in the expectation of being blessed; and distance ourselves from God when things don’t go our way. It may not be our intellectual formation of the Christian, but it absolutely is the cultural version of Christianity.
For this reason we need community and communal prayer. As I pondered the scope of the terror in Las Vegas last Sunday, I added up my immediate relatives – which totaled 59 people. Just family. None of my friends, my fellow church folks. If I assume that every killed or injured person or first responder or emergency room doctor has about the same number of connections – it’s pretty clear pretty quick that the impact is profound. And this happens with every event – every shooting and hurricane and flood. And it doesn’t take long to realize how deep and pervasive our connection is as a human family. How deep and profound our sense of disorientation becomes. How diverse and troubled our emotional reactions become. They range from outrage to numbness and everything in between.
To make matters more difficult, if our theology of God’s inclusive love has any substance, my circle of compassion has to include not only those who disagree with me on gun control, but even the ones doing the shooting themselves. In my head, I know this inclusive circle to be real. In my heart, I am a mess of emotions and fears and resistance.
A defining question, becomes, “is the God I pray to big enough for all of this? And all of us?” Because if she is, then the prayers I speak with my words and with my body and with my numbness are not going to be pretty.
Psalm 69 shares it’s own version of confusion and numbness. Even if we don’t know the details of this psalm, we know it to be real. It doesn’t matter how old these words are, they speak a truth we know. A blunt description is “I’m a mess. In your love, HELP!”
Its timeless truth actually reveals a powerful ‘liturgy’ or practice for the way we pray and the scope of the God to whom we pray. I want to reflect on three aspects of that liturgy I see in this psalm.
First of all the psalm asks for a faith rooted in HONESTY. Psalm 69 uses graphic gut language. The images are visceral, unfiltered, filled with angst. The value of reading this psalm as a prayer is not the image of swamp (can you make this stuff up?), it is not the image of whirlpool with it’s sucking sound taking us under. The value of the psalm/song is that it’s real. It’s naming our experience as it is, not filtering it because a good Christian, Midwesterner or Wisconsinite doesn’t talk that way. It’s honesty invites, in fact begs, us to be real.
A week ago, while it Switzerland, Tammy and I had a chance to visit a Monastery of Protestant women, a simple place called Sonnenhof (House of Quiet). There were many fascinating things about it, but the women worship with these psalms 4 times a day. Of course, I loved the synchronicity of their worship and our worship series. But it did dawn on me; if these incredibly simple, quiet, prayerful group of women can pray this “sinking in the swamp and getting sucked in the whirlpool prayer,” then so can we. If a woman whose life vocation is literally to pray – can pray with this kind of rawness, then certainly we can strive for the honesty to do the same.
When life gives us disorientation, can we respond with honesty in our prayer?
Where is our life begging us to be more honest, more real, more unfiltered as we pray to God?
The psalm continues, Our collective life is a wide-open book before you. This highlights a second aspect in this prayer from Psalm 69 is the invitation to engage life WITH A “DWELLING” HEART. I love the word ‘dwelling’ – a place we settle, we rest, we gather. Engaging life with a dwelling heart then invites us to sit with the truth of our lives, the pain, the muck, and the uncertainty. To let it sink into us. This is quite different that be present with a rational mind or with a desire for a quick fix.
Just this week I attended the YWCA’s Racial Justice Summit and attended a lovely session titled, The Body Already Knows: A Framework for Dismantling race, racism and whiteness. Dr. Heather Hackman’s invitation was simple – the way through our confusion about race and class and justice may be clearer if we listen to our bodies. Our bodies tell us all we need to know what’s happening in any given situation. A child can’t articulate that an adult in authority is racist; rather they might just say the adult is mean. They know this by the body language of the adult and the sense within their own body that they are not safe or not liked.
To be present with a dwelling heart allows us to pay attention to the ways the truth of our lives is absorbed in our cells. For many of us in this university, idea dominated community – moving beyond rational conversation and head analysis to place where truth dwells within us is a most difficult journey.
What is your body telling you about your life?
A third aspect of this psalm of disorientation and the practice that emerges from it is the move to EMBRACE GOD’S LOVING GRACE. Psalm 69 does not end with lament and confusion.
Let me shout God’s name with a praising song, let me tell his greatness in a prayer of thanks…
You heavens, praise God; praise God, earth; also ocean and all things that swim in it.
We didn’t read these words initially because I didn’t want us to move too quickly to that voice of gratitude and love. We’ve all experienced too many Christians suggesting a move towards praise or God’s purpose or God’s will TOO SOON. Often, well meaning friends and family point to God’s love in our lives because they are uncomfortable with our pain and our anger – at the world, at God, at others. For that reason, in our context, I think a certain pulling apart of these psalms; a certain period of waiting for that impulse to gratitude is important and valuable.
This embracing of God’s grace all around us IS AT THE HEART OF THIS PRAYER, however.
An important point: A Psalm of Disorientation names OUR disorientation; and the prayer that emerges from that. It is NOT suggesting God is disoriented or intimating that God’s presence in our lives is fickle. It never questions the Spirit of God’s ability to surround us in grace and hope even in the most destabilizing of times. Even when we don’t feel it.
The words of psalm of disorientation often resound with a cry for God to DO something for us. And it isn’t subtle.
Let their supper be bait in a trap that snaps shut;
May their best friends be trappers who’ll skin them alive.
Make them become blind as bats,
Give them the shakes from morning to night.
Let them know what you think of them,
Blast them with your red-hot anger.
Burn down their houses,
Leave them desolate with nobody at home.
The more I sit with these cries, the more I ponder what’s really happening in them. I wonder if the real point is not God acting out vengeance on our behalf, but God surrounding us in love when WE want all that vengeance, when WE cry in all that pain.
How many of us who are parents remember the need to wrap up or bind up a newborn child as a way to communicate comfort, safety, and presence. In the same way, these psalms remind us God’s love envelopes us with room to cry, to scream, to wonder and to doubt.
The ancients seemed to embrace this kind of relationship with God, and invite us to do the same.
What can remind you of God’s grace, even in the midst of your pain, doubt or anger?
This isn’t always an easy journey, and it is for this reason we are offering questions for our own personal reflection and musing. In remembering that Psalm 69 offers us a practice, we recognize such a way of prayer is always a work in progress. I invite you, in these moments that follow or in the coming days or weeks, to ponder these questions, reflect on them, respond to them in writing or in song.
Here they are again.
- (Honesty) Where is your life begging you to be more honest and unfiltered as you pray to God?
- (Engage life with a Dwelling Heart) What is your body telling you about your life? How can you develop ways to listen to your body more?
- (Embrace God’s Grace) What can remind you of God’s grace, even in the midst of your pain, doubt or anger?