For two weeks we’ve focused on laments. For many of us, singing a long, dirge like psalm of lament together last Sunday was a powerful experience. These are lamentable times we live in; our anguish is deep and our emotions, often raw. As with anything else in life, lament can be even richer when shared in community. Individually, or maybe even as a community, we may need to return to lament time and time again, asking over and over, “Why? How Come? When will this ever end? Do not let me slip out of sight.”
But in our multi-week journey through these ancient songs of our book of Psalms, we turn another corner today. Orientation, disorientation, and today, reorientation…
I’m not sure life is any less lamentable today than last week, but in our liturgy we are seeking to lay out the breadth of the Psalms’ gifts to us; in hopes that now and in the future we can return to them for prayerful inspiration and guidance. Shifting from lament to praise relatively quickly in worship is not to suggest we can or must do so quickly in life.
I think about taking a nap on a couch – for me often in front of football or golf on a Sunday afternoon, sun streaming through the window. Deep sleep, maybe even drool. But a good nap is quite simply one that causes a bit of confusion when you wake up.
Where am I? What time is it?
Waking up from such a nap, at first disorienting – is an experience in re-orientation.
Now I remember, now I wake up refreshed, grateful, and alive for what comes next.
I think about driving a nearby interchange where the Beltline and Midvale/Verona Roads meet. Over the period of a few years, driving through the interchange was an experience in faith. You never knew, from one day to the next, where those orange cones were going to lead you. You got to see enormous road construction equipment building ramps and bridges. At one point, to drive across Verona Road, you literally had to drive on the bike path to go from Home Depot on the west to McDonalds on the east. But the day they opened the whole interchange finished and new, was another experience of re-orientation. One sort of felt like you had been here before, one knew all the access roads that led to the interchange, but the road you were driving was a new road, you were in the words of the Psalmist, ‘singing a new song.’
Re-orientation in the psalms and in life is that amazing blend of something old and something new. The new incorporates the old, but in the new one is not bound by the old. And the new gives you a perspective that was simply not possible in the old. Pre-nap, I knew exhaustion and fatigue and the fuzziness of my brain that comes with being overly tired. Pre- construction, I knew the agony of long waits at lights, the incredibly slow start up of trucks in front me, the ugliness of pot holed roads and diesel fuel. But post nap, I feel fresh. Post construction, the traffic flows more smoothly. It takes a while to figure out the new and there is some loss from the old, but as I settle into the new I feel more alive and free.
Psalms of Re-orientation including Psalm 40 and Psalm 138 that we are using today, represent that hard earned turn towards a new life and a new way to praise. They provide a stance toward God that is shaped by the pain of the life in the past. A joy and a sense of lightness that embodies hope in a real and life giving way. Not a denial of pain but an ability to live more fully because of the pain.
Psalms like these – whether they are ancient ones from the book of Psalms or new ones like our second song (Sing a New Song) speak of surprise and wonder, miracle, amazement when a new orientation has been granted to the disoriented, often unexpectedly. In theological terms, they speak to what Paul Ricoeur calls a ‘second naiveté.” It is a place where lived experiences of struggle and newfound trust co-exist.
Psalm 40’s text – which we prayed and heard from Tru Function, is a universal cry –
We trusted you, Lord, and waited, and you came to answer our pleas.
You lifted us from the pit; you pulled us out of the mire,
You put a new song in our mouth and gave us the power to praise you.
You opened us to the truth and suddenly our eyes could see it.
The gift of faith is not the avoidance of pits and mire; it is the ability to see through them. It is this strange paradox of our choosing a new song, while at the same time knowing that new song that emerges in spite of us.
Choosing a New Song:
Every version of Psalm 40 begins with patience and trust. Even in the midst of unspeakable pain, the psalmist chooses to trust, chooses to wait, and chooses to be open. The choice to trust is complex and multifaceted – we trust ourselves, we trust the world around us even when it’s hurt us before, we trust in the Sacred Love that is often just beyond our reach.
One dear friend of Tammy and me talked about this choice after her husband of decades passed away. That was in 2010. To find any joy going forward required a significant reorientation in her life. Waking up alone, watching memories and mental pictures of their many journeys and family events fade in their focus, never hearing one of his puns or impish jokes rooted in his love for her and the beauty he saw in her.
But, in her grief and in her sadness, she sought to live with the same openness and conviction that had guided her life for 80 years. She tried to be open about her experience of pain and the difficulty of taking a step towards a new existence without her partner. In her writings, she explored what it meant to wait, to be patient and honest, to be gentle with herself and her expectations of how she would move through the empty days and fond memories. Her life said, “I’m in a pit but I’ll wait; I’m stuck in the mire but I won’t close myself down to the goodness of life.’ I choose not to close myself down. It was a series of small, daily choices on her part. Reoriented life, a life of new found joy and meaning, did not mean erasing the past, but it was choice for the future. A Hard, dedicated, complicated choice.
Another writer notes, “We cannot change the way the world is, but by opening to the world as it is we may discover that gentleness, decency and bravery are available to not only us, but to all human beings (Chögyam Trunpa, Buddhist teacher, Who Do We Choose to Be, Margaret Wheatley). In the words of the Psalmist, we choose to sing a new song, knowing full well the past and present ugliness of the mire.
How are you choosing to sing a new song in your life? How are you choosing new life even when it’s difficult and the pain of the old life is very real?
Recognizing a new song has emerged within us in spite of our actions.
The Message Bible’s translation of the Psalm 138 (which we sang) begins
Thank you! Everything in me says “Thank you!” Angels listen as I sing my thanks.
I kneel in worship facing your holy temple and say it again: “Thank you!”
Thank you for your love, thank you for your faithfulness;
Most holy is your name, most holy is your Word.
The moment I called out, you stepped in; you made my life large with strength.
These words seem to reveal a deep sense of awe and appreciation for the sacredness of life and love. The stance is one of gratitude and humility. Last week I quoted Ann Weems as she named how “Alleluia and Anger collide within us, leading ultimately to the realignment of the stars in our world, in our hearts, in our faith.”
28 years ago this fall, Tammy and I were asked if we might open our home to a new refugee from Ethiopia. In saying yes, we opened ourselves to a much more complicated story than that. Gezahegn was from Ethiopia, but had been a prisoner of war for 15 years in Somalia and Eretria. The tragedy was that he was taken prisoner, not for anything he did, but because when troops came to find his brother at the university, Gezahegn was the only one there. The fact that he was not politically active like his brother didn’t matter. This 25-year-old promising engineering student was scooped up and detained for 15 of his most productive and energetic years.
He arrived at our house on a cold and rainy night and immediately began a long journey of reorientation. Rebuilding, with joy, a life that had been stripped from him. Returning to school. Finding an apartment. Building a community. Using a toilet with running water for the first time in years. Learning to drive and coming to depend on what his limited English. We’ll never forget that our first “Christmas Card” from him in 1989 a couple of months after he arrived was in fact a condolence card. He simply didn’t know enough English and thought the picture on the card was nice! This new life of reorientation was never devoid of the “old” life of disorientation; as he watched fellow refugees in his group of 6 fall apart due to mental illness. There’s no doubt that this was caused, in part by the stress of both their old and new lives.
But what I saw in Gezahegn more than anything else was a deep humility and sense of gratitude, a deep trust in the possibility of a new song emerging in his life. He certainly worked hard to remain upbeat, to choose life, to live with hope – in the camp and in his new life in Minnesota. But he also lived with a deep recognition that he wasn’t completely in control of his life. I think his impact on me has grown over time. This is less because I’ve learned more about the horror of the war that overtook his life and the lives of millions; and more because I’ve come to realize that a new orientation is also, and always, a gift. It is always a mystery how we turn the corner from hurt to love, from pain to hope, from lamentation to praise. From disorientation to reorientation.
Where do you notice a new song emerging within and around you? How has God gifted you with the strength to face joy after pain, hope after despair, etc?
This is where we put the disclaimer on the journey of reorientation. Like that small print on the bottom of an ad.
The psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the experiences of people in them do not guarantee a clean and tidy move from disorientation to reorientation. If you read Psalm 40 all the way through, there is one final attempt at revenge, “Let all those be put to shame and confusion who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt. Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
Faced with these thoughts and desires to lash out, to blame, to cause pain; we return to the daily choice of choosing new life. Daily we turn to our Maker in humility and awe to say thank you. Daily we pray, Reorient me yet again, refocus me once more. “You, God, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, and my foot from stumbling, so I’ll walk with you into the land of the living.”