Scripture: Psalm 137
(The Melodian’s Reggae arrangement)
Vertical Habits are about phrases that we use to strengthen our connection and communication with God. “I Love You” is the basis for our relationship. We need to hear this phrase and say it. “I’m Sorry” is what we say when we enter God’s presence. And we need to repent our faults and failings and receive his forgiveness and love.
Both those phrases are regular parts of the worship service – Praise and Confession. Look in your bulletin every week . . . .
This week we are going to examine a Vertical Habit that we often leave out of worship, and may even leave out of our private prayers. It is the habit of coming to God questioning “Why?”
Why, O God, have you let this horrible thing happen to me?
Why does my life suddenly seem so short?
Why do I feel so alone?
Why have the people I thought were my friends stabbed me in the back?
Why is there this suffering in the world?
The vertical habit of why is not the innocent child’s curiosity – Why is the sky blue? But the pain of country song “why do the stars keep on shining”
We call this “why” lament.
And though we do not practice this habit every time we gather for worship, when we look into God’s word, the Bible, and particularly at the Psalms, the Songbook for God’s people, we see that Why? is one of the primary ways people have addressed God and connected to God through the generations and the years. Anger, bewilderment, sorrow and grief, these are the feelings that get expressed in lament – in connecting to God through “Why?”
Maybe life is going well for you right now. I hope so. Maybe you didn’t come to church this morning with an ache in your heart so deep it fills your eyes with tears. Maybe you haven’t suffered the loss of a loved one. Maybe your social and emotional bank account is well in the black. Maybe your real bank account is nicely padded, too. Maybe you don’t watch the news, and Guantanemo, Anbar, Myanmar are just places that seem very far away. Maybe the subject of lament just seems like sort of a downer. Well. I’m glad if your conversation with God can be more upbeat right now. But you might want to file this away for some rainy day. Even if there’s not a cloud in your sky right now, storms do rise. They do rise.
One storm, in which lament is appropriate, is the storm of fear in the face of weakness and death. Hear how the Psalmist addresses God with that fear:
How long, O Lord?
How long must I bear this pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
put the light back in my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.
That’s Psalm 13.
There are circumstances in our lives which cause us to fear that the pain we feel is going to go on forever, that the heartache is going to blot out years of our lives. The first year of grief is often an unrelenting ordeal. Everytime the tide of sadness seems to ebb, another anniversary comes along, another holiday meal with an empty spot at the table, another reminder of what might have been. And it washes over everything again. How long must I bear this? We wonder. How long can we bear this?
And what if we can’t? Most times in our lives, the fact that it will be over someday doesn’t enter into our thinking. But when it does, doesn’t it sound like this: Psalm 22 expresses it this way:
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax, it is melted within me.
My strength is dried up like a broken piece of pottery,
And my tongue cleaves to my jaw; I have one foot in the grave.
Human weakness and fear are occasions for lament.
So is betrayal by enemies, or even worse, by those we love.
Psalm 3 says,
O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
Psalm 55 is more graphic:
I am distraught by the noise of the enemy, for they bring trouble upon me.
And in anger they cherish enmity against me.
But that’s not the worst of it. The worse pain is what comes from someone we used to love. Again, Psalm 55:
If it were an enemy who taunted me, then I could bear it.
It is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him.
But it is my equal, my companion, my familiar friend.
And with the pain, there is anger:
We used to hold sweet conversations together
Within God’s house, even we walked in fellowship.
Let death come upon them! Let them go down to Sheol alive!
Let them die, screaming in terror!
Betrayal brings out the most primal response – an instinct for revenge and retribution. When you get betrayed, nobody tells you that’s coming. A person could wonder if they were going crazy, losing their mind or their heart, or their faith to think such malicious thoughts. But there it is – right there in the Good Book. It’s not evil or crazy or abnormal. It’s lament. It’s part of asking “Why?” to ask “Why is that two faced backstabber still walking around? Why don’t you strike him dead? Soon.”
Perhaps the most painful and difficult “Why?” to utter is the one we have to ask when we blame God for the bad things that befall us.
Psalm 88 –
Thou hast caused my companions to shun me;
Though hast made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;’
My eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon thee, O Lord, Do you want my ghost to praise you?
Am I supposed to declare your steadfast love from the grave?
“Raging at God is a part of the Hebrew tradition,” theologians Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson write, (All our Losses, All our Griefs) “The psalms of lament are filled with anger at God.”
Sometimes it is personal and individual, as it seems to be in Psalm 88 – “Why is this happening to me?” but often the question is asked with the whole people of God in mind. The Why question is “Why have bad things happened to people who did not deserve them?”
When the Psalms were being written and recorded, God’s people were often being attacked and sometimes conquered militarily and politically. Some of the Psalms reflect a lament about the world situation and what happens to those who lack power to defend themselves:
Psalm 129 – “Sorely have they afflicted Israel from its youth. The plowers plowed upon his back. Long and deep are their furrows.”
Lament is a way to speak with God about the many and tragic situations in the world in which deep wounds are being opened, and reopened like furrows under a plow, or earth cratered a bomb.
One of the most poignant and beautiful Psalms speaks in unbelievably current accents of the tragedy and lost- ness of those who have lost home and hope. How many refugees have been created by Katrina? How many more in Iraq. And Palestine. And Sudan.
Psalm 137 is a refugee song of lament: Listen to it.
By the river of Babylon, where we sat down
And there we wept when we remembered Zion
The wicked carried us away into captivity, and required of us a song
But how can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
It’s enough to break your heart, this lament business. But it doesn’t, does it? And that’s the amazingly graceful thing:
That weeping, shouting, raging at God with our “Why” questions does not damage or destroy our connection with God. We might expect that it would, for if we yelled and complained to each other in such stark terms, it would surely cause a rift. But, with God, the lament preserves and strengthens the bond between us.
One way that works is that honest expression draws us closer. In lament we do not attempt to hide any part of our lives from God, but we let it all come out, as naturally as a child expresses grief over a skinned knee or bruised feelings by crying in his Mother’s arms.
But there is more to it than that. And that is why we need to practice this vertical habit using the Psalms as our coach and guide. Because when we look to the Prayer book of God’s people we find that laments are hardly ever offered unalloyed complaint. If you’ll look back at any of the Psalms we’ve read this morning, you’ll find that, as Calvin Seminary’s John Witvliet writes, “Laments, to be sure begin with a cry against the painfulness of individual tragedy, a cry against the injustices of society. But laments almost never stay there. Having voiced our pain and struggle, laments then recite God’s mighty deeds on our behalf. Lament’s give voice to our pain but lead us out of that pain by God’s strength. This is the very pattern of our everyday living: from struggle to praise, from pain to remembering God’s faithful good ness, from injustice to awe and wonder at the divine majesty.” (The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, p. 32)
The connection to God isn’t accomplished by overwhelming the lament with the praise, drowning out the sad music with something more upbeat.
It is in practicing and acting out, until we finally believe in our hearts what we have spoken with our lips – that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus prayed Psalm 22 as he hung on a cross, who said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” just at the point he was demonstrating, even unto death, he would never forsake us.
To ask why of God is to find that God’s own being-with-us is itself the answer.