In small churches across America, congregations constantly ask, “How can we get more young people to come to church?” They look at their graying members and worry that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the next generation and so they discuss how they can make their worship life more palatable to youth, how they can preach a gospel message that will resonate with people just starting out in their adult lives.
I recently heard, however, a member of that younger generation turn that concept on its head. He said, “When I walk into a church and see only young people, I worry. I wonder if that church is preaching a faith that has enough depth to carry a person through the hard times and the long years of adulthood. I have more confidence,” he said, “in a congregation that has a lot of elderly people because I know that they have seen the worst life can hand out, and yet they have found something in that particular church that gives them the strength and wisdom they need for the long haul.” 1
Churches targeting young adults often feel they need to offer the assurance of certain answers and promises that a life in Christ will lead to wholeness and peace — but what happens to such a faith when a crisis occurs that causes you to question those certain beliefs, when relationships crumble leaving you feeling not whole but broken and alone, and when, instead of marching ever closer to peace, society fractures apart and throws us back into the chaos of hatred, violence, and cruelty? Will there be anything in your faith that can sustain you not only in the exciting times of youth but also through the grinding weary days of later adulthood and in the inevitable times of trouble that will occur in the course of a lifetime? Last week, we celebrated Children’s Day and gave thanks for the children and youth who bring such optimism and joy to our worship, but this week, I want you to look around this congregation and give thanks for all of the gray haired people who make up the Union University Church because if the young bring joy and optimism, the old assure us by their/our presence in this congregation that even when life turns dark, there is something here in this church, something vital about the gospel we share every week, that will continue to sustain us. We have seen the worst life can hand out and yet we continue to find strength and wisdom in the community of this church.
I am going to be preaching a four week series on the Psalms, which have for thousands of years, provided strength and wisdom to those in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The psalms proclaim a faith for all times and for people of all ages. One pastor said that you should pick up the psalms, start at Psalm 1 and keep reading until you find your story because somewhere, in one of those psalms, she said, you will hear words that could be yours. You will read words of hope and words of despair, words of confidence and words of doubt, words expressing surprising joy and dry words that rattle with the emptiness of a battered soul. Some of the psalms are for the young and trumpet an optimism about the life and the opportunities with which God has blessed us; and other psalms are for the old who have trod the stony road, pushed through weariness, pessimism, and despair, and come to a place of quiet understanding with their lives and their God. And some of the psalms are for those in the wilderness, no longer full of optimism but not yet in a place of acceptance, feeling the loss of the old way of life with its comforting familiarity but still waiting to arrive at the promised land of peace.
The biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann sorts the psalms into those three categories which he calls psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of reorientation. He says, “[Psalms of orientation] describe satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing….”
Psalm 16: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.”
This is a psalm of orientation that grounds us in the blessing of experiencing the steadfast presence of God.
Psalms of disorientation, Brueggemann says, are set in the “anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering, and death.… [and they express that disorientation in language of] extravagance, hyperbole, and abrasiveness needed for the experience…”
Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? ….”
Psalms of disorientation drop all pretense and express with raw honesty the anger and the despair of a life in ruin.
And finally, Brueggemann says, there are psalms of new orientation for those times “of surprise when we’re overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks into despair… affirming a sovereign God who puts humankind in a new situation, [in which there is the possibility of light again.]” 2
Psalm 30 “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”
In other words, whether you are feeling blessed and content or angry and anxious, whether you are safely dwelling in the house of the Lord near to the heart of God or wandering around the wilderness cranky and confused and questioning this whole faith enterprise, there is a psalm for you! Pick up the psalter, start at Psalm 1 and keep reading until you hear your own story because I guarantee, whatever your story is, it is in there.
And in light of the events of the past few weeks in our country and world, I think that the psalm that feels closest to our communal story right now is Psalm 13. How many times have we watched the news recently with this prayer on our lips, “How long, O Lord?”
In the brief words of Psalm 13 we learn that something has happened to the psalmist to tear away his old way of life and he has not yet been able to see a way forward. His words describe the anxiety that eats away at a person’s heart when the familiar is suddenly ripped away from them, when the unknowns are greater than the knowns, when the pain is so overwhelming that it is all they can see and their brain can’t even imagine a way beyond what they are experiencing at the moment.
Psalm 13 is a psalm for the man who hears the doctor say, “It’s cancer; let’s set up an appointment to go over your options.” His world is suddenly turned upside down but he doesn’t yet know the plan for treatment or the prognosis for recovery. All he can do is wait and try to suppress the swarm of questions and fears buzzing around in his brain.
“How long, O Lord, before I can get to work on fighting this cancer? How long before I know my future?” he shouts to the heavens, pacing back and forth in anxious prayer.
And this is the psalm for the woman whose husband has recently died, who every morning wakes up to the still unfamiliar life as a widow knowing that she will have to spend another day trying to beat back the loneliness and grief and learn how to construct a new life for herself.
“How long, O Lord,” she keens, “before my heart isn’t breaking every morning?” His death has left her disoriented, uncertain of what to feel, unsure of how to go on, not knowing who she is now or who she is supposed to become in the days that stretch before her. She can only pray, “How long, O Lord, before I can see beyond my grief?”
And this is the psalm for those of us whose grief is less personal but no less acute, for we whose hearts dream of justice and peace in our society, who work hard to bring love to bear on a broken world, who strive to lift the oppressed from their captivity, who reject hatred and insist on compassion for all people, and who hope that because of our efforts the world might get a little better each day, but whose hopes are rent asunder by the news of the murder of a transgender woman in Ithaca last week, by the terrorist bombings in Manchester, by the report of vast stretches of coral dying in the Great Barrier Reef, and by the sound of bullets ripping through a Republican baseball practice.
“How long, O Lord, must we bear this broken world?”
Psalm 13 gives voice to our lament, acknowledging in stark honesty the pain that comes when our easy certainties about life have been torn away, but we have not yet arrived in a new place of understanding. About one third of the psalms are laments that pour out words of grief and anger at the horrible circumstances of life and don’t try to come to any resolution. They refuse to offer easy platitudes like, “The Lord never gives someone more than they can handle,” but instead they shout at God, “How long must I endure this! Make this pain go away!” Our culture is not comfortable with laments because we interpret laments as whining or a lack of faith but laments are always done in the context of prayer. Emmanuel Katongole, Professor of Peace Studies at Notre Dame, said, “Lament is not a cry into a void. Lament is a cry directed to God. It is the cry of those who see the truth of the world’s deep wounds and the cost of seeking peace. It is the prayer of those who are deeply disturbed by the way things are.” 3
The psalms of lament say to us, “Sometimes our hearts hurt horribly with the suffering of the world and we are angry and resentful and tired and impatient and disturbed and discouraged and anxious and depressed and we just want to grab the world by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into it, but instead of lashing out, we will keen our anger and hurt to God.”
And so today, in the face of the overwhelming sorrow of the world, we will not lash out at others in anger. We will not judge and blame. We will not offer empty platitudes or explanations for why the world continues to be so broken in spite of our best efforts and God’s desires. Like the psalmist, we will simply lament, “How long, O Lord?” I invite you to join me in anguished prayer:
How long, O Lord, will our country be so deeply divided? How long before we can see beyond political affiliation, color, and sexual orientation to embrace one another as fellow human beings? How long before we stop speaking to one another with such hatred and speak words of kindness and mercy? How long before we stop judging others and blaming others and confess our own failings with humility and grace? How long before we give up our ways of violence and find peaceful solutions to our problems? How long, O Lord?
O Lord, we confess that sometimes we get so tired of this sea of sorrow that we lose all hope, and yet still we will bring our heartache and hopelessness to you in prayer, returning to you again and again trusting that if there is any sense to make of anything, we will find it in you. We will say with the psalmist, if we must live in a world of such intractable injustice, we would rather live in it with you, God, than without you because we know that only in you will we find the strength we need to bear it all. Give us that strength, and give us the wisdom we need to endure so that one day perhaps we will know peace again.
But Lord, how long?
1. A paraphrase of a conversation I had with an Alfred University grad student
2. The Message of the Psalms, by Walter Brueggemann; Ausburg Publishing, Minneapolis, 1984. p. 19; I did a lot of paraphrasing
3. Reconciling All Things p. 78