My best friend died of colon cancer three years ago today. She was 39 years old. Each year I make an extra effort to honor her memory on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. Today for the worship words I am sharing the sermon I preached about my reaction to her diagnosis and the gift of lament found in the Psalms. This sermon was originally preached on June 26, 2011 at St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina and is shared today in loving memory of my buddy, Kristi.
To the leader. A Psalm of David.
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain* in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
How do we pray when our hearts are broken? Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel recounts this incident from his experience at Auschwitz: “Inside the kingdom of night I witnessed a strange trial. Three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, indict God for having allowed his children to be massacred. An awesome conclave, particularly in view of the fact that it was held in a concentration camp. But what happened next is to me even more awesome still. After the trial at which God had been found guilty as charged, one of the rabbis looked at the watch which he had somehow managed to preserve in the kingdom of night and said, ‘Ah, it is time for prayers.’ And with that the three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, all bowed their heads and prayed.”
How do we pray when our hearts are breaking? When I got a call last month that my dear friend, Rev. Kristi Foster, had stage 4 colon cancer at the age of 38, I prayed and cried and questioned God. This has been especially hard for me because Kristi devotes her life to helping others, does whatever she can to stay healthy-exercise, vegetarian, etc-and should be in better healthy than most of us. In the following weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time praying while gardening. This isn’t new for me. What has changed is the tone of my prayer. Somedays I pray why Kristi and God how could you let this happen. Woe, to the weeds in my garden on those days. And other days, I’m able to pray for her healing, thank God for her life and mine, and feel blessed by the trips we’ve taken together and the adventures we’ve had and am hopeful that we might have more time together.
I share my story not because it is unique. I share it because we have all had pain in our lives. We have all had the opportunity to pray while our hearts are breaking. We have all had tragedy, loss, sadness-times where we ask God, how long?
In Psalm 13, we meet the psalmist when his heart is breaking. Thousands of pages have been written about what caused the psalmist to cry out to God. Was he ill? Did someone he love die? Has the psalmist been falsely accused of committing a crime? The beauty of this psalm is that we do not know and can insert ourselves into this psalm when our world falls apart.
This psalm reminds me of the song we’ll sing after the sermon. In the midst of reminding ourselves that Christ is the rock we stand on, we sing these words repeatedly. When my world falls apart and the light turns to dark. When the clouds gather round and the storms overwhelm. When my heart breaks in half and my strength cannot last. When I’m lost in this land and I can’t see your plan.
In the tough times in our lives, it is a gift for us to have the psalms of lament. They remind us that we are not the first to suffer or question injustice or wonder why God doesn’t fix the world. As long as humans have been in relationship with God they have questioned, complained, pleaded, begged. This type of prayer, singing, conversation with God is faithful talk. It is the psalmist knowing he can share his real thoughts, doubts, and needs with God. And God hears him. Because of our covenantal relationship with God, we can be ourselves trusting God will still love us even if we speak to God in anger-frustration-worry-distress. Our conversations with God do not need to be polite. They need to be real. God knows how we feel. God knows what is going on in our lives. We need to be willing to share our problems, our concerns, our joys with God. That is what it means to be in relationship with God.
How do we pray when our hearts are breaking, by following the psalmist’s example in Psalm 13. Here the psalmist goes from complaint to petition to praise in six verses. While living this psalm, we have no choice but to hold together complaint and praise. We can use this to learn about God and ourselves. In the best parts of our lives, God is involved. In the worst parts of our lives, God is involved. This may be the Scripture Ann Weems was reflecting on when she wrote, “In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life, there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep, and of those who weep with those who weep. If you watch, you will see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.”
How long pleads the psalmist…his cries and the increasing urgency of his complaints mean he is not concerned with actual time. No, he wants God to notice him. To turn and remember him.
It isn’t new that the psalmist is asking God to remember him. In Exodus Chapter 2, We read these words, “ After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”
It is part of our human nature to call out to God. To beg for God to remember us, to remember God’s promise to love us. We ask God to remember us because we think God has forgotten us. We think we’ve been pushed to the back of God’s agenda, to do list, calendar, and we need to be moved up to the front. We’ve got real problems here, God, and we demand your attention. The Israelites cried out from Egypt, the psalmist cried out in the midst of his struggles, and we cry out today, “How long, O Lord?”
Another way to translate the first part of verse 2 is ‘How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” It is like God has put the psalmist in a time out. Picture the psalmist pouting in a chair with nothing to do but think. As he’s thinking, is he filled with regret, pain, fear?
After 4 how longs, the psalmist says, Look, God-over here-God! Here God is told to Look, Answer, and Give. The psalmist knows what God can do and in these two verses he says, Look at me, God. Answer me, God. Give me life. God is the creator and giver of life. In the midst of his struggles, the psalmist affirms his faith in God as the one who can solve this problem.
Many people see an abrupt change between verse 1-4 and verses 5-6. After spending this week with the psalm, I’d like to share a different reading. Verses 1-2, the how longs, are the psalmist pleading with God. As he does this, he is changed. His circumstances may not change but he does. In the middle verses of the psalm, he is able again to affirm his faith. He reminds himself and us too that his help comes from the Lord. Without God, his enemies have already won. Having begun his faith statement, the psalmist is confident by the end of the psalm. These last 2 verses can be translated in the past tense as in the NRSV or in the present tense.
That changes the end of our psalm to-
I trust in your steadfast love.
My heart rejoices in your salvation.
I sing to the Lord because he deals bountifully with me.
What if the reason it can be translated either way is because that is what we need to hear? God has dealt bountifully with us and God currently does. It is a both and..not an either or. A reminder like this is especially important when our lives have reached the point where we must ask God how long 4 times in a row.
My psalms’ professor summed up the end of Psalm 13 in this way. “To be sure, it is possible that the psalmist either looks back in gratitude or forward in trust, but the text remains ambiguous. This very ambiguity, however, is a theological gain, for it invites the interpreter to view complaint and praise as simultaneous rather than separate moments. Thus the ambiguity and complexity of the psalm accurately represent the ambiguity and complexity of the life of faith. As people of faith, we will always find it necessary to pray, “How long O Lord?” even as we simultaneously profess that the Lord “has been good to me” (New Interpreter’s Bible volume 4. Clint McCann, 727).
Too often, we skip psalms like this seeking out the cheerful ones. But the psalms of lament give us a good picture of life as it truly is. Think of the song from Fiddler on the Roof…Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset. Swiftly fly the year. One season following another, laden with happiness and tears. Through our happiness, tears, and all the seasons of our lives, God is remembering us.