A Sermon I gave on August 8, 2011 at Bethel CRC (Newmarket):
Texts: Psalm 22:1-8; Psalm 102:1-11; Psalm 88:1-7
What do we do with Psalms like these?
To our ears, they are irreverent and accusatory toward God. There is no show of deference or respect that we would expect from someone talking to God.
Who talks like this?
What gives them the right?
This is not the way we are supposed to speak to God.
And yet, here they are, in the Bible, in a book that is all prayers and songs to God.
Part of the reason these Psalms are difficult and even offensive to us is because we’ve often overlooked them, preferring the more happy and uplifting ones. We are so used to hearing that Christians must be joyful that we don’t know what to with these Psalms because they don’t express the type of joyful attitude we expect from Christians. We assume that this is not the way Christians are supposed to think or behave.
However, this expectation has more to do with the assumptions of our culture than it has to do with a biblical understanding of prayer. Our culture, and, as a result, many Christian congregations, are addicted to happiness. Any other attitude than perpetual cheerfulness is seen as a downer. Our solution to someone who is not always happy is to give them medication in order to help them feel more balanced and positive. But in the end, our culture’s addiction to happiness prevents us from facing and dealing with the sadness and grief in our lives. It’s almost as though we are afraid of our emotions.
So, when we hear these difficult Psalms, we are disturbed and unsettled.
I mean, who talks like this?
If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is that we all do.
In the midst of grief, struggle, and doubt, we cry out from the depths of our being, begging to be heard and to have the pain go away. But, because we are addicted to happiness, we lack the emotional capacity to process what we are feeling. We assume that something must be wrong with us for feeling this way, so we ignore our emotions or we try to medicate them, whether through prescription drugs or other means.
Psalms like these teach us that prayer is more than simply nice thoughts expressed toward God or asking for basic needs.
Prayer is the discipline of confronting ourselves – our strengths, our weaknesses, our struggles, our triumphs – and meeting God face-to-face with absolutely nothing standing in the way. This requires brutal honesty and humility with ourselves and with God.
We are used to using our piety and reverence as buffers between us and God. The Psalms teach us that we don’t have to do this.
If the Psalms are the “prayer book of the Church”, then what do these difficult Psalms teach us about what it means to pray? How can we learn from them as we seek to re-train ourselves in the discipline of prayer?
First, we need to reclaim art as a form of prayer.
The Psalms are poems. Poems are artistic expressions using words, pauses, meter, metaphor, and rhythm.
So, if the Psalms are poems, then they are artful forms of prayer. This means that art, whether poetry, painting, music, sculpture, or any other artistic medium you can think of, can be used as forms of prayer. This also means that we can pray without using words. Our art can be used as a creative act that responds to the reality and power of God.
God has given us imaginations. Our imaginations are part of what it means to be made in the image of the God who creates. Our imaginations can and should be used in prayer. The Psalms engage our imagination and turn it toward God, allowing us to enter into his presence.
Art, in all its forms, is an important form of prayer.
Second, we need to reclaim lament and grief as indispensible expressions in prayer.
The Psalms are, in the words of John Calvin, “an anatomy of all parts of the soul”. In other words, the Psalms express the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity, both the fullness if our divine likeness and the staggering depravity of humans. The Psalms teach us that expressing the full range of our emotions – from love and devotion to bitterness and even hatred – is a necessary part of prayer because it helps us to face our feelings and to bring them completely to God.
The Psalms teach us that openness and honest with God are part of what it means to have a close and deep relationship with him.
We need only look to how Jesus prayed to understand this. In the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion, Jesus’ prayer was one full of agony, to the point of sweating blood. This is a far cry from what we normally associate with prayer, sitting around the table before a meal, or sitting in pews on a Sunday morning.
And what about Jesus’ words on the cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is directly quoting Psalm 22. But more than that, he is accusing God of abandoning him, of crying out, where are you God? How could you do this to me? Jesus used these very raw words as an expression of what he was going through and as a prayer to God.
Sometimes we are too quick to praise without acknowledging how we really feel. Our praise becomes empty of passion because we haven’t be honest with ourselves and God about how we really feel. The result is that we begin to drift away from God. We find ourselves unable to praise and pray because we haven’t been able to protest.
The difficult Psalms we are looking at tonight suggest that protest to and even against God can be a prelude to praise. When you read the rest of Psalm 22 and 102, it becomes clear that there is a progression – the Psalmist starts with rage, he reflects on how these feelings are affecting him, and it almost always leads to rejoicing. There is a transition from pain to hopeful praise that God will hear the prayer and will act.
There is something very important and necessary about acknowledging our pain; it helps us to face our hurts and to begin the healing process – you can’t start getting better is you are in denial about being sick! When we are hurting, we are extremists – we don’t mince words to express how we are feeling. When we are open with God, we begin to be open with each other and this allows us to “bear each others’ burdens” as a community.
This means that prayer is not always neat, tidy, and well-spoken words – it is raw emotion that expresses the realities of what we are going through, the highs and the lows. If we are unable to this to and with God? Then to whom can we? And what are the consequences of our faith if we don’t share our struggles with God?
Like the poets who wrote these Psalms, we need get past Christian “political correctness” about how we talk to/about God. Christian speech should always be dangerous speech and return to speaking using biblical vocabulary and talking and praying the way the psalms and prophets do. There is no room for a tame and domesticated spirituality in the Church; we won’t find it in the Psalms, so we shouldn’t either in the church.
It is important for our spiritual health to face disorienting texts like these Psalms because it forces us to rely on God’s faithfulness and to reexamine our relationship with him. We have to remember that because God is God, he can take our complaints; it is better to be brutally honest with our loving God than it is to turn our back on him because we assume he won’t like what we have to say.
a close relationship with God opens you to brutal honest with God – again, look at the Psalms and the Prophets. We cannot afford to talk to God with embarrassment or trepidation. We speak the truth in love; we can pray with chutzpah, indeed we must for it teaches us to abandon ourselves in outright trust of God; we can hold nothing back when we pray; if/when we do, we are not really praying, rather, we are just saying empty words. The ability to “rage against God” can help us to develop a deeper and more profound hope as our raging calls God and ourselves to our covenant responsibilities. And this, in turn, will help us to cultivate a more deeper, defiant, and resilient hope.
Prayer must be open and honest and passionate – Prayer is a face-to-face dialogue; it must be so. Like all good relationships, our relationship with God requires openness and honesty form both parties – we don’t like it when God is blunt with us and we often shy away from being blunt with God. This is a requirement for developing intimacy and humility.
The Psalms are confessional in character – they express deep longing, belief, doubt, etc. – the whole array of human emotion. They are not “objective” statements of fact; they are expressions of profound belief. The Psalms are dialogical in character – they are a conversation between God and humans. Our prayers are not a monologue; our relationship with God is not a one-way street;
Praying with the Psalms the way the Psalms are written will develop a daring, vibrant, transformative, daring, and bold faith – this is the only kind of faith that will sustain us in times of trail and in times of joy; a deep and multi-dimensioned faith, not a shallow and insipid faith concerned with intoning moral platitudes and niceties.