Que Será Christians

In my family, my parents liked to give each of their beloved children a “theme song.”  And so it was that, growing up, my sister was haunted by family members singing “Rocky Raccoon,” and I found myself treated to regular group-singings of Doris Day’s mid-century hit, “Que Será.”

I found myself thinking about that song this week as I contemplated this week’s installment of our “Ask Anything” sermon series on Predestination. For a lot of people, Predestination sounds an awful lot like the unsung 5th verse of that song—

When I was just a little child, I asked my pastor: where will I go?

Will it be heaven, will it be hell? God is the one who knows…

Que será, será whatever will be; the future’s not ours, you see.

Que será, será, what will be, will be.

A very informal poll of some of my colleagues in ministry across the denominations revealed that for most of them, predestination is an unsavory doctrine that the Episcopalians and Lutherans were quick to blame on us Presbyterians. Which is funny, because technically nearly all of the Protestant denominations affirm this doctrine. In the early years of the Reformation, Martin Luther spilled far more ink on the subject than John Calvin, and both of them were simply quoting another ancient thinker, Augustine, who was writing on the subject in the 5th Century. Nonetheless, it is a doctrine that has come to represent, and for some, even define, the DNA of the faith that we as Presbyterians share with the worldwide Reformed church.

So what is it? And why does it matter?

The basic idea behind predestination is this: it is a doctrine that speaks to the will and intention of God as the driving force behind human destiny.

To understand it, we need to consider some other, far more important, ideas about God.

  • The Sovereignty of God

The Westminster catechism states that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” The sovereignty of God affirms what we see in the Bible—that the God who created us is, in the words of St. Patrick, not just with us, but “before and behind us, in us, beneath and above us, at every side, with us when we lie down and when we rise up. In other words, there is nothing that can happen in this world that God doesn’t know about. Because God is sovereign.

  • Election

When we hear the word election, most of us tend to think of ballot boxes and political parties. We associate elections with choosing someone to be our leader.  The biblical doctrine of election is a similar idea, and it is directly related to the notion that God is sovereign.  The Doctrine of Election teaches that the initiative in matters of faith and human destiny is always God’s initiative. Our relationship with God isn’t like buying a car– we don’t go into the sacred supermarket and pick a God for ourselves.  Rather, our faith (and our beloved-ness in God’s eyes) is a gracious gift from start to vanish. It is undeserved, unearned, and unmerited. In originates in God, and finds a home within us.

Of course, this flies in the face of everything we have been taught in American culture. I grew up surrounded by people constantly telling me to “make something of myself” and affirming that “I could be anything” as long as I tried hard enough.  Well, according to the Bible, there is at least one thing that I can never do for myself, and that is deserve the grace I receive. Election reminds us that, at least where our faith is concerned, there are no bootstraps by which to pull ourselves up by. We are not masters of our own fate or captains of our own destiny. We cannot buy, or educate, or negotiate our way into salvation. Instead, “Twas grace that taught our hearts to fear, and grace our fears relieved.”bootstrap01-1

That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on how election works.  Basically, there are three major camps that seek to make sense of how God claims humanity:

  1. Universalism: all are included–none of us deserves it, but God chooses everyone, because God is love and God would never say no to one of God’s creations.
  2. Pelagianism: This approach to election attempts to affirm God’s action but makes it contingent upon our accepting the grace God offers us.  Which, when you think about it, sort of threatens the idea that God is sovereign, doesn’t it?
  3. Double predestination: some are included and some are excluded.

This is the view that Calvin took—and there are a few things we need to know about this.  First of all, this doctrine was the source of great discussion and argument in Calvin’s day.  Calvin observes in the beginning of his own discussion of it that “human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination very confusing and even dangerous” (3.21.1).  Why so dangerous? Because this doctrine has to do with the mind of God, and none of us, by virtue of our humanness, has full access to God’s mind.  We cannot probe its depths, nor can we make any definitive claims about it.  We can only look to Scripture.

Second of all, we have to understand that this was a doctrine intended to comfort the afflicted and persecuted church. This is a hard thing for those of us who enjoy the privilege of worshipping without fear of losing our home, or our church being burned, or our lives being forfeit. But for early Reformed Christians, who saw their brothers and sister martyred and murdered all over Europe, it was a way of making sense of the carnage and suffering that followed their decision to follow Jesus in this way. It was something to cling to: God choose me.  God loves me.  I am not suffering for nothing.  But there was just one tiny problem: time went on and reformed Christians stopped being martyred, their perspective on this doctrine changed. You know how, when you are a kid, you might have a favorite blanket, or a soft, stuffed rabbit, something that brings you comfort, that you hold to help you go to sleep at night? Well how many of you have noticed that those same objects of comfort can, in an instant, become a weapon against a sibling? I know for myself, and I know in my home, that there is a fine line between a blanket as a blanket and a blanket as a hammer. Well that pretty much sums up this doctrine: Some Christians stopped seeing this doctrine as a blanket, and started using it as a hammer against other people.bbe1738a6187d68058f02ffeb6160113

Finally, I think it is important to point out that even John Calvin found this doctrine difficult to accept at times.  He wasn’t particularly fond of the notion that God might “give to some what he denies to others” (Institutes 3.21.1)  However, as a reformed thinker, Calvin privileged the Bible as the source of information and wisdom about God, and when he looked to the Bible, he saw both evidence of God’s mercy and of God’s judgement.  For him, this was evidence that God must have the freedom to choose.  However, he framed this theology in the context of the salvation of God.  At the end of the day, predestination had everything to do with the gift of God’s grace received in Christ.

In all of this talk about God’s sovereignty, and God’s election, perhaps it has occurred to you that there may be a problem, and that is this:  I don’t know about you, but I look around me, and it is hard to ignore the evidence that people seem pretty free in many of the decisions that they make.how do we reconcile human freedom with the sovereignty of God? How do we affirm that God is all powerful and the ultimate author and arbiter, while also affirming the importance of Human decisions?

And here is the truth that we would probably rather not hear: we are less free than we like to think. There is a lot of research being done these days exploring the line between nature and nurture, and it turns out that much more of our lives than we might like to admit depend upon things we have no control over: where we were born, the wealth and education level of our parents, our race. And so much of our experiences and our perspectives, it turns out, are shaped by forces beyond our control: DNA researchers point to epigenetics or the way our genes are expressed, sociologists point to community cultures, psychologists explore the realities of persistent bias. All these and more play an incalculable role in the way we see the world and the way that other people see us. We may be the land of the free, but what is freedom, really?

Now, the Bible affirms the importance of human freedom—on the edge of the promised land, Joshua calls the people to choose whom they will serve. In our scripture this morning, God does not direct, nor can he prevent, David’s choice to commit adultery with another man’s wife. The truth is that we are “called to make significant faith choices that grow out of the character and moral fiber of our lives. We make a choice to follow Jesus. But our choice is secondary to the decision that God has already made in Christ to love us and call us to service.” We love, says 1 John, because God first loved us.

At the end of the day, I wonder if perhaps the doctrine of predestination can help us understand the paradox of both our freedom and our lack of it.  Because, at the end of the day, predestination affirms the notion that, while we may not be free, in God we find freedom from the constraints of the world. In God we discover that all of the things that limit or define us in contemporary culture are wiped away. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither woman or man, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”s-1

In Presbyterian theology, this comes down to the notion of “freedom within constraints.” Have any of you ever gone to a restaurant and they handed you the menu and there were about 2 thousand options? And the freedom to choose anything—it turns out that it is difficult to make any choice at all. A menu with only 5 options turns out to provide the most freedom of all—we are able to make the choice that works for us, and enjoy our meal. The doctrine of predestination just takes a few options off our menu, constrains us with the “sovereignty of God” and the knowledge that God’s choosing us came first. Within that framework, we are more free than ever to follow Christ.

But what about other faiths? So often predestination quickly moves from being about us to being about “them,” the other who doesn’t worship God like we do.  Helpfully, our reformed heritage has some pointers for the usefulness of this doctrine in addressing the Other.  In his classic Christian Doctrine, Shirley Guthrie offers these three guiding principles:

  • God’s Love: just because some people don’t live as thought God loves them doesn’t mean we can decide that God has written them off. We ought to remember that we know something about them that they do not: that God loves them too.
  • God’s Judgment: we must acknowledge that as long as there are forces out there which oppose God, there must be love expressed as judgment against them. But that does not give us license to judge others. God alone is judge.
  • Our Responsibility: we need to share what we know without judgment. Not so that they will love God if they believe and obey, but because God already loves them.

Which leaves us with one question:  what about us? Predestination frees us from the notion that we can earn salvation, or find confirmation of our saved-ness in ourselves. We can instead spend our lives wrapped in the blanket of grace that we have received in Christ Jesus as a gift. You know Linus from Peanuts? We can, like Linus choose to bring our grace blankets into community with others, because we know that sometimes, blankets are best shared—and when you are willing to share your blanket, you are building community. Finally, this blanket marks us—we have become those called to take our grace blankets out into the world. We aren’t in some special club—our blankets are markers of exclusivity. They are instead an invitation for all. They are a reminder that we have been chosen to serve. And we are chosen not instead of but for the sake of the world.

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Ask Anything: Why Don’t Presbyterians Kneel When We Pray?

When you pray do you:

-pray a prewritten prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23?

-did you have to learn how to pray, or did you always know?

-do you follow a pattern or use a specific order?

-do you say whatever is on your mind?

-do you say anything? Or are you quiet?

-how do you situate yourself? Are you standing? Sitting? Lying down?

-when do you pray?

vendaprayersWhen I was in seminary, I knew people who used prayer wheels, people who prayed out of a book, people who believed the only true prayers were ones made of your own words, people who insisted that the ancient prayers of our faith were the ideal, and people who believed that the prayer that was pleasing to God was one offered in the holy tongue of angels.

I knew people who believed that prayer was something you could learn, like Spanish or Math, and advised others to take their handy four-week course in order to learn how to pray, and people who believed that prayer was a natural language, a spiritual gift beyond words and therefore beyond teaching.

What is true about prayer is that people have been doing it as long as there have been people. Whether you believe in one god or many, or simply in the ingenuity of the human spirit, it would seem that the human tendency is towards looking beyond what is, and speaking into the mystery of the universe in which we are guests.

And like anything important, prayer is one of those practices that humanity has spent a lot of time and effort arguing over how to do right.

Three preachers sat discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby.

“Kneeling is definitely best,” claimed one.

“No,” another contended. “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven.”

“You’re both wrong,” the third insisted. “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.”

The repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, fellas, ” he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole.”

GPL-1Which gets me to our question today: one of you all was curious: why don’t Presbyterians kneel when we pray in church? It is a good question, one that I suppose could have as much to do with comparing our practice to other traditions as it might have to do with wondering whether there is a right or wrong way to pray in our tradition.

So let’s talk about it.

When the question was posed, I initially thought to myself that there very well may be an “argument against kneeling” in our history. I often hear kneeling referred to as a “catholic practice.” The reformed church, which had its beginnings nearly 500 years ago in Europe, spent many of the early years distancing itself from the Catholics, with whom they split. And like any disagreement, there were moments when the church went ugly, and spent its time arguing about why Catholics were wrong instead of wondering about how to be faithful to God.

So when I turned to John Calvin, the founding father of Presbyterianism, I will admit I expected to find some “anti-Catholicism” rear its ugly head. And instead I was pleasantly surprised.

Here is something we need to remember about our theological roots: one of the most important insights that John Calvin contributed to the church was the insight that we ought to let Scripture guide our practice. If the reformation had a slogan, then it was sola scripture, the idea that what mattered most about being Christian was fidelity to God’s Word, which required that we know it.

So when he gets to prayer, Calvin first turns to the Bible, and what it says on the subject. And according to John Calvin, the Bible is totally cool with kneeling, or raising your hands to the sky, for that matter. Our scripture this morning, at least, should be a reminder that there are at least as many ways to pray as there are people in scripture. The test of any prayer position, according to Calvin, is this: does it help you focus your attention on God? Does it bring us closer into communion with the One we have come to know as our Savior in Christ? Or does it draw attention to yourself?

Prayer: also known as conversation.
Prayer: also known as conversation.

Turns out the early church had no problem with what it called “ceremony” or exercises of piety, as long as it was used to deepen our relationship with God. Which meant that people were given the freedom to respond to God in the ways that seemed appropriate to them. Which also meant, for the most part, doing away with the requirement that a congregation kneel in prayer. If it brings you closer to Christ, he says, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t sweat it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that other Presbyterians haven’t railed against practices like kneeling. The Scottish reformer John Knox famously preached a sermon before King Edward the 7th of England in which he stridently argued against kneeling during worship, especially before communion, because he worried that in kneeling the people might be tempted to worship the elements of bread and wine rather than the God who gave them in Christ.

All of this is to say that what is important to remember, I think, is that our history, our legacy as Presbyterians, leaves a lot of room for freedom in prayer. We may not have a whole lot of rules about how one ought to pray, but this should be an opportunity to allow for diversity and freedom in our prayer life, rather than uniformity. At any given time, anyone in this room could find themselves brought to their knees or moved to lift their hands, or faithfully to remain still in the presence of God. All of these responses are and can be faithful when they draw us closer to God.

Which leads me to the question that has been bugging me: if we are so big on freedom, and on the ability to choose your own way in prayer, why is it that we all feel so much pressure to conform to what the other people in the pews are doing?

I remember when I was in college I attended two different faith communities: a campus ministry, and my local Presbyterian church. At church, I would sometimes feel so moved by music, or in confession, that I felt compelled to get on my knees. Except. I was embarrassed about what other people might think about me. I was afraid of drawing attention to myself. So I didn’t. I sat motionless in my pew and struggled with the conflict between how I felt and how I was. And in campus ministry, everyone was always raising their hands and swaying to the music, which often made me feel pressure to do the same. I worried that if I didn’t, I might be missing out on something.

I know I am not alone. We all feel the pressure to conform to the “rules,” and in the absence of rules we make our own. I told myself that the rules dictated that I had to stay in my seat like everyone else. But in the process, I deprived my soul of an opportunity to draw closer to God in prayer. In both of these situations, it was easier to submit to community pressure than it was to follow my own sense of what practices might draw me closer to Christ.

So the question for us is this: what kind of church are we? Last week we shared our ideas about our dream church with one another, and one of the qualities that was mentioned over and over again was welcoming and inclusive. For many of you, the church at its best is a place where people from every kind of background can gather together as a community, as a family, and feel like they belong. And I am so proud to be the pastor of a place with dreams like that. Because that means that, if we live into our dream for ourselves, we should feel free to pray in whatever way feels honest. We should feel free to be ourselves in the presence of God and one another, without fear of breaking some unspoken rule.

In the words of Calvin: love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify. If we let love be our guide, all will be safe.

Brothers and sisters, let us pray with love, and let us be a house of prayer, with hands raised, knees bowed, hearts inclined toward God, our Rock and our Refuge.

Reading Calvin and the Rule of Love

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This month, I will be preaching and teaching on questions that have come from the pews–we are calling it the “Ask Me Anything” sermon series, and so far the questions I have received have proven quite interesting.  Initially, I had conceived of this as an opportunity for folks to ask questions about our faith and praxis.  What has been interesting to me, however, is that the questions have been theological. Turns out that the folks in the pews sincerely want to know: what does it mean that we do this, and not that?  What does it mean when we talk about this faith claim?

Inevitably, I have been turning to the reformed tradition and heritage of which the Presbyterian Church is a part as I have explored the questions that have been raised.  Truthfully, I often do not take the time to go back to our Book of Confessions or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, but if this series is any indication, I believe I may have to make a better practice of it.  For it has be thoroughly enjoyable to explore the family tree of our faith.

Now, if you had told me in seminary that I would gladly spend my afternoons reading through John Calvin, I might have looked at you askance.  Back in seminary, the Institutes was one in a long line of required reading that generally fell into the “historical” section of my list.  I was far more interested in reading contemporary theological works by Brueggeman, Cavanaugh, Yoder and Gustafson.

Perhaps I have grown in my appreciation for my own tradition, but as I sit with Calvin this time around, I find myself pleasantly immersed in his approach to interpreting the tradition.  I am enjoying exploring what he has to say, wrestling with the implications of his theology, but more often than not, I find myself nodding along in agreement.  And occasionally, I find myself surprised by just how contemporary he sounds.

Take this little nugget, for example, which I came across in Book 3, on the section on prayer:

Love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe. (4.10.30)

UnknownIn this particular instance, Calvin is speaking of love as a guide in our decisions respecting church government and worship.  He argues that we need church constitutions, that they provide a necessary good.  However, discipline and tradition do not exist for the sake if themselves.  Rather, we ought to understand them as tools, aids on our journey towards our ultimate end of union with Christ. And according to Calvin, this means that sometimes we must be willing to leave behind traditions and practices that get in the way of our calling to love.

Let me just pause at this moment and reflect that Calvin sounds awfully modern here.  For how often have we heard “love” thrown about in the contemporary church as the answer to nearly every problem?  How often do we encounter criticisms of our tradition and its heritage which include the claim that the reformed church, and calvinism in particular, was rigid and cold, even cynical? And how often have Christians accused one another of mis-using love, of ignoring scripture about judgement and condemnation because the love of Christ sounds easier?

And yet here is Calvin intoning about love being our guide.  Here is our spiritual forefather reminding us that our practice and our government ought to be ruled by love.  That love may challenge us to change, to evolve, to move in new directions that are unfamiliar and perhaps even intimidating.  But, he reminds us, we will do it not because it is popular, or on-trend, or culturally acceptable.  We will do it because it has its root in love.

And that, friends, is why I will continue to read a 500-year old tome of theology. Because it turns out that sometimes you need to hear the wisdom of those who came before you. Sometimes you need to be reminded that the struggle of the church has deep roots, and that those who came before you have truth to share. And you will be better for pausing to hear it.

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“Salzburg, Republic of Austria, July 2006” by Melaney Poli

In order not to repeat history, it is not enough to know it, we must know ourselves, and our complicity.   -Schillling

Some days you have to take what you can
get, and that day my mother was too sick
to find yet one more crowded pavement cafe

and the worst of it was, sitting there in
my habit, I had to see it all unfold: the tired
couple with their small child, the empty table

and the promise of refreshment, and then
the waiter descending in a blaze of jeers,
scathing looks and torrid gestures, and watch

the husband and wife gather their dignity
and leave, unwelcome only for the offense
of resembling too much the enemy du jour

and I had nowhere to go, nowhere to
hide my shame, no means of protest when
the waiter returned and served us sweetly,

set the coffee before me, and the only way
I could ask is a veil any better than a chador?
was to say, simply, Dankeschon

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this poem was originally printed in the July 8, 2015 edition of Christian Century Magazine

Sing A New Song: Psalms of New Orientation

One of the strengths of national holidays is that we are given an opportunity to reflect on the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are. Many of us are afforded some federally mandated time to pause and to remember the values and the struggles that have brought us as a country to where we are today. (Let’s be honest: some of us just sleep in and troll parades for free candy.  But we have the opportunity nonetheless).

When you think about it, every nation has an origin story. The Israelites had the Exodus, which, as Mary Luti observes, was the unique place “where God acted powerfully to free the Israelites from Egypt and fashioned them into a people in the wilderness. By telling and re-telling this story, Jews learn that to be a Jew is to be a people saved from oppression, and therefore a people that must be engaged in repairing a world broken by tyranny.”

The Roman Empire in which the early Christianity got its start had a founding story too. You may have heard it—according to the myth, Mars, the god of war, fathered a set of twins and then left them to die in the woods. By chance, a she-wolf finds the twins and raises them to adulthood. But whey then grow up, the twins became bitter rivals, and ultimately one of them, Romulus, murders his brother Remus in a fight. Romulus goes on to found a city that will bear his name—Rome—and which will grow in power until its power reaches to the edge of the world (as they know it).  Mary Luti reflects that “Romans who heard this story learned to pride themselves on military might. They learned that to be a Roman meant never to shrink from the destruction of your rivals.”

Now, our country has a founding story too. And Nancy Taylor, the pastor of the historic old South Church in Boston, home of many a revolutionary in its day, tells our story in the following way

As you know, the Pilgrims … were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.

UnknownI don’t know about you, but that is not the story I learned in grade school. My teachers tended to focus on other ideals: liberty, freedom, democracy. We lifted up the pioneering and independent spirit of those intrepid Pilgrims, who endured all sorts of difficulty to build a new life in America. We talked about their search for religious freedom in a new land. We read sermons in which they committed themselves to being a new and Christian nation, shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope and an example of Christ to the world. We certainly didn’t talk about them getting lost and setting anchor because the kegs ran dry.

That’s the thing about the stories that we tell. And that is this: what we put in is just as important as what we leave out. The stories that we tell about who we are, who we were meant to be, have the power to define not just the past, but direct the present. “Who we are” becomes the lens by which we see and respond to the world around us.

We have been exploring the Psalms, and as we reflect on our national heritage and celebrate our unique identity as Americans in this time and in this place, perhaps it is fitting that we turn to the Psalms once more to reflect on the story that they tell us about who we are meant to be according to God’s Word.

So far, we have explored Psalms of Praise, of Thanksgiving, of Trust and Lament. And today we turn to possibly the most important category of all: the Psalms of New Orientation. These Psalms reflect upon the story of God’s presence with the people throughout history, and how God has moved us to a new place in the present. They are, in their own way, Patriotic Psalms, Psalms that celebrate who we are by remembering WHOSE we are.

Psalm40Consider Psalm 40. The speaker begins in the following way: “I waited patiently for the Lord.” In the original Hebrew, it is more like “I hoped hopingly for the Lord.” This isn’t just someone sitting around hoping… they are hoping HOPINGLY! The prayer layers hope upon hope, to give us the sense of how intensely the prayer desires God’s presence. And he is not disappointed. God shows up. According to Psalm 40, God:

  • drew me from the pit of chaos,
  • set my feet on a rock,
  • makes my steps secure,
  • puts a new song in my mouth,
  •  “digs out my ears” in verse 6 so that he can hear God’s voice.

The story we are meant to hear about God is loud and clear: God. Is. Here. With. Us.

And you might think that this is enough, that the story can end here. But we are just getting started. It turns out that it is precisely this story—the story of God’s providential care—that gives the Psalmist the strength to endure what comes next. It is the knowledge of God’s presence that encourages the Psalmist as he continues his prayer and turns to lament, crying to God “Do not withhold your mercy from me. Keep me safe. Deliver Me.” In other words, continue to do that which you have done for your people from the beginning. Be the God you have revealed yourself to be.

Now here is the important question: where on earth did the Psalmist get the idea that God would show up? Is it merely the person’s personal experiences of God that has taught him this, or is there something more? The answer, it turns out, can be discovered in the story that his people tell about who they are. And who are they? Why, the people of Exodus, of course. Psalm 114 gives us a picture of exactly what kind of power that story has to frame and guide the people of Jerusalem.

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Exodus, according to Psalm 114, is not just a historical moment. It is also a present experience, a state of being that is relived over and over again by a creation that is being continually transformed by the power of God. Exodus is experienced as the profound transformation that God visits upon all of creation, and it is so profound that the heavens, the earth, all of creation quakes and trembles at what God can do. The God of Exodus, who drew water from the rock, is the God of infinite possibility. And this same God can do whatever is necessary to secure the people in the present.

This is what is possible when the people of God fully claim the story that they have received. When the story of God becomes our story—we become those who sing a new song, who see evidence of God in every place we turn, whether we cry out in praise or lament, victory or defeat. One important thing that I think we cannot forget is that the story of Exodus was not just a story that the people of God told to make themselves feel superior or invicible. The people who claimed the story of Exodus saw within their struggle a calling to have compassion in the present on those who are foreigners, who are widowed, who are orphaned, who are wandering. Their story drew them into relationship with the oppressed of the world, and challenged them to seek healing for all of God’s creation. Their story moved them to action.

So what about our story? In reflecting on the “alternate” story of the Pilgrims (you know, the beer story), one of my seminary professors had this to say:

One thing I’m going to ponder (this fourth of July) is what our country might be like today if our foundational story had been the beer run story, and not the story of our set-apartness. What we’d be like as citizens if we’d all been taught from our childhoods that we became a people when we were running low on life’s necessities. That we are simply a nation of people with ordinary and urgent needs, like all other peoples of the world. A people with a mighty thirst, hoping to find the means to quench it.

If the beer run had been our founding story, instead of the one that says we are different from everyone else and better than all others, maybe we would have grown up more alert to our kinship with the majority of the peoples on this planet who, among other things, have no reliable water to drink.

Maybe if we’d seen ourselves all along as having arisen from an effort to satisfy the same basic needs everyone else has; if we’d understood our unity with all who thirst—for dignity, for justice, for well-being and happiness—maybe we would always have acted wisely and decisively to ensure that basic commodities and the freedom that comes from mutual respect are always abundantly available to all.

Maybe instead of our tendency to place ourselves apart and above, we would habitually have stood shoulder to shoulder with the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the enemy, as our scripture readings today emphatically command us to do.

It is my prayer for our nation that we might mark this holiday not only with fireworks and flags, but with lives committed to the ideals upon which our nation was founded: liberty, justice, freedom, solidarity, and peace. For all. No exceptions.American-Patriotism-1024x819

Amen.

How Long, O Lord? Psalms of Lament

1754097a4078c11f07e42c45f1dc4824If you were to take a look in your hymnal right now, smack in the middle, you would find that there are songs that are associated with Psalms. Part of the reason for this is because, in our tradition at least, for most of our history the songs we have sung have been the psalms set to music. John Calvin wrote of the Psalms that it was important for the people to sing these prayers as their own, so that we, in turn, might be able to pray similar prayers and songs of praise to God on our own.

In other words, singing the Psalms was a way of making God’s Word our own words, so that we might begin to connect our human experiences in the world to the reality of God.

As we have learned already, there are psalms that Praise God enthusiastically, and there are Psalms that express an unwavering trust in God.   But there is one category of Psalms that overshadows them all, one expression of the human condition that finds itself absent from the canon of psalms which we sing.

“By the waters the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept and wept for thee Zion, Please remember me, remember me remember me Zion.”

lament-davidsweeney-224x300Of all of the psalms, the psalms of lament are both the most common, and perhaps the most perplexing. How can prayers of despair and of hopelessness, or even prayers doubting God’s presence in the world, be considered faithful? They seem so dark—and so we tend to skip them and favor the lighter, more joyous Psalms found elsewhere.

But what if the Psalms of lament are necessary? For who hasn’t experienced deep grief in their own lives, or sorrowed over the daily parade of bad news? Who doesn’t cry out to God in a world where schoolchildren and churchgoers are gunned down, where young women are bought and sold into sexual slavery on a daily basis, and strangers blow up mosques and shopping centers with jarring frequency.

Walter Brueggeman observes that the psalms of lament, which he calls the psalms of darkness, are an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate.

That doesn’t mean that lament is formless.  Rather, the psalms of lament tend to follow a very specific structure, one that recognizes that there is a process, or a pathway, out of pain and into the heart of God.  Take a look at Psalm 13, for example:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
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?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
    my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Psalm 13 follows a particular pattern, and by exploring that pattern, we can begin to understand how lament can be both incredibly faithful and useful for thinking about the struggles of our daily life:

  • The call: From the very beginning, the psalmist acknowledges God. Nothing in the troubles of life and the experience of the absence of God cancels the privilege of faith to speak directly to God in confidence of being heard.
  • Overview of the problem: In verses 2-3, the psalmist describes what is wrong in a tone of protest. The agenda of distress is threefold: this person has suffered trouble with God (God as absent), with self (pain in the soul), and with others (an enemy “exalted above me”). In the experience of the one who cries out, God does not help; there is no evidence God is present. The three problems are distinct but inseparable. Helplessness causes anxiety and anxiety protests to God. This is not simple trouble. This is real trouble.
  • Petition: In verses 3-4, the psalmist begs God both to “Hear me!” and to “Help me!”  Biblical theologian James Mays observes that “when we sense God hears us, it renews the strength of our hope; when we sense God is working to help us, our trust is revived.” These petitions seek the revival of life. Without the salvation of God there will be death. Life is at STAKE. This is the prayer of one who sincerely believes that the lives of those who belong to God matter to God. And so s/he waits for God to answer.
  • Trust and hope: By verses 5-6, the psalmist has been restored to trust and faith in God’s hesed. The goal of the lament is to move towards the promise and hope found in God. Lament, therefore, is fruitful: it is a crying out not for the sake of crying, but with the expectation that doing so will help us reach our telos in healing and restoration through the power of God. The psalm leads those who read and pray it from protest and petition to praise: it holds all three together as if to teach that they cohere in the unity of prayer. The psalm’s composition is guided by the radical knowledge of faith that cannot separate God from any experience of life and perseveres in construing all, including life’s worst, in terms of a relation to God. Lament puts flesh on the reality we experience, not to hold ourselves in that place of pain, but to move us closer to where God is working out reconciliation.

Lament can be powerful.  Returning to the words of James Mays, “the psalm teaches us how to pray, but it also shows us who we are when we pray. Agony and adoration hung together by a cry for life—that is the truth about us as people of faith. We are simultaneously the anxious, fearful, dying, historical person who cannot find God where we want God to be, and the elect with a second history, a salvation history, a life hid with Christ in God.”

Earlier this week, our own President put words to the lament of our country as he laid the Reverend Clementa Pickney to rest. In speaking of the tragedy that claimed his life, our President reflected that “The darkness we lament seeks to incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion. It seeks to deepen divisions between people and God. But God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.”Charleston Cover

Lament is the prayer of those who will not accept a world in which darkness has the last word. Lament sees the darkness, and will not sweep it under the rug. Lament lifts up our pain, our suffering, our human condition, and refuses to let it be ignored. And Lament demands that God be present there, that God show up as we stumble in the dark, that Grace prevail over it, until we again can join our voices to the song of the faithful, and once again affirm the grace that God has visited upon us.