Saturday, June 27, 2020

Questions to Ask When Nobody is Watching

Psalm 13
June 28, 2020
William G. Carter

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.

Years ago, thanks to this church, I reclaimed a piece of my spiritual heritage. At the time we had an organist who traced her roots to the country of Wales. She was delighted to learn that a thin slice of my ancestry also originated in the green valleys of her homeland. And when I discovered that she spent her spare time traveling around the region to lead Welsh hymn festivals, I asked her to do that here.

She pushed back and said, “This is not a Welsh congregation.” “No,” I replied, “but for one Sunday afternoon, we could become Welsh.” She agreed. We set the date, secured the funding, started making the cookies.

When the day arrived, the first man in the door was short with craggy features. He had wisps of hair coming out of his ears. Bent over, hobbling with a cane, he seemed to have more than his share of physical infirmities, yet he was determined to arrive early and get a good seat. When the music started, he leaned forward, sat up straight, and began to weep.  

In a biography of Dylan Thomas, someone described “the strange, yearning, overpowering emotion at the heart of Welsh hymn-singing” this way:  

Like the wind gathering in a howl, came the slow, unearthly cadences of a hymn…The hymn was beyond the choir, beyond them all. It was like some dark, clouded flame, leaping up in its somber beauty, remote and pure.[1]

Listen, I bring this up, because a lot of the ancient Psalms – including this one – share some of the same qualities with Welsh hymns. They do not move quickly. Nobody is in a hurry. The music is infused with deep passion. The singer embodies the pathos of living on earth while aiming toward heaven. And a good measure of the music inhabits a minor key.

Even if we do not know much about music, we can recognize when a tune is in a minor key. A minor key signifies clouds, not sunshine; tension, not resolution. A minor key expresses sadness, not happiness; yearning, not completion; pilgrimage, not destination. The plain truth is life is hard. We can put on a happy face and manufacture some happiness, yet when nobody is looking, when nobody must be convinced otherwise, the honest questions bubble up.

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?

My friend Martin Tel is the lead musician at Princeton Theological Seminary. A tall, thin man of Dutch descent, he was raised in a church that sang the psalms. Not just the happy ones, not merely the psalms that sing, “Praise the Lord, God’s glories show,” but the psalms that emerge from a broken heart.

When his father was a child, the Nazis occupied their city in the Netherlands. Sermons were monitored for subversive messages, but the singing was not. In the morning, his father said, they might sing from Psalm 68, “Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered, let those who hate him flee before him.” At evening vespers, the church would sing from another psalm, How long, O Lord? Save those doomed to die, repay the people who are doing this to us.”[2]

These were the “necessary songs,” Martin says. The Dutch people found the psalms were a gift to voice their fear, doubt, and sorrow. As such, they were more than expressions of emotion. They were a serious lesson in the school of prayer.

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?

These are the questions that begin Psalm 13. They remain unanswered. The first is a personal question, “Lord, will you forget me?” The next is directed directly to God: “will you hide your face?” The third question expresses the emotional effects: “pain in my soul, sorrow in my heart.” And the fourth names an imbalance that causes pain: “How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

How long? How long? How long? How long?

For us, this is a psalm that needs no interpretation. Not under our circumstances! By my count, we are seventeen weeks into a pandemic. Seventeen weeks of separation and isolation from one another. “How long, O Lord?” How much longer? We do not know.

Is the pandemic winding down? Some people think so. They refuse to wear masks. They behave like they always did. They believe the whole thing is a media scam, even though 128,000 neighbors have died. Others ask, “How long, O Lord, do we have to live with fools like those?” If the pandemic has exposed anything for the past seventeen weeks, it is the truth that Americans don’t like being told what to do, even if it is for their own well-being.

“How long, O Lord,” indeed. The psalm reminds us of what we might be afraid to say. So let me say it: the eternal God is not always in a hurry. The eternal God rarely works according to our plans. You can pray for a sunny day, but you get what you get. You can pray for a happy life, but happiness must be pursued. You can pray for good health, but that prayer is always conditioned by human weakness. God rules the universe. We do not. And the psalms recognized there is a distance what God promises and when we receive it.

When we forego patience and step into the perceived vacuum, that is when we set ourselves up for trouble. So
Jesus tells a parable about a householder who takes a journey to a far-off country but promises to return. He leaves his servants in charge and doesn’t return right away. In fact, he takes his sweet old time. And in that absence, the servants get into trouble. They believe they can do whatever they want. They grab whatever they wish. They justify their whims with their own words. When the boss finally returns, he has a real mess on his hands. (Matthew 24:45-51)

What was the issue? Too much time on their hands. A destructive form of idleness. Rather than live in trust, rather than live in peace, rather than live in patience and perseverance, neighbors become enemies. Smart people do stupid things. Those who could be building begin destroying. It is all in that question, “How long?”

What makes this question a matter of prayer is how we address it: “How long, O Lord?” We recognize the gap and we give it to God. And not just any god, either! The psalmist prays to Yahweh, the God who brought us out of Egypt, the God who is bound to us through covenant, the God who declares, “You people are my children. You belong to me.” It is because we claim that relationship that we can pray our discontent and call out for help.

By analogy, I think of a young adult whom I know pretty well. Years ago, she did some babysitting. There was one family with three kids. She was out with them one day and thought it might be fun to introduce them to the two dogs who lived in her home. So they paid a visit, and these very attentive dogs were extremely interested.

The babysitter was talking with the oldest child and answering a question from the youngest child. Suddenly she saw the middle child stood frozen in place. Both dogs were right on him, sniffing away. He would not move. Didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have a lot of experience with very attentive dogs. Time froze in place, until he murmured, “Katie, a little help here please.” She snapped her fingers and the dogs backed off.

That is why the prayer of Psalm 13 is not “how long” but “how long, O Lord?” We are calling out to someone we know. Someone we trust. Someone who can break through the frozen moment and provide the assistance we need.

“How long, O Lord? How long? How long?” The psalmist says, “Consider me. Pay attention to me. Look at me. You don’t want my enemy to say, ‘I’ve won.’ You don’t want my foes to sing because I’m shaken up.”

This is daring prayer. This is Moses coming down from the mountain after a long delay, discovering that in his absence the Israelites forged a golden calf. In the absence of Moses, the people stepped into trouble. They melted down all their earrings, fashioned an idol, and started dancing around it. God is understandably upset, and ready to blast them all into the sand.

But Moses says, “Lord, these are your people. They belong to you. You went to all that trouble to free them from slavery in Egypt. Now, you don’t want the Egyptians to make fun of you, and say, ‘Look, God freed the slaves only to let them perish in the desert.’ Consider them, Lord. Consider what people are going to say about you. You do not want the Egyptians to say, “We have prevailed.” God heard that prayer. While anybody else might have said, “how long,” Moses called on the relationship God had with the people.

According to the Bible, it is OK to pray this way. Not only OK, but highly recommended. If we belong to God, if we have been claimed in the waters of baptism and named in the name of the Trinity, we can lean into that relationship and ask for our lives to be given back to us. Remember the Welshman who sang the slow, minor-key hymns, waiting for his redemption. The Dutch family during the war prayed for the enemies to be scattered. The families afflicted by covid-19 pray for the end of illness and disruption.

All our prayers are lifted into the mystery of the will of God, the God who desires that every one of his children will flourish. Every single one. No matter what it takes. No matter how long until it happens.  

One of the blessings of this congregation is that people want their preacher to be as helpful as possible. So much so that they will send along material that could improve his sermons. Maybe they are the ones who have been praying, “How long, O Lord?”

In any case, this week someone sent in a story about a preacher who attended a men's breakfast in the middle of a farming community. The group had asked an older farmer, decked out in bib overalls, to say grace for the morning breakfast.

"Lord, I hate buttermilk", the farmer began. The preacher opened one eye to glance at the farmer and wonder where this was going.

The farmer loudly proclaimed, "Lord, I hate lard." Now the preacher was growing concerned.

Without missing a beat, the farmer continued, "And Lord, you know I don't much care for raw white flour". The preacher once again looked up to glance around the room. He saw that he wasn't the only one looking uncomfortable.

Then the farmer added, "But Lord, when you mix them all together and bake them, I do love warm fresh biscuits. So Lord, when things come up that we don't like, when life gets hard, when we don't understand what you're doing or what you are saying, help us to relax, be patient, trust you, and wait until you are done mixing. It will probably be even better than biscuits. Amen."

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] John Ackerman, Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work (Springer, 2016) p. 11
[2] Martin Tel, “Necessary songs: the case for singing the entire Psalter,” The Christian Century, 8 January 2014, p. 20.

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