Originally I thought that for this Sunday I would put together a service like we have done a couple of times before, the kind were we hear the stories behind some of our favorite hymns and a few new ones before we sing them. I don’t know if you have noticed, but the new Glory to God hymnals include a few sentences about each hymn. The electronic version of the hymnal on my iPad has even more extensive information about each, including a number of wonderful stories of their origins. Mary and I talked briefly about a guiding Scripture for the service, thinking about the phrases that are repeated over and over in the psalms inviting us, if not commanding us to “Sing praises to God!”
But then the last two weeks happened. “Sing praise to God!” is a little more triumphant than things feel when we watch the news on TV and read the reports on line or in print. “Sing praise to God!” seems to dismiss the reality of a community in grief over the shooting of another unarmed young black man, the need for our nation to look into a mirror to see the stain of racism that mars our image, the violence terrorists are using against journalists and those of different faiths, and even the message that Duana Bremer brought to us last week - - there are not enough available beds for the homeless in our community to sleep in at night. Although we could go back even farther than two weeks this summer to events that aren’t making headlines anymore, but are still newsworthy – an outbreak of Ebola, a civilian plane shot out of the sky, children detained at the US border. Sometimes “Sing praise to God!” just doesn’t reflect the way things feel. In fact, sometimes singing praises to God feels like the last thing we can do.
So our Scripture reading this morning isn’t Psalm 96 with “Sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord! Bless his name! Share the news of his saving work every single day!” It isn’t Psalm 13 with “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” It isn’t Psalm 100 with “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.” Our Scripture reading this morning is Psalm 55 which doesn’t talk about singing, but instead sings a song of complaint and a song of anguish, a song of horror and a song of anger. Our Scripture reading shows us what singing in faith sounds like when the world in which we live doesn’t feel like a place where we can sing praises to God.
1 Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
2 Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
I am distraught 3by the noise of the enemy,
because of the clamor of the wicked.
For they bring trouble upon me,
and in anger they cherish enmity against me.
4 My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
5 Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
6 And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
7 truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
8 I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest.’
9 Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
10 Day and night they go around it
on its walls,
and iniquity and trouble are within it;
11 ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
do not depart from its market-place.
12 It is not enemies who taunt me--
I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me--
I could hide from them.
13 But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend,
14 with whom I kept pleasant company;
we walked in the house of God with the throng.
15 Let death come upon them;
let them go down alive to Sheol;
for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.
16 But I call upon God,
and the Lord will save me.
17 Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he will hear my voice.
18 He will redeem me unharmed
from the battle that I wage,
for many are arrayed against me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old,
will hear, and will humble them--
because they do not change,
and do not fear God.
20 My companion laid hands on a friend
and violated a covenant with me
21 with speech smoother than butter,
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
but in fact were drawn swords.
22 Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.
23 But you, O God, will cast them down
into the lowest pit;
the bloodthirsty and treacherous
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you.
Mid-week I put a post on Facebook asking my friends and the followers of the church’s page to share with me some of the songs, sacred or secular that have been important to people and why. I also asked what songs we need to hear right now that speak to the challenges in our world at this time. It has been said that that “Whoever sings, prays twice.” I wanted to know what songs have been our prayers both for the words they say, the tune the carry, and the mood and memory they evoke.
Some of the answers weren’t too hard to understand. A friend that led worship at the annual family concert my family attends drew my attention back to a contemporary hymn we sung that week, “In an Age of Twisted Values,” a song that confesses and challenges our tendency to move towards greed, prejudice, fear and selfishness. It fit the theme of worship one night in Storm Lake, Iowa, and it continued to strike relevant chords for my friend, Katie, in the weeks that have followed. Another friend, Andrew, shared how the congregation where he worshiped sang, “We Shall Overcome,” a hymn “associated primarily with the Civil Rights Movement, [but] likely dates from the days of the slave trade, the notes in our hymnal tell us. It wasn’t a hymn originally selected for that Sunday morning, but was added into the worship service to add to the prayers of that congregation as the news of Michael Brown’s death was unfolding.
A commenter from our church community lifted up a song that was written soon after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. It’s been almost 13 years since that day, and still, the words of Alan Jackson’s song, “Where Were You” speak with honesty the grief of individuals and of a nation. “Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke /Risin' against that blue sky? / Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor / Or did you just sit down and cry?”
Music, again both sacred and secular, has been a part of the crises of every culture that I have learned about. From psalms of lament to slave songs, from chanted prayers at family altars to the rap song my friend heard playing on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri this week - - a song that calls it “a good day” because none of singers friends were killed that day. Music has always been a visceral way we human beings express emotions and pray our way through some of the most difficult times we experience. Music gives us the courage and permission to say things to each other, and even to God, that we otherwise would keep inside.
Popular culture and Hallmark card theology tells us that we’re supposed to find the good in even tragic situations. When comforting a friend who has lost a loved one we rush to find words that sound nice, “He’s in a better place. God needed another angel.” We try to smooth things over and sweeten the mood with saccharine sentiments. We’ve been trained to believe that our sadness, our confusion, and especially our anger is inappropriate, probably even unfaithful, but our actual biblical tradition tells us the exact opposite.
“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Before Jesus said these words on the cross they were sung as a lament in the psalms. (Psalm 22, Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)
“How long, O Lord?” Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13)
“Answer me when I call, O God of my right!” Psalm 4
“Give ear to my words, O Lord.” Psalm 5
“Why have you cast me off?” Psalm 43
“Rouse yourself, come to my help and see! Awake!” the psalmist cries to God who appears to be sleeping on the job. “Awake to punish all the nations who treacherously plot evil.”
It isn’t unfaithful to question God. It isn’t unfaithful to be angry. It isn’t unfaithful to yell and cry and beg God to do something about what is going on down here, in fact, I think it’s one of the most faithful things we can do! “Cast your burdens on the Lord,” our psalm said today. “Cast your burdens on the Lord, and God will sustain you.” We can cast our burdens, our sins, sure, our worries, our illness, our grief. But we can cast our anger, our exhaustion, our confusion, our righteous indignation that weighs us down, that troubles our spirits, that keeps us up at night crying “How long, O Lord?” because God is big enough to hold it all. God is gracious enough to carry it.
We may have been taught that complaining to God is unfaithful, but I want us to unlearn it because I actually think our psalms and songs of lament may be the most faithful songs we can sing. I think there is nothing more faithful than unbridled honesty before God. I think there is nothing more faithful than trusting that God cares enough to do something about the world in which we live. I think there is nothing more faithful than grief-filled lament poured out in prayer, in tears, in song, in desperate cries, because lament is a sign that we believe God has a different plan. Lament always carries with it a statement of faith, of confidence that God will act, that God will empower the people, that God will change the outcome of this broken and sinful world.
Friends, there are deep, deep pains all around us - - some close by as we watch friends and loved ones struggle in body, mind, and spirit, some in our culture as our prejudices are exposed, some across the world where brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted for their faith. There are deep, deep pains for all of us, and we can’t continue to stuff them inside, smooth them over, or turn a blind eye. The faithful thing to do is to bring these, too, along with our praise, in word, in thought, in song, in prayer to God, that with our honesty and our commitment as God’s children we might be a part of God’s promise to heal the world.
Photo by the Rev. Brian Merritt, Evangelist/Founder of Mercy Junction, a new PC(USA) ministry in Chattanooga, TN.
Roses line the route to a memorial in place for Michael Brown, shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014.