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Old Bridge Church

Psalm 88 - On Lament

Introduction:

Good Morning, my name is Kevin Phillips, and today marks the start of my third week among you as Executive Director.  I’m still not sure that I’ve got my feet under me yet, but we’re getting there.  <smiling> And I want to assure you that the topic of my sermon (lament) and this new position are in no way related.  I thank you all for welcoming me to the church family and ask you to continue to be patient with me as I work to learn names and faces.  <pause> I am filled with hope by the history and stories that I have heard in just a short time about how God is active and present here at Old Bridge Church.

Last week Mike Weaver mentioned that he had been told that in order to preach here you need a Hawaiian shirt and an iPad.  Well I also was only able to get one of those right because I have yet to find the charger for the iPad that I inherited with the office.  Pastor Burt, we miss you.

Some weeks ago Pastor Burton identified one of the reasons for inviting me to bring the message today was as a way of getting to better know me and each other.  I believe that there is something beautiful in that as preaching is in my opinion sacred space because it invites conversation with each other and with God.  So for me it also comes a bit of intimidation and perhaps a reverent fear.  The pulpit will always hold my respect as will those who stand in it.

On that note… will you pray with me? 

Prayer:

O God.  The words of the message that follows has been prayed and pondered over.  They have been written and wrestled with.  They have been thought over and typed, discussed and discerned.  And at every step along the way, you have been present. You have been explicitly invited and involved on that journey.  God I pray that now and throughout that entire process, your words and your voice will be heard above and in spite of my own that the conversations and the meditations of our hearts might be pleasing and acceptable to you.  Amen.

Sermon:

So the highlights of my resume include that I was in the Navy for 10 years, after getting out I worked for a few years doing contract based IT work with a handful of companies, then I went back to school and finished up a degree in psychology and recently completed seminary where I received a degree that’s called a Masters of Divinity.  I have to tell you that I don’t feel as if I’ve achieved mastery over much except perhaps some of my own demons.  In fact I had one professor who opened a class with the statement that “at the end of this course you won’t know all there is about [this subject], but instead you will be confused on a much higher level.”  I think that’s true of many seminary classes and those were definitely some of my favorites.

God has blessed me of late with great joy in this season of my life.  Presently, I’m engaged to the love of my life, Katie Webster, an associate pastor in Burke, and to three amazing girls ages 5,7, and 10.  Thank you for your prayers.  October 7th is our wedding day by the way and the girls have been, for months, choreographing a custom dance for our reception.  I have a pug that snores, snorts, and sneezes, is neurotic about playing ball.  I like to geek out with technology, tinker with projects around the house, occasionally I crochet to relax, unwind, and just for the joy of creating something.  Also the hats, scarves, or blankets make for great inexpensive Christmas gifts.  And although real men do crochet, I also offset that activity with something that is a little more in line with own view of masculinity by rebuilding an 86 GMC Sierra truck.  I’m currently in year 4 of that 6 mo. project.

Getting to know someone though extends beyond what can be summed up neatly into bullet points on a resume or in a brief list of hobbies and activities.  I’m also in the early stages of the ordination process in the UMC and one of the major focuses of the journey is in formulating and articulating your statement of call to ordained ministry.  Specifically, how has God gifted you to preach and teach and counsel and grow and guide others along that journey with Christ?  And this is kind of hard to put into words.  A brief summary of my call statement is on my resume.  And one line in particular reads “I experienced real loss and was in need of support and recovery from a series of situations that were devastating at the time. In the midst of that difficult season of my life, I learned what it means to feel the tangible presence of Jesus Christ.”

There’s a lot packed into that statement which includes growth and pain and loss and uncertainty and crying out and wrestling, and arguing and even being angry at God.  And one of the great comforts to me during this season of my life was finding my own voice of grief, echoed so profoundly in the bible.  Ecclesiasties, Jeremiah, Job, Elisha fleeing the wrath of Jezebel, The Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus weeping at Lazarus’s tomb, and crying out in his last moments “my god, forgive them for they know not what they are doing”.  The bible is filled with these voices and connections to the “dark” times of human experience and how faith is built, made stronger, and how God does not only reach down into those depths of life but through Jesus actually sits with and along side of us telling us that we are not alone in those times when we feel as if we are lost and afraid in the darkest of forests in the dead of night with no idea which direction may lead you out or deeper in. 

What I’m talking about is lament.  <pause> Specifically, I chose to speak on psalm 88 which is widely argued as the darkest psalm in the bible.  It ends on such a low note kind of like the Empire Strikes Back, arguably the best of the original Star Wards movies.  Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann once described this psalm as “…an embarrassment to conventional faith” Contextually he was arguing against the conventional “feel good” gospel style of preaching.  That is that faith and worship is all praise and alleluias.  And we sweep the low periods under the carpet.

My reason for focusing on this passage and topic is because in getting to know me and in articulating my own call to ministry, in describing how I most often connect with others in ministry, how the bible has become so much more than just some book of history and stories, in attempting to explain how my faith has grown and continues to grow closer to God, how it develops into something life giving and whose foundations are strengthened against the tides of chaos and the uncertainties of life, <pause> lament is part of that story and, lament is part of how I have authentically and genuinely come to understand God healing and salvation through a divine relationship of such importance that I would grab hold with both hands, hold on tight, and I pray… never let go.

To lament does not mean complaining or grumbling or just having a bad day.  Even the phrase “dark night of the soul” I feel falls a bit short of what it means to lament, because those circumstances that call for genuine lament last much longer than just one night.  The Hebrew words that are translated as the verb lamenting mean more literally “to wail”, “to mourn”, and “to grieve aloud”.  Despair and depression come close to this definition.  And a lament is a form of poetry or song that gives voice to this grief and mourning and wailing.  <pause>

Is anyone here a fan of country music?  <pause> Well to you in particular I apologize for this reference, but do you know what happens when you play country music backwards?  You get your dog back, you get your truck back, you get your house back, and you get your girl back…  Have you ever jammed out singing “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morrisett while driving in traffic?  Or sung along in the shower to “You’ve lost that lov’in feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers or Tom Cruise depending on your upbringing.

These are some modern examples of songs of lament.  And they very often connect with us in very special ways because they strum a particular chord on our heart strings and connect with our souls in particularly meaningful ways.  For a person or community in the ancient world who had suffered the sacking and destruction of their homes, the annihilation of their nation, the burning of the epicenter of their faith and religion, then being dragged off into Babylonian exile as slaves where it was uncertain whether God could even hear their prayers.  This psalm of lament really connects and gives voice to their cries of faith.  And it is faith that connects them in lament.

Did you know that our minds are wired to recall more vividly those sad or painful memories in our lives than those that are fun or pleasant?  I think this actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it since the events that we must learn and grow from so that we do not repeat them are those that are often painful.  <pause> I for one am very hard headed and I was definitely that kid who touched the hot pan on the stove after a stern warning from my parents not to do so.  Sometimes there was no other way to learn.  Many things in life though aren’t as cut and dry and the human experience of suffering is not spared on anyone.  Theologian Howard Thurman once wrote that “suffering is universal for mankind, there is no one who escapes [it]”.  And that most of human effort is dedicated to shielding themselves from the pain of suffering.  Now, absolutely it is pretty obvious when we look at the world that degrees of pain and suffering are not equal across the board.  Some experience pain more so than others and are born into circumstances that do not afford them the same opportunities to pursue life, liberty, and happiness as others.  I do not know why that is.  I can say however, and I don’t mean this in a trite or cliché way, but God is there with and beside us particularly in those times.  And a casual “it was God’s will” or “there is always a light at the end of the tunnel” can actually estrange someone in their relationship with God, when they are in the midst of dark times.

<slide> There was a popular video short by psychologist Brené Brown that made its rounds on social media a little over a year ago, about the difference between sympathy and empathy.  It asserted that “[sympathetically] painting a silver lining” around or trying to simply give a pep talk and cheer someone up who is in emotional pain actually, benefits primarily the person who is speaking over the person who is suffering.”

Pain, sorrow, grief, and suffering need room for expression, in order to move beyond it toward the hope and healing that can be found in Jesus Christ and the way of the cross.  But, we can not rush that process and even good Christian people suffer despair, regret, and guilt.  And though we know that we are not alone at those times, “Praise the Lord, O my soul; let all my inmost being, praise his holy name.” is not always the right psalm to sing at that time.  Empathy and compassion are about human connection, which is also why it is so easy to feel alone in a crowd when it is absent.

This is my own pet theory, and it’s based in part on some of my own experiences, but it is my belief that most people today and particularly in some of the younger generations most authentically connect with God in the depths of the valleys than on the mountain tops of life.  If that is true then trying to move them to the mountaintops of their faith journey too quickly can actually alienate them in their relationship with God who does, time and again reach down into the depths and meet us where we are and sit with us and walk with us along that path.  My intention is not to focus on the dark places in our lives, but rather to shine the light of Christ into those aspects of faith filled life that seem most bleak and absent from that light. 

<pause> So on that happy and pleasant note.  Let’s encounter and connect with the words of the psalmist in this lament.

Prayer for Help in Despondency

A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

O Lord, God of my salvation,
    when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
    incline your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
    I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
    like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
    for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
    I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
    from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
    my companions are darkness.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

<long pause>  You know when I was growing up, I recall being taught that in our prayers and conversations with God, we are to present our thanks and praise, and ask for blessings on behalf of others.  There was really no room set aside for complaint or even anger with God.  And maybe it was just absent from those discussions but what about when there is real stuff going on that we are dealing with and we need to cry out “why?!?” or “where are you?!?”  <pause> Think of some of the most meaningful friendships or relationships that you have in your life.  Do you only talk about the good stuff?  One of my best friends gave me a place to sleep for a while when the when the bottom fell out in my life.  But the real gift at that time was to listen and be present in a time when the world no longer made any sense.  The freedom to be yourself and engage in authentic conversation and counsel is the foundation of a strong relationship and connection.  Why then would we withhold that from our relationship with God? 

C.S. Lewis once wrote that “When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given to me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should [always and at every time] “praise” God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it”.  I would argue that praise of God includes genuine engagement, even lament, not a superficial placating or bargaining.

There is a lot of accusation in this Psalm, particularly leveled against God and there is plenty of bargaining.  The end that my companions are darkeness sound like a Simon and Garfunkle song.  “Hello darkness, my old friend I've come to talk with you again” another Psalm of lament.  <pause> You have caused this the psalmist says to God.  Ezekiel 10 tells the story of the glory of God’s presence on earth departing from the temple in Jerusalem before that city fell to the Babylonians and physically left the Israelites to their fate.  And I imagine that that was truly a day to wail and mourn and loose hope.  It is my belief that loss of hope and raging against it is endemic in the world and accounts for many of the evils that we find in it.

But our God is the god of hope and as Paul says in Romans 5:5 “Hope [in God] does not disappoint.”

My most formative Christian experience was when I felt, more than heard the comforting presence and voice of Jesus say to me “It’s okay, you are not alone.”  <pause> This happened in the lobby of a Hudson Valley New York state shelter where I had whole heartedly given up on hope.  My first marriage had imploded in a bad way, I was effectively homeless, relying on family for help, and had just learned that to be accepted into the shelter I would have to give up my dog Penny.  She is still with me by the way.  Things didn’t immediately get better then after that conversation of comfort.  In fact there was a lot of struggle afterward. …but I was not alone in it which made all the difference. 

The God of, Hope, Love, Grace, Mercy, Forgiveness, and compassion does not disappoint even when we’ve given up.

Perhaps a good high note of psalm 88 and this particular lament lies also in the scholarly belief that it’s neighbor psalm 89 is actually part of the same song, which was accidentally separated over the years because the original texts did not have chapters and verses and headings the way they appear in our modern translations.  <pause> Perhaps Psalm 88 stands alone as a psalm of drowning in the depths of darkness.  In that case then we can connect with the psalmist in his lament and with God on a more significant ways than perhaps praise cannot do at that time.  On the other hand, if it is true that 88 and 89 belong together, then this song is one of a journey through the depths of despair and then out again into the light of praise.  Instead of ending with “darkness is my companion” we close the psalm with after having journeyed through the shadows with “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen.”  And that reiterates that there is always hope in God.

 

I pray that these words have been spojen and delivered in the name of the Father, the Son, and through the Holy Spirit.  Amen

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