In recent years I have come to lean more on the Psalms than any other part of the Bible. In my early years of ministry I read the Gospels for inspiration and direction, in particular Luke’s Gospel with its message of liberation and solidarity with the most vulnerable in our midst. But over time I found I needed to be in a more conversational mode with God, that prayer expressed in a verbal and “back and forth” manner helped me reach God, connect to God’s intent and provide necessary wisdom for my life and my work.
I have shared before that my favorite book on the Psalms is Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms. Brueggemann divides the 150 Psalms into Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation and New Orientation. Orientation Psalms express the state of gratitude we feel when things are well with our soul, personally and collectively. Psalms of Disorientation come when our world falls apart, when the centre no longer holds and what we once believed for certain no longer seems to apply. And the New Orientation Psalms express that transformation from trauma and loss to new understanding, new certainty, and a new way to see God’s presence and thus hope and life is restored.
Brueggemann laments the shift in Christian expressions of prayers and connection with God that has occurred, particularly in more recent times. In parts of the world like ours that are relatively stable, secure and prosperous we tend to see our blessings as a sign of God’s favour and express our relationship in terms of thanksgiving. Forgetting grace is love received unconditionally we make arrangements with God that make a conscious or unconscious bargain that IF we do and say certain things God will bless us. The bargain or covenant seems to have worked well for us so we tend to share positive expressions of thanksgiving for all we have received and will receive.
Brueggemann is concerned with what happens to Christians and Christian communities when tragedy strikes and the bottom falls out from beneath us. If our relationship with God has solely been defined by pious thanksgiving and careful good works how do we make sense of disappointment, failure, abuse, pain, loss and our own shortcomings? When others let us down, when we let ourselves down, when God does not seem to be there for us, what do we say, how do we react, where do we go?
In the Jewish tradition, expressed in texts like the Psalms and Jeremiah, there is a more robust conversational approach to God. The language of the Psalms can be downright confrontational, the Psalmist can get angry with God, blame God, resent God’s action or inaction, and demand answers. I can’t tell you the number of times parishioners have come to me to express guilt and shame because they had been angry with God. When I showed them the Psalms or even Jeremiah they were shocked, they had no idea such faithful people and sacred texts included this kind of rough language. I remember one person looking me in the eye and saying, “How come we have never heard a sermon like that?”
Psalm 86 includes some very straight talk with God. There is petition, words like “incline”, “preserve”, “turn” and “show”. This does not sound like pious talk to me! There is a complaint here. The Message translation reads God, “These bullies have reared their heads! A gang of thugs is after me—and they don’t care a thing about you.” In other words, people are coming after me, God. Where have you been?! Where indeed. Yet in the heated words comes a realization, a sense of presence, a kind of epiphany, “You have helped me and comforted me”. Further, the Psalmist sees God’s hand in the attentiveness to the poor, needy and the desperate, and thus a sense of God’s work in the collective, not just me. There is a sense that my own complaint with God may be informed by the experiences of others, what they have seen and felt, and that sometimes moving out of my own conversation with God and into the conversations of others with God we gain some understanding and wisdom.
Jeremiah the prophet understood this process of conversation as well. As Fred Craddock, the well-known preacher and scripture scholar says of Jeremiah, “like other Israelite faithful, knew that no thought or emotion was forbidden in prayer.” Jeremiah left nothing out in his expression of frustration and discontent with God. He was called to preach in an age when people would not listen. Jeremiah was a very sensitive man. We might say he had a rather thin skin. He loved people and would agonize over their hard hearts. He did not take criticism well. He would frequently express how his heart was torn because those he loved most, turned against him – even laughing at him. When love is great, often grief is also great. Sometimes he is known as the weeping prophet.
What we know of Jeremiah’s prophetic message is that he denounced false worship. Israel was surrounded by powerful nations and thus sought to worship like them. They even sacrificed their children in the fire (Jeremiah 7:31). Jeremiah could not keep silent. He pointed to this place of false worship and called it the Valley of Slaughter. And so Jeremiah is despondent, on the edge of despair. Jeremiah was frustrated and angry, “Deceive me and I am deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed” (Jeremiah 20:7). Jeremiah vents. His emotions erupted as a volcano. “I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. (20:7b,8).” But eventually, through this conversation Jeremiah could not help but speak of the warmth of the good news. He speaks of a great deliverance. “He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked” (20:13b). He applied this to himself.
What I like so much about this text, this conversation between Jeremiah and God, is that in words, the back and forth, Jeremiah begins to understand something very profound. Life is fragile, short, and often filled with struggle. The joy we receive is not status or wealth or reprieve from challenges. Everyone is faced with these, sinner and saint, all of us die and all of us hurt. Period. But those of us who find our purpose, our voice, our path with God, we have the joy of being part of God’s work, God’s covenant, God’s peace. Often in our frustration and anger with God we are led to this epiphany. “Why God do I suffer despite all my good works?” “Why God do I not succeed more despite all my faith in you?” “Why God are things not working out as I want, why are people not listening, why is the world still a mess?” And in this honest and open conversation comes wisdom, that being with God, in God and of God, is what bring us joy, what makes the vocation, even with its hardships, worthwhile and life-giving.
But we don’t get there without the grievance, without the honesty, without the real conversation. Piety works when all is well. But when things go south we need to follow a different path, one as described in the Psalms and practiced by Jeremiah. Thanks be to God for this Holy Conversation, this Holy Path and this sacred life. Amen.