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*petulant sigh*

Date: August 11, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Scripture: Psalm 13

Most of us Christians, I think, are a little bit too polite with God. I’m not sure just what that’s all about.

Maybe we’ve picked up some bit of wisdom somewhere along the line about there being great virtue in never complaining—and of course, we all get sort of tired of listening to someone who never has anything to say other than complaint. But does that mean that we don’t ever have anything legitimately worth complaining about?

Maybe some of us have had drilled into us the image of God as judgmental and vengeful, ready to send us off to perdition if we step one toe out of line. Of course you’d always want to be polite to a God like that; but is that truly what our God is like?

Or maybe, quite honestly, we believe that God is good and loving, and when tragedy strikes we have to figure out how those things can possibly fit together. But we silence our shouted whispers with platitudes like, “It was God’s will.” And we don’t allow ourselves truly to struggle with the questions.

“Why?”

“How could this possibly be what God wanted to have happen?”

We never allow ourselves to go down that path far enough that we might wonder if God truly is good, perhaps even become angry with God.

I never watched The West Wing during its regular network TV run; Mike got to watching it on Netflix when we subscribed last year, and I often sat and watched with him. If you were a regular viewer, you’ll remember the episode when President Bartlet’s longtime secretary, Mrs. Landingham, died. She had worked for the president’s father before working for him; she had been a friend to him when he was young, and was a trusted advisor to him through his entire career, all the way to the White House.

So, one day, Mrs. Landingham left work early; she was going to pick up her new car—first new, not new-to-her, car she had ever bought. And on her way home she was hit and killed by a drunk driver.

After the funeral at National Cathedral, President Bartlet asks his chief of staff to have the cathedral sealed. He wants to have a private moment, just him and God, no staff, no Secret Service, nobody but him and God.

Once the doors are closed, he starts his prayer. What do you think he said?

“Dear God, I thank you for Mrs. Landingham’s life; for her friendship and service for so many years; and ask that you care for her until we are one day reunited in your promised kingdom”?

Did he spout pious platitudes? “Dear God, I know this was your will; please help me to accept it”?

Nope.

He starts out, and you’ll have to pardon the language here, but it’s exactly what he said, “You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?” He calls God a “feckless thug.” He ends by indirectly calling God the devil: “You get horns.” [1]

Wait…you can talk to God like that?

As it turns out, you can. The West Wing didn’t end with that episode, with Jed Bartlet being incinerated by a lightning bolt for speaking so harshly to God, in a cathedral, no less.

One of my favorite books is Christy, Catherine Marshall’s fictionalized story of her mother’s experience teaching at a mission school in Appalachia. It was made into a TV series some years ago; but a network TV series can’t handle the true point of the story, which is Christy’s faith development.

She has been raised Christian, has gone to retreats at her Presbyterian Church’s beautiful campground, Montreat; but in the mountains she quickly found that her church had prepared her only for a genteel, urban life, among reasonably well-off, polite, nice-smelling people. She was not prepared for extreme poverty, feuding, superstition, and abuse, which were the reality of life for the mountain people. She wasn’t prepared for the death of her best friend there, Fairlight Spencer, at the very beginning of a typhoid epidemic that swept through the community.

Christy’s faith was not up to that.

Every morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise, Christy would go out to a secluded spot, and she would cry and rage at God. “Why? Why? I’ve got to know why!”

One day she had a conversation with the Quaker lady who oversaw the mission there in Cutter Gap, Miss Alice. Miss Alice, slipping into her Quaker way of speaking as she often did in tender moments, observed, “Thee is in agony.”

She gave Christy some advice. Take your Bible with you tomorrow morning. Read the Psalms. And Christy found that the Psalms that spoke to her most during that time weren’t the pretty songs of trust, like the 23rd and 121st Psalms. Instead, she found solace in the Laments.

She read Psalm 13, our reading for today, with its petulant beginning—since she likely was reading the King James Bible, she would have read it as “How long wilt thou forget me, LORD? for ever?” She read Psalm 22, the one Jesus is heard to quote from the cross, the one that begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” She came to realize that she wasn’t the first, nor would she be the last, to question and complain to God in the face of trouble and loss.

And from that realization came another: She wasn’t going to get an answer to her anguished “Why?” Instead, she received something even greater. Her revelation was that God is, that God is love; that God’s heart ached as hers did, God’s heart breaks when God’s people suffer, God is as anguished as anyone when humanity’s inability to be at peace with one another results in abuse or violence. [2]

There are more Laments in the Psalter than any other kind of Psalm. That alone tells us something about God, and about how we can speak and act before God.

The reality of life is that horrible things happen. There is still far too much hatred and violence in this world. There is still far too much sickness and untimely death in this world. And the normal human response is to complain about it. The normal human response is to cry out to God, to ask why, perhaps even to wonder if God has forgotten us—or worse, is punishing us.

But we Christians often think we can’t complain to God. If we think that, we need to go to the Psalms, just as Miss Alice told Christy to do.

The Psalter has been called the hymnbook of Second Temple Judaism. These were the songs and liturgies that worshipers at the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem would have sung and chanted and prayed—and there are more Laments than songs of trust, more laments than Wisdom psalms, more Laments than hymns and songs of praise of God’s greatness. And that means that worship in the Temple probably made space for God’s people to complain to God.

Psalm 13 is one of the shortest of the Laments, and so we are able to see clearly what the usual formula of a Lament is. The Psalmist starts out with what to me sounds like it should be prefaced with a petulant sigh.

“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?”

What’s really wonderful about the 13th Psalm, and many of the other Laments, is that they’re very nonspecific. We have no idea what the situation might have been that caused the Psalmist to lament like this. Was it illness, her own or that of someone she cared about? The pernicious effect of gossip? A senseless act of violence? We don’t know. And what that means is that we can make it our own prayer in a great variety of situations, no matter what we’re going through.

After the initial complaint, the Psalmist asks God for something: “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!” There are people who are taking great delight in the Psalmist’s suffering; they have enjoyed seeing him brought low. That’s human nature, I’m afraid. English doesn’t have a good word for it, so we borrowed one from German: schadenfreude. And it’s a sin.
The Psalmist knows she’s the butt of jokes and ridicule because of her trouble. He knows people are enjoying his misery. God doesn’t seem to be paying attention, so the Psalmist asks God to “answer me!”

There are more Laments than any other kind of Psalm. Many are individual Laments, and many are meant to give voice to the suffering of a whole community, a whole people. (We’ll see examples of that next week.)
This tells us that we need not be afraid to complain to God. God can take it. God isn’t ignoring us and hasn’t forgotten us…even though it sure feels like it sometimes.

And the typical formula of a Lament shows us something important about the value of complaining to God. Laments typically begin with complaint, then move to a petition—something the Psalmist needs from God.

The last two verses of our Psalm sound like they are composed not during the Psalmist’s suffering, but once that suffering is over and he is back on sure footing. But I don’t think so.

I think these last two verses indicate that, having given over her agony to God, the Psalmist has room in her heart for something else: hope.

[1] You can see the scene in this YouTube clip:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYcMk3AJKLk.  Since President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) alternates between English and Latin as he prays, this clip includes translations of the Latin.

[2] Catherine Marshall (LeSourd), Christy (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1967; paperback edition 1971), 430-434.