A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Earlier this week I was able to catch up on a fascinating documentary called simply The Work. It told the story of a programme that takes place inside the notorious Folsom Prison in California. Once a year over four days a group of men from the general population travel to the prison to take part in a course of group therapy with a group of inmates of the prison. Led by, in the main, ex-convicts the programme offers therapy not just for the prisoners, but for the men who go into the prison too. Many of the prisoners return year-after-year and, such is the effectiveness of the programme that the level of offending when prisoners are eventually released is very low compared to the general level of what is called recidivism.
The documentary focused in the main on three men who went into the prison. Three what you might call ‘Ordinary Joe’s’. Over the four days, sooner or later, each of them in different ways connected with deep and disturbing pain in their lives. Often supported, encouraged and challenged by the inmates, these three men got in touch with considerable amounts of psychological pain in their lives, often relating to their masculinity or their relationships with their fathers. Encouraged by the support and challenge of the group – often in quite confrontational ways – eventually for each of these three the defences of reserve and restraint were breached and they were able to express their pain, often forcefully with strong physical reaction and violent verbal outbursts. While for me watching it there was an inevitable British distrust of things Californian, you couldn’t but be impressed by the way in which both the men from the outside bonded with the inmates in a demanding journey into deep, strong and unacknowledged feelings. Gang members, former Nazi thugs, and the most violent offenders acted not only as participants but agents of healing. The programme was a moving and powerful testament to the need for men to find ways of dealing with their pain and the challenges that our culture presents to being able to speak of their deepest feelings.
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? cries the psalmist in Psalm 13, the first of a series of ‘psalms of disorientation’ that we will explore this week. Whatever else you can say about the person who first prayed this prayer, whether it was David or not, is that he was able to be honest with his God. That’s the thing that will strike you over the coming six days if you join us in worship. There is no sense of reserve. This person needs not encouragement to tell God how it is.
We find it much harder. We have become schooled and indoctrinated into comfortable and non-confrontational words addressed to our God. Like the three men in our documentary who had to do “The Work” in order to be able to connect with and express their deepest feelings about the pain they carried, we have to learn to do “The Work” in order to get anywhere close to expressing our deepest pain to God. Perhaps, as a result, the psychologists are right when they say that our unacknowledged or unaddressed inner pain and turmoil will find its way out in unhealthy ways, unhealthy relationships and unhealthy lifestyles if we don’t do this kind of work. Maybe, then, learning to pray like this psalmist does is in fact a way to a better, healthier relationship not just with God, but with ourselves and with others.
The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, whose book on the psalms is the text I and my colleagues are engaging with as we prepare these talks, says this about the presence of these psalms of disorientation in the Bible. “The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith.” He continues, “It is an act of bold faith because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand,” he goes on, “it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God.” What he is saying is that cries of anguish, pain, doubt and disbelief, when addressed to God are as authentic a prayer as anything we might say in praise, thanksgiving or faith. Nothing is off-limits in prayer and worship.
As we will see over the coming days, these experiences of disorientation lead to different expressions in these psalms. We will see psalms where an individual cries to God, and others where a community in trouble does the same; we will see psalms of the utmost despair and others where the anger and frustration boils over into cursing and demanding God destroys and enemy; and we will see psalms where the lament is turned inward into confession as, through pondering the reality of the experience, the psalmist recognises his own guilt in the midst of trouble.
You and I will know all of these things, to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps right now, when we all share this most dislocating experience of the pandemic and its lockdowns, is one of those moments in life where the need to appropriate and pray the psalms of disorientation is felt the most. We can connect with Psalm 13 verse 1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? Facing the hidden enemy of the virus and the associated emotional experiences of isolation, uncertainty and fear, we can pray “How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!” noting the exclamation point at the end. All this stuff is urgent: once we have put ourselves in touch with the darkness and difficulty of our lives – be it Covid-related, or whether it’s in relation to other experiences of suffering or hurt – we can, in God and like the visitors to Folsom Prison, let it out in all its messy incoherence.
And we can do that because, with God, it is safe to do so. Looking back at that documentary, the safeness of the space in which these men spoke out their pain was very obvious. The visitors to the prison we behind locked gates and barbed wire. Had it not been for the film cameras, it would have been an entirely hidden place to express their feelings. We, who can be assured – absolutely assured – of God’s never-ending love for us, who need not worry about offending God or causing God lasting damage – we are safe to say it as it is. In a world where we rightly worry about whether we can speak words of pain and vulnerability, where we wonder how others might react or how out deepest feelings will be treated, we have a God who can hear it all and who will not judge or spill the beans. As such, praying the psalms of lament and complaint give us the words we need to say what cannot be said elsewhere. To have faith means, in the end, to trust God, way beyond intellectual assent to God’s reality. The psalmist knows that God can be trusted with it all.
But, as the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed, in this Psalm 13 it all ends in a lot better than the place where it started, “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.” You may notice here the change of tense, from the present of “How long, O Lord?” to “But I trusted in your steadfast love.“ Time has passed and the crisis is over. In Psalm 13 lament turns to praise as the thing that brought the Psalmist to this moment is now found to have resolved itself. There are other psalms where that doesn’t happen, as we shall see. Yet, as we well know, crises tend to pass and, if we are wise, we often look back on them as moments of great significance, or even learning and revelation. We learn about ourselves, we learn that special things happen as we wait and struggle on. We can even look back and see the hand of God in the midst of something. Not that our relationships with others or God, or even ourselves, will be the same now. Something usually changes for us in these moments, and if we are wise we emerge as changed people. For this psalmist, and for many others, learning to trust God with our darkest and deepest experiences leads to a deeper sense of praise and faith in the end. We must avoid the triumphalism that denies that the problem that brought us to our knees was actually a problem, however. But we can know that most profound of Christian messages, the good news of resurrection. We may, like our Saviour at Easter, still bear the wounds of the battle; but we emerge, transformed, committed to a different and deeper way of living, where in all likeliness the struggle we have faced can, in God’s purpose, become the raw material of our service of God and others.
Learning to pray a psalm of disorientation like Psalm 13 is, in the end, an act of humility. Famously William Ernest Henley out of an experience of darkness wrote this, a poem that has found a new lease of life in our generation
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Such is not the experience of the Book of Psalms. Learning to lament acknowledges that we rely not on our own ability to fight through adversity, but that we are bound by the mystery of faith into a different relationship with struggle, one that links us completely by our baptism to Jesus Christ, who carries us through death to resurrection and never alone. As we journey through lockdown, or as we face the many other struggles within our own lives or face the ordinary challenges of negotiating life’s complexities, these psalms of disorientation are a gift to give voice to our feelings in the heat of the battle, and a reminder that, in the mercy and faithfulness of God, the we are held by his hand. 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.
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