Previously in Union Presbyterian worship:
last week the Rev. Pat Raube emphasized one fact about the psalms.
She said, “Psalms are songs.”
And her sermon centered on a contemporary song, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”
Today, we take another step into the Book of Psalms,
and point out this truth about that collection of songs: they are not always “happy.”
Because they (the psalms) are so darned human, and we darned humans are not always happy.
Sometimes we are scared. Disappointed. Angry. Hurt. Forsaken.
And if we aren’t, we feel as if we are. And the psalms reflect so honestly our feelings.
The recorded song which opened our worship this morning
may not have been written as a prayer, but it is psalm-like.
The Biblical psalms do ask questions: how long? why? who will help me?
And there, in that song “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” is a prayerful question
that comes from a deep place in two hearts shared by two identical bodies conjoined.
Like a fish plucked from the ocean
Tossed into a foreign stream
Always knew that I was different
Often fled into a dream
I ignored the raging current
Right against the tide I swam
But I floated with the question
Who will love me as I am?
---lyricist Bill Russell, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?”, from “Side Show”
Some of you know that my cousin’s daughter Erin Davie
co-starred in a recent revival on Broadway of “Side Show.”
The musical was based loosely on the true stories of conjoined twins
Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were, in their day, considered freaks.
Abused and exploited in their early years, they find themselves making a living
(if one can call it that) in a side show, performing with other “freaks of nature.”
a bearded lady, dog-boy, a three-legged man, a half-man-half-woman, reptile man…
all brought into the tent for our amusement.
On Broadway, the Side Show focuses on the twins,
but we understand the humanity of all the characters,
and their desire to be seen and accepted as persons,
as different as they may be from the rest of us.
Thus, the question sung by Violet and Daisy: Who Will Love Me As I Am?
The show got rave reviews, and the audiences stood and cheered as the curtain came down.
But the audiences were too small, and the financial realities of Broadway led to a short run.
I figured that theater-goers preferred to see TV and movie stars on stage,
and Side Show had no “big names.”
But another theory comes to mind: who wants to see a show about freaks and losers?
About people who wonder who will love them, or even just accept them as they are?
I wonder if on some level the characters in the show hit a little too close to home?
don’t we all have those moments in our lives when we feel so, well, different…
unacceptable, maybe even odd, or at least marching to that slightly different drumbeat?
Ask a gay pro-football player. Or, Caitlyn Jenner.
Or, that person at the family table whose politics are so foreign to everyone else’s.
It hurts to be so different.
To not be invited back.
To be scorned.
If you’ll promise not to tell anyone, I’ll confess that as a young teenager
I was bullied by two guys who stood a block from here and laughed at my appearance.
I was skinny, gawky, and looked like the character from Disney’s Sleepy Hollow cartoon.
That’s what those guys called me when I passed them: here comes Ichabod!
So, I avoided passing them, my bully radar on high alert.
Add some acne, a changing voice…yeah, I didn’t like being 12 or 13 at all.
Thankfully, though, I was part of a family that loved me as I was.
But not everyone has that gift.
I recalled my own teenage years a couple of decades later
when I interviewed a young singer who took her name from a train
that stopped in her hometown of Hoboken, NJ : Phoebe Snow.
She had a big hit record called “Poetry Man” when I taped an interview for radio.
When she learned that I had a lot of young listeners, she said,
“I want them to hear this part of my story.”
When she was in high school, she was an outcast. “I had the “cooties,” she told me.
“I had thick glasses, my hair was frizzy, and I was shaped like a giant pear.”
Things were so bad for her that between classes, she’d run into the girls’ rest room,
and hide in a stall until just before the bell rang.
Then she’d run to her next class, all to avoid the abusive taunts of her classmates.
“And now,” she said, “I have the number four record in the country,
and those same people are paying big bucks to see me in concert in Hoboken
hoping that I’m going to recognize ‘em.
Yeah, I’m going to recognize them all right…”
Who will love us as we are? Before we get famous.
Who will love me…not just accept me, not just tolerate me, but LOVE me as I am?
Mr. Rogers? Sure.
Billy Joel? “Just the Way You Are.” Sure.
But what about the people who know me?
My dark moods. My sins. My failures.
Maybe we can identify with Anne Lamott who wrote of her life some years back.
I was 32, with three published books, and the huge local love of my family and life-long friends. I was loved out of all sense of proportion.
I gave talks and readings that hundreds of people came to.
I had won a Guggenheim Fellowship, although, like many fabulous writers,
I was drunk as a skunk every day.
I was penniless and bulimic, but adorable, and cherished.
But there was one tiny problem. I was dying.
Oh, also, my soul was rotted out from mental illness and physical abuse. …
I couldn't imagine there was a way out of all that sickness and self-will,
all those lies and secrets…
Just imagine the prayers she must have said, or the psalm she must have sung.
Anyone struggling with addiction or dependency or abuse must wonder:
God, where in the world are you? Are you even there? How long will you hide from me?
Who will love me as I am, and not as I only appear to be?
Anne Lamott’s writings will flesh out her story
but for now it is enough to know
that, as she says, “…but God always makes a way out of No Way.
…Then I blinked, and today is my 29th recovery birthday...
Don't give up on yourself.
In recovery, we never EVER give up on anyone, no matter what it looks like,
no matter how long it takes.
Because Grace bats last.
That spiritual WD-40, those water wings, that second wind--it bats last.
That is my promise to you.
…Don't. Give. Up.”
Because there IS someone who loves you are you are,
as broken, unfaithful, un-beautiful, fragile, despairing, alone, and/or angry as you are.
It’s just that sometimes, we have to holler at God to get God’s attention.
We may have to be not-so-nice in our prayers, not so diplomatic.
Go ahead; all of us freaks, victims, loners, the forgotten and the forlorn,
it’s OK to get God’s attention by crying out, even lashing out.
We know it’s OK, because the Psalmist did it!
It’s in the Bible!
+ + +
Last week: psalms are songs.
This week: psalms are prayers.
Brutally honest prayers.
Because if we cannot be honest with God…well, what’s the use?
God knows what’s going on before we even put our thoughts and feelings into words.
So, when we put our thoughts and feelings into words,
because it’s good for us, we may as well be honest, right?
Why hold anything back?
Our prayer speech must be completely open and direct,
for the God to whom we address our every prayer is, after all,
the “Lord of human experience and partner with us in it.” (Brueggemann)
One would think that if we can be so very open and truthful with a best friend…
well, there’s God.
There’s no use pretending that we must be careful in our approach to God,
that we must hold back our deepest thoughts,
choose our words cautiously, frame our feelings delicately.
No, we may as well follow the lead of the psalmist and, as we said back in “the day,”
let it all hang out.
Today’s psalm is such a good example of honest prayer.
It begins with all the niceties that one might expect in our corporate worship
where we begin with praise, sing hymns of joyful adoration,
look and listen for light and hope and promise and peace.
We’ve heard the opening words read and sung, and here’s another take,
from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase:
Your love, God, is my song, and I’ll sing it!
I’m forever telling everyone how faithful you are.
I’ll never quit telling the story of your love—
how you built the cosmos
and guaranteed everything in it.
Your love has always been our lives’ foundation,
your fidelity has been the roof over our world.
Yes, hire a praise band and get ready to tap your feet!
My jazz/pastor friend Bill Carter has suggested that if a church needs a praise band
to accompany the psalms, we need another group of musicians to make the ensemble complete:
a Lament Band!
…Because this book of honest and forthright prayers is full of the dark side…
complaint and protest, lamentation and grumbling.
The verbal version of fist shaking and breast beating.
…Because this psalm takes an odd turn.
While one verse has the praise band happily playing the music to accompany these words:
you’ve been so good to us, Lord, we’re walking on air…
the later verses turn ugly.
We ask the guitar and drums to leave the loft,
and on comes the cello, the bowed bass, the sad flute…
as the psalmist sings plaintively these charges against God:
you’ve spurned and rejected… renounced and defiled…
you’ve turned your back on your David, your own, your anointed one, our best hope.
The community cries out, hurling blame, expressing confusion that verges on outrage,
holding nothing back…”You’ve renounced your covenant?! What were you thinking, Lord?”
“How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”
“Where is your steadfast love that we once knew?”
Maybe “lament band” isn’t quite right here?
It should be the Complaint Band! Don’t bow that bass; slam those strings!
[Here’s an interesting note: many psalms are nothing but praise.
Like the 100th or the 146th, or the 150th.
And many are just the opposite, full of lament, like the 88th.
Many that begin with lament, take a turn at some point and end in praise.
But this one begins with praise and ends with complaint, somewhat against the template.
Just thought I’d point that out.]
Now, truth be told, traditionally the Church hasn’t had much time for the darker psalms.
Don’t we want folks to leave church happy, more hope-filled,
enthusiastic about living the faith and shining the Light?
But at the same time, we cannot be in denial that
we all have times in our lives and in our weeks that we feel the silence of God,
the fear that God is disinterested in our pain, our fears, a broken relationship,
a frightening diagnosis.
And we come into church and everyone else seems to be dancing in the Spirit,
hands waving in the air, and singing “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee.”
Isn’t there a time in our lives when we come to church wondering if we are loved,
really and truly loved?
When we feel apart, instead of a part of? When we’re just plain mad at God?
Because if God is in control, and by definition…(you know)…
and if this is God’s idea of how things should be, well, then, this mess is Guess-Who’s fault!
If you think it now and then, go ahead and express it in your song of complaint;
you wouldn’t be the first one!
And, God, being God, can take it!
That story Peg read from the Gospels?
The father of a suffering, demon-possessed boy comes to Jesus,
and asks for healing for his son.
I’ll bet for years, that father had prayed and prayed for God’s intervention.
We can only imagine what his psalm sounded like.
But, now Grace is up to bat.
And not just that once.
And at the end of that little vignette from a day in the life of Jesus,
there is that foretaste of the end of the life of Jesus.
And we who know the rest of the story recall Jesus on the cross
singing his complaint, a line from a psalm he had been taught in temple school,
“Oh, God, why have you forsaken me?”
In his ministry, he didn’t want anyone to feel forsaken.
Little kids disrespected even by Jesus’ disciples;
the short guy in the tree;
the blind beggar on the roadside; the lame and crippled ones;
the hemorrhaging woman, all those outcasts,
the holier-than-thou-and-everyone-else; they all sing their laments!
Who will love me, they cried out…and Jesus said, in words and parables
and sermons and rant and touching actions: I will and I do.
Sometimes, life is so good we want to sing and dance; but life has its turns, just like that psalm when promises seem broken, hope is extinguished, peace has flown the dove’s coop,
and even Bobby McFerrin sings, right now I do worry and I can’t be happy.
When that happens, and it will, when it does,
maybe the best we can do is rail against God as did the Psalmist,
utter our complaints, raise a clenched fist in prayer,
kick the dirt at the Cosmic Umpire’s feet (oh, I’ll dance all right!)…
but then take a deep, deep breath…hold it (not too long, mind you)
and then, close your lament with the last words of this odd and counter Psalm:
Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen and amen.
After all that rejoicing at the start of Psalm 89, and then the long complaining lament
about being forgotten, forsaken, about God’s seeming unfaithfulness…
somehow, at the very end, kind of tacked on,
as if there’s still that little spark of hope that persists,
one closing uplifting chord in that symphony of lament,
or one kilobyte among the megabytes of complaint…
OK, Lord, you’ve heard me out and I know I’m loved as I am,
so, yeah, may you be blessed forever.
So be it.
So be it.