May 3, 2020
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Two weeks ago, Erika Lloyd’s excellent sermon called us to radical honesty. Psalm 38 gives us a template for radical honesty. It’s a psalm of lament.
Before we get to Lament, though, radical honesty calls for a word of gratitude. Thank you for praying for me and my family (Kolya and Sage) before I went to Nepal. When you prayed for us, you gave us each a stole. I’m wearing it now.
And when I arrived in Nepal, I was met with another welcoming stole at the airport…which is a Nepali tradition. I was sent well and was met well! …A kind of hand off from the Americans praying for me to the Nepalis who were.
There is a Nepali saying “The Guest is God.” Nepalis practice a profound hospitality. I am so thankful for going to Nepal on a medical mission with the Acupuncture Relief Project. The three weeks in Nepal were three of the very best weeks of my life…profound and heart opening. An astonishing Model of primary health care.
And for those who are interested, please stay on zoom after worship today. I have about a 15-minute presentation on the trip I’ll share with anyone who is interested, with time for questions and answers afterwards.
I was to have been in Nepal for 2 ½ months, that is, before COVID 19 ushered us all into the Great Unknowing. Just as Maryland schools were closing, so also international borders were closing, whole countries were going on lockdown, airports were closing and my Nepali medical clinic closed, too. We treat patients in a group setting, so the risk of infection to our patients was too great to remain open. Brokenhearted to leave my patients, I came home.
Years ago, I saw a large poster for workplace grievances. In big letters, it said “Please list full details of your complaint below.” And it had a tiny box. It’s like when you ask someone sincerely how they’re doing and they dismissively say, “I can’t complain. Who would listen anyway?” Complaint believes just that – that no one wants to listen.
That’s why I love lament! Because lament affirms relationship. Lament means someone is listening. Seekers recognizes this Easter season with the theme “witnesses to hope.” Lament is a witness to hope!
The difference between lament and mere complaint is that Lament affirms the relationship and expects to be truly heard. When we cannot praise, we can still Lament. We can weep our tears when we do not have yet have words to say. We can pour out our hearts or spill our guts…and we can dare speaking until we find what we have to say. Often as we speak, we then discover what’s really happening in us, and among us. Instead of that tiny little box, lament psalms leave a great big box for us to fill in. Laments speak in large terms, generalities if you will. In the generality, it invites our specificity to name and to claim our own specific experience, in our own voice, which matters. Lament is a way of owning and honoring our own heartbreak.
Sometimes in life we are overwhelmed. Tears may come readily and often. Or we may go numb. Overwhelm happens when an experience is larger than we have the capacity to take in … yet. We can be overwhelmed by an experience that doesn’t make sense to us. We can be puzzled by something we don’t understand…with a kind of gentle curiosity, for instance, of what makes the flowers come to bloom in the spring. But there’s a difference between something that exceeds our comprehension, like a flower, and something that thwarts our comprehension. The thwarting of meaning might be a good definition of evil. A dive into pop culture for a moment, might help us understand how meaning is thwarted…and how Lament can be an antidote.
In the Dark Knight Rises film, actor Heath Ledger plays the Joker. Asked how he got his scars, the Joker gives different stories. We don’t know which story is true, or if any of them are true. He’s an unreliable narrator. The Joker gives no clear motivations for his dastardly acts. Batman, and the audience, doesn’t understand the motivation. The Joker deliberately thwarts meaning.
There’s even a term in rhetoric for the sowing of doubt: aporia. Biblically, sowing doubt is the serpent’s strategy in Genesis “Did God really say…” Politically, sowing doubt is the strategy called gaslighting, making a person question their own reality. The most terrible “jokes” (which aren’t really jokes) sow not merely doubts but sows the possibility that there is no meaning. Sowing chaos, the Joker expects people will turn against one another. Alfred, Batman’s butler, suggests why an evildoer acts as he does:
because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
In the pandemic, we’ve seen both heroism and villainy from leaders. We’ve seen courage, sober frank speech and foresight as well as stupidity, cowardice, denials of facts, graft and greed. Crisis outs a person. Or, even more, crisis outs how whole systems serve some and methodically exclude many, many others. Some practice sadism: the exercise of cruelty for its own sake. However, crisis also creates the opportunity for great mutual cooperation and generosity.
When chaos is sown deliberately, when meaning is thwarted, Lament helps. In the very real disorientation, where we are being changed in ways we don’t fully realize yet, Lament helps. Rather than being reduced to speechlessness, Lament dares speech. Lament begins to recreate a cosmos out of the chaos. Lament begins to name what is happening. Lament is rhythmic speech, patterned speech, a kind of ritual. Rather like the defiant Italians on their balconies taking out their musical instruments and making beauty for all to hear. Or the cadences of Maya Angelou speaking the blues in a poem.
Let’s take a breath.
Ruach, Hebrew for Spirit, also means breath. Lament restores room to breathe. Lament expands that little box of complaint into the big box of free expression. Lament give shape and voice and meaning to our distress. Lament psalms have important elements. And when Lament speaks, it dares to ask for help. Again and again and again, Lament asks for help. That’s petition. And it calls on God by name. Lament also
- Tells God all about it, naming distress, laying it on the line.
- confesses trust and praises God.
- Searches for meaning
In the search for meaning, Lament does 3 things
- Looks for a culprit
- Affirms the I
- Allows suffering to speak
Looking for a culprit, Psalm 38 fishes for 3 solutions, as if it’s not sure if any of one of the fully fits. Psalm 38 says:
It’s your fault God, it’s my fault; it’s their fault.
- It’s God’s fault: your arrows have sunk into me, says the psalm
- It’s my fault: because of my foolishness, says the psalm
- It’s their fault: Those who seek my life lay their snares; says the psalm.
It’s my fault.
Ah, the demon of self-blame.
Sometimes there are natural consequences to our actions. For instance, we don’t fill up the gas tank, and we run out of gas. But now, in the pandemic, the mass loss of employment and even of lives is far more than individual fault. And for those religious folks who want to say that illness inevitably is a consequence of sinning, the book of Job is an extending argument against that view. Jesus himself demonstrated healing for those who were ill not due to their own sin or their parent’s sin.
We experience pain personally, so it makes sense to wonder if it’s our own fault. Maybe personalizing it is a way of grasping for a sense of control. If I caused the problem, then maybe I can fix it?
I fear all too many of us are prone to a kind of self harm in the loneliness of this moment. If we feel this distress of self-blame, all the more important to reach out to a church friend, or a counselor to get help. We need not suffer alone!
In humility, though, the Lament looks beyond oneself to God.
It’s God’s fault
Disease is not the will of God. Seekers has been looking at names of God. And here in Exodus journey, in the basic story of the Hebrew people, is an essential naming of God “I am …your Healer.” And as for God sending plagues…well God also sent plenty of doctors and public health officials whose warnings about pandemic went unheeded and are still not being heeded. Human decisions, generations of savage inequalities and terrible policies supercharges COVID 19’s virulence in communities oppressed by racism, disinvestment, food impoverishment…and the list goes on. There’s an opportunity here for a local and global reckoning for how we’re living on the planet. To live toward the Healing God would have for us.
It’s their fault
Sometimes we have real enemies.And sometimes we have projections…naming a person, or a group or even a whole nation as enemies. Scapegoating is a danger. However, with the dereliction of duty we see happening politically, lament can be very helpful in naming precisely what decisions are enemies of human flourishing. More on naming enemies this later in the sermon.
And the Lament Psalm affirms the I
Psalm 38 speaks “I, me or my” more than 20 times. Against the overwhelming forces that threaten to make us feel invisible and voiceless, the psalmist shows up and speaks. In all the genres available in the ancient world, lament does not resort to myth: where gods and monsters or fates or destines hold sway over humans. Lament does not resort to magic: trying to bend the world in the shape of human designs. Rather lament speaks with the dignity of the personal.
And this is what is going on. With me. Lament affirms: I matter, and so do you. And in all the world, my voice matters to God and is heard. So, Lament is a witness to hope, personally. I am heard. I need not be voiceless in my disorientation. Voicing gives shapes to my need…and I matter.
Lament allows suffering to speak
Someone noted that when the I moves to we, the word illness becomes wellness. We become a “we” as we hear one another. Theologian Dorothea Solle notes three movements in suffering (in her book Suffering): From isolation to communication to action (in-solidarity).
My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbors stand far off.
In isolation, we tend to remain in our own disorientation. In isolation, we might speak to no one. But in communication, patterns can be recognized. “You feel this? I feel this too!” (As an acupuncturist, we’re always looking for patterns of harmony as well as distress.) For example: “You can’t get the Maryland unemployment claim website to work? It’s not just you—me neither!” And from that communication we can act together.
I’ve sensed a new language of outrage is necessary to name the depredations and failures and the willingness to let some places and peoples be “sacrifice” zones or people. To give voice in order to name what we see and feel begins to forge the solidarity to act for reparative justice.
Where could Lament lead us?
Earlier we noted the naming of enemies. If based real observation and not mere scapegoating, the naming can deepen community and care. Lament is the basis of community organizing. That’s why the very last word we hear in Psalm 38 is God the “Liberator”. Were Seekers and all churches to profoundly engage their communities from here forward, to listen for and name explicitly the wrongs suffered, to discern patterns and work for their redress, we could take steps to liberation. As Cynthia was saying earlier this morning of the gathering with N street. Naming the anger is part of lament. It’s a foundation in organizing for justice. Everyone well served by the status quo is now threatened, because this great a de-stabilization creates the possibility of reorganizing for profound change. Moving toward liberation is possible, if we really listen, and act and do not go back to sleep.
Where could Lament lead us?
Lament could lead us each to write our very own personal psalm of Lament, with Psalm 38 as a model. If we were in a school of Christian living class, we could look at the Psalm structure in detail with its rhythms, cadences and naming of need. We could use Psalm 38 as an example to name our own lament and trust. For lament to lead us, it begins with daring our own personal radical honesty: to cry my own tears and to speak with my own voice. And to find the names and images for God in which I can trust.
For me, I have been overwhelmed. Going to Nepal compelled me to face a number of fears for months before going and while there. And for all of my well-honed coping mechanisms and defense strategies and preference for appearing in control, I was overwhelmed. I discovered I need at night to end my day, as I go to bed, to entrust all my worries and cares to God, my sustainer.
Although my parents are no longer living, I found myself yearning for them as I have not in years. And wishing I could still crawl up in their laps and be comforted. I am so surprised, as a grown man, that wanting comfort like a small child is so alive in me. And with my parents no longer here, to whom may I go?
I realized anew my utter vulnerability and need for God. And at times, I do feel an embrace I can only claim as divine. Now and then, it comes: the Embrace. And Jesus talked about becoming like a little child. While today childhood may be romanticized for its innocence, Biblical scholars remind that, in Jesus’ time, childhood was characterized by extreme powerlessness and vulnerability.
For me, Lament has served this function…to keep me turning to God with my naked need. So, Lament becomes a form of homecoming. Because Lament is both I and we, it keeps me connected in prayer to my Nepali community: the 10,000 people of my Valley who will not have access to the medical care we provided for many months yet to come.Part of the reason why spiritual reports in Church of the Savior, and the many times of open prayer in Seeker worship matter, they give the dignity of our lament as well as our rejoicing.
Lament is a kind of rhythmic singing of the blues, to begin the journey home. For me, for us. Lament is its own kind of devotion and witness to hope. The dignity and daring of our lament matters.
Don’t desert me too!
My God, don’t be far away from me!
Hurry and help me,
our Sovereign, our Liberator!
- from Krishna Das, beginning at 1 minute 45 seconds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulsg0w7MwIU
- Sung at https://stpaulandstandrew.org/ in New York City
Acupuncture Relief Project
Quotation on Preventative Medicine / Public Health
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee,
“Far more potently than any miracle medicine, relatively uncelebrated shifts in civic arrangements–better nutrition, housing, and sanitation, improved sewage systems and ventilation–had driven TB mortality down in Europe and America. Polio and smallpox had also dwindles as a result of vaccinations. Cains wrote, “The death rates from malaria, cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, scurvy, pellagra, and other scourges of the past have dwindled in the US because humankind has learned how to prevent these diseases…. To put most of the effort into treatment is to deny all precedent.”