So your life is hard. Daily living is weighty. You tune into our worship service looking for hope. And we dig into Psalm 137? Yikes! (Can that be a proper liturgical response to a scripture—Yikes?!) This brief psalm is among the most shunned because it comes from the gut. You’ve heard of actors who are overlooked by the Academy? Well, the biblical scholars who put together the 3-year cycle of readings called the lectionary crossed to the other side of the street when they came across Psalm 137. The author is hateful and unhinged. His writing is an embarrassment to orderly believers who turn to God with polite prayers. The only other Psalm that is possibly more humiliating is Psalm 88. It starts as a rant and finishes as a rant with not a breath of fresh air in-between. Even though roughly one third of the psalms are considered lament psalms, the Church seldom taps into these emotionally heavy writings. Psalm 137, with talk of bashing infants to death, is in a special category all its own!
Richard Rohr defends this genre of Lament literature in the Bible: “One practice Christianity has developed to nurture resilience is lamentation. Prayers of lamentation arise in us when we sit and speak out to God and one another—stunned, sad, and silenced by the tragedy and absurdity of human events…Without this we do not suffer the necessary pain of this world, the necessary sadness of being human.” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation. March 15-21, 2020)
This past week we exceeded 1,000,000 diagnosed Corona virus cases in the U.S. Maybe a lament psalm is just what the doctor ordered? Rather than run to praise psalms that utter words of thanksgiving, it might be more authentic to cry out. Why plaster a fake smile on our faces when we’ve plumbed the depths of all our self-help books and none of them touches our pain?
Context matters so let’s take a moment to step into the world of this ugly step-daughter of a psalm. The Hebrew people were overtaken by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. They were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to their captor’s land hundreds of miles away. With each step of a deadly march toward Babylon, they locked their memories of the homeland into a safe mental space so they would never forget Jerusalem. The skilled workers and artisans were particularly desirable for the relocation project. Superpower Babylon wanted the talents of captive Jews to enhance their own cities. This psalm is sung after the exile is ended and recalls a specific moment of their 50-year long captivity. The Temple singers had carried with them for hundreds of grueling miles their harps or lyres. Imagine the enemy knocking down your front door and demanding that you leave NOW. You grab the things that mean the most to you and precious little can you carry. The temple musicians grabbed their instruments of praise! One afternoon, by the flowing river of their new land, the Captain-in-Charge asks the prisoners to take their lyres down from the tree branches where they had hung them, and to sing a little Jewish ditty. It is clearly meant to amuse the guards and they understand how painful a request that is for those who ache for their homeland. Remember the scene in “Sound of Music” when the Von Trapp family has to do an encore after winning the talent competition? Nazi soldiers wait in the hallways of the grand auditorium to take the father of the family to his new post with the German Reich. Georg chooses to sing a love song to his native Austria, knowing that he will have to leave her: Edelweiss. He is unable to get through it because the anguish of leaving a land, a people, a culture and freedom behind is more than he can bear. This is the kind of song the soldiers demand of the weary Jews. Jerusalem is more than just a place for them. It is where their God has lived among them. In remembering the moment, the author cries out, “How can we sing the song of the Lord while in a foreign land?”
There was then–and still is among Jews today–a passionate loyalty to their homeland. The writer invokes a sort of curse on himself if he ever forgets Jerusalem and does not place all other treasured aspects to his life as less than his love for the beloved city. He remembers how the Edomites, an enemy clan, had cheered on the Babylonian soldiers on the day of defeat. “…tear it down to its foundations” had a deeper meaning than simply destroying city walls (as if that weren’t enough!). They were urging these warriors who were known for their brutality to destroy the very order established by God for the chosen people. The author reminds God of the Edomites’ treachery hoping for divine retribution. It’s like one brother reminding his parents that the other brother didn’t do his chores. He wants to ensure that the parents evens up the score when he isn’t allowed to do it himself!
We discover in the scriptures that we are not the first to be frustrated with our “enemies.” C.S. Lewis points out that the first 11 verses of Psalm 143 invoke God’s presence with moving language of trust. But then the writer adds, almost as an afterthought in verse 12, “In your unfailing love silence my enemies, destroy all my foes, for I am your servant.” And remember the psalm we quote to new parents, exalting the miracle of this new life: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139) Lovely, right? A few verses down the writer switches gears and reminds God of the justice that needs doing: “If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!” What? I thought we were looking down adoringly at a newborn child? When did revenge creep into the room? The writer of the 137th psalm remembers the cruelty of his captors and cries out from the gut, “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you for what you have done to us—who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
Wow. The baby shower grinds to a halt. The guests disappear. Hatred is left spilled out on the table next to the untouched blue cake.
It is important to note that the Jews don’t act on these words. They are entrusting their God with the task of meting out justice. After they were hauled off to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah gave them strict orders to bring peace with them: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” Generations later a Jew named Jesus urged His followers to love their enemies. He called out forgiveness on those who handed Him over to be crucified. This cry from the gut for revenge in Psalm 137 entrusts God with the task of making things right while the believer strives for peace.
This is a psalm for the long haul, for the marathon of human suffering. It points to a resilient hope that is unwavering against all the facts. Walter Brueggemann calls this a psalm of disorientation, which should strike a chord with us in our present circumstances. He writes, “Faithful tenacity is our capacity to endure, to maintain identity, to embrace a calling in situations of sell-out.” He suggests that we must have an alternative vision in order to endure with sanity against despair. The displaced Jews would not forget their temple, even though it lay in ruins. It stood for their faith and their relationship with a loving God under which every other aspect to their life was lived. (The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary by Walter Brueggemann.)
A common theme I hear from our church family is that we miss each other. We yearn to meet in our sanctuary. Perhaps in this time of isolation, fear and dying we recognize that our place in Christ’s Church is our greatest joy? Perhaps, in the confines of our own homes or in hospitals hallways filled with breathless patients, we have had to examine our priorities and ask what stands in the way of honoring them? 100 years after the exile in Babylon, Governor Nehemiah weeps as he remembers the hardship of his people in captivity. What memory can still bring you to tears years later? Are those tears shed out of gratitude for God’s saving activity in that time of suffering? Or are we still crying out from the gut for revenge on our enemies? Are we wasting our lives plotting for ways to settle the score?
This is a strange crisis we confront today because our enemy is faceless. Certainly there are those who have tried desperately to hang blame on nations or leaders. But most of us realize that we are fighting against—and, for many, losing to—an invisible yet deadly virus. We can act out our frustration by naming enemies, like Don Quixote slashing his sword at windmills. Or we can let go of the blame game and become the people God would have us become. We can have a huge fight in the aisles of Walmart over a 6-pack of toilet paper but we will not be transfigured then into the new creation of God’s calling. We choose to move forward in our grief or stay stuck for a lifetime.
Martin Luther nearly lost his life, reshaping a Church that he understood to be corrupt. He described his fight in the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” One of the lines is his affirmation of faith in the face of death: “The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still.” We find our home today in the Protestant tradition because Luther did not shy away from threats of death. Clinging to his faith, he—and we– became a new creation. We are not an angry branch of the Christian family tree. We are people of conviction who protest wrongs out of a love for Christ.
So how can we pray using this rejected Psalm? We find in it a courageous perseverance in prayer. We are invited to leave behind the notion that our prayers must be polite. Instead we pray through our anger, frustration, and spite—against human or faceless enemies—and submit to God’s will. Our conversation with God intensifies and puts all other conversations in their respective places. Martin Marty identified the greatest challenge to mainline Christianity in his publication, Context. In 2009 he wrote: “The greatest challenge to mainline Christianity is not the loss of members or the fragmenting of generations into sociological interest groups whose needs require the gospel to be adjusted or fine-tuned. It is not the soul-withering processes that have asserted control of denominations and governing bodies that sap the life out of congregations and pastors. The challenge is simpler and deeper; it is the pearl of great price that rescues authentic faith and faithful discipleship from the dustbin of ecclesial history. It is prayer: prayer to the living God in the Spirit, prayer which is regular, disciplined, and communal. Upon such prayer hang the prayers of individual disciples and church members.”
100 years ago Hannah Whittal Smith wrote of a brief conversation in her book, The God of All Comfort: “I remember hearing of a Christian who was in great trouble, and who had tried every deliverance, but in vain, who said finally to another in a tone of the utmost despair, ‘Well, there is nothing left for me now but to trust the Lord.’ ‘Alas!’ exclaimed the friend in the greatest consternation, ‘is it possible it has come to that?’”
When your self-help library has failed you, is it only then that you remember to pray? Are you honest with God or do you keep it polite, as with a distant relative? How are you surviving the first pandemic in our lifetimes? Are you directing your anger at an enemy? Or are you yielding your control to the God who will be there for the long haul, anxious to hear from you and ready to re-form you? There’s new life for you, for me, for all of us, on the other side of this crisis. The outcome depends on how we fight the battle.