Staying Alive

The people at the Crafton Heights church have been spending this Lent listening to the words of scripture – in particular, the scriptures set to music in the context of Handel’s Messiah.  Many of these ideas are explored in great depth in the excellent Kerygma resource, Hallelujah: The Bible and Handel’s Messiah.  On March 19, our scripture text was The 22nd Psalm.  

 

I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about the power of music in your life. How does what you hear shape who you are, what you feel, and how you look at things? I would suggest that for most of us, there are some songs that mean so much to us that when we hear even a snippet of them, we are reminded of something that is much larger, much more important than the few bars of music we encounter.

And, at the risk of losing you for the entire sermon, I’d like to show you what I mean.  Click here and listen to the song…  It’s OK.  I’ll wait…

If you know and like these movies, I bet that right now you are aware of the truth that there are no odds that are insurmountable; you know that you have to stay strong even in defeat; and that you can push yourself – you are reminded of these things simply because you heard a couple of lines of music.

Let’s try it again.  Try this one…

Again, some of you are transported to a place where things are not always as they seem, and where innocence matters, and where self-sacrificial love is the most powerful force in the universe… And the rest of you? You’re just Muggles, that’s all. Nothing to be ashamed of.

We could go on, but you know where I’m heading… I can tell a lot about you simply by looking at your playlists or seeing your music collection.

Why does this matter today?

Because we are in the season of Lent – a time of reflection, repentance, and preparation that leads us to Holy Week, where we commemorate the suffering, death, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus. And as we approach that week, we do well to note that both Matthew and Mark go out of their way to tell us that Jesus was thinking about a particular song when he died. In fact, each of these Gospels indicates that the last intelligible thing Jesus uttered prior to his death was “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani”. Those words form the Aramaic translation of the beginning of Psalm 22, which you heard (in English) a few moments ago.

It was customary in Jesus’ time, as in our own, to use a few phrases from a song or scripture text to bring the entire passage to mind. Because Jesus died singing Psalm 22, we often look at that scripture and say, “Wow – that song really is all about Jesus: it talks about his death, and his rejection, and the ways that his clothes were divided…”

And when we do that, it’s unfortunate because if we make Psalm 22 some sort of a magic incantation that predicts specific details of Jesus’ life and death a thousand years into the future, we will lose sight of some important truths in both the Psalm and in Jesus’ life.

Psalm 22 is not about Jesus. Jesus was about Psalm 22. The fact that this prayer, this song, was present to him as he endured such torment and that he chose to make that song present to those who waited with and watched him die makes that song important to us this Lent as well.

Christ in Gethsemane, Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist – more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Like many other Psalms, this particular scripture is a song of lament. There is a structure. For instance, if you remember anything about poetry, you’ll remember that a Haiku consists of seventeen syllables arranged in lines of five, seven, and five. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem traditionally written in iambic pentameter. The structure of these poems informs the meaning, and vice-versa.

A typical lament has five parts: there is an invocation, a complaint, a statement of trust, a request for God to act, and a brief expression of praise. When you sing a lament, you are right to expect these things in this order.

Psalm 22 is remarkable among the Psalms of lament because there is really no overt expression of trust in God’s power or presence in the moment. The psalmist, going through one of the most difficult times of his life, knows all of the “right answers” that he learned in Sunday school… but he was still afraid that maybe God was not paying attention to him, or worse –that God didn’t want to pay attention to him. He knows that others have trusted God; he knows that he should trust God, but he finds that such trust is exceedingly difficult to come by at this moment.

Crucifixion (2008) by Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Could that have been why Jesus was thinking about these words as he hung on the cross? Could it be that maybe he was having a very, very difficult time trusting his Father to see this thing through to completion?

Or was it perhaps that he brought this Psalm to mind for the sake of those whom he loved who were watching him die? In raising this particular lament, was he acknowledging to them that faith and trust and hope are sometimes incredibly difficult to come by?

Do you ever feel that way? You want to trust, you want to believe, but WOW is it hard on some days… If I’m right about some of this, then your struggles to always have faith don’t necessarily take you away from Jesus – they may make you more like Jesus.

The other thing that is remarkable about Psalm 22 as a song of lament is the fact that the praise and thanksgiving section is five or ten times longer than in most of the other Psalms of lamentation.

Moreover, the praises here are not limited only to the singer. This Psalm begins with a deeply personal cry for help but it ends with the declaration that praise is due God from not only all of Israel, but those from every nation, and the ends of the earth, and even those who have already died or who are yet to be born.

What starts off as an individual’s heartfelt cry of pain and isolation (“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”) is somehow transformed in the life of the Psalmist to a song of praise that stretches not only across the entire globe but through eternity as well. In mentioning the dead who will praise God, this Psalm offers us a quick glimpse of resurrection hope.

Could it be that Jesus, in calling this psalm to mind at the moment of his own greatest anguish and pain, held out hope to himself and for his followers that pain, suffering, darkness, and crucifixion are not all that there is? Could it be that as he hung on the cross he needed to know – and he needed us to know – that there is more to the song – but we can only experience that “more” after we come through the suffering or the isolation or the grief?

Many churches, including Crafton Heights, have adopted the practice of “burying the alleluias” during Lent. You may have noticed that we’re not singing, say, “All Creatures of Our God and King”, or any other song that includes the word “Alleluia”. “Alleluia”, of course, is an expression of praise or thanksgiving that is the Hebrew word meaning “praise God”. For many Christians, the word is a spontaneous expression of joy or thanks because of some great blessing that has been received. Churches often “hide” the Alleluia during Lent as a means of saying that there are times of great joy and there are times when our greatest hopes are realized, but there are also times when those things seem so far away. During our Lenten time of reflection and repentance, we practice a “fast” from the Alleluias not because they are not true, but because it’s not time for them right now…

Each of us, at some point in our lives, walks through a season of darkness and pain. We know the horror of betrayal or the anguish of a bad prognosis or the sapping power of doubt and uncertainty… and when we experience these things, the last thing in the world we want to see is some chipper, happy-clappy friend come bounding into the room telling us to get over it, to “turn that frown upside down”, to get busy or distracted and just feel better, gosh darn it…

In each of our lives, there are times when it is all we can do to simply sit in the dark and experience the grief or the shock or the pain. Often, during those times, it’s better if a friend is there to sit with us – not because that person is able to take away the grief or the shock or the pain, but somehow their presence validates our experience of it and offers some sort of mute testimony to the fact that this, too, can be endured.

Psalm 22 is a cry from a dark and painful place that somehow points to a deep hope that, while even though it appears to be hidden or buried, has always been there and will always be there.

Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I mentioned on Wednesday night that a number of years ago I had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem with my daughter. One of the most moving experiences came to me in a place of which I’d never heard: The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. Most of the church is dedicated to the memory of Peter’s denial of Jesus (“gallicantu” means “cock’s crowing” in Latin). The church was built on what is believed to have been the site of the High Priest’s palace. I found it to be a fascinating place…

The upper levels were interesting enough, but it was the basement that got me.  Down below was a dungeon that dated from the first century.  The signs were clear: We have no way of knowing this, but since this dungeon is fairly close to what was the High Priests’ residence at the time of Jesus, there’s a chance that this is where Jesus, and later the Apostles, would have been imprisoned by the authorities.  In a very subdued manner, the signs explained the way that the dungeon was laid out.  And there, at the darkest, lowest, point of the dungeon was a simple stand with the text of Psalm 88 – like Psalm 22, a Psalm of complaint and lament.

Lower Level, St. Peter Gallicantu

In the dungeon, St. Peter in Gallicantu.

 

The basement of St. Peter’s in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I’d been to the so-called “Upper Room”; I’d visited the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane; and I’d seen at least two places that claimed to be the empty tomb of the resurrection, but I am here to tell you that it was not until I cried out to God in weakness, in darkness, and in isolation did I have some sense that those deep and hidden places are not the end of the story.

Jesus wanted us to sing the song of despair because he knows that the despair is real and true and has power in our lives. It was thus for the Psalmist in 1000 BC. It was brought to life by Jesus on the day that he died. And I suspect that it is true for you, too – at least some of the time. And on those days when it feels as though the pain will overwhelm you and when the alleluias seem buried forever, then please, beloved know this:

It’s ok to be there.

It’s ok to wonder where God is and how things work.

But know this, too: that the song is not over. You have heard the song – but only a part of it. Lent is not forever. Remember that nothing that is buried – not Jesus, not alleluias, not your or me – nothing stays buried forever.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

The Sting of Death

or much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 12, we sat with him as he lamented the deaths of Saul and Jonathan singing “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1 (included below).   Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in II Corinthians 4:7-12

 

When we left off last week, Achish and his Philistine army were preparing to attack the Israelites and King Saul, while David and his men had been sent home to their place in Philistia, Ziklag. You might remember that David and his militia discover that the place had been ransacked and all of their relatives kidnapped, and David cried out for help from God. I Samuel ends with an account of David’s pursuit of the Amalekite raiders and the story of how families were reunited and David’s reputation was continuing to increase.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

There is, however, a dramatic development recorded at both the end of I Samuel and the beginning of II Samuel: we learn the outcome of the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites. A young man shows up in Ziklag carrying the crown and the royal bracelet: proof that King Saul of Israel is dead. This messenger is eager to demonstrate his loyalty to David, and even goes so far as to say that when he first encountered Saul, the king had been gravely wounded, but was still alive; at the king’s request, the young man ended Saul’s life.

When he first hears the news, David is overcome with grief and emotion. He weeps and fasts, as do the other members in his community.

The next day, he calls the messenger and asks for the story to be repeated. After the young man runs through it, David has him executed.

This is the same David who chose not to kill Saul when he had the chance, even though for years Saul had been trying to kill him… the same David who chose not to kill Nabal, even when Nabal had treated him with contempt. David has shown restraint… until someone dares to raise a hand to the Lord’s anointed. Now he orders the execution of this man who celebrates the death of the one who God had called.

And then, David sings. The song that he writes and performs is called “The Song of the Bow”, and it is a public statement of grief on the occasion of the deaths of Saul and his son, Jonathan. Not only does David compose and sing this tune, he also commands that the entire nation learn it. Listen to “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1:17-27:

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.

How the mighty have fallen!

“Tell it not in Gath,

proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,

"The Song of the Bow", Marc Chagall (1967).

“The Song of the Bow”, Marc Chagall (1967).

lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,

lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

“Mountains of Gilboa,

may you have neither dew nor rain,

may no showers fall on your terraced fields.

For there the shield of the mighty was despised,

the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

“From the blood of the slain,

from the flesh of the mighty,

the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,

the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.

Saul and Jonathan—

in life they were loved and admired,

and in death they were not parted.

They were swifter than eagles,

they were stronger than lions.

“Daughters of Israel,

weep for Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet and finery,

who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!

Jonathan lies slain on your heights.

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;

you were very dear to me.

Your love for me was wonderful,

more wonderful than that of women.

“How the mighty have fallen!

The weapons of war have perished!”

This is a remarkable example of a public lamentation over the intrusiveness of death in our lives. This morning, I’d like us to take a long look at what David is doing in composing and teaching this song to the people of God.

He names what has been lost. Four times in those eleven verses he mentions Saul by name; three times he mentions Jonathan. David, whose very name means “beloved of God”, cries out at the loss of the one he names “beloved”. He laments not just the death of his friend and his surrogate father, but the loss of any number of possible futures. This is a tremendous outpouring of grief not just from an individual, but from and on behalf of a nation.

Have you ever known this kind of grief? I, who probably spend more time with dead and dying people than most of you, have been surprised by it several times. Most dramatically, I remember a trip I was pleased to take through the nation of Egypt. We saw a lot of old things – and, by implication, a lot of death. Tombs and pyramids and catacombs…all kinds of death.

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

But one day we visited the military museum and cemetery at El Alamein. This battle was the culmination of a series of conflicts that were fought across Northern Africa for the second half of 1942.  It was a decisive event for the Allies as it denied Hitler and Mussolini access to the Suez Canal. The thing that took my breath away was row upon row of headstones – each with a name and an age.  Boys who came from Auckland, New Zealand, or Pretoria, South Africa, or Cardiff in Wales or Calcutta, India, or Ontario, Canada…and died at 21 or 23 or 32 in the deserts of North Africa.  There were so many graves… J. V. Griffiths, J. W. McNeely, A. F. Martin, J. Alastair Seabrook, and too many “soldiers known but to God.”

I wept on that day. I wept for these young men, and their families, and the sweethearts or children they may have left… and I wept because we are still building war cemeteries. And here is the truth: I was embarrassed by my tears. In fact, I made the rest of my group wait out in the parking lot because I didn’t want to get in the vehicle while I was crying.

That’s what we do, we Americans. Especially we male Americans. We deny the reality of death. We hold it in. We hide it from ourselves and each other. We refuse to make our grief public, and we don’t know how to enter into someone else’s sadness. Even those of us who claim faith, who talk of eternity and the promise we’ve been given… we don’t know what to say and so we flee death.

death800x800There’s an ancient fable from Iraq that teaches us about the inevitability of death and our fear of it. It seems as though a certain man asked his most trusted servant to go to the market in Bagdad and buy only the finest of food and wine to share with his friends. The servant set out for this task, but returned home in a matter of moments, looking very alarmed and frightened.

“Master, just now in the market I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Please – let me take your horse so I can get away from here. I’ll go to hide at my cousin’s home in Samarra and Death won’t find me there.”

The master thought that was a fine plan, and so sent the servant off on his horse. Later, he went into Bagdad himself, and saw Death at the market. Angrily, he went over and said, “Why did you make such a threatening gesture to my servant?”

Death said, “I didn’t threaten him at all – I was merely surprised to see him here in Bagdad. After all, I have an appointment to meet him in Samarra tonight.”

Grieving Man - Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Grieving Man – Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Don’t we know how that servant felt? Aren’t so many of us unwilling to consider any kind of death, whether it’s our own or someone else’s or some other form of loss or decay?

We avoid pain at all costs, don’t we? There’s an ache, a strain, a sadness, a sting… and we want to take a pill, have a drink, get a shot – anything in order to numb ourselves and avoid the suffering of the moment.

So much of the time, we can’t even acknowledge the impact of the loss, the horror, or the grief that shows up in our lives. Think of all the times we are tempted to gloss over or make light of significant pain and real loss, simply because we don’t know what to say or how to acknowledge the intrusiveness of death or suffering.

A friend’s divorce is finalized… and we say, “OK, wow! Glad that’s over… now, tiger, it’s time to get back out there and make yourself happy!”

That young woman down the street suffers through the death of her child through miscarriage or infant death… and we say, “Hey, that’s too bad… but at least you’re young, and you’ll have another…I have two friends who’ve been given ‘rainbow’ babies…”

The soldier comes back from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he has seen and done the unspeakable (often in our name)… and we pat him on the back, give him a free meal at Applebee’s on Veteran’s Day, and fly really big flags at the Super Bowl…

Your mother, sister, husband, or son dies, and four days after the funeral, people look at you and say, “Hey, how’s it going, huh? Things coming back to normal, I bet?”

No. No, it’s not normal. None of these things is normal, and none of them are easily dismissed. Please, for the love of God, don’t pretend that this kind of loss or death is insignificant.

Here is the truth, beloved: our pretending that we’re going to live forever and that death can’t touch us and that there’s no loss that is deeply interruptive… well, that kind of charade is simply killing us.

isolationThe United States of America is by many measures the most highly developed, materially-blessed, economically advanced places in the world. And yet every year, 3.5% of American adults are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 9% of Americans will suffer from that at some point in their lives.

In the rest of the world, those numbers are between .5% and 1%.[1]

How can this be? Why are we experiencing this kind of anxiety disorder at a rate that is seven to ten times higher than the rest of the world? Are we dying more? Do we face more trauma than do people in other countries?

That’s hard to imagine. By and large, I would suggest that we do not suffer the ways that many in the rest of the world do. So what’s happening?

Could it be that we are victims of our own propensity to deny the reality of pain and death? When grief finds its way into our lives, we shove it deep inside. We hide it. We make it our own – our private possession, deeply personal. We hang onto it, but we are unable to share it, and so it becomes in some ways like Gollum’s ring – it twists and contorts us, and us alone, driving us further from community, further from reality. The ultimate result is that 40 million Americans now meet the clinical criteria for addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs, and a staggering 80 million more are termed “risky substance abusers”.[2] More than 30% of adults in the United States suffer from some form of depression – the second-highest rate in the world.[3]

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

And in contrast to all of this come the words of II Samuel and II Corinthians. Each of our texts for today speak of the importance of naming the reality of the fragility of our lives, of claiming grief as a public reality, of identifying the intrusiveness of loss in our lives, and of trusting God to see us through even when our own vision is failing us.

I know that worshiping together and seeking to act in a way that emphasizes the community we share are not cures for depression or addiction or PTSD.

But I would suggest that learning how to lament – how to come together and name the grief that affects us all at one time or another – is one way of seeking to prevent those afflictions in our lives and communities. We speak to the frustrations and rejections and devastations that we have experienced, and together we neither gloss over the losses we’ve suffered nor allow them to become the things that define us. You are not “the kid whose father died” or “the lady that lost her son” or “the man whose wife left him,” but those things did happen and surely cost you something. They are there, but they are not all that is there. There is more to it than that.

We are, all of us, mortal. And we all, each of us, have an appointment with death (mortis).[4] We dare not deny the power or sting of death – but God forbid that we insist that’s all there is. The gesture of lamentation in community – of sharing grief and loss – helps us to see the bigger picture that God is writing through history, and how our own stories are wrapped up in the bigger drama of God’s working in the world. Each of our losses and all of our pain is in many ways ours alone, but it is ours to share in the presence and gift of community – a community that reminds us of hope and life and healing. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder

[2] http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/policy-dose/2015/06/01/america-is-neglecting-its-addiction-problem

[3] http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/statistics-infographic

[4] Thanks to Eugene Peterson (Leap Over A Wall, HarperCollins 1997) for this bit of insight!