Between the Verses

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Psalm 6 NRSV

About one-third of the Psalms are called “Lament Psalms.” I love these Psalms for their sheer honesty. These Psalms are unashamedly real, straight up authentic. They speak to the reality of our pain, frailty, and failures. They also speak to the reality of the pain of our world: the plight of the poor; the despair of the displaced, the evil of war, the scourge of disease, and all kinds of injustices. And they speak of the reality of what sometimes seems like God’s apathy or even absence in this world.

Psalm 10 reads:

1 Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—

7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;

8 They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding-places they murder the innocent.
Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9   they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

Walter Brueggemann says that the Lament Psalms “break the force of denial” teaching us that the truth of our pain must be told. They teach us the importance of declaring out loud that things are bad. Things in our lives are bad. Things in this world are bad. And even things about our relationship with God are bad. The Psalms teach us to honestly say out loud that when it comes to God, even on our best days, we have our doubts.

However, that is not our tendency. Is it? We have this notion that any amount of crying, complaining, protesting or “lamenting” means that our faith is weak. And to ever doubt God, well, that is simply out of the question!

To be a positive witness to the world to the saving acts of our God, we believe we should always wear a victorious guise. Thus, this morning, there are churches everywhere full of smiling, happy, clappy Christians casually dressed singing simple, repetitive songs devoid of any semblance of reality. And there are churches full of serious, somber Christians in suits and dresses, preachers robed with stoles, monotonously singing the old hymns of faith without any real concern for the suffering of others.

Christians everywhere have a tendency to retreat into sanctuaries and cling to denial, ignoring the suffering of this world. We cover it up with a smile or hide it with our Sunday best. We deceive ourselves by pretending that with our faith everything is good, everything is working; when in fact, everything is far from good, and nothing is actually working. Confession of sin, acknowledgement of pain, and doubting God is something that is done sparingly and always privately, if it is even done at all.

However, the Lament Psalms move us in the opposite direction. They persuade us to not only tell it like it is, but to publically tell it like it is to God.

And these Psalms teach us it this kind of honesty, this kind of truth-telling, that is the only way we can experience new life and salvation.

Those of us who have read the stories of Jesus should not be that surprised. For whenever Jesus encounters people in need whether it is blind people, poor people, or in the case of Jarius’ daughter and Lazarus, dead people, it is always the needy person, or the family of the dead person who summon Jesus to come into their life or into their house. It is always the one who is in great need, the one who is suffering or grieving who takes the initiative to invoke the help of Jesus.

When Bartimaues, the blind beggar, hears that Jesus is passing by, he cries out, over and over, until Jesus hears his lament, a lament that sounds much like a Psalm: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” It is then, and only then, after the man honestly cries out in need to Jesus, publically voices his desire to change, that Jesus stops and heals him.

Psalm 32 speaks clearly about the power of our honest cries. The Psalmist writes: “While I kept silence,” in other words, while I was in denial, while I was pretending to be a happy, clappy person of faith or a stoic, serious religious person, “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” In other words, when I pretended everything was working, that all was good, my body wasted away.

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not hide my iniquity.” I stopped playing religious games, stopped pretending, stopped faking my faith, stopped trying to appear like I had it all together with my fine wool suit and silk tie, or with my long robe and stole. “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” (and guess what happened next!), and you came, “and you forgave the guilt of my sin,” the guilt that was eating my life away. “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you,” fully, sincerely, honestly.

Thus, Psalm 6 is one of my favorite Psalms. For here the Psalmist honestly pours out his heart before God like none other.

1 O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
3 My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lord—how long?
4 Turn, O Lord, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who can give you praise?
6 I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
7 My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes.

Here the Psalmist tells the truth, the whole truth, to God. There is no holding back, no masking the pain, no masquerading behind a Bible and a hymn book, no pretending to be strong because others will think he is weak. There is no denial. This Psalmist takes the initiative, goes to God, and keeps it very real. And notice what happens next. Look at what happens somewhere between verses seven and eight.

Somewhere between seven and eight, God shows up. New life, inexplicable, yet certain, comes. Easter happens. Pentecost arrives. Blessed assurance, amazing grace, and a peace beyond all understanding are received. Thus in verse eight, the Psalmist confidently continues:

8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
9 The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.

Now, we do not know what exactly happened between verse seven and eight. We just know that something happened and that something was God. Somewhere, somehow, someway, God breathed on the Psalmist new life, inexplicable, yet certain. God came, and God resurrected, restored, and revived. When the Psalmist was honest saying “this is not working,” “this is bad,” God came and worked all things together for good.

Somewhere, somehow, someway between verses seven and eight God showed up. Perhaps through a still small voice. Perhaps through a quiet warmth that mysteriously erased the terror from his bones and soul.

Or perhaps through love expressed by a friend. Perhaps God came through a visit from a concerned neighbor. Perhaps someone cooked supper and brought it over, or simply offered a listening ear or an empathetic embrace. We just know that somewhere between verses seven and eight, God, in some inexplicable yet certain way, came.

I see this all the time in the church. People come to me and tell me that their life is over. Nothing is working. There is no way.  Some are grieving a loss: either a job loss, a lost opportunity or the loss of a loved one. Some are just sick and tired of being sick and tired. They come to me honestly, pouring themselves out. In their life, it is verse 7, and they are languishing.

Then a short time later, I see them again. And suddenly, it is verse 8. They tell me that life has never been better. How losing that job was the very best thing that happened to them. That although they still grieve over the loss of their loved one, God not only brought them great comfort and peace, but God has made them a stronger, better person. They say that although they thought their life was over, they realize that a new life is only just beginning. There is now a way when there was no way.

The good news is that this is how our God loves to work in the world. It is the very nature of God. However, as the Psalters remind us, when we are languishing, if we ever want to experience what is between verses seven and eight, it is up to us to take the initiative. It is up to us to come honestly before God, confess our sins, confess our brokenness, confess our weakness, confess our need of God. It is up to us to tell God the whole truth. And then I promise you, somewhere there between verses seven and eight, God will inexplicably, yet certainly show up.

And as people of faith, when verse 8 comes, I believe God continually calls us to go back to live in between the verses. God calls us to service somewhere in between verses seven and eight keeping our minds and our hearts open to the cries, to the pain, and to the needs of others.

And who knows, even today, you may be that inexplicable, yet certain something that happens for someone living between seven and eight! It may be through preparing a meal, sending a card, making a phone call or making a visit, or by just being present to listen to someone’s cries. God is calling each of us, every person in this room, and God is counting on us to be there for others between the verses, so all of God’s children can get to the verses where they are able to confidently sing:

“The Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication. The Lord accepts my prayer.”  “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” Amen.

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How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Mark 1:1-8 NRSV

There is a Grinch lurking and working in our world seeking to steal Christmas. This Grinch is alive and real and every bit as mean and vile as that outcast of Whoville whose soul was an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of rubbish imaginable mangled up in tangled up knots. This Grinch can be found in every city, in every town, and in every rural community throughout our land. However, this Grinch is not among the usual suspects of the annually accused.

This Grinch is not Political Correctness. This Grinch is not the liberal sales clerk at Target greeting people on Christmas Eve with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” After all, wouldn’t the God who humbly came down to be born in the unpretentiousness of a stable want us to show a little humility to a devout Jew on that holy night, which, this year, also happens to be the last night of Chanukah?

Nor do I believe this Grinch is Secularism. Santa Claus, tiny little elves, flying reindeer, Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman are a magical, wonderful part of this season that makes the eyes of children aglow. Again, I cannot imagine the Christ, Christmas Himself, calling things that bring such joy to children anything but holy and sacred.

But what about the Grinches of Consumerism, Greed and Materialism? What about the Grinch of Black Friday which is now taking over Thursday? What about the monsters of big business forcing people like my nineteen year-old son to work on Thanksgiving, preventing him from sharing a meal with his grandparents? Surely their hearts’ are nothing more than empty holes. Their brains are full of spiders, and they’ve got garlic in their souls.

They are certainly Grinchy, but as Grinchy as capitalism can be, I believe there is even a greater Grinch in our midst today, a Grinch even more nauseating and foul. There is a more crooked Grinch lurking and working in our world threatening to keep Christmas from coming.

To prepare the world for Christmas, for the coming of Christ into the world, John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We are told that people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him to be baptized, confessing their sins.

John the Baptizer was proclaiming a baptism of repentance. The Greek word translated repent, literally means to think differently, to see things differently. It means to see the world, ourselves, and God differently. John was proclaiming the good news of Christmas. He was trying to get the people to understand and to see that God is not far away from us but is very much with us. God is not against us, but is very much for us, and God is more alive and more at work in this world than we can sometimes believe. The message of Christmas can be summed up in two beloved verses of scripture:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17 NRSV).

And when people heard this message, they came from all over and did something that is a very difficult thing to do if you think God is against you, or you see that all of your sin and mess have separated you from God. They came from all over confessing their sins.

They came just as they were. They came openly, honestly, and transparently. They came freely, fearlessly and audaciously laying bare their imperfect souls before John, others and God. They came knowing that they would not be judged. They came seeing that they would not be condemned. They came with a new understanding that they would be accepted, a new vision that they would be forgiven. They came to be immersed in the unconditional love of God, to be enveloped by the unreserved grace of God. They came in the same spirit that lowly, sinful, shepherds came to kneel and worship before the manger. They came to the muddy banks of the Jordan River to join hands with fellow sinners and celebrate the good news of Christmas.

And ever since that Christmas was celebrated on that day through the honest confession of sin, there have been Grinches in every time in every land determined to stop it.

How does the Grinch steal Christmas? By simply deterring the confession of sins. By inhibiting such open honesty by proclaiming a message that is the exact opposite of the Christmas message.

The Christmas message is: “For God so loved the world…”

“God doesn’t love this world,” says the Grinch with a sour Grinchy frown. “God despises this world. Thus God wants people to separate themselves from this world, retreat into safe sanctuaries with the pure who don’t sin to smugly wait to one day escape to glory with kith and kin.”

“…that he gave his only Son…” says Christmas.

“God didn’t really give his Son,” the old Grinchy Claus hisses. “If God gave his Son, that would infer that salvation is free, no strings attached, no restrictions at all. “Surely,” says the Grinch “God wants people to earn this gift with right lifestyles, right beliefs, and right deeds after all.”

Christmas says: “…so that everyone who believes may not perish but have eternal life…”

The Grinch thinks up a lie and thinks it up quick: “Well, not everyone. Not the entitled. Not the undeserving. Not those who drink, party and cuss. God only helps and gives eternity to those who are willing to help themselves, those who think, look, believe and worship like us.”

The Christmas message is: “…God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…”

“Of course God did,” the Grinch counters with a smile most unpleasant, “And God wants us to look down our noses and judge others as if they smell, point our fingers at their sins and preach about Hell.”

“….but in order that the world might be saved through him,” says Christmas.

“Not saved but destroyed,” the Grinch laughs in his throat. “Haven’t you heard of Armageddon, the Apocalypse and the Judgment Day? Why else would there be hurricanes, earthquakes, and so much AIDS and Ebola today?”

John, the one preparing the world for Christmas reveals that Christmas begins with the confessing of sin, and infers that if any Grinch wants to steal Christmas, if any Grinch wants to keep Christmas from coming, they need to merely discourage such confession.

So who is this Grinch that wants to steal Christmas?

Why, just ask yourself: Where is the one place in the world where the confession of sin is most difficult? In a bar with a total stranger? At a coffee shop with a close friend?  In the work place with a co-worker? No, sadly, it can be right here, right now, in this place that claims to proclaim the true reason for the season, in this place that claims to prepare the hearts of all to receive Christmas. The place that claims to be the most Grinchless place in the world, if we are not careful, can sometimes the most Grinchy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote about this Grinch:

Pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal their sin from themselves and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.[i]

And Quaker Theologian Richard Foster made the following observation about this Grinch:

Confession is so difficult a discipline for us partly because we view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We come to feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We could not bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. . . . But if we know that the people of God are first a fellowship of sinners we are freed to hear the unconditional call of God’s love and to confess our need openly before our brothers and sisters. We know that we are not alone in our sin. The fear and pride which cling to us like barnacles cling to others also. In acts of mutual confession we release the power that heals. Our humanity is no longer denied but transformed.[ii]

I have often said that of any place on this fragmented planet, the church should be a place where all people are welcomed to join a community of grace, love and forgiveness. Without fear of being judged, condemned and ridiculed, all people should feel welcomed to come as they are and honestly and openly confess their sinfulness and brokenness. And receive grace. Receive love. Receive salvation.[iii] Receive Christmas.

So, whenever the church creates an environment that prohibits honesty, openness, and transparency; encourages people to be fake, conceal their pain, pretend to be good, upright and holy, their lives devoid of any real sin, mess or gunk; well, the three words that best describe it are as follows, and I quote, “Stink, stank, stunk.”

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 1939.

[ii] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 1978

[iii] Jarrett Banks, Issues of Homosexuality and the Church