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“…to curse at times”

28 May

lamentations(a sermon for May 26, 2013, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Lamentations 1:1-6, 3:19-26)

I’d arrived at the church a little bit early for the funeral that day, but I was not alone; the son of the man for whom we were having the service met me at the door.  As we went inside, we talked small talk: about each other’s families, the weather and so on.  Eventually, we spoke about the upcoming service, and about his father; and it was all very upbeat, actually.  In fact, as we spoke, I was struck that our conversation seemed somehow more appropriate to a dinner party than to the moments before a funeral.  But of course, that’s what we do sometimes; that’s the thing about funerals, and grieving in general: everyone handles these situations each in their own way.

Finally, at one point, I said to him, “You really seem to be holding up well, considering.”   And that’s when he became very quiet and looked me square in the eyes for the longest time.  “Well, it’s a struggle,” he said finally. “The truth is, my heart is broken.  My father’s gone, and it’s horrible.”   Tears had begun to well up in his eyes, but trying hard to choke them back, he went on, “But what’s worse is what I’m feeling, mostly, is MAD.

“I’m angry,” he said, “angry at Dad for dying, angry at everybody I’ve talked to in the past two days who’s told me it was a blessing, and I’m sorry, because I know you’re a pastor and I shouldn’t tell you this, but I’m also angry at God for letting this happen, for cheating me out of this time with my father!”

It was as though the floodgates had suddenly opened, with all this man’s grief just rushing out; but then, just as quickly, those gates fairly well slammed shut.  “But I can’t be angry, can I?” he said. “I’ve got to be strong, and faithful, and put on a good face, right?   I mean, isn’t that what God says? That if we have faith we’re not supposed to ever be mad? That as Christians we’re always supposed to be full of joy?”

It might well have been one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard; and what makes it sadder still is that over the years I’ve heard much the same sentiment expressed time and time again from good, God-fearing Christian people who really believe it to be true.

You see, I’m not sure how or when it happened, but somewhere along the line we as people of faith have pushed aside feelings like sadness and anger as being somehow inappropriate to the Christian walk. We’ve decided that such honest emotions are to be avoided and even denied at all cost, and that faith is rather to be the stuff of “be-happy-attitudes,” smiling through the pain and rejoicing in the Lord no matter what.

Of course, we know deep down that such an attitude doesn’t always jibe with real life.  Anger is a very real emotion, after all, and is not always that easily disposed of; and anyone who’s been there knows that grief can weigh profoundly heavy upon the soul and isn’t shunted away for very long by simply a smile or a song, or even a prayer.

In truth, there are many and varied situations in each of our lives in which we find ourselves in the midst of a “dark night of the soul.” These are times in which we will find ourselves as those for whom this morning’s scripture is written: the nation of Israel, a people exiled from their homeland and living as strangers in a strange alien land, living far away and apart from all that they know to be true: weeping “bitterly in the night” with no one to comfort them in the midst of their distress.

Well, you and I might not be “living in Babylon,” but we know what that’s about, don’t we?  Because the bottom line is that for all the incredible joy in this life, there is also pain that is very real.  As much as we might hope otherwise, suffering is an unavoidable part of human life; and moreover, faith does not isolate us from suffering any more than it makes us the exclusive recipients of happiness!  And so, our real task as persons and as a people of faith becomes how to deal with the pain of life as directly and faithfully as we do its joy.

But that’s the difficult part, isn’t it?

Actually, this kind of hearkens back to a favorite quote of mine, attributed to the late Grady Nutt, who was not only a comedian but also a Southern Baptist preacher: speaking specifically about clergy, he said that “ministers are cursed at times that they cannot curse at times.”  What he was referring to how people like myself are to respond, verbally, to the frustrating and painful events of life; to whit, when one hits a hammer on one’s thumb, one does not naturally answer by saying, “Behold!  Thy hammer has strucketh my hand!  And, verily, it hurteth exceedingly!”   No, there are more, shall we say, emphatic phrases that immediately spring to mind (!); but as a minister, you’re supposed to rise above that, thus… you’re cursed at times that you cannot curse at times!

Now, if you broaden this idea just a little bit; that is, if we understand cursing as ultimately about something other than mere language; rather thinking of it as weeping bitterly in the night amidst “affliction and harsh labor,” and as the outrage of the downcast soul, then it follows that we are all cursed at times that we cannot curse at times?

In fact, I would submit to you this morning that at least in this sense, cursing is actually important for us!  Cursing is not only biblically correct, but it is also a good, honest and yes, even a faithful act!   For ultimately, cursing is our response to the outrage; it’s the expression of our mourning and the processing of our pain; cursing is the release of strong, unrelieved emotion.

It’s been said that there are at least two possible religious responses to the pain of life.  One, as expressed in our reading of Psalm 130 this morning, is to mourn quietly from “out of the depths,” letting our souls wait for the Lord.  I agree; sometimes quiet is the best expression of our grief and sorrow, often silence is the eloquent speech of the heart.  But there are also moments when another response is just as appropriate, and that’s rage(!): crying out in the midst of exile that I will not keep quiet, I will not submit, I will not bow down, cave in or give up!  Sometimes this kind of “cursing” is the only way to with a world and a life that is violent, hurtful and utterly unfair!

Understanding, of course… that such cursing does not represent the end of the story.

Did you know that nearly a third of what we know as the Old Testament historically comes out of Israel’s exile in Babylon?  That means that a significant portion of Holy Scripture was written in the context of deportation, homelessness, alienation, captivity, pain, grief and utter rage.  So there’s a lot of what we read in the Bible that ends of up representing great “lament” for what Israel has suffered in its history.  Look, for instance, at a great many of the Psalms and you’re going to find there a whole lot of unfiltered anguish and utter despair, to the point of where it’s often shocking and rather unpleasant!  It’s no wonder that even John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said that there are some psalms that are literally “unfit” for Christian ears!

And it’s also there, profoundly so, in our reading today; folks, it’s not called “Lamentations” for nothing!  But here’s the thing: even in the worst of these laments, there’s movement: spiritual movement from great rage to inner peace, from cursing to praises.  It’s pretty amazing, actually; after three chapters of listing, one after another, all these horrific things that have happened to the people of Israel, we read this: “The thought of my affliction …my soul continually thinks of it,” but (and this is key) “this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning,”  and then, as if to turn his gaze heavenward and address God directly, he adds this:  “Great is your faithfulness.”

You see, in this expression of anger and grief before God we see evidence of a strong, sustained, and confident relationship to God.  In other words, no matter what injustices have befallen them, no matter the depth of their pain in exile, Israel can still say, “The Lord is my portion [and] therefore I will hope in him.” We can wait for God’s salvation to come in its fullness, because God does feel the despair and the anger that we feel, and even when we feel at our most vulnerable and helpless, and raging, God will sustain us.

It’s good for us to curse at times, for what it does is to place ourselves fully and openly before God; so to truly receive God’s mercy and salvation.  We can “let it all out” before the Lord; because in the midst of any and all sufferings we face in this life and in the face of our deepest despair, the overriding truth on which we can rely is the assurance that we are loved divinely and infinitely, and that by God’s grace there will yet be hope.  And to embrace that kind of truth can be liberating, indeed.

At the Holocaust Museum in Israel, there is a shirt on display that is made from the parchment of a Torah Scroll.  The story is that a Nazi SS Officer, as a cruel joke, forced an unknown Jewish tailor to sew this shirt for him, thinking that it was somehow funny to have a shirt made from the pages of the Hebrew Bible.  But while the Nazi officer knew no Hebrew at all, the tailor did, and so the shirt was made entirely from parchment taken from Deuteronomy 28.

Look up Deuteronomy 28 and you’ll find that it is a series of…. curses, curses of faithlessness!  “You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country … the fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.”   And it gets worse from there, up to and including blight and mildew!  The point is that the Nazi Officer never realized what he was wearing; but the tailor did, and so these curses became an expression of defiance and utter hope!

Oh, yes… it’s good to curse at times. On those occasions when there is no one to comfort us “in the midst of [our] distress,” perhaps the best thing we can do is to lift up our lamentations unto God, for after all, “the Lord is good to those who wait for him.”  Actually, I love how The Message translates this:  “God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits, to the woman who diligently seeks.”  It’s one thing, after all, for us to discern God’s blessings in our lives when things are going well; when the road ahead is clear and free from life’s debris.  It’s quite another, however, to put one foot in front of the other while carrying the burden of all of that cultch: the lingering feelings of grief, the hidden regret, the unprocessed pain that we’ve experienced; these are the things that “pile on,” and the stuff of life that challenges us to stay passionate in waiting for better times, to keep seeking diligently for that modicum of faith and strength we need for the way.

Maybe for you this morning, this is one of the easy days; and praise be to God for it.  But if where you are today, spiritually speaking at least, is in the midst of the life’s rubble wanting nothing more than to shake your fist and cry out, then know that these “lamentations” unto the Lord are your good news today:  because it is the assurance that you can “curse at times,” letting out to let it go, confident in the knowledge that God’s presence and hope comes in the midst of every struggle, every challenge, every dark night of the soul, and that God’s love is indeed new with each morning.

For this love and the hope it brings, may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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