Not Forsaken: Charlottesville, Faith and the Promise of the Psalms

Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash

As I watched the news and tried to digest the images from Virginia on Friday and then again on Saturday, the words of Psalm 22 echoed in my mind.

It’s the Psalm we read in the church on Good Friday, the Psalm we pray with Jesus in the midst of his abandonment, the Psalm we hold on to in the midst of despair, and the Psalm that holds on to us as we contemplate darkness and death.

“My God, my God why have you forsaken me,” it begins, the words Jesus will later quote from the Cross. It’s a prayer from someone desperate for the world to look different. It’s a prayer from someone who feels alone. It’s a prayer from someone who wonders if things will ever get any better.  Ultimately, even on Good Friday, it’s a prayer of lament, a prayer of a person who both begs for God to act and trusts that God will show up and make a difference.

When the darkness rages, it’s always the Psalms. When the earth cries out in pain and anger, it is the Psalms that help me find a way to offer that anger back to God. When the sighs are too deep for words it is the Psalms that help me find a voice. When our lives lead us to demand, “How long, O Lord”, it is the prayers of the Psalms that remind me that the question isn’t a betrayal of faith in God but a testimony to it.

It is the Psalms because the Psalms are the best resource I know to remind me that what happens to the world matters greatly to God.

There’s a strand of Christianity that tries to teach us that the point of the Christian life is to escape the world. Such a view was declared inconsistent with the Gospel by the early church, but heresies have a way of sticking around.

You can’t really reconcile the idea that God doesn’t care about the world with the Bible. Genesis 1 tells us that upon seeing the world God had made, God called it very good. The most famous verse in all of the Bible is John 3:16, which says the the gift of Jesus comes to us because, in fact, “God so loved the world”. The promised new Creation of Revelation contains the hope of no more tears and no more pain, because God actually cares about what you and I experience and grieves our pain. When we mourn, God mourns. That’s part of what it means to love, after all.

This is one of those foundational beliefs that shapes how we live, how we work and how we pray. It’s impossible to pray Your Kingdom, Your Will Be Done and live out a faith that avoids the pain of the world. You can’t live in faithfulness to the God who loves people and ignore the injustices that damage and destroy people that God loves and Christ died for. To love God is to love the world that God loves.

The Psalms both teach and show us how to be in relationship with a God who is not silent. Again and again the Psalms teach us how to pray in the conviction that we do not make our way in the world alone. We are not agents of transformation working by ourselves to make the world look the way God intended. The underlying belief of the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole, is that we are not striving against injustice on our own, but are fighting the good fight in partnership with the God who will not sit on the sidelines.

Consider the words of Psalm 31, which I received, appropriately enough, on Saturday.  “Praise be the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege.” Bible in one hand, screen in the other you might say.

We should stamp Psalm 33 on our doorposts, words we need to shout as loud as we can when we want to give up, promises we need to hold on to when evil never seems to stop and hate-fueled violence appears as the inevitable outcome of a world gone mad. “The Lord foils the plans of the nations, he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

The message of the Bible is that God will not be deterred. From Genesis to Revelation we read how God is working to unite the entire human family. The distinctions and differences that we hold on to are the things that no longer define people in God’s new creation. The walls are being torn down and God will not rest until everyone is together at the table.

So keep working for God’s justice. Don’t give up on the Beloved Community. This is the heart of God. And God will not be deterred.
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Beyond Rage: Learning to Pray When The World Makes You Furious 

If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention. 

It’s a cliché of course, one of those tired phrases that appear again and again when the times merit it.  But clichés keep showing up becuase they feel true. And as we approach the end of a summer that has been hot in too many ways, it feels especially true right now. 

It doesn’t require much searching to discover we’ve had plenty to be angry about. It’s been a summer of loss – some of it fueled by prejudice, some of it enabled by our unwillingness to risk our comfort by living our convictions, but all of it heartbreaking. 

It’s been a summer of anger – seen in the way we yell past each other, in the way we demand that everyone has it easier than we do, but most clearly epitomized in the depressing political moment we are living through that falls so short of our ideals.  

It’s been a summer of rage – in cities and in the country, from the young and the old, revealing the disaster that visits you when we continue to treat one another as though none of us have been created, loved and redeemed by a generous God. 

And for many of us, regardless of what side of the debate of the moment we find ourselves stuck in, it’s been a summer of throwing up our hands and wanting to give up. The fear is too much, the hate too entrenched, the anxiety-fueled sin surpassing our capacity to slow it down. 

All of it makes us feel powerless, and even worse, hopeless – like anything we might do would be as effective as harmlessly chucking a pebble into a full-throated hurricane only growing more powerful. 

Returning to Prayer School

The first place I normally turn in my devotional life is to the letters of Paul – he’s practical, he’s blunt and he is always willing to pick a fight.  In some ways he is perfect for this moment. But when I know I need help – and especially when I need help figuring out how or what to pray – I turn to the Psalms.  

In the midst of a hot and hateful summer, that’s where I’ve settled in – allowing the writers and teachers in the Psalms to have their way again. All this anger, violence, yelling and destruction has made it hard to pray. Racial and class divides that are terrorizing people I care about have made it hard to know what to ask God to do. The spirit and divisions in my own denomination have left me feeling frustrated and depressed. Overwhelmed by our inability to listen to one another, frustrated by my own complicity in it all, angry at the way things are and unsure about how to live into my own call to be an ambassador of light in a country gripped by the darkness, I’ve needed the wisdom found in these old prayers. 

And so the Psalms have been teaching me that faithful prayer doesn’t hide these emotions but instead trusts God with all of them. The prayers of the faithful are shockingly transparent – their pain from feeling abandoned, their frustrations with their leaders (both political and religious) and the anger that is festering within them as they keep waiting for God to show up. Nothing is hidden from the Almighty. 

They can pray these honest prayers because they believe no emotion has the power to separate them from God’s love and compassion. Their prayers flow from their trust in God to handle it all – God can deal with their rage, can take on their anger, and is strong enough to handle any accusation that comes from their need for things to be made right. 

Their honesty with God isn’t an obstacle to faithfulness but instead a pathway to it.  Indeed, the Psalmists know that when kept to ourselves the emotions have the power to destroy us, but liberation comes when we release them to God. 

The Psalmists don’t share their lives simply to complain to God,  but because they believe God can and will act. The Psalms live in a world in which God is acting as the decisive force in the world that God created and for the people God loves. 

The Psalms are prayed with the conviction that God cares about the world, participates in it and is not neutral about what happens. They put their hope in the truth that God is working and will continue to work for the faithful, that God is on the side of the poor and those who are struggling, and that when God gets involves everything can change.

As Walter Brueggemann writes in Praying the Psalms, “The God of the Bible is never neutral, objective, indifferent or simply balancing things. The world is not on its own.”

In some instances these prayers are simply demands for God to start acting like it.

These prayers are teaching me to refuse the temptation to pray safe, resigned prayers that ignore the trouble we’ve seen.  No, instead I am learning again to pray honest prayers that flow from the knowledge that we pray to a God who hasn’t abandoned us. 

Prayers shape by the wisdom of these teachers are prayers of bold trust in a God who is with us, a God who takes sides, and a God who is working to close the gap between the way things are and the way they should be. 

So, how should we pray in a world that doesn’t appear to be cooling off any time soon? How do we speak to a God whose world sometimes appears to be being pulled apart at the edges? What do we share with God when the grief has rendered us speechless?

Say what we mean, mean what we say, and trust that God cares and is going to do something about it. 

“Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray. But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread you protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.”  Psalm 5:2, 11

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