Oct 4th | Reverend Dr. Tricia Tull | Psalms 130:1-8
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Out of the depths. Are we in the mood for this? I’d rather laugh, but some times are not right for laughter. Awhile back I heard the well-known Jewish environmentalist Roger Gottlieb speaking at Louisville’s Festival of Faiths. He talked about reasons not to be a religious environmentalist. He began with a phrase that resonates with this psalm, the phrase “walking in a world of wounds.” It came from something the mid-twentieth century ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote. “One of the penalties of an ecological education,” Leopold said, “is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to others. Ecologists must either harden their shells and make believe that the consequences of science are none of their business, or they must be doctors who see the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”1 When all the world is laughter, the world of wounds is quite a lonely place. We’ve all seen science being denied and environmental measures unraveled. Those of you who have over the past several months attempted to listen to medical science and to live conscientiously during the pandemic, missing family and friends you would rather be with, perhaps even losing family and friends, and yet watching others around you continuing to spread the disease through thoughtlessness or arrogance, you know that loneliness too, in a world of wounds that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.
Roger Gottlieb asked us to close our eyes that day and consider this physical world, the painful evidence of human abuse of the earth, its rivers and oceans, its air, its plants and animals. Then he asked us to cite some of the wounds we had pondered. Young and old around the tables began to name them, the removal of mountaintops, the decimation of species, the loss of beloved places, the loss of people to unnecessary diseases, the loss of confidence in our future. The naming itself became a kind of collective lament, called forth out of our depths.
Why is it hard to be a religious environmentalist? Gottlieb asked. First there is the burden of terrible facts, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of discarded plastic that according to some scientists is now larger than the whole landmass of the US. And the 200 toxic and carcinogenic chemicals found already in the blood of newborns. He named powerful feelings of frustration and grief, or alternatively of numbness. We began to wonder how he would dig us out of the depths like a good speaker and send us cheerfully on our way.
Then he turned around and began to give reasons why, despite all this, it is good to be a religious environmentalist - because we want to live for something important and larger than ourselves, and because sometimes we do win battles, and because, as he said, lovers of creation are the nicest companions we could meet, gentle people who respect the sacredness of mother earth. That made us all feel a little better. We didn’t leave the meeting with candy coated sugar highs, but at least with the knowledge that we were not nearly as alone in this world of wounds as Aldo Leopold was in his generation.
In Psalm 130 we hear deep longing for redemption. “Out of the depths I cry to you.” Specifics are not named. We don’t know which depths this psalmist cries out from, but we understand the words because we know our own depths. We are invited to fill in the blanks. These words were probably not inspired by environmental wounds. They may not refer to the wounds of disease, or racism, or moral chaos. But they fit all these and more besides. The poet is marking the particularly deep wounds that humans inflict on one another. After the opening plea, the psalm dwells on sin, saying:
If you, O Lord, were counting sins, who could stand? But with you is forgiveness, so that you may be honored.
In his book Legacy of the Heart, Wayne Muller describes the journey of a Buddhist monk to refugee camps where thousands of Cambodians have fled the genocide conducted by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot in the 1970s. More than 10,000 men and women come to hear what the monk has to say. After sitting in silence, the monk repeats, over and over, one verse from Buddhist scripture:
Hatred never ceases by hatred;
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.
As he chants this verse over and over, one by one, ten thousand voices join him, saying,
Hatred never ceases by hatred;
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.
Muller comments, “Out of the mouths of people who had been wounded, oppressed, made homeless, aggrieved, and crushed by the pain of war, came a prayer proclaiming the ancient truth about love, a truth that was greater than all the sorrows they had seen and felt.”2 I believe the psalmist too was sitting among them: “if you, O Lord, were counting sins, who could stand? But with you is forgiveness.”
The Bible’s lament psalms, such as this one, help us to tell the truth about the world of wounds. But they do more than give us language. Like the chanting of the Buddhist monk, these psalms take us on a journey to a better place. They stop to pick us up wherever we are and they invite us as far on the journey toward hope as we are able to go. If we think of hope not as optimism, the cheerful belief that things are getting better, but instead as commitment to do the right thing no matter the outcome, that kind of hopefulness becomes our sturdy strength.
No two lament psalms are alike. Some begin in distress and end in the joy of divine reassurance, mourning turned into dancing. Psalm 4, for instance, begins with “Answer me when I call, O God!” It moves on to say, “God hears when I call.” And by the end it says, “You alone, O God, make me lie down in safety.” We’ve all traveled this journey many times, from doubt to divine reassurance. And then inevitably back to doubt, and back to reassurance.
Other laments are answered not by signs from God, but by human comfort. Psalm 55 voices anguish, fear and trembling, but toward its end another friendly voice enters in, maybe the voice of a temple priest, maybe a traveling companion, we don’t know. This other speaker answers by saying:
Cast your burden on God, who will sustain you.
Nothing has changed, but someone close by cares enough to lend confidence until confidence returns.
While most psalms of lament come to a better place like this, there are a surprising few that end in darkness still. Psalm 88 concludes with the words, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” It seems that even prayers from scripture’s sages sometimes bounced off the clouds as if unheard. I know a terminally ill teenager who found consolation in these words. Psalm 88 became a close companion in his final weeks, reminding him that someone else had journeyed ahead of him down the dark, lonely road, away from the land of the living.
So psalms of lament can end in divine answer; they can end with a response from someone nearby; they can even end in no answer. But this one, Psalm 130, represents yet a different form. Here, the one who is crying out to God undergoes no change in circumstance and hears no reassurance. But nevertheless, perhaps out of the memory of past prayers that were answered, or out of the remembrance of comforting words heard before, or out of the act of reaching down past the distress to the stillness deep below, the one who is praying is able to summon up expectancy and hope.
The psalm begins with desolation, with the depths of the chasm between what is and what ought to be. But soon it summons up visions of divine mercy. Having prayed to be heard, having recognized that mercy is real, the writer can go no further, but is stopped, waiting, perhaps the way many of us have been doing, waiting to emerge on a new normal with less conflict, less sorrow, less isolation and fear, more joy. Listen to how the waiting is expressed:
I wait for the Lord,
my soul waits,
and in God's word I hope;
my soul waits for my Lord,
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
This circling and circling around waiting is not passive but active, persistent, forward-leaning. It’s expectant; it’s standing on tiptoe leaning over the rails to see the first glimpse of divine response. It has seen nothing but believes everything. This is not salvation already glimpsed, or comfort already received. Rather it inhabits the in-between, the very wilderness itself, between when need is known and when it is met, the time when faith grows.
Thomas Merton begins his little book Contemplative Prayer with these words, as if agreeing with the psalmist, “The climate in which monastic prayer flourishes is that of the desert, where human comfort is absent, where the secure routines of the city offer no support, and where prayer must be sustained by God in the purity of faith.” “Contemplation,” he continues, “is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy . . . a general emptiness that waits to realize the fullness of the message of God within its own apparent void . . .. The true contemplative is not the one who prepares the mind for a particular message that one wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty, knowing that the word that will transform darkness into light can never be anticipated.”3 My soul waits for God more than those who watch for the morning.
Such faith is available to each of us at any time. It does not depend on happiness, in fact happiness might overlook it. It doesn’t depend on answered prayer. It doesn’t depend on companionship. It’s a difficult stance because we so much prefer resolution. It’s hard to wait on anyone, even God. This stance depends on nothing but the solid, rock-bottom trust that God who has been reliable before will be reliable again. It can be invoked anywhere, anytime, now, here.
Such expectancy is good not just for the individual but for the whole community, so the psalmist extends it outward, comforting all the souls nearby:
Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with God there is steadfast love, and abundant redemption.
And God will redeem Israel from all its sins.
God will redeem - God will redeem the human race - from all its sins. This is a stance we need every day. We need it for ourselves early and often. But even when our own lives are content, all we have to do is open ourselves up - pick up the phone, or pick up the paper, lift up our eyes - and we will call out in pain for this world of wounds. We can do many things besides wait, but we can’t do everything, and there is always more to pray. “How long, O God, till this disease ceases, till this abuse ends, till laws change, till justice prevails, till the earth is healed.” And rather than despair, rather than close our windows and doors against this pained world, rather than going numb, or losing ourselves in desperate activity, we voice expectancy, trust that God too sees the chasm between what is and what ought to be, and that God is acting beyond all human effort, beyond all expectation, beyond all we dare to hope.
I want, finally, to point us to another image of expectant trust that we find in the very next psalm. Like 130, Psalm 131 begins with an individual addressing God. A mother speaks here, comparing her trust toward God with that of her own child toward her:
Holy God, she says, my heart is not lifted up, and my eyes are not raised,
And I do not exercise myself over things too great or difficult for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul
like a weaned child with its mother,
like the weaned child with me is my soul.
And then she concludes with words for the whole community, just as Psalm 130 did:
Israel, hope in the Lord from now until forever.
The weaned child on her lap is still learning that the end of breast milk is not the end of the emotional bond. Rather, this moment initiates a more enduring sufficiency. Just as trust bridges the separation anxiety of young children toward their mothers, so also trust bridges the separation anxiety of worshippers toward their God.
When we are weaned from constant reassurance, we either despair, or go numb, or else we calm and quiet our own souls, letting trust hold us steady, so that wherever resolutions are delayed, whenever waiting is all there is, even in the desert, even when unfelt, unseen, unheard, we believe God is with us. God sees as we do the chasm between what is and what ought to be, and is already at work beyond all human effort, beyond all expectation, to transform this world of wounds into a garden of redemption. Thanks be to God. Let’s exercise our hope as we celebrate world communion. Amen.
1.) Round River, 165, with adjustments for inclusivity.
2.) Legacy of the Heart, 12.
3.) Contemplative Prayer, 90, with adjustments for inclusivity.