Text: Psalm 13
Date: March 12, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Here’s a tidbit from the Seattle Times funny pages: The bedraggled old bird Shoe types, “A recent study has shown that six out of seven dwarfs…are not Happy.”
Here’s another study result—not from the funny pages, but from the analysis of biblical scholars: About one in three Psalms are not Happy, either. About a third of the Psalms are songs of lament, either personal or communal. Psalm 13 is a fine example of a lament, an emotional prayer that speaks of pain and sorrow, of feeling abandoned by God. “How long?” the psalmist asks, four times. How long? How long will God forget me, will God hide God’s face; how long must I bear pain and sorrow, how long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
I once hear Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann speak on lament; he encouraged us to holler those “how long” phrases with him. He drew them out so they sounded to me like a howl. “How long?” can easily morph into “Howl On!” We don’t do much howling in our worship services, do we?
We are generally reluctant to howl out our pain together on a Sunday morning; it’s not what we have come to expect from our refined, enlightened, cerebral liturgies. Bruggemann thinks it is a shame we don’t lament more publically, given that in any gathering of people there is surely someone present who is howling on the inside. Further, he thinks it is important to lament together when the ground is shifting under us, in times such as these when we have so much general anxiety about the future.
Bruggemann’s overview of the book of Psalms is helpful. He proposes sorting the psalms into three categories: Psalms of Orientation, Psalms of Disorientation, and Psalms of Re-Orientation. Psalms of Orientation are those that are characterized by an absence of tension. Brueggemann says this group of psalms reflects “the mind-set and world-view of those who enjoy a serene location of their lives…[they express] a sense of the orderliness, goodness and reliability of life. Thus they might be especially reflected in creation Psalms that reflect the coherence of life…
Psalms of Disorientation are the ones that are sung or prayed after the old stable orientation has collapsed for one reason or another. Brueggemann also calls them songs of “dislocation.” A number of them use metaphors like falling into a pit; dislocation can be that sudden and distressing. “There are various shapes and nuances of distress in different Psalms, suggesting that different ones are appropriate for use, depending on how fully the subject has accepted and embraced the dislocation or how much there is resistance or denial. Thus some of the Psalms remember better times (Ps. 42:4) back in the old period of orientation. There is a wish to return to that situation. Others are heavy in anger and resentment against the one who has caused disorientation. (It does not greatly matter if that one is thought to be God or enemies.)”
Psalms of re-orientation sound in some ways like the psalms of orientation, praising God. The distinguishing feature is novelty—they celebrate not what has been but “assert what has just now been wrought. This function speaks of surprise and wonder, miracle, amazement when a new orientation has been granted to the disoriented for which there was no ground for expectation. These Psalms reflect a quite new circumstance which speaks of newness (it is not the old revived); surprise (there was no ground in the disorientation to anticipate it, and it is not automatic); and gift (it is not done by the lamenter). For these reasons, this new circumstance evokes and must have a celebration, for reversals must be celebrated.” Psalms of Re-Oreintation.
In the normal course of worship when reading Psalms, we Protestants pull many more out of group 1 (Orientation) and group 3 (Re-Orientation) than out of group 2 (Disorientation). Let’s listen to what scholar Walter Bruggemann has to say about that:
I think Brueggemann’s right, we should probably make space for a bit more “howl” in our communal worship and private prayer. Those times of disorientation do come to human life, don’t they? Brought on by illness, death of loved ones, various troubles one did not expect. Normal life holds many “pitfalls” that set us howling on the inside even if we squash and squelch the howl in public.
One reason I wanted to re-visit Brueggemann’s work on lament was that disorientation came up in a meeting I attended with some clergy colleagues earlier this week. We were talking about politics, as UCC clergy are apt to do at the drop of a hat, and folks were searching for words to describe how they have felt since the presidential election. One offered the word “disoriented,” and it set heads nodding. In the novel I am listening to at the moment, there is a scene with two sisters playing in the ocean. The bigger sister is pulling the littler one out past where she feels comfortable, and the little one starts pulling back. When the big sister turns to coax the little one, she turns her back on a big wave that crashes over them and sends them both tumbling. The description of the little sister’s legs peddling madly and not finding any ground on which she can get a purchase takes you right into the ocean with her as her eyes and nose fill with salt water. Have you ever been tumbled by a wave, so that you didn’t know which way is up? Scary, right? Shocking. Disorienting. That’s the way some folk feel about the national scene right now.
It’s not pleasant, being disoriented. You can see that in the psalms of lament, the way they howl out pain and anger. There’s a good deal of venom expressed in some of the laments, some pretty vicious prayers for revenge on enemies. Falling into a pit of illness, disaster or despair can bring a person to sink to new lows, bringing out the beastly side of human nature. Some of the laments in the book of Psalms are growls as well as howls.
It’s a good thing they are there, reminding us that human life has its pitfalls and that we can bring whatever we are experiencing to God. What’s more, sometimes disorientation is just what the Great Physician ordered. If your theological orientation led you to believe that you were just too good to have anything bad happen to you, a measure of disorientation may shock you into joining the human race. If your easy privilege cushioned you from suffering the kinds of indignity and outrage that is the daily diet of less protected people, a measure of disorientation may cause a growth spurt in your empathy.
Brueggemann puts it this way: “The lament Psalm of dislocation becomes necessary, usually quite unexpectedly. It is necessary in a situation in which the old world-view, old faith presuppositions and old language, are no longer adequate. Obviously, if one has (in practice or even implicitly) been living out of creation songs about stability and harmony in life, or songs of morality about the equity of life, then one cannot readily receive abrasions and incongruities which provide data that such songs cannot contain and comprehend. That experience of radical dissonance is what is presented to us in the laments. They are speeches of surprised dismay and disappointment, for the speaker never expected this to happen to him/her.” This is painful but may be necessary for a person’s growth, if their old understandings about how the world works are too small or were false in the first place. Brueggemann goes on, “The Psalms have the abrasive effect of dismantling the old systems which hide the well-off from the dangerous theological realities of life. It is a key insight of Freud that until there is an embrace of honest helplessness, there is no true gospel which can be heard. Until the idols have been exposed, there is no chance of the truth of the true God.”
Idols are so wily, and our willful blindness regarding worshiping idols rather than the one true God is so robust that it may take an experience of dislocation or disorientation before our favorite idols are exposed. The idea of howling through a season of disorientation inspired me to re-visit Allen Ginsberg’s epic 1955 poem “Howl.” It’s a strange poem, pulsing with (reputedly peyote-inspired) energy and outrage. The second part of the poem is a rant about an idol the poet identifies as “Moloch.” Moloch appears in the Bible as a Canaanite god to whom children were occasionally sacrificed. Ginsberg recasts Moloch as the heartless spirit of industrial America. Listen to some of his howl:
“Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!…Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
This kind of howl is where I personally connect with the “How long?” howl of lament. How long will we bow in obeisance to money, money, money? How long will we sell our souls for electricity and banks? How long will oil be greasing the skids of public policy? How long will we will we rely on armies of soldiers and police and border guards to make us feel safe at any cost? How long? How long?
Our idols are being exposed, beloved. It’s profoundly disorienting and upsetting to see to what degree Moloch whose blood is running money is running the show. I’m not talking about our Dear Leader in particular; this idolatry looms much larger than any individual or party. Moloch has been around for ages, long before our fragile democracy was born.
If we feel disoriented and feel led to howl, it’s a good time to look for how God is using this time to enter through a new doorway. We can open our eyes to the ways we have been trusting in idols and use this time to renew our trust in the one living God. Psalm 13 ends with a statement of trust, which can be translated either “I trusted in your steadfast love” (past tense) or “I trust in your steadfast love” (present tense). It could be the expression of the howler looking back at a difficult time she or he has come through, or could be the expression of the howler remembering in the midst of disorientation that God can be trusted no matter what. Maybe the psalmist is getting an inkling that disorientation can be a gift, uncomfortable as it is. “I will sing to the Lord, because God has dealt bountifully with me.” The exposure of idols, the dissonance of dislocation and disorientation could well be an aspect of what our bountiful God gives us.
I have one more poem for you, suitable for people who are disoriented but remember that God can be trusted in all circumstances. It’s called “Trough” by Judy Brown:
There is a trough in waves,
a low spot
where horizon disappears
and only sky
are our company.
And there we lose our way
we rest, knowing the wave will bring us
to its crest again.
There we may drown
if we let fear
hold us in its grip and shake us
side to side,
and leave us flailing, torn, disoriented.
But if we rest there
in the trough,
being in the low part of the wave,
keeping our energy and
noticing the shape of things,
then time alone
will bring us to another
where we can see
horizon, see land again,
regain our sense