Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Essential Passage #6 (Psalm 137)

Psalm 137 (NRSV)

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Oh, Psalm 137... so long neglected, so terrifying, so full of (real) human emotions. In the midst of the psalms of praise and psalms of lament, there are tucked a few psalms of anger and revenge. These psalms are usually edited for use in the lectionary or left out all together. My denomination's last hymnal, Lutheran Book of Worship, went from Psalm 136 to Psalm 138, without so much of hint of what is between them. (All the more reason for Bibles in the pews.) The new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes all 150... in their joyful, sorrowful, angry, pleading glory.

So, Psalm 137, you are one of the truest reflections of how we feel at different times in our lives. You are frightening in your truth. And you scare us in ways that are hard to name. You are not pretty and comforting, like your cousin 23. You are not soaring in praising like your close neighbor, 139. You are not creative and expressive in your praise for God's deliverance, like your brother, 124. You are harsh and abrasive.

Psalm 137 pulls us in with the familiarity of its early stanza lament. Most of us can relate to the cries of captivity. Though we may not have been snatched from our homeland into slavery elsewhere, we may well have found ourselves wandering the unfamiliar landscape of depression, loneliness, doubt or despair and we feel enslaved. Our cries are full of longing. We pray for deliverance.

When we slide into the request for God to punish our enemies, it is still familiar territory (in a way). Certainly we might never ask God to kill the children of our enemies, but we have surely ground our teeth against someone who has opposed us, who angers us, whose way has overturned our wishes.

The thing is, we often think of the psalm as sample prayer, offered by people whose relationship with God was higher and better than ours. When we pray, say 23, we are using the ancient words in a hope that God will recognize the sentiment we offer... in connection to our faith ancestor long gone to a reward.

When we start to talk about dashing babies against rocks, there is a whole new and frightening dimension. Is this the kind of prayer we want God to answer? Is this the kind of prayer that comes from the Bible (that alleged book of peace)?

God does answer your prayer of anger, as God did for the psalmist. However, God may not always do what you ask. Prayer isn't about submitting a wishlist (bless them, smite them, and something shiny for me would be nice); it's about the conversation and the relationship with God.

So angry you could spit at someone... God can handle what you have say. Better to say it in prayer first, than to risk damaging a relationship or saying words you can't take back. God already knows how you feel and speaking your angry to God (even if you're angry with God) is the kind of prayer that the life of faith demands. It's honest communication with your Creator, the one who actually does know you better than you know yourself.

If Jesus, who actually was God and man, can ask for a change of plans in the garden of Gethsemane, surely God can handle it if we express our deep frustration and hurt with our enemies or even with those we love.

The psalms are for everyone, in all times and places. Worried about death, there's a psalm for it! Looking for how to praise God, there's a psalm for it! Longing to see some revenge and to express anger, there's a psalm for it!

Thanks be to God for a book that recognizes our humanness and affirms God's love for us and relationship to us no matter what.

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